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Would You Sleep (Better) with the Fishes?
A famous line from “The Godfather” forecast recent findings

04/02/2018 By Kimberly Day and Craig Weatherby

Few things feel as miserable as chronic lack of sleep.

Aside from lowering your quality of life, chronic insomnia promotes some major health problems.

Today’s report on research in this realm turns out to be timely, since March 12, 2018 was Insomnia Awareness Day.

Before we review some of the new research on diet and sleep, let’s quickly review the basics about sleep problems.

Insomnia, by the numbers
Lack of consistently good sleep is all too common among American adults:

  • 30 to 35% suffer brief symptoms of insomnia.
  • 15 to 20% suffer short-term insomnia lasting less than three months.
  • 10% suffer from chronic insomnia, which is defined as sleeplessness that occurs at least three times per week for at least three months.

Obviously, chronic lack of sleep is fatiguing and lowers quality of life, but it also raises your risks for depression, high blood pressure, weight gain, heart disease, inflammation, diabetes, and dementia.

Insomnia is especially insidious when it comes to brain and mental health, causing loss of focus, poor memory, anger, aggression, impaired blood flow to the brain, and less activity in areas responsible for decision making, problem solving, and memory.

Alarmingly, research in sleep-deprived rodents shows that — like something out of a bad horror movie — immune cells in their brains (microglia) generate inflammation and gobble up pieces of the synapses that connect brain cells!

Lack of sleep impairs performance at school or work and is linked to higher risk for errors and accidents.

Americans with insomnia lose about eight days of work annually, costing the U. S. economy about $63 billion annually, with estimates ranging from $15 billion to $92 billion per year.

Television, social media, and websites are filled with ads for prescription anti-insomnia drugs, and the CDC estimates that about four percent of U.S. adults use one of these medications.

However, pharmaceutical sleep aids come with significant side effects and risks, making them undesirable as a first-resort therapy.

Cognitive behavioral therapy can be quite effective and durable, making it a good choice as the first line of treatment.

For mild sleep problems, herbal solutions such as extracts of valerian, chamomile, hops, passionflower, and kava can be pretty effective.

Melatonin is the supplement most often recommended for sleep problems — but long-term use shrinks the pineal gland’s natural production of the hormone, so it should be limited to short-term use.

Sleep problems in children: more common than thought
As the numbers show, sleep problems afflict a great many American adults.

And any parent will tell you that nothing keeps them up at night — literally — quite like children with sleep issues.

But, according to a 2004 survey conducted by the National Sleep Foundation, many children don’t get good quality sleep.

The survey’s results showed that 69 percent of American children suffer one or more sleep disturbance at least a few nights a week.

The survey found that the average amount of sleep among children age 10 or younger falls short of the recommended amounts:

  • Infants (3-11 months) get 12.7 hours vs. the recommended 14-15 hours.
  • Toddlers (1-3 years) get 11.7 hours, vs. the recommended 12-14 hours.
  • Preschoolers (3-5 years) get 10.4 hours, vs. the recommended 11-13 hours.
  • School-age kids are getting 9.5 hours, vs. the recommended 10-11 hours.

While the gaps don’t sound that wide, over time these deficits can result in chronic, low-grade lack of sleep.

And children who don’t get enough nighttime sleep tend to have a harder time falling asleep, get up in the night, and take fewer naps during the day.

Unsurprisingly, lack of sleep impairs a child’s ability to focus at school, lowers their energy levels, depresses their mood — and directly impacts the parents’ sleep as well.

The same Sleep in America poll found that children’s sleep issues cause most parents to fall short of sufficient sleep.

In fact, most parents report getting an average of 6.8 hours of sleep a night, rather than the recommended 8-9 hours.

Fortunately, recent studies in children show that fish-rich diets diminish sleep disturbances, boost brain performance, and can raise IQ scores.

One solution to two challenges: Sleep quality and brain performance
Fish consumption has long been linked to sharper thinking, higher academic performance, and better mental health in adults, adolescents, and children alike.

American researchers wondered whether any of the brain benefits of omega-3s might flow from benefits to sleep quality.

The results of a study in Chinese children suggest that improvements in sleep quality may account for some of the brain and mental benefits of fishy diets.

The team included scientists from the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard Medical School, as well as Capt. Joseph Hibbeln, M.D., a clinical psychiatrist and omega-3/brain expert at the U. S. National Institutes of Health (see 'Captain of the Happier Meal' Gets an Overdue Salute).

In other words, the American scientists wanted to look for any links between fish consumption, better sleep, and sharper focus and thinking in young children.

To probe these possibilities, the American researchers analyzed data collected from 541 school-aged Chinese children during a prior study (Liu J et al. 2017).

The research team sought answers to three questions regarding young children:

  1. Is frequent fish consumption linked to better sleep and higher IQ scores?
  2. Does sleep quality account for any of the association between fish fish-rich diets and better brain performance?
  3. Can the links between fish and better brain function be traced to social or economic factors?

The American scientists had access to data concerning the children’s fish consumption and sleep quality from ages 9 to 11, their IQs at age 12, and socioeconomic variables known to affect performance on IQ tests.

After being adjusted to account for various socioeconomic variables, the results of the American team’s analysis linked frequent fish consumption to both higher IQ scores and fewer sleep issues.

Specifically, children who “always” or “often” ate fish had significantly higher verbal IQ scores, compared with children who “rarely” ate fish.

As the American team wrote, “To our knowledge, this is the first study to indicate that frequent fish consumption may help reduce sleep problems (better sleep quality), which may in turn benefit long-term cognitive functioning in children.”

While we can't be sure that the findings extend to adolescents and adults, that distinct possibility warrants urgent investigation — and fishy diets certainly seem worth trying if you're a teen or adult with sleep problems.

Interestingly, scientists from this team published an earlier study in which they found better brain performance in Chinese kindergartners who ate a substantial breakfast (Liu J et al. 2013).

Taken together, the two studies suggest that, ideally, young children should eat robust breakfasts that frequently include fish.

And that’s not quite the challenge you might think it is, because young tastes are more flexible, and accepting of new foods. You can start by serving children mild white fish such as cod, sole, or halibut, and work your way up to fish with stronger flavors, such as salmon and sardines.

As evidence that kids’ tastes are more flexible than you might think, a video we shot at a Weston A. Price conference shows young children thoroughly enjoying their first experience eating salmon roe (eggs).

Make fish a regular part of meals
Given the proven health benefits of higher-than-average fish consumption, there’s no doubt that we should relish good fish routinely.

Aim for eating fish once a day for three to four days every week. Ideally, choose fatty, omega-3-rich fish, such as salmon, tuna or sardines for at least one or two of those weekly fish meals.

Instead of or in addition to making fish a mealtime habit, take daily fish oil supplements that provide at least 250-500mg or more daily.


Sources

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