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Not Sleeping? Check Your Diet for These Missing Nutrients


People who get insufficient sleep are more likely to suffer from chronic diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, depression and obesity, as well as from cancer, increased mortality and reduced quality of life and productivity. It is estimated that 50-70 million American adults suffer from a sleep disorder.

The amount of sleep we each need is individual, but on average, adults need 7 to 9 hours each night. Unfortunately, a great portion of us get less than 6 hours on the typical evening.

You already know the basics for improving sleep: Maintain a consistent schedule, reduce caffeine intake, create an environment in the bedroom conducive to sleep (turn off the TV and computer, make the room cool and dark), and exercise daily (but not right before bedtime). What you might not know is that your daily diet also has a lot to do with your sleep quality.

Several nutrient deficiencies are linked to poor sleep. If you have an issue with insomnia, keep a food diary and monitor your daily diet for these nutrients:

Magnesium plays a key role in the regulation of sleep. Research has shown that even marginal deficiencies in this mineral can prevent the brain from settling down at night. Lack of magnesium may also contribute to leg cramps.

The USDA says that many of us do not get enough magnesium each day; the recommended daily intake is 320 milligrams for women and 420 milligrams for men. Good food sources of magnesium include green leafy vegetables, beans and lentils, wheat germ, wheat bran, pumpkin seeds and almonds.

Iā€™m sure you have heard that a glass of warm milk can help you fall asleep. One reason ā€“ calcium. Calcium, especially when contained in food, has a sedative effect on the body. A deficiency in calcium causes restlessness and wakefulness. The National Institutes of Health finds that women over 50 and men older than 70 are two age groups at greatest risk for calcium deficiency. The reason ā€“ efficiency of calcium absorption decreases as we age.

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If you have trouble digesting dairy, other foods that contain calcium include kale, broccoli, fish with soft bones (such as sardines and salmon), tofu, and fortified cereals.

Do you suffer from restless legs syndrome (RLS)? This condition is sometimes associated with iron deficiency. Foods containing heme iron are best for increasing or maintaining healthy iron levels. These include clams, oysters, organ meats, beef, pork, poultry and fish. Plant-foods contain non-heme iron (less well absorbed, but still an important contributor to iron stores). The best sources include dried beans and peas, iron-fortified cereals, dried fruits, and dark leafy greens.

If getting to sleep is not a problem, but staying asleep is, you may want to check your diet for potassium. A study published in the journal Sleep finds that this mineral affects the sleep phases, particularly the phase of deep sleep when we get our most restorative benefit. A separate study links low potassium levels with anxiety, which can also affect sleep duration and quality. The best food sources of potassium include bananas, potatoes, beans, leafy greens, citrus fruits, and avocados.

Vitamin D
A 2012 study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found that there is strong correlation between excessive daytime sleepiness and vitamin D deficiency. Vitamin D is obtained from sun exposure and certain foods, such as fatty fish (swordfish, salmon and tuna) and fortified foods (such as cereals and milk).

B Vitamins
The B-vitamins are important for sleep, an exploratory study from researchers at the University of Alabama found. B-12, for example, supports the production of neurotransmitters that affect brain function and sleep. Deficiencies in vitamin B6 promote psychological distress and ensuing sleep disturbance.

Vitamin and Mineral Supplements
A healthy diet is the best way to obtain these nutrients, plus more that have a positive effect on sleep. However, a doctor may recommend supplements in certain cases, such as for a severe iron deficiency or B12 deficiency. If you find that you just cannot meet your current needs through foods, you can take a general multi-vitamin supplement (not mega-doses of any one nutrient) or talk with your healthcare provider for recommendations.

Journal References:
Michael D. Drennan et al. Potassium Affects Actigraph-Identified Sleep. Sleep Volume 14, Issue 04. (August 1991)
ML Andersen et al. Vitamin D as an underlying factor in sleep-related issues. J Clin Sleep Med (Dec 2012)
Andrew J Bush PhD et al. Vitamins and Sleep: An Exploratory Study. Sleep Med (January 2008)

Additional Resources:
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Insufficient Sleep is a Public Health Epidemic (March 2013)
United States Department of Agriculture: Do you have trouble sleeping? More magnesium might help (July 2007)
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke: Study Links Restless Legs Syndrome to Poor Iron Uptake in the Brain (August 2003)
Office of Dietary Supplements (National Institutes of Health)