Sleep and micronutrition: unknown connections

Sleep hygiene

The links between sleep and micronutrition are numerous and often complex. It would be quite challenging to delve into all of them. However, a few generalities can be applied, aside from specific cases related to the individual or a medical condition.

What is micronutrition ?

Micronutrition studies the impact of micronutrients on health and seeks ways to optimize micronutrient status. Tools exist to determine various imbalances and address them, which can significantly improve all aspects of our health, including our sleep. Conversely, through various mechanisms, our sleep can have a significant impact on our micronutrient status.

How does sleep deprivation drain our energy?

The functions of sleep are still poorly understood, but one thing is certain: when we lack it, we feel tired, easily stressed, and more vulnerable. To combat this, our bodies draw on our reserves of vitamins and minerals, such as magnesium, iron, and our antioxidant vitamins. Additionally, sleep deprivation tends to push us to eat more and less healthily. There are systems in place for the production of orexinergic compounds that are normally inhibited during sleep. In the case of sleep deprivation, these systems see increased activity. One of their effects is hedonic (pleasure-driven) food intake on top of normal intake. As a result, calorie intake increases with what are called empty calories, meaning foods with poor nutritional density but high in calories. This can lead to mechanisms of weight gain and depletion of micronutrient status, which can set the body into a vicious cycle.

The right foods at the right time

To fall asleep, we need to secrete melatonin. This hormone (neurotransmitter) is synthesized from serotonin, another hormone itself synthesized from an amino acid, tryptophan, mainly found in meats and fish. For these mechanisms to work well, it’s necessary to provide our brain with enough proteins, as well as elements essential to the production of these hormones: magnesium and B vitamins. In our diet, magnesium is mainly found in vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and dark chocolate. For B vitamins, we turn to seafood and leafy vegetables. Another important point is the bioavailability of tryptophan. The balance between proteins and carbohydrates during a meal will guide the brain towards either the catecholamine pathway (dopamine and noradrenaline) or the serotonin pathway (serotonin and melatonin), which influence our circadian rhythms. To steer our nervous system towards serotonin and melatonin synthesis, a meal containing more carbohydrates than proteins is recommended. Therefore, it’s often advised to load up on proteins in the morning and at lunch to favor the dopaminergic pathway, and to have carbohydrate-rich meals for snacks and dinner to favor the serotonin pathway.

What about in the case of illnesses or sleep disorders?

Micronutrition sometimes plays an essential role in regulating sleep disorders. Let’s take the example of benzodiazepines. This type of medication, frequently prescribed for anxious insomniacs, works by enhancing the effect of GABA, a hormone that calms the brain. However, to synthesize GABA, magnesium and vitamin B6 are indispensable. Therefore, improving the action of a hormone for which there is a deficiency will not achieve any effect. If a patient is deficient in magnesium and vitamin B6, the use of benzodiazepines will be much less effective than expected. Another example would be restless legs syndrome. We know that this neurological disorder is linked to disruptions in dopamine pathways and often to iron deficiencies. Thus, one way to improve this condition, in addition to conventional treatments, may be a diet rich in iron and including a significant intake of proteins to promote dopamine synthesis.

As soon as sleep becomes problematic, it is strongly advised to seek medical advice. For mild disorders, micronutritional monitoring may sometimes be sufficient to rebalance sleep. In the case of more significant disorders or confirmed pathologies, micronutrition can be an excellent support to traditional treatments.

By Audrey Charial, nutritionist and micronutritionist.