The importance of a good night’s rest is well understood, but did you know that how we eat can actually impact our sleep? Let’s learn more about the different nutrition factors to consider.
Thomas Dekker, a 16th-century English dramatist, once said, “Sleep is that golden chain that ties health and our bodies together.”
Having adequate sleep is essential for normal body functions. Sleep influences all major physiologic systems of the body, including cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, and immune systems. According to the National Sleep Foundation, sleep helps with increased energy levels, concentration, learning abilities and mood regulation.
Our sleep is affected by multiple factors, including our age, lifestyle, pre-existing health issues, stress and exposure to stimulants (i.e. caffeine intake and lighting from digital screens). In general, the National Sleep Foundation recommends 7-9 hours for adults, while children and teenagers usually need longer duration of sleep.
So what happens to our health when we don’t get enough sleep?
Not only do we feel groggy and cranky during our day, sleep deprivation can turn into long-term consequences of hypertension, diabetes, obesity, depression and cardiovascular diseases. In fact, research shows that those suffering from sleep loss and sleep disorders have lower productivity, higher likelihood of injury, and increased medical needs when compared to healthy individuals.
More research also shows that there are specific nutrition needs that can play an influential role on our sleep, let’s take a closer look at what they are:
Calcium is not just good for your bones! Decreased calcium intake is associated with more incidents of non-restorative sleep and insomnia. When study participants consumed more calcium, they reported fewer symptoms related to sleep difficulty, which may be due to calcium’s effect on lowering blood pressure. Foods that are high in calcium include dairy products, almonds and leafy greens.
Magnesium is essential for many biological functions, including nerve and muscle function. In one small study, the study subjects who were elderly had improved insomnia measures. In another study, nursing home residents were given a combination of melatonin, magnesium and zinc for insomnia. With limited sample size and effects of other nutrients, it’s hard to determine that regular use of magnesium will definitely improve insomnia. Since magnesium is an important component to the body, it’s okay to have more of its food sources such as food legumes, nuts and…dark chocolate!
We need potassium to maintain regular cell functions, but it has also been found to associated with sleep cycles and less daytime drowsiness. Previous animal studies found that potassium regulation has an impact on the sleep-wake cycle, and another study from Japan found that potassium was associated with earlier sleep timing. Some examples of potassium-rich foods are bananas, tomatoes and avocadoes.
Vitamin D deficiency has been linked to sleep disturbances in older population according to multiple studies, which include shorter sleep duration and less restorative sleep. However, the exact mechanism of how vitamin D affects sleep directly is still unknown due to limited studies. Nevertheless, vitamin D is still important for bone health so make sure you get some sunlight in at least 15-20 minutes a day. Otherwise, foods fortified with vitamin D, egg yolks and fatty fish are also good sources of vitamin D!
Tryptophan is an amino acid and precursor to serotonin and melatonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that regulates your sleep-wake cycle, while melatonin is a hormone released at higher levels during night time to help us fall asleep. According to several studies, tryptophan increases serotonin availability in the body, which leads to higher melatonin production. Tryptophan often gets blamed for making us sleepy after Thanksgiving turkey. A 3-ounce serving of turkey only has about 300mg tryptophan, which is similar to other types of meat of same serving, while a 4-ounce serving of cheese contains around 600mg tryptophan! Other high tryptophan foods include spinach, eggs and shrimp.
Maintaining a well-balanced diet helps with sleep and strengthens the linkage of the “golden chain” to your health. However, keep in mind that there are other factors that can affect sleep other than diet. Finding ways to relieve your daily stress, as well as reducing stimulants such as alcohol and caffeine before bedtime will also enhance your overall sleep quality.
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Janice Chow, MS, RD is a San Francisco-based dietitian, food enthusiast, and food photographer with a passion for promoting health and wellness to people of all different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. With a focus on helping others with their everyday health, Janice sets out to empower individuals to achieve a healthier life by forming a deeper connection with their mind and body.