Nutritional deficiencies could be a factor in your sleepless nights, but experts say see a specialist before you start popping pills.
About one-third of U.S. adults get less than the recommended seven hours of sleep each night. This might not seem like a big deal to some, but evidence suggests otherwise. Sleep deprivation is linked to type 2 diabetes, heart disease, obesity, depression and even vehicular safety.
“If we all could just eat well, do yoga and mediate, use essential oils and not work, we’d all sleep like babies,” says Dr. Dawn Stanley-Cohen, a board-certified sleep medicine physician at Sky Ridge Medical Center in Lone Tree.
Stanley-Cohen knows sleep disorders aren’t a joking matter. There are a number of reasons a person doesn’t sleep well, and narrowing down the cause can be a puzzle. The issue is complex, she notes, even for highly trained professionals.
There is, however, one area of sleep science that’s seeing more interest and an increasing amount of research, and that’s the connection between sleep and certain hormones, minerals, vitamins and amino-acids that we get from or are affected by our diets.
“I think sleep doctors and naturopaths are tapping into knowledge that we didn’t have before or that we didn’t think was important,” Stanley-Cohen says. “No one talked about vitamin levels when I went to med school but, more and more, there are doctors taking a natural approach to things.”
“I think it goes back to enforcing good sleep hygiene and good habits before you start taking medications or supplements, …you can’t fix bad sleep habits with any pill.”Stanley-Cohen
Denver naturopath Kelsey Asplin at Denver Naturopathic Clinic notes that hormone levels are one of the first things she investigates in her insomniac patients.
“That entire system dances together, so if any part is off, a lot of things can be affected by it,” Asplin says. Insulin, melatonin and cortisol, in particular, are all affected by diet, stress and other lifestyle factors and can affect sleep if out of whack.
There are other naturally occurring elements — minerals, vitamins and amino acids — that can affect sleep. But, Stanley-Cohen tells patients to proceed cautiously when considering supplements and to consult a sleep specialist doctor or naturopath and do some research.
“More research needs to be done and that research needs to involve more randomized controlled trials,” Stanley-Cohen says.
However, below are four supplements that sleep and medical experts say are supported by scientific and medical research.
- Magnesium: This essential mineral plays a critical role in overall health, including sleep, but most people “don’t have diets that replenish magnesium very well, so a lot of people are at risk for low levels,” says Asplin. Similarly, Stanley-Cohen notes that limited research has shown that increased magnesium levels can help regulate melatonin, a hormone naturally secreted by humans that helps control daily sleep-wake cycles, and GABA, a neurotransmitter that slows brain activity, helping people to relax and therefore get to sleep easier. Asplin uses magnesium with many of her sleep disorder patients, and particularly magnesium threonate, which research has shown can be an effective sleep aid for people with anxiety and PTSD.
- Glycine: While glycine is found in a lot of foods — eggs, fish, bone broth, kale and others — Stanley-Cohen says probably none of us consume enough of them and are deficient in some way. Research shows this tiny amino acid elevates serotonin and lowers core body temperature, both of which can promote better sleep. In one study, patients who were given 3 grams of glycine got to sleep faster, had more stable sleep states and longer stretches of REM sleep. Asplin notes glycine is in many sleep formula supplements.
- Iron: The connection between iron deficiency and sleeplessness is more well documented. Low iron levels can cause periodic limb movement disorder, PLMD, and restless leg syndrome. With these conditions, Stanley-Cohen advises checking iron levels before you start with anything else. If you experience either condition, talk to your doctor about supplementation, as new research introduced in the 2018 issue of Sleep Medicine provides clearer guidelines regarding treatment.
- Vitamin D: A 2015 SLEEP journal study of more than 3,000 men aged 68 or older used objective reporting methods to show that vitamin D deficiency was associated with poorer sleep, shorter sleep duration and lower sleep efficiency (the ratio of time spent asleep to time spent in bed). However, Stanley-Cohen says the connection is not yet well understood and needs more and better research.
If your sleep is less than optimum, yes, your diet could be the problem. But, both Stanley-Cohen and Asplin advise their patients to evaluate the whole picture, including sleep habits.
“Throwing supplements or herbs at people is only going to be so effective,” Asplin says. “We need to talk more about sleep hygiene — what are you doing for that hour or two before you go to bed? The foundation pieces mean nothing if you don’t take care of that.”
“I think it goes back to enforcing good sleep hygiene and good habits before you start taking medications or supplements,” Stanley-Cohen says. “You can’t fix bad sleep habits with any pill.”
Did You Know?Seven percent of all motor vehicle crashes and 16 percent of fatal crashes in the U.S. involve driver drowsiness, according to a 2018 study in SLEEP, a scholarly journal dedicated to sleep and circadian science research.
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