kris ulland

Your Nutrition Partner

Poor sleep affects roughly 50 to 70 million Americans. Studies indicate that up to 30% of adults in the United States report that they sleep for less than 6 hours each night.

Although it’s a common problem, not getting a good night’s sleep may have severe consequences. Poor sleep can deplete your energy, lower your productivity, and increase the risk of diseases such as high blood pressure and diabetes.

Melatonin is a hormone that your body makes naturally which tells your body when it’s time to head to bed. The production and release of melatonin in the brain is connected to time of day, increasing when it’s dark and decreasing when it’s light. Melatonin production declines with age.

Melatonin is produced by the pineal gland in the brain, but it’s also found in other areas, such as the eyes, bone marrow, and gut. It’s often called the “sleep hormone,” as high levels can help you fall asleep.

Melatonin itself will not knock you out. It works together with your body’s circadian rhythm and lets your body know that it’s nighttime so you can relax and fall asleep easier. The circadian rhythm is your body’s internal clock. It lets you know when it’s time to:

  • sleep
  • wake
  • eat

Melatonin also helps regulate your body temperature, your blood pressure, and the levels of some hormones. The levels start to rise in your body when it’s dark outside, signaling to your body that it’s time to sleep while it binds to receptors in the brain to help reduce nerve activity.

It can reduce levels of dopamine, a hormone that helps you stay awake. It’s also involved in some aspects of the day-night cycle of your eyes.

Conversely, light modulates melatonin production, which is one way that your body knows it’s time to wake up.

There are many factors that may cause low melatonin levels at night:

  • Stress
  • Smoking
  • Exposure to too much light at night (including blue light from computers and televisions)
  • Not getting enough natural light during the day
  • Shift work
  • Aging all affect melatonin production

An analysis of 19 studies on people with sleep disorders found that melatonin helped reduce the time it took to fall asleep by an average of 7 minutes. More importantly, in many of these studies, people also reported significantly better quality of sleep.

Research on melatonin use for specific conditions shows:

  • Circadian rhythm sleep disorders in the blind. Melatonin can help improve these disorders in adults and children.
  • Delayed sleep phase (delayed sleep-wake phase sleep disorder). People with DSWPD have trouble falling asleep at the usual times and waking up in the morning. In this disorder, your sleep pattern is delayed two hours or more from a conventional sleep pattern, causing you to go to sleep later and wake up later. Research shows that melatonin reduces the length of time needed to fall asleep and advances the start of sleep in adults and children with this condition. Talk to your child’s doctor before giving melatonin to a child.
  • Insomnia. Research suggests that melatonin might slightly reduce the time it takes to fall asleep. Melatonin might be more beneficial for older adults who could be melatonin deficient.
  • Jet lag.  Jet lag affects people when they travel by air across multiple time zones. With jet lag, you may not feel well overall and you may have disturbed sleep, daytime tiredness, impaired functioning, and digestive problems. Melatonin can help reduce jet lag by syncing your internal clock with the time change.
  • Shift work disorder. The studies are inconclusive. Trying it is the best to know if it will work for you.
  • Sleep disorders in children. Small studies have suggested melatonin might help treat sleep disturbances in children with a number of disabilities. However, good bedtime habits are usually recommended as an initial treatment. Talk to your child’s doctor before giving melatonin to a child.Sleep problems in children can have undesirable effects on their behavior, daytime functioning, and quality of life. Children with certain conditions, such as atopic dermatitis, asthma, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), are more prone to sleep problems than other children. The list below shows the results of studies using melatonin short-term for children with specific conditions.Anxiety before and after surgery
  • Anxiety before and after surgery. This happens in up to 80 percent of patients. Melatonin supplements appear to be helpful in reducing anxiety before surgery, but it’s unclear if it helps to lower anxiety after surgery.
  • Research suggests that melatonin might reduce evening confusion and restlessness in people with Alzheimer’s disease, but it doesn’t seem to improve cognition.  Melatonin may stay active in older people longer than in younger people and cause daytime drowsiness.

Short-term use of melatonin supplements appears to be safe for most people, but information on the long-term safety of supplementing with melatonin is lacking. A better solution is to add food that are high in melatonin!

Raspberries, bananas, oranges, and pineapples – Bananas also contain healthy amounts of magnesium and potassium, two essential minerals that help prevent wakefulness during the night.

Tart Cherries – Tart cherry juice is one of the best-known sleep aids. Researchers have found that it increases melatonin levels in the body and enhances sleep. Keep in mind that cherry juice is high in sugar. Drinking it nightly could significantly raise your intake of calories. Eating cherries instead of drinking their juice is a healthier way of getting melatonin.

Goji Berries – Produced by a plant native to China, goji berries are known for their anti-aging effects. They are also high in melatonin.

Nuts – Most nuts have a good amount of melatonin. Pistachios and almonds are among the highest. Nuts also are an excellent source of many antioxidants, healthy omega-3 fats, and minerals.

In the United States, melatonin is considered a dietary supplement. This means that it’s regulated less strictly by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) than a prescription or over-the-counter drug would be. In several other countries, melatonin is available only with a prescription and is considered a drug.

Some melatonin supplements may not contain what’s listed on the product label. A 2017 study tested 31 different melatonin supplements bought from grocery stores and pharmacies. For most of the supplements, the amount of melatonin in the product didn’t match what was listed on the product label. Also, 26 percent of the supplements contained serotonin, a hormone that can have harmful effects even at relatively low levels.

Your body likely produces enough melatonin for its general needs. However, evidence suggests that melatonin supplements promote sleep and are safe for short-term use. Treat melatonin as you would any sleeping pill and use it under your doctor’s supervision. Melatonin might worsen blood pressure in people taking blood pressure medications. Melatonin might affect sugar levels. If you take diabetes medications, talk to your doctor before using melatonin.

Melatonin taken orally in appropriate amounts is generally safe. Melatonin can cause:

  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Drowsiness

Less common melatonin side effects might include short-lasting feelings of depression, mild tremor, mild anxiety, abdominal cramps, irritability, reduced alertness, confusion or disorientation.

Because melatonin can cause daytime drowsiness, don’t drive or use machinery within five hours of taking the supplement.

Don’t use melatonin if you have an autoimmune disease.

Melatonin may support eye health, ease tinnitus symptoms, treat stomach ulcers and heartburn, and increase growth hormone levels in young men. Speak with a healthcare professional first if you’re considering melatonin supplementation to help treat any of the conditions mentioned to learn if it’s right for you and whether there are any medication interactions.

If you want to try melatonin, start with 0.5 mg (500 micrograms) or 1 mg 30 minutes before bed. If that does not work, try increasing it to 3–5 mg or follow the instructions on the supplement.

Amaranth

Amaranth is a group of more than 60 different species of grains that have been cultivated for about 8,000 years. These grains were once considered a staple food in the Inca, Maya and Aztec civilizations.

Amaranth is an ancient grain that is similar to quinoa. The small, light tan colored seed is cooked similarly to rice and oats and eaten as a pilaf or porridge. Amaranth is also ground into a flour, making it a dense but nutrition gluten-free baking flour.

Amaranth is considered a “pseudocereal” rather than an actual grain since it’s technically a seed. Other examples of pseudocereals are buckwheat and quinoa; both amaranth and quinoa are from the family Amaranthaceae. Like other cereal grains and pseudocereals, amaranth can be prepared in its whole seed form or ground into flour.

One cup of cooked amaranth contains the following nutrients:

  • Calories: 251
  • Protein: 9.3 grams
  • Carbs: 46 grams
  • Fat: 5.2 grams
  • Manganese: 105% of the RDI
  • Magnesium: 40% of the RDI
  • Phosphorus: 36% of the RDI
  • Iron: 29% of the RDI
  • Selenium: 19% of the RDI
  • Copper: 18% of the RDI

Amaranth is packed with manganese, exceeding your daily nutrient needs in just one serving. Manganese is especially important for brain function and believed to protect against certain neurological conditions.

It’s also rich in magnesium, an essential nutrient involved in nearly 300 reactions in the body, including DNA synthesis and muscle contraction. Amaranth is high in phosphorus, a mineral that is important for bone health. It’s also rich in iron, which helps your body produce blood.

Amaranth has a good amount of lysine, an essential amino acid which helps the body absorb calcium, build muscle, and produce energy.

Amaranth is a much smaller grain than quinoa. Another obvious differentiation is found in the aroma and flavor. Amaranth is much more distinctive compared to quinoa, with a grassy smell and nutty, strong herbal taste.

Cholesterol is a fat-like substance found throughout the body. Too much cholesterol can build up in the blood and cause arteries to narrow. Some animal studies have found that amaranth may have cholesterol-lowering properties. One study in hamsters showed that amaranth oil decreased total and LDL cholesterol by 15% and 22%, respectively. Furthermore, amaranth grain reduced LDL cholesterol while increasing HDL cholesterol. Another study in chickens reported that a diet containing amaranth decreased total cholesterol by up to 30% and LDL cholesterol by up to 70%.

Inflammation is a normal immune response designed to protect the body against injury and infection. Several studies have found that amaranth could have an anti-inflammatory effect in the body. The anti-inflammatory properties of peptides and oils in amaranth can ease pain and reduce inflammation. This is especially important for chronic conditions where inflammation erodes your health, such as diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.

In one test-tube study, amaranth was found to reduce several markers of inflammation. An animal study showed that amaranth helped inhibit the production of immunoglobulin E, a type of antibody involved in allergic inflammation.

Antioxidants are naturally occurring compounds that help protect against harmful free radicals in the body. Free radicals can cause damage to cells and contribute to the development of chronic disease. Amaranth is a good source of health-promoting antioxidants.

One review reported that amaranth is especially high in phenolic acids, which are plant compounds that act as antioxidants. These include gallic acid, p-hydroxybenzoic acid and vanillic acid, all of which may help protect against diseases like heart disease and cancer. In one rat study, amaranth was found to increase the activity of certain antioxidants and help protect the liver against alcohol.

How to Buy

Whole amaranth and amaranth flour can be found in many grocery stores and co-ops. Amaranth be purchased from various online retailers. It’s often found in the bulk aisle.

How to Store

The main challenge with storing amaranth is preventing rancidity, so always store it in an airtight container in a cool place, away from bright light. Whole uncooked amaranth can be kept in the pantry for up to four months and for twice that long in the freezer. Amaranth flour will stay fresh in the pantry for 2 to 3 months and in the freezer for up to 6 months.

How to Cook

Before cooking amaranth, you can sprout it by soaking it in water and then allowing the grains to germinate for one to three days.

It is always better to soak, ferment, or sprout seeds and grains before cooking them to neutralize most of the phytic acid. The amaranth plant has a modest amount of oxalic acid, which should be avoided or only moderately used by those with more serious conditions such as gout, kidney problems, or rheumatoid arthritis.

Amaranth is cooked similarly to rice where it is added to boiling water and cooked until the liquid is absorbed. If making a pilaf, the measurements should be 1 cup amaranth and 1 1/2 cups water; for cereal, 2 1/2 cups of water is needed for 1 cup of amaranth.

  • Add amaranth to smoothies to boost the fiber and protein content
  • Use it in dishes in place of pasta, rice or couscous
  • Mix it into soups or stews to add thickness
  • Make it into a breakfast cereal by stirring in fruit, nuts or cinnamon

Another way to use amaranth is to pop it like popcorn. Add a tablespoon of uncooked amaranth seeds to a hot, dry skillet; the amaranth seeds will pop within a few seconds. Note that amaranth seeds are tiny, and although the popped amaranth will double in volume, even the popped kernels will still be very small.

When added to baked goods or granola, the toasted seeds contribute a unique texture.

Amaranth flour is a common ingredient in gluten-free baking. Since it’s heavy, it should be limited to 1/4 of the total flour in the recipe (by weight), otherwise, the baked goods will be extremely dense. It combines well with almond flour and works nicely as a thickener in soups and sauces.

Homemade Gluten-Free Flour Mix

Terri Gruss

32 Servings

Ingredients

  • 2 cups sorghum flour
  • 2 cups brown rice flour (superfine brown rice flour)
  • 1 1/2 cups potato starch (not potato flour)
  • 1/2 cup white rice flour
  • 1/2 cup sweet rice flour
  • 1/2 cup tapioca flour
  • 1/2 cup amaranth flour
  • 1/2 cup quinoa flour

Instructions

  • Shift each ingredient  into a large bowl
  • Thoroughly mix all ingredients with a large whisk
  • Store mix in a large container, in the refrigerator or a cool dark location.

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