At some point in our lives sleep can become an issue. Whether it’s getting to sleep, staying asleep or poor quality sleep. Our sleep patterns are governed by circadian rhythms, which is basically our internal clock which determines when we should be awake, sleep and eat. However sleep is actually triggered by the product of a number of chemicals in our body. These are called neurotransmitters and the key ones around sleep are serotonin and melatonin. Neurotransmitters are produced via a number of chemical reactions in the body from amino acids, which are the small building blocks which proteins break down into. So the body breaks down the proteins we eat and then builds them into our sleep chemicals, using a number of key nutrients during the process such as zinc, magnesium, B vitamins, calcium, iron and vitamin C.
Serotonin is the first neurotransmitter created and makes us feel calm and relaxed. If we do not have enough serotonin it can leave us feeling anxious and it is the chemical that some antidepressants work to increase. Melatonin is created from serotonin and induces and maintains sleep. Production is triggered by darkness, so as the sun goes down our brain starts to produce our night time chemicals so we start feeling sleepy.
If we understand this complex chemical process then we can see where things might go wrong with our sleep processes. When looking at the production of melatonin and serotonin a big factor affecting their production is having enough protein. This comes from foods such as meat, eggs, dairy products or from vegetarian sources such as legumes. A poor diet full of processed foods high in refined carbohydrates and low in protein can certainly effect our sleep and refined carbs late at night can also be over stimulating and keep us awake. This kind of diet can also lead to low levels of the essential vitamins and minerals needed for the chemical production of melatonin and serotonin. Increasing our intake of vitamin and mineral rich foods and proteins is a good start to improving sleep. One particular protein that can directly influence the production of melatonin is tryptophan. Oats, rice, barley, pumpkin seeds, almonds, peanuts, soybean, spirulina, seaweed, brewer’s yeast, sweetcorn, tomatoes, ginger, bananas, milk, yoghurt, cottage cheese, turkey, chicken and chicken liver are all rich sources of this amino acid. We can also take 5HTP (5 hydroxytryptophan) a herb obtained from the African Griffonia simplicifolia plant. This can used to increase serotonin to increase relaxation and then convert into melatonin for a good night’s sleep.
We have looked at the essential building blocks for creating good sleep chemicals, but we should also look at environmental factors that can block melatonin production; specifically blue light. Since melatonin production is triggered by dark, increasing blue light at night causes confusion. The light from our TV, computer screens and other electronic devices can emulate daylight and can block melatonin production. Turn off devices early and make sure lighting is not too bright for maximum melatonin production.
So if you are one of those people who struggle with a good night’s sleep now may be the time to increase your nutrients, improve your diet and dump those late night Facebook sessions.
By Jane Cronin
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