A perfect night’s sleep is an elusive dream for some. Tossing and turning or staring at the ceiling trying to get a good night’s sleep can be an arduous battle. Stress levels, blue light and artificial light at night, medication side effects, or simply the snoring of a spouse are causes for a loss of zzzz’s. A simple lack of certain nutrients, like minerals, can also lead to sleepless nights and may be the missing link for blissful slumber.
Mineral levels within the nervous system significantly impact the quality and amount of time you spend in restorative sleep. Calcium, magnesium, potassium, iron, and zinc directly impact neurotransmitters, neurological processes and even genes that regulate getting to and staying asleep and support REM and non-REM sleep stages.
Calcium is most widely known for its role for healthy bones and teeth, but it provides crucial support for sleep mechanisms. In your brain, calcium movement into nerves causes a hyperpolarization within cells. This process flips a switch with potassium and magnesium flowing in and out of cells. The result is that it helps you fall asleep. Then, as calcium ions move out of nerves, it leads to wakefulness. If calcium levels are low, then sleep quality and duration are compromised.
Calcium supports neurotransmitter and hormone regulation for sleep. It assists in converting the amino acid tryptophan into the neurotransmitter serotonin which turns into the sleep hormone melatonin.
Cross-sectional studies evaluated calcium intake in young college age adults. Nearly one of out six students consumed less than 1000 mg of calcium in their diet and experienced insomnia and poor sleep quality. Data from the NHANES Survey which spanned a wide variety of ages and ethnic backgrounds found inadequate calcium intake led to poor sleep. Those who consumed adequate calcium got to sleep faster and had better restorative sleep in all age groups.
Dairy products are rich sources of calcium. Plant-based sources include kale, turnip greens, chia seeds, broccoli, and other vegetables and grains. However, plant-based sources generally contain smaller amounts of calcium which are less bioavailable due to fiber content. Vegetarian, Western diets, dairy-free diet consumers will need to be more mindful about calcium intake. Caffeine intake causes calcium loss.
Calcium RDA levels for children age 4 years to seniors ranges from 1000 mg to 1300 mg per day.
Magnesium affects hundreds of different mechanisms throughout the body including blood vessels, muscles, inflammation, joints, blood sugar, and more. In the brain, magnesium helps serotonin, dopamine and other monoamine neurotransmitters connect to their receptor sites. It supports GABA, the primary relaxing or inhibitory neurotransmitter. Conversely, magnesium inhibits NMDA, an amino acid derivative similar to the excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate. Thus magnesium help stress management, relaxation and sleep.
A five year study of Chinese adults demonstrated that women who consumed on average 320 mg of magnesium had significantly improved nighttime sleep quality and less concerns with daytime falling asleep. In the NHANES Survey 2005-2016, it showed that the inability to sleep through the night was linked with inadequate intake of magnesium.
Another study with adolescent girls and young women with poor sleep quality were found to have significantly lower intake of several nutrients. Decreased consumption of magnesium, potassium, iron, zinc, copper, protein, and vitamin K and B2 led to disrupted sleep. Many sleep studies focus on older adults, but these findings emphasize the need for adequate nutrition for the younger generations too.
Adult dietary intake of magnesium is substantially below the recommended dietary allowance (RDA). The NHANCES III analysis showed magnesium intake was 225 mg/day for men and 166 mg/day for women which is about 50 percent less than the basic RDA.
Basic RDA dose for teenagers and adults is 300-400 mg/day. Stress, poor absorption, numerous medications, sugar, and caffeine deplete magnesium and increase daily needs.
Potassium is an electrolyte that you might think of with hot summer days, sweating, muscle cramps, and something that is depleted by water pills. Potassium also influences the duration of your sleep. Potassium and magnesium are necessary for the interplay with the calcium movement in and out of nerves and cells. This dynamic fluid-exchange of calcium, magnesium, and potassium ions in and out of cells is critical for sleep/wake patterns and homeostasis with your brain. Inadequate mineral levels impair nerve activity at some of its most fundamental mechanisms for sleep.
Many individuals fail to eat 5-9 servings of fruits and vegetables per day which contain the highest sources of potassium. Dairy, animal proteins, legumes, seeds and nuts generally contain smaller amounts. The basic RDA adolescent and adult dosage for potassium is 2500-3400 mg per day, but many individuals fail to consume even 2000 mg per day.
Iron provides essential support for red blood cells, energy, and carrying oxygen, but it also greatly affects sleep. Iron is necessary for serotonin synthesis and numerous other processes in the brain. Insufficient iron contributes to restless legs syndrome, insomnia and restless sleep and affects respiratory-sleep mechanisms. Lack of iron has also been linked with parasomnia behaviors like walking, talking or doing other behaviors when asleep.
Review studies with infants, young children, and the general adult population have shown that adequate iron intake improves how long you sleep at night-time. Infants and toddlers are particularly vulnerable to iron deficiency which impacts sleep quality.
Studies show that young children with adequate iron were able to sleep longer at night and had shorter, higher quality daytime naps. Think about this the next time your young child wakes you up at night with their restless sleep or insomnia.
Iron is the most common micronutrient deficiency in the world. One in five women experience iron deficiency during their lifetime. Vegetarians may need twice as much iron intake as compared to those who eat animal products due to plant fibers that block absorption and very limited quantities in plant sources. The RDA for iron ranges from 7 mg to 18 mg in infancy to adulthood. Pregnant women need more.
Zinc is required for hundreds of processes including immune system function, tissue repair, gut health, neurotransmitters and sleep processes. Evidence suggests that adequate zinc also affects sleep duration. Zinc inhibits the (excitatory) NMDA receptor like magnesium does. Adequate levels of zinc were found to support longer sleep. Adequate zinc intake was linked with better sleep in women and adolescents.
Zinc deficiency is widespread. Children, elderly, vegetarians, and athletes often fail to obtain adequate zinc in their diets to meet life demands. Adults 60 years and older have been shown to consume less than half of the necessary RDA for zinc. The RDA for children age 9 and older and adults is 8-11 mg per day. Take zinc with food during the day for best results.
Although it is not a mineral, vitamin D helps calcium and magnesium function and influences serotonin and melatonin production. Several sleep regulating parts in the brain have vitamin D receptor sites. Recent findings show lack of vitamin D may also contribute to restless legs and sleep disruption.
Vitamin D requirements can be fulfilled with 20 minutes of sunshine on at least 40 percent of your skin. You cannot make vitamin D with sunshine coming through a window or with sunscreen application. The sun also must be at a high enough angle. From October to April, individuals in the northern states cannot make vitamin D from the sun.
Plant based diet do not provide vitamin D except thru some mushrooms. Fatty fish, beef liver, cheese, egg yolks and fortified foods are dietary sources of vitamin D. Basic RDA for infants to 70 years of age is 600 IU. RDA for seniors older than 70 is 800 IU.
The RDA levels do NOT take into account the amount of stress, digestive challenges, medication-induced depletions, athletic needs, genetic polymorphisms, limited dietary patterns, Western diets with high sugar and calorie intake, illness needs or other challenges that affect nutrient needs. Increased nutrient intake is necessary to overcome 21st century challenges.
Sleep deprivation and chronic sleep dysregulation affect your health on numerous levels. The physical and mental fatigue on a daily basis impairs the quality of your work, mood, and daily function. Long-term sleep problems contribute to cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, depression, cancer, and increased mortality risk.
Inadequate or poor sleep quality adds to the challenges of life. If you are among the millions who struggle with poor sleep, check your mineral status. Inadequate calcium, magnesium, potassium, iron, and zinc dietary intake are widespread concerns for all ages. Insomnia is not a sleeping pill deficiency.