Sleep is an important and necessary process that occurs in all animals. We spend a third of our lives sleeping which directly impacts our behaviour, learning, memories and overall wellbeing. Lack of sleep manifests into health related diseases affecting organ function, metabolism and energy production. Our sleep is governed by internal clocks and equilibriums involving key triggering compounds such as melatonin, adenosine and cortisol.

The sleep itself is a complex process generalized into two main segments, slow-wave sleep and rapid-eye movement sleep. During these segments, we process information, dream, create memories and come up with ideas. The body also takes advantage of this down time to recover and replenish used up resources. Consistency of a good diet, stress control and sleep hygiene shown to improve quality, restfulness and benefits of this nightly activity.

One-third of our lives is spend sleeping. Scientists believe this is when we repair internal machinery, replenish used compounds while improving overall health, wellbeing and performance. Good nights rest leaves us refreshed to tackle the days tasks, poor sleep leaves us tired, sluggish and productively bounded both physically and mentally and, chronic sleep problems contribute to various diseases and metabolic disorders including obesity and diabetes. [1,2]

Furthermore, sleep is a process of creativity, learning and memories. [3] This is where we experience dreams filled with thrills, fun, pleasure, fears and at times even terrors. And, it all surrounds our most powerful organ—the brain. In this article, we’ll discuss the importance of sleep, things that affect it and ways to get a deeper and more fulfilling rest.

sleep habits and food

Photo by Vladislav Muslakov

Why Do We Sleep?

We don’t often contemplate the reasons for sleep but, all of us experienced feeling better and more energized after a good night’s rest. Proper sleep increases energy, improves our mood, cognition and alertness. All of us, also endured the opposite as a restless night follows a day of brain fog, slow response and grogginess.

From a survival point of view, sleep is a dangerous but necessary proposition. It puts the body in a relatively unconscious state. [4] We can’t gather food, eat, be productive or defend ourselves from predators. However, sleep’s benefits must outweigh the risks in order for us to continuously subject ourselves to this nightly endeavour. Furthermore, we’re not the only ones who engage in such non-functional inactivity; as all animals from fruit flies to whales display sleep-like behaviour. [5]

For decades scientists wrestled with the intriguing question of “why we sleep?” There are various ideas like “conserving energy” or “resource replenishment”; but all of which can be accomplished while we still awake. The body simply doesn’t wait for night time to resynthesize depleted hormones or mature immunity cells. So, the question of why we sleep remains.

Growing sleep research points an answer towards one very important organ, or purpose. Sleep seems to be strictly “for the brain, and brain alone”. Such reasoning is behind neuroplasticity where the brain evolves by reorganizing its connections and creating new neural cells. [6] This is how we learn, develop memories, deal with stress, recover from injuries and inflammation while performing numerous physical and cognitive tasks. Sleep has been linked to all these abilities, especially learning and consolidation of memories. [7-10]

Sleep, Memory and Dreams

In our modern day society, busy schedules come at a price of sleep. We often believe that brain isn’t doing much during the night and hence sacrifice this rest for more active tasks. But, regardless of time of the day or night, the brain is always active. During the day the brain interprets vast amounts of information from our environment, senses and responds accordingly. When we fall asleep, the brain begins sorting through this acquired information, consolidating important ones into memories while forgetting the rest. Such memories create new skills, recall valuable data, remember special moments and keep us safe from danger. [9,11-12]

Sleep is divided into two broad segments:

  • non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep, and
  • rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.

NREM is further separated into deep sleep (DS) and slow-wave sleep (SWS). [11-13]. The SWS is deepest part of our sleep where the body relaxes and restores many of its utilized compounds like ATP. Here, brain’s activity slows down along with lower body core temperature. As we enter REM sleep, the brain is ramped up to wake-like status accompanied by greater blood flow. The entire sleep NREM-REM cycle takes approximately 90 minutes and the brain goes through several of such cycles in a good night’s rest. [13] Each sleep stage activates different parts of the brain, distributing information and physiologically rewiring nerve communications through reorganization of cells. This is known as neuroplasticity, a process believed to be behind constructing memories and learning during sleep while elevating cognition and performance during wakefulness. [7-12]

REM sleep and slow-wave sleep both create memories but play different roles. SWS is restorative sleep and important to declarative (knowing “what”) memories. These memories based on facts or new information. Recalling a capital city of your country came from learned facts that solidified during SWS. REM sleep improves procedural (knowing “how”) memory that helps us do things without thinking about them. Skills like riding a bicycle or playing an instrument are possible due to REM component. [14,15] One of the physical differences between SWS and REM sleep is body movement. During SWS the body is in a relaxed state and able to move, toss and turn from side to side. In REM sleep, our brain behaves similar to when we’re awake with increased neural activity (EEG), but the body is paralyzed to inhibit arousal. [16]

REM sleep is also where we experience dreams, a phenomenon that is a very active research area. Body’s paralysis acts as a safety mechanism for us not to reenact our first-person dreams or nightmares. [17] Dreams are difficult to analyze, as they are often anything but exact depiction of our daily experiences. Most of the time they appear as “bizarre” fragments of cinema-like displays. But, these “movies” transform memories and surmised to be the roadmap to creativity and new ideas. [20] Visual encounters inside the dreams often include emotions, feelings and desires which also become part of memories. [18] Emotions make dreams feel real and have a great overall impact on our mental clarity and mood. [18-19]

Regulating Sleep

Sleep is controlled by two internal systems:

  • Circadian Rhythm and,
  • Sleep-Wake Homeostasis.

Each one is composed of series of biochemical processes involving key compounds such as adenosine, cortisol and melatonin.

The Circadian Rhythm is our internal clock operated by hormonal signals and controlled by a tiny region of the brain called suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) within hypothalamus. [13] SCN receives light directly through the optic nerve adjusting day-night cycle. Hormones like melatonin and cortisol adjust this cycle by relaxing the body, lowering core body temperature and placing us into a deeper levels of sleep. [21] SCN increases melatonin production at night time and reduces it during daylight. Melatonin is a powerful antioxidant (twice as potent as vitamin E) which happens to make us sleepy at higher concentrations. [22] Melatonin is a multipurpose compound that fights oxidative stress, reduces inflammation, improves immunity, and shown to combat infectious diseases. [22]

Now, contrary to popular belief, melatonin is not the master regulator of sleep but an active piece of a complex puzzle. Another important player in sleep is cortisol. Cortisol has an unjustified “bad” reputation as the stress marker; be it physical, physiological or biochemical in nature. But, this glucocorticoid is involved in numerous processes all over the body and brain. From affecting our energy levels, metabolism, immunity, inflammation, mood, sexual behaviour and arousal—cortisol is a big part of all those biochemical equations. Its levels naturally build up in waves, peaking at the beginning of the wake-up times and quickly reduced few hours later. The same wave pattern repeats itself just before bedtime producing a more relaxed state. [23]

The Sleep-Wake Homeostasis is a mechanism of body’s equilibrium. Every system within our body has a pre-set limit or homeostatic range. From body temperature, to pH (acid-base balance), blood sugar level and most micronutrients (sodium, potassium, calcium, etc) are all internally regulated regardless of changes in our physical activity, environment or diet. And, sleep-wake cycle is another set range that signals the body to slow down and reset itself by repairing and replenishing many of used up daily compounds. [13] Though we still don’t know the exact sleep drive mechanism, scientists suspect that many of the used up metabolic compounds and production of waste, signals the body to slow down and rest; or sleep.

One of these (waste) by-products is adenosine. Adenosine is made by cells (including neurons) through ATP (adenosine triphosphate) breakdown for energy. [13] Inside the brain, adenosine acts as a neurotransmitter, attaching to specific receptors and inhibiting their activity. Build-up of adenosine reduces nerve impulses causing drowsiness. [24,25] During sleep, adenosine is cleared out of the brain restoring sleep-wake homeostasis towards wakefulness. [24,25]

Sleep Foods

At DUPIsCHAI we always encourage nutrient rich diet, leading to better sleep and overall healthier lifestyle. Literature points to four nutrients shown to enhance sleep quality. These include tryptophan, magnesium (Mg2+), calcium (Ca2+) and Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine).

foods that improve sleep

Photo by Annie Spratt

Tryptophan

Tryptophan is an essential amino acid consumed from our diet that does many important functions. It maintains nitrogen balance, improves gut health, immunity and brain function while reducing inflammation. [26]. Tryptophan can be converted into Vitamin B3 (niacin) and pass through blood-brain barrier (BBB) into the brain to make serotonin (neurotransmitter) along with vitamin B6. [26-28] Serotonin is another growing factor in sleep-wake drive as it’s an intermediate molecule in production of melatonin. [28] Being an amino acid, numerous foods (especially high in protein) are good sources of tryptophan including: [27-30]

  • Poultry (turkey and chicken)
  • Meat (beef, lamb, pork)
  • Eggs
  • Dairy (milk, cheese, yogurt)
  • Seafood (tuna, salmon, halibut, cod)
  • Nuts and Seeds (flex, sesame, pumpkin, sunflower, peanuts, almonds, walnuts, cashews)
  • Legumes (kidney, lima, yellow and black beans, chickpeas, lentils)
  • Grains (oats, wheat, rice, barley, corn, quinoa)
  • Fruits (apples, bananas, avocado)
  • Vegetables (spinach, broccoli, asparagus, onions, potatoes)
  • Soya (tofu, soybeans)
  • Dark Chocolate
  • Spices (cinnamon, fennel, black pepper, ginger, cloves, turmeric, etc)

Magnesium

Magnesium is a mineral involved in over 300 metabolic reactions and is critical to our health and wellbeing. [31] This mineral partakes in almost everything including the sleeping process where it de-stresses the body and reduces alertness. Magnesium improves levels of several neurotransmitters including melatonin. [31-32] Many foods contain magnesium, but rich sources include: [31,33-34]

  • Vegetables (spinach, kale, collard greens, turnip greens, okra, potatoes)
  • Fruits (prickly pear, avocado, bananas)
  • Legumes (black-eye peas, black, lima, navy, kidney and pinto beans, cranberry chickpeas)
  • Soya (tofu, soybeans, edamame)
  • Grains (wheat germ, all bran, quinoa, buckwheat, corn, wheat)
  • Dairy (cheese, yogurt)
  • Nuts and Seeds (flax, pumpkin and sunflower seeds, brazil nuts, almonds, pine nuts, cashes, peanuts, hazelnuts)
  • Seafood (halibut, salmon, mackerel, pollock, crab)
  • Dark Chocolate
  • Spices (cloves, ginger, nutmeg, turmeric, coriander, fennel seed, black pepper, cinnamon).

Calcium

We have more calcium in our body (1-2% of adult body weight) than any other mineral and for very good reasons. [35] Calcium is vital to our health. From building strong bones, energy (ATP) production, transport of nutrients, cell communication, and neural signalling—calcium does it all. [35-36] It effects inflammation response (NF-kB and TNF-alpha proteins) and helps the brain make melatonin. [37] Numerous foods that are rich with calcium include: [35,36,38-40]

  • Fruits (orange, figs, avocado, bananas)
  • Vegetables (spinach, kale, broccoli, bok choy, brussel sprouts, beets, okra, rhubarb, sweet potatoes, butternut squash)
  • Dairy (milk, various cheeses, kefir, cottage cheese, ice cream, yogurt, whey protein/milk powder)
  • Eggs
  • Legumes (white, navy beans, cranberry chickpeas)
  • Soya (tofu, soybeans, edamame)
  • Grains (amaranth, rice, oats, wheat germ, all bran, quinoa, buckwheat, corn, wheat)
  • Nuts and Seeds (poppy, sesame, flax, sunflower and chia seeds, almonds, pistachio, walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts)
  • Seafood (sardines (canned), anchovies, salmon, shrimp, mackerel)
  • Spices (coriander, cinnamon, fennel seed, cumin, cloves, cardamom, anise, turmeric, black pepper).

Vitamin B6

Vitamin B6 is group of six compounds that are converted inside liver into active form of the vitamin—pyridoxal 5’-phosphate. [41] It participates in over 100 enzyme reactions, creates neurotransmitters (dopamine, serotonin, epinephrine, norepinephrine, and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA)), histamines and other important compounds (vitamin B3). [41] As mentioned before, vitamin B6 is required for conversion of tryptophan into serotonin which then used to make melatonin. Great number of foods are rich in vitamin B6 including: [41-43]

  • Meats (chicken liver/kidney, turkey liver, beef, beef liver, beef, pork)
  • Eggs
  • Dairy (milk, cheese, yogurt)
  • Seafood (tuna, salmon, halibut)
  • Nuts and Seeds (flex, sesame, pumpkin and sunflower seeds, pistachios, peanuts, chestnuts)
  • Legumes (chickpeas)
  • Grains (oats, wheatgerm, bran, brown rice, barley, corn, quinoa)
  • Fruits (bananas, plantain, avocado, mango, pineapple, grapes, elderberries)
  • Dried Fruits (prunes, apricots)
  • Vegetables (spinach, squash, carrots, green peas, sweet potatoes, potatoes)
  • Soya (tofu, soybeans)
  • Dark Chocolate
  • Spices (turmeric, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves, fennel, black pepper, cardamom, anise)

Sleeping Routines

Countless websites, books and journals discuss habits beneficial in improving quantity and quality of sleep. Majority of suggestions include routines complementing the circadian rhythm and the sleep-wake homeostasis. These include: [44]

  • Relaxing and meditating to calm the mind,
  • Having a warm tea or milk closer to sleep time,
  • Avoiding large meals, caffeine, alcohol and other chemicals too late in the evening,
  • Creating a cool and dark sleeping environment,
  • Using natural light during the day, but limiting exposure to blue light before bed time,
  • Exercising regularly and early,
  • Consistency is key.

Final Thoughts

Sleep is an important and necessary process that occurs in all animals. We spend a third of our lives sleeping which directly impacts our behaviour, learning, memories and overall wellbeing. Lack of sleep manifests into health related diseases affecting organ function, metabolism and energy production. Our sleep is governed by internal clocks and equilibriums involving key triggering compounds such as melatonin, adenosine and cortisol.

The sleep itself is a complex process generalized into two main segments, slow-wave sleep and rapid-eye movement sleep. During these segments, we process information, dream, create memories and come up with ideas. The body also takes advantage of this down time to recover and replenish used up resources. Consistency of a good diet, stress control and sleep hygiene shown to improve quality, restfulness and benefits of this nightly activity.

At DUPIsCHAI we like to end our day with a warm cup of Fortify. This blend contains minimal caffeine (7mg to 10mg) that has not shown any adverse sleep affects in any research literature. And, Fortify is loaded with potent anti-inflammatory polyphenols which help the body relax, restore immunity and improve organ functions while reducing oxidative stress. [45]

***

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References:

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  6. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neuroplasticity
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  40. http://www.dietandfitnesstoday.com/spices-and-herbs-high-in-calcium.php
  41. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vitamin_B6
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  44. http://healthysleep.med.harvard.edu/healthy/getting/overcoming/tips
  45. https://dupischai.com/immunity-tea-fortify/