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nutrient deficiencies nightmares: woman hiding in bed

New Research: Falling Short On Two Major Nutrients Linked To Nightmares

Sometimes, the reason behind a nightmare is painfully obvious. For instance, you have a major work deadline looming and you dream of your computer eating all of the project files. Other times, though, the horror film screening in your head feels completely unexplainable—in which case the mystery of it all becomes even more unnerving than the nightmare itself.

Well, research might have just pulled the curtain back on at least some of your otherwise incomprehensible bad dreams: nutrient deficiencies! A study recently published in the journal Research in Psychotherapy suggests that insufficient calcium and vitamin D could be related to bad dreams.

  • ABOUT OUR EXPERTS: Jenna Volpe, R.D.N., L.D., C.L.T., is a functional dietitian. Nicole M. Avena, Ph.D., is a nutrition lecturer and assistant professor of neuroscience at Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

The Research

The study analyzed the relationship between vitamin D and calcium with nightmares, specifically among people who experience pain in their muscles, bones, ligaments, tendons, or other soft tissues (who are statistically almost always vitamin D deficient). Researchers divided study participants into two groups: one that suffered from musculoskeletal pain (and thus was likely low in vitamin D) and one that did not. All participants completed self-assessment questionnaires to track their musculoskeletal pain, frequency of nightmares, and daily calcium intake. They also provided blood samples to measure their vitamin D levels. 

Interestingly, the researchers found that, in addition to having a higher prevalence of vitamin D deficiency, participants who reported suffering from musculoskeletal pain also had a significantly higher prevalence of nightmares and low daily calcium intake. This suggests a link between low levels of these important nutrients and sleep-disrupting dreams.

To health professionals, this actually makes a lot of sense. “Our brain and nervous system rely on all different types of nutrients from food for proper structure and function,” says functional dietitian Jenna Volpe, R.D.N., L.D., C.L.T. “Specifically, our nervous system activity relies on micronutrients like vitamin D, calcium, magnesium, and other vitamins and minerals to fire on all cylinders and function optimally.” 

Vitamin D, Sleep, And Nightmares

You’ve heard plenty about vitamin D by now—and it has multiple functions that impact sleep quality and mental well-being (which can influence sleep quality and nightmares).

For one, vitamin D helps to maintain adequate calcium and phosphate concentrations, explains nutrition lecturer Nicole M. Avena, Ph.D., assistant professor of neuroscience at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. In addition to allowing for bone mineralization, this mineral balance also influences brain function, which requires calcium homeostasis.

Read More: 10 Easy Steps To Busting A Bad Mood

Vitamin D also impacts mental health by influencing the activity of neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and glutamate, Avena shares. It even possesses antioxidant properties that can support mood and mental well-being. 

More directly on the sleep end of things is vitamin D’s relationship to melatonin. “Vitamin D plays a role in sleep regulation through its involvement in the pathway of melatonin production,” explains Avena. As you probably know, melatonin is the hormone released by the brain to assist with our circadian rhythm, the internal clock that helps us shut down and rest at the right time. 

Calcium And Mental Well-Being

You know calcium is essential for bone health, but what you may not know is that it’s important for the brain, too.

“Calcium regulates neurotransmitter synthesis and release in the body, and thus plays an essential role in the activation of neurons and mood regulation,” Avena says. One of these calcium-dependent neurotransmitters: serotonin, the “feel-good” chemical known to produce a sense of ease and well-being.

As such, when you’re low on the mineral, issues pop up. “Whenever calcium is dysregulated, it can cause the neurons in your brain to fire off electrical impulses that can increase risk factors for psychiatric diseases like depression,” Avena says. Missing out on the mineral can have a surprising impact on mental health—and a potential spill-over effect on your sleep quality.

Frequent Nightmares? Get More Vitamin D And Calcium

Clearly, there are a few tethers between calcium, vitamin D, sleep, and mental well-being (as well as the resulting potential for nightmares). Given the relationship between these nutrients in the body—and how they each impact brain function—it’s not terribly shocking that low levels could impact mood and sleep in a way that contributes to terrible dreams.

If you experience recurrent nightmares, ramping up your intake of both vitamin D and calcium could be a worthy cause.

Since both vitamin D and calcium are found in dairy products, science communications consultant Megan Meyer, Ph.D., recommends prioritizing foods like dairy milk, yogurt, and cheese as efficient ways to incorporate these micronutrients into your diet. “For reference, one cup of one percent milk has 98 IU of vitamin D, translating to about a quarter of the daily recommended amount,” she says. “That same cup also provides 305 milligrams of calcium, which is nearly a third of the recommended daily amount.”  

Read More: 7 Nighttime Snacks That Won’t Mess With Your Sleep

Additionally, make sure you’re getting outside and exposing yourself to direct sunlight—a surefire way to get those vitamin D levels on the up and up. “​​This practice has also been shown to help with rebalancing and optimizing your circadian rhythm, which is responsible for regulating serotonin and melatonin production at the right times,” says Volpe. Too little sunlight plus exposure to the blue light of technology (especially in the evening) can dysregulate these compounds and negatively impact sleep.

If you struggle to get enough vitamin D via food and spending time outside, consider a vitamin D supplement. “Taking vitamin D3 (the active form of vitamin D) versus vitamin D2 (which is often found in supplements and fortified foods and drinks) is ideal because it doesn’t need to be converted by the body,” says Volpe. This way, you’ll reap the maximum benefits from the addition to your routine.

Calcium supplementation can be a little more complicated, so if you struggle to get enough via food alone, keep a few guidelines in mind. First, track your intake (an app like MyFitnessPal makes this easy!) to gauge just how much you might need to supplement with to fill any gaps. From there, consider splitting that total up into a few smaller doses throughout the day—and consider pairing them with your vitamin D—to boost absorption.

Since calcium can compete with other minerals, excess can contribute to serious health issues, and supplements may interact with common medications, both Avena and Volpe recommend checking in with a dietitian or your doctor when thinking about adding calcium supplements to your routine.

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