According to the World Sleep Society (yes, there is such an organization!), sleep issues impact up to 45% of the world’s population. Whether it’s suffering from sleep apnea, insomnia, restless leg syndrome, or one of the other 80 or so sleep disorders that can wreak havoc on our ability to properly sleep, this is a serious problem.
We need proper sleep to function on a daily basis; but not only that, insufficient sleep has been linked to all sorts of chronic conditions and diseases, such as obesity, depression, some cancers, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
On a more positive note, when you do get enough uninterrupted sleep, not only are you helping reduce your risk of serious health issues, but you’re also likely to wake up refreshed, be less irritable, go about your day with more energy, and be better able to think clearly and focus on your daily activities.
There are a variety of ways that people cope with sleep issues, including the use of:
- medical devices (e.g., a CPAP machine for sleep apnea)
- prescription medications (e.g., drugs for insomnia or anxiety that require a doctor’s prescription can make it easier for you to fall asleep or sleep through the night; however, they do not come without potential consequences. For example, some can lead to dependence or extensive side effects. Don’t turn to these medications if you have kidney or liver disease. This post shares more about prescription sleep aids.)
- over-the-counter drugs (e.g., sleep aids with diphenhydramine, a sedating antihistamine, including brand names such as Aleve PM or Benadryl; or a doxylamine succinate, another type of sedating antihistamine, such as Unisom Sleep Tabs. These are considered temporary solutions, generally limited to occasional use or no longer than two weeks. They also should not be taken with alcohol and there may be other side effects too. Talk to your doctor to make sure you are not contraindicated for these products.)
- dietary supplements (e.g., melatonin is a hormone that helps regulate your circadian rhythm and harmonizes your sleep cycle. Although your body produces melatonin, melatonin dietary supplements may help with jet lag and sleep support. Some herbal supplements, such as kava or valerian may have a calming effect that could help you relax and sleep better. Even “natural” products may have potential side effects or may not interact well with other supplements or ingredients you are taking. Talk with your healthcare practitioner for advice.)
- lifestyle changes (e.g., practice meditation or yoga; avoid high intensity exercise at least two hours before going to sleep; go to bed and wake up at the same time every night and day to help your body establish a routine; shut off your phone and other devices at least an hour before you’re ready to sleep. These are just some of the lifestyle recommendations that experts may suggest as a first line of action for someone having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep.)
And, yes, like everything else about your health, diet is an important component in good sleep practices. When it comes to good sleep, making sure you are not falling short in key nutrients may be extremely important.
How Does What You Eat Impact How You Sleep?
It’s not just having too much coffee or alcohol that can make it difficult for you to fall asleep. Some research shows that your food choices throughout the day can impact your sleep patterns through the night. For example, one study showed that inadequate fiber intake, too much saturated fat and higher sugar intake was linked with study participants waking up more during the night and, in general, getting lighter, less restorative sleep. Read more here.
There are also a number of nutrient/vitamin deficiencies that can affect sleep. Michael Breus, Ph.D., is known as The Sleep Doctor, and in today’s blog, we are relying heavily on his knowledge. For example, this sleep expert advises that some research on omega-3 (DHA, specifically) suggests the fatty acid may improve your sleep quality and help you fall asleep faster. On the other hand, low levels of omega-3 DHA may result in a melatonin deficiency, a potential sleep-related issue because melatonin helps regulate your sleep.
Other research found that low levels of omega-3 DHA are linked to greater severity of obstructive sleep apnea, a serious sleep-related condition. There is also a connection between low omega-3 DHA levels in pregnant women and poor-quality sleep. Some studies found that greater consumption of DHA while pregnant is associated with stronger sleep patterns in newborns. Children’s sleep, too, may benefit from omega-3s, with some research finding better sleep length and quality linked to omega-3 fatty acids.
There are other vitamins that may impact your sleep—especially if you’re not getting enough of them. Vitamin D for example. There’s growing interest among scientists as to the benefits of vitamin D—and the consequences of inadequate D levels—when it comes to sleep issues. Low levels of vitamin D and vitamin D deficiency have been connected to a lack of sleep and poor sleep quality in some populations. And, although more research is needed, several recent studies have connected vitamin D deficiency with the risk, and severity, of sleep apnea.
Vitamins E and C are two powerful antioxidants for which research shows not only potential benefits for sleep problems, but that low levels or deficiencies may be connected with some of those sleep problems. For example, people with sleep apnea often also have low vitamin E levels. A 2009 study found that a combination of vitamin C (100 mg) and vitamin E (400 IU) taken twice daily reduced the interrupted breathing episodes that are a hallmark of sleep apnea. And the research further showed that this one-two antioxidant combination improved sleep quality and decreased daytime sleepiness. Lower intake of vitamin C has been connected to shorter sleep cycles, more nightly sleep disturbances and an increased risk for sleep disorders. You can read more here.
Can B Vitamins Help with Sleep?
There is some science that shows that they can. But the research is not yet extensive nor are the findings conclusive. Both B6 and B12, in particular, are thought to play a role in sound sleep, in part because both help your body produce serotonin and melatonin. Some of the other B vitamins may also assist in sleep support, thereby making a B-complex vitamin (with all eight B vitamins) a viable choice for all of its benefits, including the potential for supporting healthy sleep.
Let’s focus first on vitamin B6, known as pyridoxine. When it comes to sleep, Vitamin B6 is a worker bee, helping produce serotonin, a chemical that also acts as a hormone and plays a key role in your body for, among other things, sleep quality. Serotonin and dopamine, both neurotransmitters, facilitate how long and well you sleep.
The serotonin in your brain, specifically in the pineal gland, is also needed to make melatonin. And you’ll recall that melatonin is key to regulating your sleep-wake cycles. In addition to helping your body make serotonin, vitamin B6 also helps in the biosynthesis of melatonin. According to the column shared earlier from The Sleep Doctor, a lack of vitamin B6 has been linked to symptoms of insomnia and depression. Sleep problems and depression often go hand in hand, with 75% or more of those suffering from depression also experiencing symptoms of insomnia. In older adults, studies have shown that a lower risk of depression has been linked to a higher intake of vitamin B6.
Of all eight B vitamins, vitamin B12 (cobalamin) may be the best researched for its role in sleep interactions, according to Dr. Breus. Vitamin B12 helps increase the body’s production of melatonin, making it important for regulating sleep-wake cycles. Higher B12 levels have been associated with a lower risk of depression. That makes sense because disruptions in circadian rhythm can be an underlying—and significant—factor for depression.
Those with a vitamin B12 deficiency usually suffer from extreme fatigue and some also experience insomnia. There is not yet consensus on a direct relationship between B12 and its role in insomnia or other sleep quality concerns.
This study on vitamin B12 status in young adult college women (aged 19-30) found no direct relationship between vitamin B12 and sleep; however, in a subgroup analysis, higher vitamin B12 levels were associated with both better sleep quality and a lower use of sleep medications.
Dr. Breus says this: “…the influence of B12 directly on sleep isn’t clear. Some studies show a connection between low vitamin B12 and insomnia, while other studies show higher levels of vitamin B12 are linked to sleep disruption and shorter sleep times.”
This study concluded that three months of a magnesium-melatonin-vitamin B complex supplementation had a beneficial effect in the treatment of insomnia regardless of the cause. The study authors further advised that “the direct relationship between vitamin B12 levels and insomnia has yet to be established.” But they pointed out that vitamin B12 deficiency “is known to be involved with the pathophysiology of depression, which can commonly be associated with insomnia.”
Is it Okay to Take B Complex Before Bed?
It’s probably best to take your B vitamins in the morning as they may give you added energy—something you don’t need when you’re trying to go to sleep. And back to our sleep conversation, if you’re having sleep issues, talk with your doctor, of course. You might also want to start by making some of those lifestyle changes we talked about earlier or looking to your diet to be sure you’re getting the kinds of nutrients that could potentially help support your quest for sound sleep—whether directly or indirectly.
We know that vitamin inadequacies or deficiencies can lead to a lot of issues, including sleep problems. Adding a B complex vitamin, for example, is a low-cost easy way to try to solve a problem. And it’s relatively safe for most people, but you don’t want to take too much. Consider that vitamin B is in your multivitamin, in some of your food, and if you’re adding a B complex or even single B vitamins, you may be getting too much.
But there’s really only one way to know that for sure, and that is to regularly test your levels. Your doctor can order a blood test for B vitamins, and here at OmegaQuant, we offer a number of at-home tests, including one for B12. You can find out more about home-testing here.