Sleep is often overlooked as an important factor in health. More than that, some of your sleep behaviors can be encoded in your genes, like how long you may need to rest each night, and how easily you can drift into deep sleep. But there are ways we can promote better sleep through our nutrition because what you eat can affect your sleep genes. Let’s take a look at some of the ways your genes and your food can help you get a better night’s sleep.
BDNF stands for Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor. It’s a growth factor that is important in maintaining brain plasticity, which is the ability to retain new information and learn new things. BDNF is shown to be reduced in people who suffer from insomnia, excessive stress, or just don’t get enough deep sleep at night. Lowered BDNF can become a chronic sleep cycle problem: too little sleep can cause low BDNF, and lowered BDNF can interfere with the hormonal signaling that allows you to get deep, restful sleep.
So what foods can we eat to increase low BDNF, especially if we’re already having trouble sleeping? Foods high in polyphenols have been shown most effective in this case. Colorful vegetables are a great way to get plenty of polyphenols through the day. Dark and brightly colored fruits like blueberries are ideal. It’s also a perfect excuse to eat chocolate, since high quality, dark chocolate with no added sugar, is packed with polyphenols.
A handful of genes that control the circadian rhythm control when our bodies want to naturally fall asleep. They help to set us to a typical 24-hour day, and variations on these genes can cause some people to have a preference to fall asleep later into the night or even function on an altered schedule, such as an internal 26-hour day. These genes, such as CLOCK, BMAL, and CRY, help us to feel wakeful during the day and help induce sleep at night by triggering certain hormone releases that control these sensations.
One of the best ways to keep the circadian rhythm on a regular 24-hour schedule is to eat a larger breakfast made up of protein and fiber, and eat a smaller dinner. This simple change is a powerful trigger to keep the body on schedule.
Simply adding tart cherries to your diet can help to regulate your circadian rhythm too, especially if you eat them later in the day. Cherries are rich in melatonin, a hormone that helps you to fall asleep and stay in deeper sleep.
Adenosine is most known because of how caffeine interacts with it. Adenosine builds up throughout the day as a normal byproduct of metabolism. The building up of adenosine is actually one of the triggers in our brain that makes us feel sleepy. But caffeine blocks the adenosine receptors, thereby promoting wakefulness. In turn, when the adenosine receptors are finally able to connect with the adenosine in circulation, we have a more accurate picture of how tired we truly are. Adenosine also has a role in depression and other mental health issues, which may be why some people self-medicate with coffee and seem to have an improved mood when drinking it.
Adenosine is the backbone of ATP, the unit of energy we use in our bodies. As such, when the phosphate units are broken off for energy and only the backbone is left, this is what signals us that we’re tired and need to sleep to refuel our energy levels.
There are studies that show a ketogenic diet, or high fat/low carbohydrate diet, can promote better ATP production, and especially ATP use in the brain. This type of diet isn’t for everyone, but specifically when it comes to sleep regulation, it can certainly help some. This may be due to the reduced amount of sugar and insulin in the bloodstream, which can lead to better hormone balance including the hormones involved in sleep.
Glycogen is a storage form of carbohydrates in humans, contained in the liver and the muscles. While there are certain genetic glycogen storage diseases, they tend to be detected in babies and infants. Instead, adults should be mindful of their food choices impacting their glycogen levels, especially athletes, who may cycle through their glycogen stores more quickly.
In regards to sleep, having adequate glycogen helps you to stay in a deeper state of sleep. In regards to the ketogenic diet referenced above, glycogen can become severely depleted and cause sleep disturbances. Whether or not you are on a ketogenic diet, having a small amount of something sweet an hour or so before bedtime can drastically improve sleep quality. Aim for something nutrient dense, like raw honey or some fresh fruit.
Schmitt K, et al. “BDNF In Sleep, Insomnia, And Sleep Deprivation. – Pubmed – NCBI”. Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. N.p., 2017. Web. 6 June 2017.
Cimini, Annamaria et al. “Cocoa Powder Triggers Neuroprotective And Preventive Effects In A Human Alzheimer’s Disease Model By Modulating BDNF Signaling Pathway”. Wiley Online Library. N.p., 2017. Web. 6 June 2017. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/jcb.24548/full.
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Pigeon, W., Carr, M., Gorman, C. and Perlis, M. (2017). Effects of a Tart Cherry Juice Beverage on the Sleep of Older Adults with Insomnia: A Pilot Study. [online] Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3133468/.
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