Students across the world pile into classrooms each year for a myriad of different reasons. K-12 students are most-commonly found at their desks due to societal expectations legal requirements, while college students are often driven more by personal reasons. School plays a huge role in our lives, and consumes a major portion of our daily routine during the most critical developmental years. Being mindful of several health concerns such as healthy sleep habits and proper nutrition can help ensure our academic successes don’t take away from our ability to enjoy life to its fullest potential. Science has also understood such practices to help improve overall academic performance as well. Below you’ll find a brief overview of some research related to the importance of sleep in academic performance, as well as some nutritional recommendations for supporting such quality sleep cycles.
Healthy Sleeping Habits
One of the most common issues among students of any age is in maintaining a healthy sleeping schedule. Younger students are trying to cram all the recreation they’ve been robbed of during their school day into the late hours of the evening, and college students often are required to study long hours. Either case puts students in a position to be at-risk for developing symptoms of sleep deprivation. A 2011 study found that students that received less than 7 hours of sleep per night, on weekdays or weekends, on a long term basis were noted to have significantly-lower performance scores . This was scored on a B or better and C or lower scale, and found students receiving less than 7 hours of sleep per night on weekdays or weekends were more likely to perform in the C or lower category. Another risk factor identified by this research team was waking before 6:30am, suggesting that later start times might help reconcile this issue.
The foods that we eat also play a major role in the quality of our sleep as well. Learning a bit more about integrating sleep-supportive nutrition into one’s diet may help to support better sleeping habits, and thus academic performance
In addition to simply sleeping too few hours, practices such as sleep during an unfavorable circadian schedule, waking frequently, and presenting with signs of insomnia such as daytime sleeping. While academic performance was the primary investigation of this study, other research suggests that proper sleeping habits are associated with greater overall health and longevity . All-cause mortality risk factors known to be seen in increased amounts in circumstances of poor sleep include inflammation, increased oxidative stress, accelerated mitochondrial decline, and cellular senescence. Sleep is an important facet of our lives where our bodies are able to repair from the day before, and prepare for the next to come. The foods that we eat also play a major role in the quality of our sleep as well. Learning a bit more about integrating sleep-supportive nutrition into one’s diet may help to support better sleeping habits, and thus academic performance.
Healthy Nutritional Habits
Students are often put in positions driven by convenience. They are able to exercise when allowed, and they are able to eat what is provided. School cafeterias among public schools are notorious for offering substandard nutrition options. In the United States, the USDA maintains a set of nutritional and quality guidelines to help dictate the foods provided to students . This set of guidelines is maintained with consideration for a National scope, and has little impact on an individual basis. That’s to say; students that need to eat less carbs aren’t going to get an email from the USDA advising them so. State Educational boards would be lucky to see as much. Science is slowly illuminating the deep connection between diet and health on a much deeper level than just advising people to eat salads if they need to lose weight. Individual-specific diets have seen a surge in popularity in recent years, and many can offer advantages to students (anyone really) over the long term. Specific to student health however, certain food types are known to better support natural energy levels, healthy focus, and in some cases even support natural sleep cycles. Below are a few such foods to consider when investigating dietary means of supporting natural sleep patterns.
High Quality Protein Sources
Protein is one of three so-called macro¬-nutrients that our body depends on to support many vital processes. Proteins from foods like meats, nuts, and some fruits and vegetables are used to synthesize amino acids. These smaller compounds are like the building blocks that our bodies use to create new structures and make new compounds like neurotransmitters. The amount and quality of protein in one’s diet has been shown, in animal studies at least, to greatly affect the balance of neurotransmitters known to promote healthy sleep patterns . The recommended daily allowance for dietary protein intake is between .9 grams per kilogram of body weight and .7 grams per kilogram—depending on several factors such as age and gender . For those on diets, or suffering from food-related issues such as allergies or food intolerances, sometimes meeting this daily goal can become an issue. In such cases as these, quality protein supplements can help fill nutritional gaps. Students looking to ensure they’re getting ample enough protein should always consult with a licensed nutritionist or health professional to help them better understand personal nutrition.
Foods That Support Neurotransmitter Production
In general, protein helps support natural sleep/wake cycles through the maintenance of healthy neurotransmitter levels. Quality protein powders are useful as well, but neither of these two options will provide a complete dietary source of sleep-promoting compounds such as serotonin and melatonin precursors. Meats like Turkey are often renowned for containing high levels of Tryptophan, which is a serotonin precursor. The truth is, turkey is only as effective as any other meats in helping provide tryptophan necessary to neurotransmitter production. In addition to these compounds, other food-derived compounds that are directly related to promoting healthy sleep habits are Gamma Aminobutyric Acid (GABA), potassium, pyridoxine (Vitamin B6), L-Ornithine, and magnesium. These types of compounds can be found among foods such as whole grains, maca, asparagus, lettuce, cherries, walnuts, and milk . While eating these foods won’t ensure a better night’s sleep, they contain many natural compounds listed above that current science understands to be very involved in such restorative sleep.
Putting Everything Together
Students are put under enormous pressures to meet tight deadlines and over perform to stand out among their peers. Over-testing, early start times, and work overloads all contribute to added stress on students. The human body relies on healthy and restorative sleep to help repair the body from the damages of stress such as these demands, and suffers greatly when sleep deprived. Science has shown that students not getting adequate amounts of sleep on a regular basis are most-often seen to underperform. Working to establish and maintain a healthy study schedule and sleep schedule can help, but sometimes other things may cause issue. Making strong consideration about dietary habits can help support the body’s natural sleep/wake cycles. Foods like protein and supplements like protein powder can help fill out many nutritional gaps that may contribute to sleep-related issues. Ultimately, students should always consider themselves as requiring unique and personalized nutritional balance. Speaking with a licensed healthcare practitioner is always the best option to more fully understand how to eat well and support your most restorative sleeping pattern.
- Ming X, Koransky R, Kang V, Buchman S, Sarris CE, Wagner GC. Sleep insufficiency, sleep health problems and performance in high school students. Clin Med Insights Circ Respir Pulm Med. 2011; 5:71-9. https://doi.org/10.4137/CCRPM.S7955
- Mazzotti DR, Guindalini C, Moraes WA, et al. Human longevity is associated with regular sleep patterns, maintenance of slow wave sleep, and favorable lipid profile. Front Aging Neurosci. 2014; 6:134. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnagi.2014.00134
- United States Department of Agriculture. School Meals.” Food and Nutrition Service, USDA, 8 Aug. 2017, www.fns.usda.gov/school-meals/nutrition-standards-school-meals.
- Minet-ringuet J, Le ruyet PM, Tomé D, Even PC. A tryptophan-rich protein diet efficiently restores sleep after food deprivation in the rat. Behav Brain Res. 2004; 152(2):335-40. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bbr.2003.10.018
- National Research Council (US) Subcommittee on the Tenth Edition of the Recommended Dietary Allowances. Recommended Dietary Allowances: 10th Edition. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 1989. 6, Protein and Amino Acids. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK234922/
- Zeng Y, Yang J, Du J, et al. Strategies of Functional Foods Promote Sleep in Human Being. Current Signal Transduction Therapy. 2014; 9(3):148-155. https://doi.org/10.2174/1574362410666150205165504.
The Organic Newsroom publishes reviews of scientific literature and dietary supplements to help better understand the role of nutrition in a supporting natural healthy balance. Their team is comprised of many ‘Health Nuts’ as they call themselves, and are all focused on better understanding how to maintain a healthy and balanced lifestyle for themselves and others.