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Could Adding More Protein to Your Diet Boost Sleep Quality?

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Sleep is essential for function and survival and not getting enough can increase the risk of chronic health conditions including heart disease, depression and diabetes. How can we make sure we’re getting enough quality sleep? A new study from Harvard Medical School suggests eating more protein may help.

Blocking out the world

A key process for sleep is suppressing sensory arousal, in essence, being able to block out the world around us. The exact mechanisms by which this occurs are not well understood. The new paper outlines that information from different senses is processed through independent mechanisms as we sleep.

Dr. Dragana Rogulja, an associate professor of neurobiology in the Blavatnik Institute at Harvard Medical School, identified a peptide that promotes sensory arousal suppression by genetically screening flies that were hard to wake. Their team developed a system that delivered low, medium or high-intensity vibrations to sleeping flies, which enabled them to identify the flies that experienced the deepest sleep.

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In the genetic screen, the researchers isolated a gene that codes for the peptide CCHa1, which is present in the gut and in the nervous system. When CCHa1 in the gut was depleted, the flies were roused more easily by lower levels of vibration.  

The link to dietary protein

When more protein was included in the diet, more CCHa1 was produced by enteroendocrine cells in the gut. From the gut, CCHa1 travels to the brain, where it initiates dopaminergic signaling that supresses arousal.

“Vibrations weaken the activity of the dopaminergic neurons, which causes the flies to wake up more easily. CCHa1 produced by the gut essentially buffers the dopaminergic neurons against vibrations, allowing the flies to ignore the environment to a greater degree and sleep more deeply,” Rogulja explained.

The team also showed that a higher protein diet in mice improved sleep quality, making the mice less likely to wake in response to mechanical disturbances. Now this connection has been identified, further research can be conducted into how the amount of protein in a person’s diet affects their sleep.

The new study also outlines how the CCHa1 pathway doesn’t affect how easily flies wake in response to changes in temperature, illustrating that different sensory pathways are regulated through different mechanisms during sleep, and increasing protein intake is just one factor that could improve sleep.

Reference: Titos I, Juginović A, Vaccaro A, et al. A gut-secreted peptide suppresses arousability from sleep. Cell. 2023;186(7):1382-1397.e21. doi: 10.1016/j.cell.2023.02.022

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