As we greet each day ready to engage with one another and learn about the world all around us, an essential element is always a good night’s rest! We all probably could benefit from more sleep than we currently receive, or at least more quality hours of sleep. After all, poor sleep is routinely linked to chronic disease. Children require even greater amounts of sleep than their adult counterparts, and for good reason. It is during sleep that growth and repair of the body takes place, and human growth hormone is at its peak. And when we really dig into the anatomy and physiology of sleep, we discover the important role of the natural light and dark cycles. In our Waldorf education, we do our best to lean into the rhythms of nature- and one simple way is prioritizing outdoor exposure during the school day. We are grateful to have Carla Abate, a DWS parent and community member as well as a certified master nutrition therapist, share more below on how this simple element of the Waldorf curriculum may be cultivating healthier kids and how we can all prioritize achieving deeper sleep.

Sleep 101

Phases of Sleep
Sleep takes place in phases, that are not exactly linear. The first, called sleep onset latency, is the period it takes us to go from awake to unconscious, and is normally between 10 and 20 minutes. Next, Non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM) and Rapid Eye Movement (REM) set in, with rotating, and repeating 90-minute cycles. NREM cycles are longer in the beginning, and slowly become shorter, while REM cycles grow in length of time from the start of sleep until we wake.

Circadian Rhythm
The suprachiasmatic nucleus, a bundle of nerves located within the hypothalamus, is the primary site of our circadian clock. This nucleus is responsible for the regulation of many biological rhythms including wakefulness and sleep, digestion, and body temperature regulation. Located in close proximity to the optic nerve, the suprachiasmatic nucleus receives input from cells of the retina in response to exposure to light and darkness. This in turn activates corresponding hormones.



  • Our alert/wakeful hormone that is stimulated by light, particularly blue light waves, signaling time to rise and be productive
  • Essential to acute stress response-cortisol is released as our body’s normal reaction to stress as part of the fight-or flight
  • Anti-inflammatory-manages inflammation caused by physiological stressors
  • When chronically activated by chronic stress or poor diet can lead to cortisol resistance and chronic inflammation


  • Activated by onset of darkness and continues to be produced throughout the night
  • Should be low in the morning and throughout the day
  • Is a potent antioxidant especially locally within the brain
  • Repressed by artificial light especially toward evening

Human Growth Hormone

  • Most active while we sleep
  • Responsible for repair and growth of tissues-very active in rapidly growing children
  • Builds muscle mass boosting metabolism

Nutrition For Sleep

Protein – provides the essential amino acid tryptophan needed to make both serotonin and melatonin; also provides the amino acid glycine which acts as a neurotransmitter with an inhibitory effect aiding sleep. Nutrient-dense protein options include:

  • Nut and seed butters
  • Cottage cheese and yogurt-plain, full-fat and organic preferred
  • Quality animal proteins-hamburger, rotisserie chicken, nitrate-free lunch meats, low-mercury fish, eggs, collagen powder- Collagen powders can be added as needed to smoothies, oatmeal, soups, etc.
  • Legumes-add beans to a quesadilla or use hummus as dips for veggies

Carbohydrates – Late night eating, especially refined carbs, elevate blood sugar too close to sleep, causing a blood sugar crash during sleep that can be disruptive to quality sleep. Aim to stop eating 2 hours before bed or at least limit refined carbs sticking to fresh fruit as an after-dinner treat.

B Vitamins – B6, B12, and Folate especially, are essential to a methylation pathway of which melatonin production is dependent

  • Leafy Greens
  • Eggs
  • Salmon
  • Legumes

Vitamin D – Involved in melatonin synthesis. Vitamin D is best absorbed from sun exposure approximately 10-30 minutes a day midday without sunscreen

  • Fish
  • Egg yolks
  • Fortified foods

Magnesium – involved in more than 300 biochemical reactions, this mineral regulates many other important chemicals involved in sleep including melatonin and GABA (a calming neurotransmitter)

  • Dark chocolate – unsweetened preferably
  • Avocados
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Leafy greens

Iron – acts as a cofactor to melatonin-essential to melatonin synthesis

  • Dark chocolate
  • Red meat (in moderation)
  • Red kidney beans
  • Vitamin C rich foods taken with iron rich foods increase iron absorption

How Much Sleep Do We Need?

  • Infants 14-17 hours per day
  • Toddlers 11-14 hours a day
  • Preschool Age Children 10-13 hours
  • School-Age 9-12
  • Teens approximately 8-10 hours
  • Adults 7+

Sleep Hygiene

There are many lifestyle adjustments that we can make to improve our sleep quantity and quality. Some are more challenging than others, but even the smallest changes can have a very positive impact when applied over time. Below are some considerations:

  • Spend more time outside without sunglasses – natural light exposure during the day contributes to melatonin production in the evening to properly prepare us for sleep.
  • Minimize or eliminate screens 2 hours prior to sleep – blue light exposure beyond the daylight hours interferes with melatonin release. Blue light blocking glasses can effectively minimize this type of light exposure when screens are unavoidable prior to sleep.
  • Aim for complete darkness – we have melatonin receptors throughout the body so light does not only affect receptors in the eyes.
  • Turn down the thermostat before sleep – keeping it a little cold at night decreases core body temperature which triggers sleep onset.
  • Commit to going to bed before 10pm (8pm or earlier for children) – majority of deep sleep is achieved in first few hours
  • Commit to eating meals at regularly scheduled times as much as possible – other rhythms affecting metabolism such as exercise and meal-times influence our circadian rhythm too.
  • Stay active – exercise contributes to sleep drive (the body’s natural desire to rest) and helps regulate our core body temperature.


As we can see, sleep is a very complex process involving both the nervous and endocrine systems. However, many of the lifestyle and dietary adjustments we can make are not that complicated. Most of the nutrients that support sleep play a role in melatonin production and none work in a vacuum; each influencing one another and often derived from the same nourishing foods. Likewise, the habits we form around light exposure can benefit or burden this critical period of rest.

Disordered sleep conditions are on the rise and are likely due, in part, to the synthetic forms of light generated by the relatively recent technological revolution. Plenty of research links poor sleep with negative health outcomes, chronic disease, and mood disorders. If you or your child suffer from disrupted sleep, you may want to consider the help of a professional in order to preserve your long-term health. At the very least, prioritize getting outside in nature. Growing research positively links outdoor exposure not only with sleep, but other health conditions such as gut health as it relates to the microbiome. Don’t underestimate the small changes within your reach!

About Carla Abate

Carla Abate is a family wellness educator and advocate for the importance of nutrition during the perinatal stages. She is a certified master nutrition therapist (MNT) and postpartum doula. Her experience with pregnancy and entry into motherhood helped inspire what she does today. With motherhood came self-growth, inspiration, and courage. It also brought great challenge forcing her to dive deep into her own wellness journey. Today, it’s Carla‘s mission to help other mothers (and their families) flourish throughout pregnancy and well beyond.

Find out more at or on instagram @rebelrootsnutrition or contact Carla directly at