Getting older is always a learning experience as we begin to notice mental and physical changes that can impact day to day living. Some of the most common issues include sleep disturbances, shifting energy levels, poor gut health, increased anxiety, and monthly hormone fluctuations affecting both mood and body. Many times, these symptoms pop up because of deeper underlying health issues, and while these may be debilitating at times, for most people, these symptoms can be improved with more attention to diet and lifestyle. Throughout the next three weeks, we’re going to dive deeper into why these changes are occurring and discuss ways to naturally alleviate the many symptoms through diet and therapeutic approaches.
Evaluating diet and supplement intake is always a great place to start. It’s essential to take a thorough look at your daily eating habits to discover any connections between your intake and your symptoms. Getting general blood work to assess your vitamin, mineral and hormone levels is another first step to discuss with your primary care physician. This will give you a better idea of which specific nutrients in your diet you may be lacking or could supplement.
Many general health recommendations always stress getting plenty of sleep between 7-9 hours/night for weight management, exercise performance and recovery, and brain health, but it’s much easier said than done. Even for those who make sleep a priority, actually falling or staying asleep may seem impossible and for reasons they might not even know! According to the American Sleep Association, about 70 million Americans suffer from sleep disorders with 30% having insomnia. Now, we could dedicate a whole blog post to insomnia, but we’re just going to focus on a few natural ways to improve sleep quality immediately.
If you notice insomnia occurs during certain times of the month, especially during ovulation or right before your period, your fluctuating hormones (estrogen and progesterone) could be the primary culprit. Increasing magnesium intake can combat the effects of these hormonal swings.
Magnesium is an essential mineral that the body needs in large quantities due to its involvement in over 300 chemical reactions in the body. For sleep specifically, magnesium stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system helping us to be calm and relaxed. It also regulates melatonin (our sleep hormone) and binds to GABA, a neurotransmitter that reduces stimulating nerve activity allowing us to feel drowsy.
Some great food sources include:
dark leafy greens (2 cups, 15% RDI)
1 oz dark chocolate (16% RDI)
1 medium avocado (15% RDI)
1 oz cashews, almonds or Brazilian nuts (20% RDI)
1 oz pumpkin seeds (37%)
1 cup black beans (30% RDI)
5 oz salmon (15% RDI)
Even with a healthy diet, it may be difficult to get in enough magnesium to be effective for sleep, or you might not be absorbing enough magnesium due to these underlying causes, which is why supplementing may be a great option. There are many forms of magnesium, but magnesium glycinate is considered the best-absorbed form and gentle on the stomach, making it perfect to take right before bed. Most people benefit from 300mg-400mg per day. Double check with your physician if you’re unsure what dosage to take or if you have any pre-existing health conditions.
Another nutrient to include is amino acid Glycine. Glycine assists with multiple reactions in the body, like transporting nutrients for energy utilization, stabilizing blood sugar, reducing inflammation, building muscle, improving sleep, and strengthening the lining of the gut, just to name a few. While glycine is not an essential amino acid, supplementing can be very beneficial for improving sleep quickly. Supplements come in the form collagen or pure glycine, but there are also many food sources you can get it from as well: gelatin and gelatinous bone broth (using skins, bones, ligaments of poultry, meat or fish), spinach, kale, cauliflower, cabbage, pumpkin, banana, kiwi, chicken, pork, beef, dairy, eggs and fish.
Anxiety is another factor that plays into sleep health, and it impacts the way we think and problem solve during the day. If you haven’t already heard, gut health and anxiety are closely correlated, and by improving the balance of bacteria within the gut, you can alleviate many symptoms of anxiety. The average human gut hosts between 3-5 pounds of living bacteria, so it’s no surprise that this large colony of microbes affects communication throughout the entire body from immune function to brain health.
Omega-3 fatty acids in particular have received significant attention through studies indicating their ability to enhance the diversity of gut bacteria and improve the function of serotonin. Serotonin, a chemical found mostly in the digestive system, helps improve communication between the brain and the rest of the body, affecting mood, appetite, digestion, sleep, memory and social behavior. When serotonin levels are low due to either poor diet, digestive disorders, genetic factors or poor metabolism, symptoms of anxiety and depression can occur. Omega-3 fats help correct imbalances in serotonin levels by improving its movement throughout the body, gut and brain, and thus reducing the symptoms of anxiety.
Food sources of Omega-3 fatty acids are always encouraged, but for relieving anxiety, consistent daily supplement intake is a great addition for long term relief. General recommendations for anxiety specific dosage is between 2,000,-3,000mg/day. A couple of my favorite brands are Nordic Naturals and Carlson. They source from wild caught fish, are tested for environmental toxins and heavy metals, and are in an easy to absorb triglyceride form with balanced amounts of EPA and DHA.
I’m sure you already guessed it, but probiotics and prebiotics are another essential component for improving gut dysbiosis, and mood disorders. Probiotics are live beneficial bacteria and prebiotics are food for probiotics, allowing the probiotics to flourish and keep bad bacteria and yeast from colonizing in the gut. Most of us know where to find probiotics and prebiotics through our diet, but for anxiety specific, it’s important to look closely at the strain of probiotic. The strain tells you the specific effect the probiotic will have on health. For anxiety, these specific strains may be most beneficial for improving symptoms.
Another important nutrient to include in your diet is amino acid L-theanine. L-theanine helps boost levels of serotonin, dopamine and GABA. According to research, taking doses between 50-200mg has been shown to be very effective in causing fast acting calming effects that can last from 8-10 hours. Foods containing L-theanine are most prevalent in green tea, tree nuts, broccoli, banana, brown rice, halibut and mackerel.
Fluctuating energy levels throughout the day can also impact our mood, sleep and productivity. Periods of high energy followed by quick drops are a huge dietary indicator of imbalanced macronutrient intake. Food cravings, irritability and digestive issues like bloating, cramping, constipation or diarrhea are signs our gut is telling us that our diet is off. Eating imbalanced meals rich in highly-processed and low fiber carbohydrates promotes spikes in blood glucose, which is a quick, easily digested and absorbed energy source, but unfortunately, it doesn’t provide sustainable energy. Within an hour you’re left feeling sleepy, hungry and irritated.
The best way to prevent these post meal symptoms is by eating balanced meals and snacks. Every meal should consist of fiber containing carbohydrates, high quality protein and at least 1 oz of heart healthy fat. If you need help building a meal, use this guide as a reference. This formula of eating works because when each macronutrient is eaten together, they help slow down digestion, allowing the body to absorb and utilize the calories, while keeping us fuller longer. This results in more sustainable energy, increased concentration and improved mood.
Another important point to keep in mind is many desserts are high in carbohydrates which can result in an energy rush right before bed. Be sure to keep any late-night treats balanced as well. Try incorporating high fiber fruits like cherries and berries, and dark chocolate instead of ice cream or baked treats.
If you’re still struggling with low energy levels throughout the day, you may be deficient in B vitamins. These water-soluble vitamins help the body convert food into energy and are important in the development of serotonin. Some great sources to include daily are eggs, nutritional yeast, legumes, spinach and collard greens, mushrooms, salmon and sunflower seeds. If you find you’re not getting enough through diet, a B complex supplement is a great way to kick start your body back to normal levels.
Take away points: Magnesium glycinate and glycine are important nutrients for sleep support and can be found in foods and supplements for fast results. Omega-3 fatty acids, probiotics, and L-theanine are beneficial for improving gut health linked to increasing anxiety. Eating balanced meals containing high-fiber carbohydrates, lean protein and heart healthy fats, as well as including foods high in B vitamins help stabilize energy levels throughout the day.
Stay tuned for our next blog post in the wellness series discussing other approaches to improving sleep quality, gut health, anxiety and energy through essential oils, adaptogens, CBD and more!