By: Duke Health & Well-Being Nutrition Team
We know there are certain foods and eating patterns that are conducive to sleep. In this post, we take a closer look at the neurological mechanisms involved.
The food we eat influences the body’s release of specific neurotransmitters related to sleep. Neurotransmitters are messengers released from nerve cells that communicate with neighboring cells. Nutrients found in food can act directly as neurotransmitters. Additionally, specific compounds in food can act as precursors of neurotransmitters. Whether a neurotransmitter keeps you awake or helps you sleep depends not only on the type of neurotransmitter but also on its target in the body. Getting the right balance of excitatory and calming neurotransmitters throughout your day may contribute to a restful night’s sleep.
“Getting the right balance of excitatory and calming neurotransmitters throughout your day may contribute to a restful night’s sleep.”
The neurotransmitter balance is a see-saw action throughout the sleep-wake cycle. Neurotransmitters can generally be categorized as stimulating or calming to cell and system behavior.
Individual variation may also be attributed to the differences in the digestive tract. An array of neurotransmitters is made in the gut microbiome, one of which is serotonin (Camilleri, 2009).
Genetic influences might also determine our ability to metabolize neurotransmitters, resulting in a varying and delayed effect. For example, a person with the genetic variant for reduced processing and clearance of norepinephrine may notice the effect of exercise-induced “high” hours later, as they lay down to sleep.
As described earlier, some foods are precursors of neurotransmitters and, depending on the individuals’ supply and metabolism, overconsumption of certain foods may also influence their sleep cycles.
Stimulating foods that may inhibit sleep contain glutamate, tyramine and histamine. Calming and relaxing foods contain precursors for serotonin and GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid.)
In addition to neurotransmitters already present in food, choline, tryptophan, and tyrosine are nutrients in food that are modified into neurotransmitters once in the body.
“Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper.”
The adage to “eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper” makes sense to your neurotransmitters. A light dinner based on vegetables, whole grain, or beans and fruit will support relaxing neurotransmitters like serotonin and GABA. Consider skipping foods that contain stimulating neurotransmitters or neurotransmitter precursors like glutamate, tyramine, histamine, and tyrosine.
A helpful strategy for optimizing sleep is to keep a food and symptom journal. Before you turn out the light, make note of what you ate or drank in the evening and any unusual food or exercise events during the day. In the morning, make note of the quality of your sleep. As some individuals’ sleep is more sensitive to the effects of neurotransmitter behavior, keeping a journal will help you identify which foods you might want to include and avoid. Over time you may notice patterns or trends that help you understand how to get the best night’s sleep.
These resources were developed by Lauren Fiabane, Intern at the Duke Diet & Fitness Center with the supervision of the Duke Health & Well-Being Nutrition team.
Duke Diet & Fitness Center
Elisabetta Politi, RD, MPH, LDN, CDE – Nutrition Director
Christine B. Tenekjian, MPH, RD, LDN – Clinical Dietitian
Duke Health & Fitness Center
Kara Mitchell – Wellness Manager, Exercise Physiologist & Dietitian/Nutritionist
Samantha Mendelowitz – Dietitian/Nutritionist – Clinical Dietitian
Jenni Biggs – Dietitian/Nutritionist – Clinical Dietitian, Certified Diabetes Educator
Duke Integrative Medicine
Joanne Gardner, MS, RDN, LDN – Integrative Dietitian / Nutritionist
Jill Brown, MS, RDN, IFNCP, CLT – Integrative Dietitian / Nutritionist
Gretchen L. Hofing, MPH, RD
About Duke Health & Well-Being Nutrition & Lifestyle Services
Our individualized nutrition services are utilized to treat specific health conditions, manage weight healthfully, and to attain optimal vitality through a wholesome diet. Our nutritionists understand that getting on the right path toward your health goals is a process that requires support, adjustment, and taking small steps to make lasting and positive changes. Work with a nutritionist to discover the connection between food, movement, stress, and rest and make strategic changes to your diet that will help you achieve your goals.
Integrative Nutrition at Integrative Medicine
Diet & Nutrition Counseling at the Diet and Fitness Center
Nutrition Consultations at the Health and Fitness Center
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