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Good Night Nutrients

Posted on 11 November 2015

Can Nutrition Help Your Child To Get A Good Night Sleep?
Can’t sleep or won’t sleep?  Children’s sleep problems are some of the most common parents face.  The result is not just exhausted children who struggle to learn or concentrate but parents in a permanent state of tiredness themselves.  Research has shown that one key to growth and development in children is a good night’s sleep and that includes the growth and development of the brain.  So poor sleep can lead to multiple problems – short term impact on your child’s performance and energy and longer term problems on their development which could prevent them from reaching their full potential.

Sleep disorders can be triggered by stress and anxiety, but insomnia may also be caused or exacerbated by obesity, depression, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS), low levels of minerals, food allergies, bacterial infections and blood sugar imbalances.

Studies suggest 40% of children under the age of three wake up frequently at night.  Moreover, roughly 1 in 4 school-age children have difficulty getting or staying asleep.  In early childhood and adolescence there is an increase in disturbances of the normal circadian rhythm that can result in a poorly appreciated condition called “Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome” or DSPS.  It has been estimated that about 10% of the cases of insomnia may be due to DSPS.  This involves an alteration of the circadian rhythm that causes the child to shift their pattern of sleep such that they cannot fall asleep usually until some hours after midnight.  It then becomes particularly difficult, for example, for the parent to wake the child up in the early morning for school.

Is your child sleep deprived?
Without sufficient sleep the body shows clear signs of stress – mood and concentration decline, defences drop, magnesium, zinc and vitamin C are used up.  Sleep rejuvenates the body especially in the first three hours of sleep.

Sleep specialists at Loughborough University have carried out tests on brain function when the body is deprived of sleep and found sleepy people have problems finding the right words, coming up with ideas and coping with change.  Lack of sleep can also lead to moodiness and depression. It can also lower immune function.  School aged children need around 9 and 12 hours of sleep at night. One study by Judith Owens of the Brown University School of Medicine showed that TV watching at bedtime esp. when the TV set was in the child’s bedroom was the strongest predictor of poor sleep.

Bacterial infections
Bacterial infections or parasites can affect enzymes involved in the degradation of tryptophan which the body converts to serotonin and then melatonin. It can also change immune markers and inflammatory markers which may also lead to agitation and insomniai.  While the frequency of this is not clear bacterial overgrowth in children with digestive symptoms such as diarrhoea or irritable bowel syndrome is around 30-65%ii.  Stool testing via a qualified nutritionist or GP if your child shows a range of digestive symptoms can identify bacterial imbalances or infections.  The introduction of competing probiotic bacteria and substances to help remove the aggravating bacteria, yeast or parasite may be an important treatment for these children.

Chill out minerals
There are a range of minerals that can help the body relax – especially nerves and muscles.  Key minerals are magnesium and calcium and it is interesting to note that stress can deplete both of these.  Other nutrients include B vitamins such as B6 which is needed to produce serotonin and therefore melatonin our sleepy hormones.

Stress and Blood imbalances
Cutting out stress, sugar and stimulants is important.  High cortisol levels at night not only disturb sleep but suppress growth hormone which is essential for growth, repair and development.  If a child is waking in the night this may indicate blood sugar imbalances which can lead to rising cortisol in the middle of the night.  Caffeine and this includes chocolate should be avoided as this has a similar effect.

Food AllergiesSleep apnoea can occur in children who have chronically blocked nose – food allergies can be linked to this and should be investigated.

Sleepy Hormones
Low levels of serotonin and the hormone melatonin can be a factor. Including foods rich in tryptophan can help as this is converted in to the body to serotonin.  Supplements of 5HTP can also be used to help children and adults sleep better.  5HTP is the amino acid our bodies use to make serotonin and melatonin.  Remember too that melatonin levels rise with darkness so make sure there are no lights on in the room either.

Physical Activity
Lack of physical exercise during the day can be useful but don’t let them exercise too late in the evening as the energising effects of all that activity may cause more problems!  Having a calming bedtime routine is important.

For more information see www.advancenutrition.co.uk

i MacKenzie, C.R. et.al. (2007) Role of indoleamine 2,3-dioxygenase in antimicrobial defence and immunoregulation: tryptophan depletion versus production of toxic kynurenines. Curr. Drug Metab. 8, 237–244.

ii Scarpellini E et.al. (2009) Prevalence of Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth in Children with Irritable Bowel Syndrome: A Case-Control Study. Journal of Pediatrics 155(3) 416-420