By Dr. Mercola
Good sleep is one of the cornerstones of health, without which optimal health will remain elusive. Impaired sleep can increase your risk of a wide variety of diseases and disorders, including:
- Heart disease
- Stomach ulcers
- Mood disorders like depression
Numerous factors can contribute to poor sleep, including vitamin and mineral deficiencies. The featured article by LiveScience1 highlights three nutrients tied to three common sleep problems. To this, I would add melatonin, which is both a hormone and an antioxidant:
- Magnesium deficiency can cause insomnia
- Lack of potassium can lead to difficulty staying asleep throughout the night
- Vitamin D deficiency has been linked to excessive daytime sleepiness
The Importance of Melatonin
I personally believe that melatonin is one of the most important nutrients to help you optimize your sleep, as it plays a crucial role in your circadian rhythm or internal clock.
Melatonin is produced by a pea-sized gland in the middle of your brain called the pineal gland. When your circadian rhythms are disrupted, your body produces less melatonin, which reduces your ability to fight cancer.
Melatonin actually helps suppress free radicals that can lead to cancer. (This is why tumors grow faster when you sleep poorly.) It also produces a number of health benefits related to your immune system.
For most people, the pineal gland is totally inactive during the day. But, at night, when you are exposed to darkness, your pineal gland begins producing melatonin to be released into your blood.
Melatonin makes you feel sleepy, and in a normal night's sleep, your melatonin levels stay elevated for about 12 hours (usually between 9 pm and 9 am). Then, as the sun rises and your day begins, your pineal gland reduces your production of melatonin.
The levels in your blood decrease until they're hardly measurable at all. This rise and fall of your melatonin levels are part and parcel of your internal clock that dictates when you're sleepy and when you feel fully awake.
How to Optimize Your Melatonin and Reset Your Circadian Rhythm
In related news, research2 suggests camping could help you reset an internal clock gone haywire from modern living. As reported by the Christian Science Monitor:3
"Scientists at the University of Colorado Boulder found that if you live by the sun's schedule, you are more likely to go to bed at least an hour earlier, wake up an hour earlier, and be less groggy, because your internal clock and external reality are more in sync. The sun adjusts your clock to what may be its natural state, undoing the influence of lightbulbs."
Since humans evolved in the glow of firelight, the yellow, orange and red wavelengths don't suppress melatonin production the way white and blue wavelengths do. If you want to protect your melatonin cycle, when the sun goes down, you would shift to a low wattage bulb with yellow, orange, or red light.
One good option is using a salt lamp illuminated by a 5-watt bulb. It's important to realize that turning on a light in the middle of the night, even for a short moment, such as when you get up to go to the bathroom, will disrupt your melatonin production and interfere with your sleep.
Ideally, it is best to increase melatonin levels naturally with exposure to bright sunlight in the daytime (along with full spectrum fluorescent bulbs in the winter) and absolute complete darkness at night. If that isn't possible, you may want to consider a melatonin supplement.
In scientific studies, melatonin has been shown to help people fall asleep faster and stay asleep, experience less restlessness, and prevent daytime fatigue. Keep in mind that only a very small dose is required — typically 0.25 mg or 0.5 mg to start with, and you can adjust it up from there.
Taking higher doses, such as 3 mg, can sometimes make you more wakeful instead of sleepier, so adjust your dose carefully. While melatonin is most commonly used in tablet or spray form, certain foods also contain it. Cherries, for instance, are a natural source of melatonin, and drinking tart cherry juice has been found to be beneficial in improving sleep duration and quality.4
Up to 80 Percent of Americans Are Magnesium-Deficient
Lack of magnesium may play a role in insomnia, and dietary surveys suggest that the majority of Americans are simply not getting enough magnesium from their diet alone.5 Other factors that can make you more prone to magnesium deficiency include:
An unhealthy digestive system, which impairs your body's ability to absorb magnesium (Crohn's disease, leaky gut, etc.) Diabetes, especially if it's poorly controlled, leading to increased magnesium loss in urine Age -- older adults are more likely to be magnesium deficient because absorption decreases with age and the elderly are more likely to take medications that can interfere with absorption Unhealthy kidneys, which contribute to excessive loss of magnesium in urine Alcoholism -- up to 60 percent of alcoholics have low blood levels of magnesium6 Certain medications -- diuretics, antibiotics and medications used to treat cancer can all result in magnesium deficiency
To avoid magnesium deficiency, make sure you're eating a varied, whole-food diet like the one described in my nutrition plan. Green leafy vegetables like spinach and Swiss chard are excellent sources of magnesium, as are some beans, nuts and seeds, like almonds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower and sesame seeds. Avocados are also a good source. Juicing your greens is an excellent way to optimize your nutrition. This is my personal strategy. I typically drink one pint to one quart of fresh green vegetable juice every day, and it is one of my primary sources of magnesium.
If you decide to use a supplement, magnesium threonate is likely one of the best sources of magnesium as it seems to penetrate cell membranes, including the mitochondria, which results in higher energy levels. Additionally, it also penetrates the blood-brain barrier and seems to do wonders to treat and prevent dementia and improve memory.
Balance Your Magnesium with Calcium, Vitamin K2 and D
One of the major benefits of getting your nutrients from a varied whole food diet is that you're far less likely to end up with too much of one nutrient at the expense of others. Foods in general contain all the cofactors and needed co-nutrients in the proper amounts for optimal health, which takes out the guess work. When you're using supplements, you need to become a bit more savvy about how nutrients influence and synergistically affect each other.
For example, it's important to maintain the proper balance between magnesium, calcium, vitamin K2, and vitamin D. These all work together synergistically, and lack of balance between these nutrients is why calcium supplements have become associated with increased risk of heart attacks and stroke, and why some people experience vitamin D toxicity. To learn more about this, please see this previous article that delves into this at some depth.
Do You Need More Potassium in Your Diet?
Potassium is an essential mineral "salt" that is sometimes referred to as the "good salt." It's most commonly known for its role in blood pressure regulation, and it works synergistically with magnesium to improve sleep, among other things. This combination may be of particular benefit if muscle cramps are keeping you awake.
As an electrolyte, potassium is a positive charged ion that must maintain a certain concentration7 in order to carry out its functions, which includes interacting with sodium to help control nerve impulse transmission, muscle contraction and heart function. In fact, maintaining the proper ratio of potassium to sodium is an important factor for optimal health. It's generally recommended that you take in five times more potassium than sodium,8 but because most Americans' diets are so rich in high-sodium processed foods, most people get double the amount of sodium compared to potassium from their diet.
If you have high blood pressure, it could be a sign that you're lacking in this vital mineral or that your ratio of potassium to sodium is upside-down from an improper diet. Signs of severe potassium deficiency include fatigue, muscle weakness, abdominal pain and cramps, and in severe cases abnormal heart rhythms and muscular paralysis. The ideal way to increase your potassium is to obtain it from vegetables, such as:
Swiss chard (960 mg of potassium per 1 cup) Spinach (838 mg per cup) Broccoli (505 mg per cup) Celery (344 mg per cup) Avocado (874 mg per cup) Crimini mushrooms (635 mg in 5 ounces) Brussels sprouts (494 mg per cup) Romaine lettuce (324 mg per 2 cups)
Vitamin D Deficiency May Be the Cause of Excessive Sleepiness
A growing body of research clearly shows the absolute necessity of vitamin D for good health and disease prevention, and it may even play an important role in sleep. According to research presented at last year's Associated Professional Sleep Societies meeting, people with daytime sleepiness and musculoskeletal pain, which can easily sabotage sleep, are likely to have vitamin D insufficiency or deficiency. According to a writeup by Mother Nature Network:9
"[T]he team decided to test the vitamin D levels of patients who had complained of chronic pain as part of the workup that was done for other sleep disturbances. McCarty and colleagues performed research and reviews of 153 patients at a sleep clinic. Eighty-four percent of patients had either vitamin D insufficiency (30 percent) or deficiency (54 percent).
They discovered that some patients who exhibited low levels of vitamin D experienced complete resolution of daytime sleepiness symptoms after treatment for vitamin D deficiency. McCarty and colleagues concluded that it is biologically plausible that low vitamin D could contribute to sleepiness because of its role in systemic inflammation."
Vitamin D3 is an oil-soluble steroid hormone (the term "vitamin" is a misnomer) that forms when your skin is exposed to UVB radiation from the sun or a safe tanning bed. When UVB strikes the surface of your skin, your skin converts a cholesterol derivative into vitamin D3, and this is, by far, the best way to optimize your vitamin D levels.
If you opt for a vitamin D supplement, you also need to boost your intake of vitamin K2 through food and/or a supplement. How do you know if your vitamin D level is in the right range? The most important factor is having your vitamin D serum level tested every six months, as people vary widely in their response to ultraviolet exposure or oral D3 supplementation. Your goal is to reach a clinically relevant serum level of 50-70 ng/ml. As a general guideline, research by GrassrootsHealth suggests that adults need about 8,000 IU's per day to achieve a serum level of 40 ng/ml.
Tips to Help You Sleep Better
Besides nutritional deficiencies, there are many other variables that can impact how well you sleep. I suggest you read through my full set of 33 healthy sleep guidelines for all of the details, but to start, making some adjustments to your sleeping area can go a long way to ensure uninterrupted, restful sleep.
- Cover your windows with blackout shades or drapes to ensure complete darkness. Even the tiniest bit of light in the room can disrupt your pineal gland's production of melatonin and the melatonin precursor serotonin, thereby disrupting your sleep cycle.
So close your bedroom door, get rid of night-lights, and refrain from turning on any light during the night, even when getting up to go to the bathroom. If you have to use a light, install so-called "low blue" light bulbs in your bedroom and bathroom. These emit amber light that will not suppress melatonin production.
- Keep the temperature in your bedroom at or below 70 degrees F (21 degrees Celsius). Many people keep their homes and particularly their upstairs bedrooms too warm. Studies show that the optimal room temperature for sleep is quite cool, between 60 to 68 degrees F (15.5 to 20 C). Keeping your room cooler or hotter can lead to restless sleep.
- Check your bedroom for electromagnetic fields (EMFs). These can also disrupt your pineal gland's production of melatonin and serotonin, and may have other negative effects as well. To do this, you need a gauss meter. You can find various models online, starting around $50 to $200. Some experts even recommend pulling your circuit breaker before bed to kill all power in your house.
- Move alarm clocks and other electrical devices away from your head. If these devices must be used, keep them as far away from your bed as possible, preferably at least three feet.
- Reduce use of light-emitting technology, such as your TV, iPad, and computer, before going to bed. These emit the type of light that will suppress melatonin production, which in turn will hamper your ability to fall asleep, as well as increase your cancer risk (melatonin helps to suppress harmful free radicals in your body and slows the production of estrogen, which can contribute to cancer). Ideally, you'll want to turn all such light-emitting gadgets off at least one hour prior to bedtime.
As previously discussed by Dr. Rubin Naiman, a leader in integrative medicine approaches to sleep and dreams, sleep is the outcome of an interaction between two variables, namely sleepiness and what he refers to as "noise." This is any kind of stimulation that inhibits or disrupts sleep. In order to get a good night's sleep, you want your sleepiness level to be high, and the "noise" level to be low. Under normal conditions, your sleepiness should gradually increase throughout the day and evening, peaking just before you go to bed at night. However, if noise is conceptually greater than your level of sleepiness, you will not be able to fall asleep.
Improving Your Nutrition May Help You Sleep Better
If you aren't sleeping well, it is just a matter of time before it will adversely affect your health, even if you're doing everything else right. Fortunately, there are many simple solutions to address poor sleep, starting with your diet and lifestyle. Certain nutrients, such as melatonin, magnesium, potassium and vitamin D can play an important role. It's also crucial to pay attention to your use of artificial lighting. To promote good sleep, make sure you're exposed to full natural light during the day, and avoid artificial lighting once the sun goes down, especially as bedtime draws near.
To make your bedroom into a suitable sleep sanctuary, begin by making sure it's pitch-black, cool, and quiet. Remember, even the tiniest bit of light can disrupt your pineal gland's production of melatonin and serotonin. For this reason, I highly recommend adding room-darkening blinds or drapes to your bedroom, or if this is not possible wearing an eye mask to block out any stray light.
For even more helpful guidance on how to improve your sleep, please review my 33 Secrets to a Good Night's Sleep. If you're even slightly sleep-deprived, I encourage you to implement some of these tips tonight, as high-quality sleep is one of the most important factors in your health and quality of life.