By Sarena-Rae Santos, contributing writer
As someone who struggled with sleep since I was a pre-teen, it’s easy to think you’ll never get a restful sleep, especially if you haven’t had one in a long time. I’m here to tell you that this doesn’t have to be the case, and you don’t need a prescription to get the job done. You don’t need melatonin, either!
Why We Need Sleep
Let’s start with the basics–why is sleep important? The truth is, scientists don’t know exactly why we sleep, but they have discovered that some of the most essential functions occur while we are asleep. For instance, when the body rests, primary restorative processes happen in the body like muscle growth, tissue repair, protein synthesis, and growth hormone release, occur mainly, or in some cases only, during sleep (1).
So how much sleep is considered optimal? The National Sleep Foundation recommends the following sleep duration guidelines (2):
- Newborns (0-3 months): 14-17 hours per day
- Infants (4-11 months): 12-15 hours per day
- Toddlers (1-2 years): 11-14 hours per day
- Preschooler (3-5 years): 10-13 hours per day
- School-aged (6-13 years): 9-11 hours per day
- Teens (14-17 years): 8-10 hours per day
- Young Adults (18-25 years): 7-9 hours per day
- Adults (26-64 years): 7-9 hours per day
- Older Adults (65+ years): 7-8 hours per day
So how do we make these numbers possible? Although there are many variables to getting adequate sleep, one significant way to promote quality sleep is nutrients! There are five key nutrients that promote quality sleep; let’s discuss them.
Magnesium is the fourth most abundant mineral in the body and participates in over 300 different functions. It’s an electrolyte (a metal salt/ion) that helps muscles work effectively, produces a calming effect, keeps bowels moving, regulates temperature, and more (3).
Many of us are deficient in magnesium. Many factors can contribute to a person becoming deficient. Low magnesium levels are why people often struggle to fall asleep and stay asleep, causing a night of restless sleep and frequent awakening. Magnesium supports deep restorative sleep by maintaining healthy levels of GABA.
Some studies have shown that magnesium has a beneficial impact on sleep (4). It may also improve restless leg symptoms (although iron was more effective) (5). Although the science is mixed on the benefits of magnesium for restless leg symptoms, many people claim that it has helped them significantly – and it’s known for calming muscles.
Natural sources of magnesium include (6):
- Seeds (pumpkin, chia)
- Nuts (almonds, cashews)
- Vegetables (spinach, broccoli)
- Fruits (apples, bananas)
- Beans (kidney, black)
- Meat (chicken, salmon)
You can always supplement magnesium, but not all supplements are created equally. When taken orally, magnesium can cause stomach upset and diarrhea, which most people (myself included) prefer to avoid! My go-to way to get magnesium is Earthley’s Good Night Lotion.
Iron is also an essential mineral. Iron helps transport oxygen throughout the body. Iron is a crucial component of hemoglobin, the substance in red blood cells that carries oxygen from your lungs throughout your body (7). An iron deficiency can be identified by feeling cold, brittle nails, and hair thinning. Adults with low iron levels also have poorer sleep quality (8). Poor sleep quality can lead to restless legs, which many people experience, and prevents relaxation, restricting restful sleep (9,10). Getting more iron can improve restless leg symptoms (10).
Studies have pinpointed a distinctive gene associated with insomnia and anemia arising from iron deficiency (11). Women have a heightened risk of insomnia compared to men, so it’s not surprising that research indicates women are more prone to iron-deficient anemia than men. It’s also no surprise that iron and vitamin D (which we will discuss later) significantly correlate with sleep quality, quantity, timing, and modulation of REM sleep (12).
Natural sources of iron include (13):
- Meat and fish (beef, oyster, turkey)
- Legumes (lentils, green peas, chickpeas)
- Nuts (cashews, peanuts)
- Vegetables (spinach, potatoes, tomatoes)
- Grains (brown rice, white rice, whole wheat)
Zinc is another significant mineral that plays a crucial role in sleep metabolism. Some studies have found that having optimal levels of zinc predicts the best sleep schedule (not too little or too much) (14). Zinc is also responsible for gene expression, enzymatic reactions, immune function, protein synthesis, DNA synthesis, wound healing, growth and development, and more. Kids who had low zinc levels in the preschool years (ages 3-5) had poor sleep in adolescence (ages 11-15 years) (15).
While zinc is influential in many biological processes, it’s been recognized for its role in functions such as memory and sleep. Evidence has found zinc to be a sleep modulator (16). Although zinc doesn’t trigger sleep, adequate zinc blood levels reduce the time it takes to fall asleep (sleep latency). Reduced sleep latency results in increased sleep and improves sleep quality and efficiency.
Natural sources of zinc include (17):
- Meat and fish
- Seeds (hemp, pumpkin, chia, flax)
- Mushrooms (shiitake, white button)
- Beans and lentils (black, lima)
- Wild rice and quinoa
Since zinc is widely available in whole foods, most people don’t need a supplement. I take zinc because I have an autoimmune disease. Earthley’s Oyster-Min Capsules are an excellent zinc supplement, but I use MaryRuth’s Ionic Zinc since I am plant-based.
#4: Vitamin D
Vitamin D is not actually a vitamin at all but a pre-hormone. It helps the body make all the other hormones it needs (chemical messengers), which impacts sleep. Vitamin D is a fat-soluble nutrient we eat and a hormone our bodies produce. This nutrient helps our body absorb and retain calcium and phosphorus, both vital for building bone. Studies have demonstrated vitamin D can diminish cancer cell growth, help battle infections and reduce inflammation (18).
One study shows that low vitamin D levels are correlated with worse sleep and an increased risk of sleep disorders (19). Another study shows that among workers indoors all day (and who don’t get sun exposure), those with lower vitamin D levels had a poorer-quality sleep than those with higher levels (20). Vitamin D levels under 20 ng/ml are associated with poor sleep and daytime sleepiness (21).
Unfortunately, many people are deficient in vitamin D. A 2009 study showed that 42% of teens and adults had a level under 30 mg/ml (22).
While the sun is the best source of vitamin D (23), it is also found in a few foods, like cod liver oil and certain mushrooms. Mushrooms grown in sunlight contain about 450 IU per 100-gram serving (24). The best mushrooms for vitamin D are portobello, maitake, morel, button, and shiitake. When the sun is unavailable, topical vitamin D can be beneficial (25,26). I supplement with MaryRuth’s Vegan Vitamin D3+K2 Liquid Spray. Before my plant-based journey, I had great success with Earthley’s Vitamin D Cream and would recommend that to those who are not plant-based.
#5: Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Fats, in moderation, are an essential part of a healthy, balanced diet. Fats are a source of essential fatty acids, meaning the body cannot make them. For instance, omega-3 fatty acids contain alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). These fats help the body absorb vitamin A, vitamin D (crucial for sleep), and vitamin E. These vitamins are fat-soluble, meaning they can only be absorbed with the help of fats (27).
Most commonly, omega-3s are known for their heart and bone health benefits and their cognitive and cancer-protecting benefits. Additionally, growing bodies of research indicate that diets rich in omega-3s correlate with better sleep quality in adults and children.
One study found that higher blood levels of omega-3s were significantly associated with better sleep quality, including decreased bedtime resistance, sleep disturbance, and parasomnias (28). Another study concluded that omega-3s provide a beneficial role in sleep, including an overall increase in sleep efficiency and a reduction in sleep latency (29).
Natural sources of omega-3s include (30):
- Seafood (salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring, sardines)
- Nuts (walnuts)
- Seeds (flaxseed, chia seeds)
- Plant oils (flaxseed, avocado)
Most people don’t need to supplement omega’s unless they’re plant-based. In that case, I’d recommend Garden of Life Vegan DHA. Earthley’s Cod Oil is an excellent option for those who aren’t plant-based.
If you’ve read Earthley’s guide, A Secret to a Good Night’s Sleep, you probably know most of this already; if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it.
Disclaimer: This post is not intended as medical advice. These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA, and nothing in this post is intended to diagnose, treat, or cure anything. If you have questions, please do your own research or seek advice from a health professional.