How the Whole30 diet was a wake-up call for my poor sleep habits
I’d heard all kinds of bizarre things can happen during a Whole30. Some of these cautionary tales came from online forums, the books, and random people I follow on social media. Nevertheless, in preparation for this 30-day temporary reset (turns out it’s not a diet at all) of fruits, vegetables, meats and unprocessed food, I bought my groceries, bookmarked a bunch of recipes, and steeled myself against the possible onslaught of hardcore cravings. However, the biggest surprise of my Whole30—one I wasn’t expecting—was how it called attention to how well I was sleeping.
Or rather, how terribly I was sleeping.
Right around this time I was also learning about something called sleep hygiene. If you’d asked me what that was a year ago, I would have guessed that it had to do with washing your bed linens on a regular basis. And I certainly wouldn’t have thought all the lessons I’d learn from embarking on this Whole30 journey would be so closely connected to my sleep. Turns out, I had a few things to learn.
I come from a long, proud line of coffee enthusiasts. Hey, I’m from the Pacific northwest, where coffeehouse culture is a way of life. My office-working mom knocked back cup after cup during her career. My dad was right there with her, sitting up late at night on stakeouts (he was in law enforcement) and popping chocolate covered espresso beans to stay awake.
But me? I never liked the stuff. “You’ll drink coffee once you get a real job,” Mom cautioned when I was younger. That never happened. What did happen, however, was chai tea lattes. Now those I could get behind. Mixed with steamed milk, terrifically sweet, and loaded with caffeine, I had one or two cups every day, consistently, for thirteen years.
Now, black coffee is compliant for Whole30, but I wasn’t interested in going there. Nearly every kind of chai tea, either the stuff you buy yourself or the ones sold in retail settings, have sweetener in them and loads of other non-Whole30 ingredients. I didn’t see this as the end of the world, though. After all, going without my beloved chai was just for 30 days.
At least, that’s what I told myself.
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The first 24 hours of my Whole30 were uneventful. Day three, however, hit me like a sledgehammer. I woke up at 6:00 a.m. as usual, but almost immediately, something was off. It felt like I had slept maybe three hours the night before, when in reality I had slept perfectly fine. I was so groggy and unable to focus that I went back to bed at around 7 a.m. and slept in until 9. I’m a writer and work from home, so I was very fortunate to have this option.
I never would have dreamed how much I was propping up my body in the morning with caffeine and sugar, and how much I needed it to perform basic functions. But that’s what the Whole30 is for: eliminating those elements we might be leaning on and then reintroducing to see if we really “need” them after all. That morning of extra sleep only happened once. Every day that followed, I slept through the night (getting rid of that afternoon chai may have had something to do with it!) and my mornings were normal once again.
I told myself that once my Whole30 was over, I’d see if I felt the urge to have those daily chai teas again, and if I really wanted them, I’d go back. That was two months ago, and interestingly enough, the cravings have not returned. I don’t miss it like I thought I would, which makes me think it was simply more of a habit than a deep “need” I was feeling. Maybe someday, that need will come back. But for now, my sleep is thanking me.
Which brings us back to sleep hygiene. Remember how I said I had no clue what that was? Sleep hygiene refers to the practices and habits that you establish to set yourself up for a good night’s sleep. All I knew about my sleep hygiene at that point was that it didn’t really exist. I mean, I never slept in my makeup and I always managed to brush my teeth. What else was there to do?
Turns out, plenty. Being on the Whole30 set me up for practicing good sleep hygiene, and many of those habits have carried over into my post-Whole30 life. Here are some examples.
No alcohol close to bedtime. You don’t consume any alcohol on a Whole30, so those two go hand-in-hand.
Have a simple nightly wind-down routine. In cutting out that evening glass of wine or sweet dessert, you have to come up with a new routine to send your brain and body signals that it’s time for bed. These days, I wind down with a little self-care: washing my face, followed by a sheet mask or face oil.
No screens close to bedtime. My fiancé and I used to have a routine of scrolling through Instagram videos together before we went to sleep. Now that I know how much artificial light sources can mess with my circadian rhythm, we read books instead. I’m currently pouring through Food Freedom Forever! We also moved the TV out of the bedroom.
Eliminate snacks before bed. The Whole30 program recommends three meals each day with minimal snacking. Sugary treats before bed are out the window.
Monitor caffeine intake. Caffeine isn’t outlawed during the Whole30, but my little experiment of giving it up showed me how caught up I was in the habit and emotion associated with it.
It’s amazing how much our daily routines and habits impact our sleep, and I’m happy to have witnessed it for myself first-hand. Doing a Whole30 can be a deeply personal learning experience, and for me, it was those unexpected lessons that opened my eyes the most.
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Catie Nienaber is a content marketing expert, specializing in tech and health, with a deep interest in sleep. She has held prior content positions at Facebook and Touch of Modern. Catie has an MFA in Non-Fiction Writing from Roosevelt University, and splits her time between San Francisco and Joshua Tree, California.