A tryptophan-rich breakfast and exposure to light with low color temperature at night improve sleep and salivary melatonin level in Japanese students
© Wada et al.; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. 2013
Received: 10 May 2013
Accepted: 13 May 2013
Published: 25 May 2013
Epidemiological studies in Japan have documented an association between morning type and a tryptophan-rich breakfast followed by exposure to sunlight in children. The association may be mediated by enhanced melatonin synthesis, which facilitates sleep at night. However, melatonin is inhibited by artificial light levels with high color-temperature common in Japanese homes at night. In this study, we investigated whether a combination of tryptophan-rich breakfast and light with low color-temperature at night could enhance melatonin secretion and encourage earlier sleep times.
The intervention included having breakfast with protein- and vitamin B6 - rich foods and exposure to sunlight after breakfast plus exposure to incandescent light (low temperature light) at night (October-November, 2010). The participants were 94 members of a university soccer club, who were divided into 3 groups for the intervention (G1: no intervention; G2: asked to have protein-rich foods such as fermented soybeans and vitamin B6-rich foods such as bananas at breakfast and sunlight exposure after breakfast; G3: the same contents as G2 and incandescent light exposure at night). Salivary melatonin was measured around 11:00 p.m. on the day before the beginning, a mid-point and on the day before the last day a mid-point and on the last day of the 1 month intervention.
In G3, there was a significantly positive correlation between total hours the participants spent under incandescent light at night and the frequency of feeling sleepy during the last week (p = 0.034). The salivary melatonin concentration of G3 was significantly higher than that of G1 and G2 in combined salivary samplings at the mid-point and on the day before the last day of the 1 month intervention (p = 0.018), whereas no such significant differences were shown on the day just before the start of the intervention (p = 0.63).
The combined intervention on breakfast, morning sunlight and evening-lighting seems to be effective for students including athletes to keep higher melatonin secretion at night which seems to induce easy onset of the night sleep and higher quality of sleep.
Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that can be absorbed exclusively from meals in humans. It is metabolized via 5-hydroxytryptamine (serotonin) to melatonin by a series of 4 enzymes in the pineal body [1, 2]. Serotonin is known as a precursor to melatonin. A lack of serotonin causes depression, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, sleep disorders and eating disorders  and induces aggression, anxiety/aggression-driven depression, impulsive behavior and suicidal attempts [4, 5]. Serotonin thus has a strong relationship with mental health. In the past two decades, serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) have come to be widely used for the treatment of affective disorders including depression, although  there are controversies whether SSRIs are effective or not for the treatment of depression in children and adolescents because of the shortage of coincident scientific evidence of SSRIs for young humans.
Exposure to sunlight in the daytime appears to trigger synthesis of serotonin in the pineal body . This action is hypothesized to occur mainly in the morning hours, because the amount of tryptophan consumed with supper has neither significant effects on Morningness-Eveningness (M-E) scores nor an effect on sleep habits, as shown by another study on young Japanese children performed in 2005 .
Melatonin is synthesized in the pineal body of the hypothalamic area and secreted at night. Melatonin level in the serum can be well and positively correlated with that in the saliva [9–12]. Secretion of melatonin exhibits circadian rhythms and is suppressed by bright light at night [13, 14]. Even room lights such as fluorescent lamps can attenuate melatonin excretion duration at night . Evening lighting conditions are also said to affect circadian rhythms [16, 17] and mental health in mice . Tryptophan intake at breakfast is effective for the onset and offset of sleep in young children . Moreover, questionnaire surveys showed that young children exposed to sunlight for more than 30 minutes after having sources of protein at breakfast are more morning-typed than those exposed for less than 30 minutes , and that the more young children take in vitamin B6 at breakfast, the more they exhibit morning typology .
Although these findings imply that morning tryptophan and vitamin B6 intake and following exposure to sunlight would promote synthesis of serotonin in the daytime and further to melatonin at night, it is difficult to test the hypothesis only with questionnaire studies. Moreover, this melatonin synthesis might be inhibited by exposure to short-wave (blue) light including light emitted from fluorescent lamps. This hypothesis cannot be tested by questionnaire work and would require an intervention field experiment. An intervention field experiment for was thus performed on university students to test the hypotheses.
All participants were asked to keep a sleep diary throughout the 30 days of the intervention period, which was October-November in 2010. The sleep diary involved the question, “How was the depth of your last night’s sleep?” to which participants answered every morning. The choices for answer were “deep”, “relatively deep”, “relatively shallow” and “shallow”.
Illumination value (Lux) of all subjects in the third group (G3)
Standing under the light*
Sitting as usual#
Estimates of the extent to which subjects in groups G2 and G3 carried out the intervention
Question: On a scale of 0 to 100, how would you estimate your confidence in your response? The question is “To what extent did you carry out this intervention program during this one month intervention period?
1. Estimate for the whole protocol. (G2, G3)
2. Estimate for “taking protein-rich and Vitamin B6-rich foods at breakfast”. (G2, G3)
3. Estimate for “exposure to sunlight after the breakfast”. (G2, G3)
4. Estimate for “exposure to low color temperature light emitted from incandescent bulbs at night". (G3)
The salivary melatonin was measured of 10 subjects which were randomly selected from each group because of financial limitation for the chemical analysis (30 participants in total) three times: the day before the start of intervention, at the mid-point (two weeks past in the intervention) and the day before the last day of the intervention. Participants were asked to extract their own saliva at around 23:00 and keep it in a freezer. They turned off the lights when they went to bed (ranging from 23:00 to 2:00).
The saliva samples were collected around 23:00 with cylindrical cotton (1 cm diameter, 3 cm long) which was put under the tongue for 3 min. The saliva samples were kept frozen at −25°C until analysis for 1 or 2 weeks. After centrifugation (1000 × g for 5 min), melatonin concentrations in the saliva samples were determined using an ELISA kit (Direct Saliva Melatonin ELISA, Bulmann, Switzerland).
For the statistical analysis, the “implementation rate” was defined as how many days participants had a protein-rich food (1 point) and Vitamin B6-rich food (1 point) at breakfast and, further, exposed to sunlight for more than 30 min after breakfast (1 point). Participants reported how many minutes they were exposed to low-color temperature lights during the 30 intervention days. The 30-day-long intervention period was divided into 3 parts (FWP: First week period, MP: Medium period of 16 days, LWP: Last week period). The “high implementation group” was defined as 50% participants who marked higher implementation rate in both breakfast contents and exposure to sunlight after breakfast (G2 and G3) and also were exposed to longer hours when they were exposed to the low temperature lights each night (G3). The other 50% participants group was defined as “the low implementation group”.
The software used for statistical analysis was SPSS 12.0 J for Windows (SPSS Inc., Chicago, IL, USA). χ2-test was used for categorized variables and Mann-Whitney U-tests was used for ranked variables. Pearson’s correlation analysis was performed to test the relationship between two numerical variables.
Before the beginning of the study, participants received a full explanation with the code of the guideline for a study targeting humans , including that the results of the study would be used only for academic purposes, and all participants completely agreed to participate in the study.
Sleep diary data and salivary melatonin concentration during the 30 days of the intervention
Several parameters before and after the intervention period
There was a significantly positive correlation between the implementation satisfaction index (Maximum score: 100, Table 2) and the regularity of time to take breakfast and supper (Kendall tau-b test: breakfast, r = 0.058, p = 0.038; supper, r2 = 0.057 p = 0.036).
There was a significant positive correlation between the number of nights when participants were exposed to incandescent light during the month-long intervention and the regularity index of meal time, not only for breakfast, but also for lunch and supper, just after the intervention (Kendall tau b-test: r = -0.574, p = 0.007, r2 = 0.146, p = 0.084, r2 = 0.215, p = 0.029). Participants who ate breakfast more frequently for one month after the intervention showed a lower frequency of having late night snacks during that month (Kendall tau-b test: r2 = -0.142, p = 0.003) than those who ate breakfast less frequently.
This study showed that a triple intervention concerning breakfast content, sunlight exposure after breakfast and exposure to low temperature light emitted from incandescent bulbs is a powerful method for inducing secretion of high amounts of melatonin by the pineal gland in human adults. Underlying mechanisms can be hypothesized to consist of two components. The first is that serotonin synthesis from tryptophan taken at breakfast may be enhanced by the exposure to sunlight just after taking breakfast. The second is that the high potential of melatonin synthesis based on the high serotonin synthesis in the pineal during daytime might be available due to the night exposure to the “low temperature light” emitted from incandescent bulbs. Although many reports have shown that melatonin secretion is suppressed by light emitted from fluorescent lamps including short wave length (with around 460 nm of wave length) components [25–27], and especially short wave length light [27–30], this study newly implies that the combined behaviors of modifying breakfast content, receiving sunlight exposure and receiving exposure to low color temperature lighting at night can facilitate achievement of high plasma melatonin at night in humans.
Melatonin, a hormone secreted from the pineal gland, causes the core body temperature to decrease and induces sleep [31–33]. High plasma melatonin levels at night may play an important role in sleep onset and sleep quality . In this study, the longer time participants spent under incandescent lights at night, the significantly higher scores they marked to feel deep sleep. This better sleep quality might be due to high plasma melatonin levels.
This intervention study supports the hypothesis that the triple intervention of having sources of tryptophan and vitamin B6 at breakfast, following up breakfast with exposure to sunlight and the exposure to low temperature lights as night lighting can stimulate the synthesis of serotonin and succeeding melatonin synthesis at night and that these hormones work as natural anti-depression drugs and/or natural sleeping pills and make students more-morning typed and improve their mental health.
A limitation of this study as a “field intervention experiment” is that we did not include a control group with low-tryptophan breakfast, sunlight exposure, and exposure to low temperature light to find out the importance of the intake of tryptophan at breakfast for the mechanism of tryptophan-serotonin-melatonin pathway more clearly. This study was not a “physiological experiment” to set up several experimental groups and control all the environmental conditions, and such experiment remains to be conducted in the future. Another limitation of this study is that it was performed only with men, whereas the inclusion of participants from a female sports club could add important data on gender differences in response to breakfast modulation and the change in lighting at night.
Written informed consent was obtained from the participants for publication of this report and any accompanying images.
We would like to sincerely thank all participants and all staff who supported this epidemiological study. This study was financially supported by Academic Supporting Award by President of Kochi University (2009-2012: To T. Harada), Academic Supporting Award by Dean of Faculty of Education, Kochi University (2008-2009: To T. Harada) and awards from the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (Award No. 22370089: To T. Harada, Award No. 23-10971 to K. Wada) (2011-2014).
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