How Micronutrients Affect Sleep
When you’re tossing and turning night after night, it’s only natural to look for external reasons and solutions for your inability to sleep. And over the years, the internet has obliged with advice with varying degrees of merit, like separating from a snoring partner (aka sleep divorce) or taping your own mouth shut to keep mouth breathing and sleep apnea in check. (In case you’re wondering, the latter is not recommended).
No doubt, external factors may be to blame for some people’s lack of shut-eye, but many more probably need to look no further than their refrigerators and pantries for answers. It’s no secret that your diet has an effect on almost every aspect of your health, but research shows that your diet can have a profound impact on your sleep health as well.
And while macronutrients (fats, protein, and carbohydrates) seem to get all the attention in most passing diet fads, micronutrients play a crucial role in a myriad of biological processes—including sleep.
What are micronutrients, and how do they impact sleep?
Micronutrients are essential nutrients that our bodies need in very small amounts to function properly.
Specifically, “micronutrients are vitamins and minerals such as vitamin C, B vitamins, magnesium, calcium, sodium, and potassium, (just to name a few),” says Annika Carroll, sleep expert and CEO of Sleep Like a Boss. “Our body requires them as it does macronutrients (proteins, fats, and carbohydrates) for development, immune function, energy production, and more.”
And while we only need very small amounts of micronutrients, failure to get enough can have a big impact on our overall health. Moreover, micronutrient deficiencies can wreak a little havoc on your sleep health.
The magic of micronutrients may lie in how they affect the neurotransmitters—or the chemical messengers in our brains, “some of [which] are responsible for sending sleep-regulating signals, such as serotonin and melatonin.” says Carroll.
What micronutrients help with sleep?
From supporting immune function to energy production, micronutrients support a host of biological processes in our bodies, including sleep.
While vitamin C is often associated with immunity, study after study has shown that vitamin C plays a powerful role in sleep quality. One study showed that Vitamin C deficiencies could lead to short sleep, while another showed that adequate intake could lead to better sleep outcomes.
Where to find it: Everyone knows that citrus fruits are an excellent source of vitamin C, but you can also find this essential micronutrient in strawberries, kale, broccoli, and peppers.
Whereas all other micronutrients come from our diets, vitamin D is the only micronutrient that our bodies produce naturally; yet, it’s estimated that 41% of Americans are coming up short.
The bad news here is that a deficiency in vitamin D may ultimately translate to poor sleep quality, reduced sleep latency (the amount of time you take to fall asleep), and short sleep.
Where to find it: Vitamin D is also known as the sunshine vitamin, so the good news is that you can boost your Vitamin D levels simply by getting out into the sun. Dietary sources of vitamin D include fatty fish, egg yolks, mushrooms, and soy milk.
Coming in right behind iron, zinc is the second most abundant trace mineral in your body.
Not only is zinc chock full of antioxidant properties, but it’s also an essential mineral needed for “cell growth, immune function, and DNA synthesis,” says Carroll. And while zinc does some of the heavy lifting in a lot of the biological processes in your body, it can also help you get some shut-eye. Current research shows that while dietary zinc doesn’t necessarily trigger sleep, it does shorten sleep latency while increasing the duration and efficiency of sleep.
Where to find it: According to Carroll, oysters, red meat, poultry, some nuts, and beans are good food sources of zinc.
“Vitamin B6 is a cofactor of magnesium and is needed to help magnesium do its magic in the cells,” says Carroll. “It is essential for healthy nerves and immune system function, plus it aids in the production of serotonin and melatonin,” both of which are critical components of restful sleep.
Where to find it: Good sources of B6 include chickpeas, salmon, chicken, and beef liver.
If fatty fish doesn’t regularly make an appearance on your dinner table, you might want to adjust your menu if you’re having trouble sleeping. While one study published in the Journal of Nutrition in Gerontology and Geriatrics showed a positive correlation between oily fish consumption and improved sleep quality in those aged 40 and older, another study showed that regular consumption of Atlantic salmon had a positive impact on sleep in the 95 male participants.
Where to find it: Salmon, Cod liver oil, oysters, chia seeds, and flaxseeds are excellent sources of Omega-3.
Melatonin is probably one of the biggest buzzwords in the world of sleep, and for good reason. Known as the sleep hormone, melatonin is a key player in your body’s circadian rhythm as it tells your body when it’s time to sleep and when it’s time to wake up. As the sun goes down every evening, the decrease in natural light prompts your body to start producing melatonin. Your body continues to produce melatonin throughout the night (keeping you asleep), but as sunrise approaches and it starts getting light outside, your melatonin production will throttle back, allowing you to wake up.
In recent years, synthetic melatonin has become widely available, and people mistakenly categorize (and use) melatonin as an over-the-counter sleep aid. However, while melatonin has a sleep-inducing effect, it’s not a sleep aid per se, so it doesn’t make you sleep.
Where to find it: While business is booming for melatonin supplements, it’s important to remember that your body naturally produces this hormone on its own. If you want to give your melatonin a boost through your diet, try tart cherries, goji berries, milk, eggs, fish, and nuts.
Not only is selenium required for antioxidant production and protecting our cell health, but it also plays a crucial role in our brain and thyroid health. Beyond these important functions, research shows that selenium also has a heavy hand in how well we sleep and how long.
Where to find it: While most Americans tend to get their selenium from bread, cereals, poultry, red meat, and eggs, other (and higher) sources include seafood, Brazil nuts, and organ meats.
While everyone knows that calcium plays a crucial role in bone health, many may not know that calcium assists the amino acid tryptophan in making melatonin, the hormone that helps us fall asleep. Digging a little deeper, we find that calcium also plays a role in our sleep cycle, specifically REM sleep. One study published in the European Neurology Journal showed that calcium levels are higher during REM sleep. Moreover, researchers found that sleep disturbances during REM were related to calcium deficiency, and once blood calcium levels returned to normal, so too did a natural sleep cycle.
Where to find it: Common sources of calcium are dairy, almonds, sardines with bones, and edamame.
“Magnesium is a rarely considered mineral that plays many roles in the body, with over 600 functions at the cellular level,” says Trista Best, a Registered Dietitian at Balance One Supplements. “While it is a small nutrient, a deficiency has significant implications.”
Best says that “Along with fighting depression and lowering blood pressure, magnesium is linked to better sleep in both quality and quantity. Magnesium deficiencies almost always lead to or exacerbate insomnia. It does this by regulating and activating parasympathetic hormones and neurotransmitters that help the brain to enter a state of relaxation, which is better prepared for rest.”
Where to find it: Magnesium is found in foods such as dark chocolate, dark leafy greens, legumes, and whole grains.
Which micronutrients keep you awake at night?
Though some micronutrients can help you sleep better, the time you take them matters—some shouldn’t be taken right before bed as their effects can be counterproductive to catching your forty winks.
As we saw earlier, calcium is an essential micronutrient for sleep. But if you take calcium supplements at night, it could meddle with your slumber. And it’s not necessarily the calcium that’s keeping you up; it’s the fact that calcium and magnesium don’t play nice together.
Magnesium is an excellent supplement to take before bed; it promotes relaxation and helps you sleep better. But if you pair it with calcium, the two end up competing for absorption. And in the end, you end up losing some sleep.
While low vitamin D levels have been linked to poor sleep quality, you’ll probably want to steer clear of supplementing at night: Evidence suggests that vitamin D can suppress melatonin production, and the net effect is poor sleep quality. Moreover, Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin, so it’s best taken with a full meal (ideally with a good amount of fatty foods) anyway.
While B vitamins play an important role in your ability to sleep, they’re also powerful energy boosters. Along with B6, B12 vitamins typically give users a nice power-up by converting fats and protein to energy. So while they can contribute to your overall sleep health, it’s probably best to steer clear of them before bed.
“Vitamin B12 can be energizing to some people and, if supplemented, it should not be taken at night, but rather in the morning,” says Carroll.
If you seem to fall asleep just fine but tend to wake up somewhere around 3 a.m. and are unable to fall back asleep, a potassium deficiency could be to blame. One study published in the Journal of Sleep in 1991 showed potassium directly affects the deepest phase of sleep, and a potassium deficiency can cause you to wake up mid-sleep.
What nutrient deficiencies affect sleep?
If you’re having trouble sleeping at night, it could be a vitamin deficiency. Take magnesium, for example; not only does magnesium help “calm the mind and muscles, [but it also] increases GABA, the neurotransmitter that slows down our brain at night and helps us fall asleep. It has also been shown to ease anxiety,” says Carroll.
Other vitamin deficiencies that affect sleep include:
- Vitamin D
- B Vitamins
- Vitamin A (shown to make sleep less restorative and significantly shortens sleep duration)
- Zinc (linked to insomnia and fatigue)
The last word from Sleepopolis
From aiding our body’s immune function to helping us sleep at night, micronutrients play a crucial role in our overall health. Micronutrients like calcium, magnesium, and zinc can improve sleep quality and duration, while B vitamins and low potassium can impede our ability to get some shuteye. If you’re having trouble sleeping at night, vitamin and mineral supplements could prove to be quite helpful. However, it’s important to do your research before supplementing, and make sure you understand how vitamins and minerals can interact with each other. Remember, balance is key!
Sharon Brandwein is a Certified Sleep Science Coach and a freelance writer. She specializes in health and beauty, parenting, and of course, all things sleep. Sharon’s work has also appeared on ABC News, USAToday, and Forbes. When she’s not busy writing, you might find her somewhere curating a wardrobe for her puppy.