How Diet can Affect Melatonin Production and Circadian Cycles + Recipes

By: Connor Dawedeit

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A staggering number of modern Americans are not getting enough sleep. About 30%, or 40.6 million individuals, sleep for less than 6 hours per night, whereas 7-9 hours of sleep per night are recommended for healthy adults 1. This phenomenon can be attributed to late-night shifts, longer work days, and lengthy commutes. Not only does this disturb sleep patterns, but it leaves less time for everyday non-work-related tasks that should be taken care of during a time when an individual ought to be preparing for sleep. Research has also indicated that the blue light from electronic screens and indoor lighting may affect the body’s ability to regulate sleep patterns 2,3.

One of the primary affecters of circadian rhythms (24 hour patterns of bodily functions) is the neurotransmitter melatonin, which is secreted from the pineal gland in the brain. It functions as an internal signal to the body during evening hours and preparation for sleep. Endogenous melatonin secretion increases in the late evening, hitting a peak in the early morning (2:00-4:00 A.M.) before returning to relatively low daytime rates 3. Disturbance to the circadian rhythms of the body is considered a risk factor for many health complications, such as cardiovascular disease and obesity3. Even worse, sleep deprivation poses a serious public health issue; sleepy commuters may cause over 1,500 deaths and around 40,000 injuries in automobile accidents each year, according to the National Department of Transportation 4.

Studies examining dietary effects on melatonin secretion and circadian rhythm is somewhat limited, and studies using rodent models are far more common than human clinical trials. Animal studies, however, have provided insight into how certain foods may affect physiological melatonin levels. Nutrients such as folate, vitamin B6, zinc, and magnesium act as cofactors for enzymes in the melatonin synthesis pathway, in which tryptophan is converted to serotonin and serotonin into melatonin. Deficiencies in folate, magnesium, and zinc have resulted in decreased serum melatonin levels in rodents, while levels increased with supplementation with zinc and/or vitamin B6 3. Another rodent study demonstrated that a diet deficient in omega-3 fatty acids, which are highly concentrated in the pineal gland, resulted in decreased nighttime melatonin synthesis, an effect which was reversed upon supplementation with DHA (an omega-3 FA) 3.

The relevance of these nutrients to melatonin secretion has not been sufficiently demonstrated in humans, although research has elucidated some dietary effects. All plant-based foods contain varying small amounts of melatonin, and some contain tryptophan 3. Including more vegetables in one’s diet (particularly those that are green and yellow colored) increases urinary excretion of 6-SMT, a byproduct of melatonin excretion in humans 3. Meat, although it contains tryptophan, induced a significant decrease in melatonin secretion 3.

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The milk of all mammals contains melatonin, although no evidence suggests that it produces a physiologically beneficial response in human beings. However, high melatonin concentrations are common in milk produced in the evening, and it is hypothesized that this serves to induce sleep in mammalian infants 3. Therefore, further studies of the effects of milk may demonstrate its effectiveness as a sleep aid.

One experiment examined the differences in glycemic index (GI) of two varieties of rice and their effects on sleep onset latency (SOL), or the time between getting into bed and falling asleep. Jasmine rice (high GI) consumed 4 hours before bedtime reduced SOL by several minutes, as compared to low-GI rice and the same high-GI rice eaten an hour before bedtime 5. This phenomenon may be related to the hypothesis that a minimum threshold of bioavailable glucose exists for normal pineal gland function 3.

While certain foods may contribute to a healthy circadian cycle and promote melatonin synthesis and/or supply, not much evidence supports a significant dietary effect in humans. While nutritional deficiencies may affect sleep patterns, such deficiencies are rare in America and other Western countries 3. Healthy sleep behaviors as well as a nutritionally adequate and balanced diet are likely the best methods for maintaining the body’s “internal clock”. One popular method of sleep aid is supplementation with melatonin capsules, which on average do reduce SOL but do not induce a longer sleep 6. These capsules often contain about 10 times the necessary dose of melatonin and soon stop producing any physiological effects 7. Melatonin supplements can help fix disrupted sleep cycles in the short term (due to jet lag or a particularly late night spent working or studying) but are not a long term solution to irregular sleep.

For those who want to eat in a manner that promotes better sleep, plant-based foods and grains are an excellent choice. Rice is not only cheap and nutritious, but it can be paired with almost any combination of ingredients and flavorings. To cook jasmine rice without a rice cooker, use your heaviest saucepan or medium-sized pot with a heavy, tight-fitting lid (lightweight lids can be held down with anything from a brick to your roommate’s copy of Atlas Shrugged). Add 2 cups of rinsed jasmine rice (this is quite a few servings, but refrigerated leftover rice is perfect for making homemade fried rice later), and enough water so that it reaches the most distal knuckle of your middle finger when the tip of the finger is touching the top of the rice. Add a pinch of salt, bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer for about 15 minutes. Then, remove from heat and let it rest (still covered!) for another 10 minutes. For perfect texture and aesthetics, lightly fluff the rice with a fork before eating. Mix the rice with steamed diced carrots, peas, corn, and turmeric powder for a delicious rice pilaf. Or, add soy sauce/tamari, sautéed bell pepper, green onion, garlic, and ginger for an Asian flair. The possibilities are only limited by your creativity, so make a dish best suited for your taste!

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For a rice-and-milk-based dessert, try this rice pudding recipe from allrecipes.com:

Ingredients:

  • ½ cup uncooked jasmine rice
  • ¼ cup sugar
  • 2 ½ cups milk
  • ½ tsp cinnamon
  • ½ cup coconut
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract

Use a double boiler or a pot and a glass bowl that fits snugly on top, and preheat the oven to 300°F. Add all ingredients, minus the coconut, to the top section of the boiler or bowl. Fill the pot on the bottom with about half an inch of water and bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a light simmer. Cook the contents of the top section over the water for 1 ½ hours. Near the end of the cooking, toast the coconut in the oven until it just begins to take on a golden color. Stir the coconut into the rice pudding and serve warm or chilled. (Makes 6 servings at ~175 calories per serving.) http://www.simplyrecipes.com/recipes/rice_pudding/

Refernces:

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2012, April 27). Short Sleep Duration Among Workers — United States, 2010. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 61(16);281-285. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml /mm6116a2.htm
  2. Consumer Reports. (2016, January 14). Why Americans Can’t Sleep. Retrieved from http://www.consumerreports.org/sleep/why-americans -cant-sleep/
  3. Peuhkuri K, Sihvola N, & Korpela R. (2012, July 20). Dietary factors and fluctuating levels of melatonin. Food Nutr Res., (56): 17252. Doi: 10.3402 /fnr.v56i0.17252.
  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2015, September 3). Insufficient Sleep Is a Public Health Problem. Retrieved from https://www.cdc. gov/features/dssleep/
  5. Afaghi A, O’Connor H, & Moi Chow C. (2007, February). Am J Clin Nutr, (85): 426 – 430. Retrieved from http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/85 /2/426.full.pdf
  6. Consumer Reports. (2016, January 5). Does Melatonin Really Help You Sleep?. Retrieved from http://www.consumerreports.org/ vitamins-supple ments/does-melatonin-really-help-you-sleep/
  7. Thomson E. (2005, March 1). Rest easy: MIT study confirms melatonin’s value as sleep aid. Retrieved from http://news. mit.edu/2005/melatonin
  8. Jasmine Rice Pudding with Toasted Coconut. Retrieved from http://allrecipes.com/recipe/171917/jasmine-rice-pudding-with-toasted -coconut/
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