When I turned 12 years old, I started screaming in my sleep. Like sitting straight up, heart pounding, screaming bloody murder at the top of my lungs. Every night within 20 minutes of falling asleep I would wake from extremely violent dreams. My poor mother would coming running to my room night after night to hold me until I calmed down. No matter what I did the dreams, and the screaming, continued. I tried every remedy I could think of, but nothing worked. As I got older the dreams got better, but the screaming and the panic didn’t stop. Even though I hadn’t slept through the night without waking up from an anxiety attack in over 10 years, I honestly just sort of gave up. I self-identified as a bad sleeper and decided that maybe that was OK. My sweet boyfriend got used to me bolting upright in the middle of the night; he knew that our house wasn’t actually on fire- even when I was screaming that it was. But then all of a sudden things began to change….
So you know that old adage about the shoemaker’s kids? Well that was me as a nutritionist. I told all my clients how important it is to get the proper amounts of micronutrients every day. But me? No freaking way was I swallowing a pill every morning. Fish oil? Hahahahahaha FORGET ABOUT IT! Just a side note… If I was ever trapped on an island with no food I think I would starve to death before being able to kill a fish. Taking fish oil was just never, ever going to happen. Sorry dad.
However, as a lifelong vegetarian I decided that maybe, just maybe, I should actually try what I was telling my clients to do. So I started taking a high quality multivitamin with plenty of B-vitamins and an omega-3 supplement derived from algae. And guess what? I stopped screaming. For the first time in 15 years I didn’t have night terrors. While my story may not be yours, I know a lot of people struggle with getting enough, quality sleep. So what micronutrients affect your dream and sleep? Read below to find out some of the key players.
1. Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine)
Serotonin, which is commonly thought of as the happy hormone (it’s actually a neurotransmitter) plays many important roles in the body, including…. drum roll please…. being the precursor of melatonin. Melatonin is responsible for initiating sleep and regulating our internal clock. With inadequate serotonin our brain doesn’t get the message that it’s time to fall asleep.
So where does B6 come into this equation? B6 helps our body produce serotonin. Recent research suggests that it may help us remember our dreams and could promote lucid dreaming (where you become aware that you are dreaming). Lucid dreaming seems to be beneficial. For one thing, it reduces the incidence of nightmares.
Magnesium is involved in over 300 enzymatic reactions. It is responsible for energy production, normal nerve and muscle function, supports the immune system, and helps keep bones strong. So I would say it’s pretty dang important. Unfortunately, magnesium deficiency is common.
Aside from all of these important tasks, magnesium is also necessary for good sleep. In fact, one sign of magnesium deficiency is insomnia and disrupted sleep patterns. How exactly does magnesium help you get a good nights rest? It can quiet down our sympathetic nervous system- the one that’s responsible for the fight or flight response. In today’s world, our sympathetic nervous system is often working in overdrive because many of us are in a constant state of stress. Quieting the fight-or-flight response increases activity of the parasympathetic nervous system, which produces the relaxation response. Good parasympathetic nervous tone is key to good rest and digestion
Magnesium also increases levels of GABA, the neurotransmitter that helps reduce stress, promote relaxation, and improve sleep. Along with B6, magnesium also helps the body to produce serotonin.
Some great magnesium sources are dark leafy greens, nuts, salmon, tuna, and avocados.
Zinc is the second most abundant mineral in the body and is key to taste perception, male fertility, immune health, and cognitive function. Research indicates that zinc helps regulate sleep- although how it works is not exactly clear. Zinc may shorten the amount of time it takes us to fall asleep (no more counting sheep) and increase the overall quality of sleep. One study from China found that participants with the highest serum zinc levels were the ones getting 7-9 hours of sleep a night. This is ideal: any less than 7 and any more than 9 isn’t so great for your health. Low zinc levels have been correlated with poor sleep quality.
You can get zinc from oysters, red meat, wheat germ, chickpeas, lentils, and beans.
I’ve had a real love/hate relationship with omega-3. These essential fats are SO important for our overall health…. But the best sources is oily fish, and despite my best efforts, I just can’t eat fish. So for years I told myself that omega-3s were overrated (they’re not). I finally started taking an algae based omega-3 supplement, so I’m back to living in reality and acknowledging the importance of these nutrients.
As we discussed before, melatonin is a key for regulator of our circadian rhythms and signals to the body that its time for some shut-eye. Melatonin helps quiet the mind and relax the body. DHA (one of the omega-3 fatty acids we need) helps to regulate melatonin levels. Low DHA levels have been linked with melatonin deficiency.
Omega-3s also seem to help children stay asleep. One study found that children who received supplemental omega3s woke up 7 fewer times than their peers who received a corn oil supplement. All the sleep-deprived parents out there take note.
Great sources of omega-3 fatty acids are anchovies, herring, mackerel and salmon. Walnuts, chia seeds and flax seeds also contain omega-3s however, these are in the form of ALA, which is poorly converted into EPA and DHA.
5. Vitamin D
So if you’re still with me, yay!! Let’s discuss vitamin D, but we’ll make it speedy. This vitamin really is considered a hormone. As you probably know, our body can make vitamin D from sun exposure.
Interestingly, there are vitamin D receptors in parts of the brain that are thought to regulate sleep. Low vitamin D levels have been associated with excessive daytime sleepiness (3pm crash anyone?) sleep disturbances and poorer sleep in general. Low vitamin D levels can also trigger insomnia and sleep disorders. Unfortunately, there have been few studies on this subject, so just why this is, we aren’t sure. One possibility is that vitamin D influences our immune system, which may in turn influence how well we sleep.
Sleep is complicated. There are a lot of questions about why we dream and the exact mechanisms behind sleep that we don’t have the answers to yet. We do know, however, that our diet and stress levels can impact the quality of sleep we are getting. While I’ve mentioned a few vitamins and minerals that are important to sleep, I have in no way exhausted the list. If you have any sort of sleep problems, I highly recommend working with a medical professional and a nutritionist to figure out what’s going on. I can tell you from personal experience, I wish I had looked at my diet earlier on.
Any bad sleepers out there? Let me know what’s worked for you in the comments below! Happy sleeping 🙂