Foods for Sleep, Mental Health, and Relaxation Part 1: Oats

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Oats also contribute to mental clarity.

In this first of our three-part series on foods related to the sleep, mental health, and relaxation triad, we will focus on oats. Oats are a great food for many reasons. Three of those, it turns out, include the role they play in helping us get better sleep, have more mental clarity, and ease us into relaxation.

Sleep

Usually, oats are associated with breakfast food. But it turns out, eating them before bed helps you fall asleep. Two characteristics of oats help explain why.

The first is that oats naturally contain melatonin. “For other cereals such as wheat, barley and oats, melatonin was found relatively high.” [1] And “melatonin could regulate human physiological rhythm, alleviate related disorders like jet lag and insomnia.” [2] Many people buy over-the-counter, expensive versions of melatonin in pill form to help them sleep. Oats is a great, natural, alternative if you’re looking to save money.

Secondly, oats, as a grain, contain selenium. And “reduced selenium intake was associated with difficulty falling asleep. Selenium is found in meats, seafood, dairy products, grains and nuts.” [3] The more selenium in the diet, inversely, means that it’s easier to fall asleep. Again, we see another mineral naturally contained in oats. Knowing the minerals in contained in food sources can go a long way to saving on certain supplements.

Mental Health

Oats also contribute to mental clarity. One study

“compared oatmeal and a ready-to-eat cereal that offered similar levels of energy but differed in macronutrient composition. Boys and girls aged 9–11 years showed enhanced spatial memory and girls showed improved short-term memory after consuming oatmeal. Younger children had better spatial memory and better auditory attention, and girls exhibited better short-term memory after consuming oatmeal.” [4]

Oat consumption does not do much directly to affect the brain, though. Instead, it’s important to understand the concept of the gut-brain axis here.

“The gut has been called the mirror of mind-brain function as well as dysfunction in most of the disciplines of internal medicine. In ancient times, Indians were aware of the adverse role of diet on mind-body interactions, which is evident from the following verse from an ancient scripture Bhagwatgeeta: ‘Foods which are bitter, acid, salted, burnt, fried and pungent, give rise to pain, mental stress and diseases’ (3100 BCE).” [5]

Some forward-thinking research has already done a preliminary investigation concluding that

“All the results suggest that AD [Alzheimer’s disease] may begin in the gut, and is closely related to the imbalance of gut microbiota. Modulation of gut microbiota through personalized diet or beneficial microbiota intervention will probably become a new treatment for AD.” [6]

Again, we see

“chronic inflammation and a transformation in gut microbiota through age parallels a decline in cognitive function. As such, the development of therapeutic strategies for diseases characterised by cognitive decline through alteration of the microbiota-gut-brain axis is an appealing possibility, particularly in the context of a global ageing population.” [7]

It’s the gut that oat consumption more directly affects. “The microbiota and gut health are at the intersection of emerging research, particularly when considering the demonstrated and possible health implications of whole grains and dietary fibre that are identified in oats.” 8

Some of the ways oats interact with the gut is that

“oats increase stool weight, speed intestinal transit, modify gut microflora, and serve as substrate for bacteria that produce short chain fatty acids. In vitro fermentation studies show that carbohydrates in oat bran (rich in β‐glucan) are more rapidly consumed by bacteria than carbohydrates of rye and wheat brans (rich in arabinoxylan)...In vivo studies have demonstrated whole grain breakfast cereals (including oats) are more effective than wheat bran breakfast cereal as prebiotics, increasing fecal bifidobacteria and lactobacilli in human subjects. Taken together, these findings demonstrate that consuming oats is beneficial to gut health.” [9]

So oats are great for gut health, which in turn increases mental functioning.

Relaxation

Oats contain tryptophan. “Some common sources of tryptophan are oats, bananas, dried prunes, milk, tuna fish, cheese, bread, chicken, turkey, peanuts, and chocolate.” [10] Tryptophan is converted in the body to serotonin. It’s known that “low brain serotonin levels are associated with poor memory and depressed mood.” [11] Furthermore, “Medicinally oats have been used to… treat insomnia, stress, anxiety, depression and nervous exhaustion.” 12

It’s with tryptophan that we begin to see the interrelation of the sleep, relaxation, and mental functioning triad. Yes, eating oats can promote relaxation, but they also, do to tryptophan and other components, give stress relief and lead to a good night’s sleep.

There are many other food choices that also help us sleep, have more mental clarity, and relax us. Check out part 2 of our series detailing how nuts and seeds also help us function better:

Beyond food, too, things like exercise, meditation, and turning off all electronic devices 1 hour before bedtime can help. What foods or habits work for you? Let us know in the comments below.

References

[1] Meng, Xiao, Ya Li, Sha Li, Yue Zhou, Ren-You Gan, Dong-Ping Xu, and Hua-Bin Li. "Dietary Sources and Bioactivities of Melatonin." Nutrients 9, no. 4 (2017): 367-431. doi:10.3390/nu9040367. p. 370.

[2] Meng, Xiao, Ya Li, Sha Li, Yue Zhou, Ren-You Gan, Dong-Ping Xu, and Hua-Bin Li. "Dietary Sources and Bioactivities of Melatonin." Nutrients 9, no. 4 (2017): 367-431. doi:10.3390/nu9040367. p. 367.

[3] Grandner, Michael A., Nicholas Jackson, Jason R. Gerstner, and Kristen L. Knutson. "Sleep Symptoms Associated with Intake of Specific Dietary Nutrients." Journal of Sleep Research 23, no. 1 (2013): 22-34. doi:10.1111/jsr.12084. p. 27.

[4] Benton, David. "The Influence of Children’s Diet on Their Cognition and Behavior." European Journal of Nutrition 47, no. S3 (2008): 25-37. doi:10.1007/s00394-008-3003-x.p. 31.

[5] Singh, R. B. Cardiovascular Health and Chronomics. New York: Nova Biomedical, 2014.. p. 152.

[6] Hu, Xu & Wang, Tao & Jin, Feng. (2016). Alzheime’s disease and gut microbiota. Science China Life Sciences. 59. 10.1007/s11427-016-5083-9. p. 1

[7] Leung, Katherine, and Sandrine Thuret. "Gut Microbiota: A Modulator of Brain Plasticity and Cognitive Function in Ageing." Healthcare 3, no. 4 (2015): 898-916. doi:10.3390/healthcare3040898.p. 908.

[8] Rose, Devin J. "Impact of Whole Grains on the Gut Microbiota: The next Frontier for Oats?" British Journal of Nutrition 112, no. S2 (2014). doi:10.1017/s0007114514002244. p. S47.

[9] Korczak, Renee, and Joanne Slavin. "Effects of Oats and β-Glucan on Gut Health." Oats Nutrition and Technology, 2013, 299-309. doi:10.1002/9781118354100.ch14. p. 299.

[10] Richard, Dawn M., Michael A. Dawes, Charles W. Mathias, Ashley Acheson, Nathalie Hill-Kapturczak, and Donald M. Dougherty. "L-Tryptophan: Basic Metabolic Functions, Behavioral Research and Therapeutic Indications." International Journal of Tryptophan Research 2 (2009): 45-60. doi:10.4137/ijtr.s2129. p. 45.

[11] Jenkins, Trisha, Jason Nguyen, Kate Polglaze, and Paul Bertrand. "Influence of Tryptophan and Serotonin on Mood and Cognition with a Possible Role of the Gut-Brain Axis." Nutrients 8, no. 1 (2016): 56. doi:10.3390/nu8010056. P. 56.

[12] Mushtaq, Ahmad, .. Gul-Zaffar, A. Dar Z., and Habib Mehfuza. "A Review on Oat (Avena Sativa L.) as a Dual-purpose Crop." Scientific Research and Essays 9, no. 4 (2014): 52-59. doi:10.5897/sre2014.5820. p. 57.