Everyone has different sleeping habits, but an irregular sleep cycle can be a problem, as it negatively affects your mood, productivity and immune system. A proper night’s sleep isn’t just beneficial for the mind and body; sleep is also beneficial for overall health and daily functionality.
The National Sleep Foundation recommends that individuals who are ages 26 to 64 years old get an average of seven to nine hours of sleep per night. If this time is cut short, the body can’t complete all its healing phases when it comes to muscle and tissue repair, hormone release and energy restoration (1).
The sleep cycle pattern alternates between rapid eye movement (REM) and non-rapid eye movement (NREM) (2). It remains in the four stages of NREM sleep for approximately 75% of the night, and cycles into REM sleep every 90 minutes or so for 25% of the night (1). Not only does the body stick to a sleep cycle pattern, but it also follows its own 24-hour internal clock. A natural hormone produced by the body, known as melatonin, helps signal the brain to enter and exit sleep mode (1).
In addition, both sleep and alertness are affected by brain neurotransmitters, but factors like food, medicine and other stimulants can affect the body’s REM sleep stage (2). For example, caffeinated drinks and decongestant medication can cause insomnia, making it more difficult to reach the deeper stages of the REM sleep cycle (2). On the other hand, when someone does enter deep sleep stages, the sections of the brain that control emotions, make decisions and manage social interactions have the chance to fully restore, allowing us to function properly once we’re awake (2).
Sometimes, a bad night’s sleep is related to a small change in a pre-bedtime routine. But many times, lack of sleep is caused by anxiety, stress or low levels of sleep-related hormones. Research suggests that some natural sleep support supplements may help people drift into a quicker and deeper sleep.
Natural Sleep Support
5-HTP. The body naturally produces 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) as a chemical byproduct of l-tryptophan, a protein building block, but it also can be made into a natural sleep supplement from the seeds of a woody African plant called Griffonia simplicifolia (3). 5-HTP works within the central nervous system and brain to increase the body’s serotonin levels. This neurotransmitter is responsible for regulating sleep, behavior and mood (3). One study suggested that people who tried 5-HTP fell asleep more quickly and slept more deeply than those who did not, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center (4). It’s recommended that people using 5-HTP take between 200 mg and 400 mg to “stimulate serotonin” levels before bedtime (4). Also, people using the natural sleep aid supplement should be aware of side effects such as drowsiness, heartburn and “feelings of fullness” (4).
Chamomile. Regular tea drinkers are likely to appreciate the sleep support and relaxation qualities that come from chamomile. Typically, chamomile doesn’t have side effects, but more research is needed to demonstrate its effects. One study showed rats that were fed chamomile extract fell asleep as rapidly as rats that were given a dose of tranquilizing medication called benzodiazepine (5). However, more research must be conducted to prove chamomile’s sleep benefits. Take note that people with ragweed allergies should be cautious when using chamomile as a natural sleep supplement, and should consult a healthcare provider first (5).
GABA. Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is made by brain cells and supports calm mood and behavior by preventing nerve cells from firing more easily and more often than usual (6). Feeling stressed out and unable to sleep at night? GABA in supplement form may help for this reason. The Denver Naturopathic Clinic explains that people with low GABA levels are more likely to have conditions and disorders linked to anxiety, insomnia, headaches and addiction (6). With that, insufficient GABA levels give people trouble when it comes to falling asleep, feeling restless and tossing and turning throughout the night. The supplement can be taken alone or combined with additional ingredients, but there’s no established dosage just yet (6). People who plan to take a GABA supplement could experience daytime drowsiness since it’s known as a natural tranquilizer (6).
Hops. Hops aren’t just used for beer. This natural ingredient’s other claim to fame lies in its history as a hypnotic herbal remedy used for digestion, sleep, anxiety and more (7). A 2012 study was conducted to gain a better understanding of the ingredient’s effectiveness as a natural sedative. It was tested on a group of quails since the bird’s sleep pattern is quite similar to that of a human’s (7). Researchers separated the birds into groups based on remedy dose. They found that “the group given 2 mg per day of hops extract had the most significant reduction in night activity and the highest improvement in sleep duration” (7). For people interested in using hops as a natural sleep aid, it is suggested that it be used in the form of an herbal tea or capsule, but keep in mind that hops may induce extra sleepiness (8). Also, for optimal impact, experts suggest combining hops with valerian root, another plant-based sleep remedy (7).
Kava. Kava—made from the roots of a western Pacific plant—is known for both its natural anti-anxiety and soothing qualities (9). It’s mostly used to support those with stress-related insomnia (5). Keep in mind that kava might not be the best choice for people who consume alcohol regularly or are already on antidepressant medication (5). The combination of kava, alcohol and antidepressants could cause long-term side effects on the liver (5). Before people start taking kava regularly, it might be beneficial to consult a doctor for more information on its pros and cons.
Melatonin. A natural hormone produced by the body, melatonin can be used to support those traveling across time zones, benefit overall sleep quality and help people fall and stay asleep (5). It can be taken as immediate release or extended release, depending on a person’s sleep cycle needs (5). Melatonin plays a special role in sleep support because rising levels of this hormone in the body signal that it is time to sleep. In fact, levels are often naturally highest overnight and barely detectable during the day. Food-derived sources of melatonin available in supplement form can help support healthy restful sleep in a similar way by helping regulate this natural rhythm.
Valerian root. For more than 2,000 years, valerian root has been consumed to ease anxiety and induce sleep (5). Based on a handful of small valerian root studies, people using the supplement should not take it for more than four to six weeks at a time (5). Whether it’s in the form of a capsule, tablet or extract, valerian root is said to be more effective over time, but there are no established dosages (8). Like other sleep supplements on the market, valerian root should not be combined with alcohol and other sleep aids or antidepressant medications (5).
Think Twice About Prescription Sleeping Pills
The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke states, “At least 40 million Americans each year suffer from chronic, long-term sleep disorders each year, and an additional 20 million experience occasional sleeping problems” (2). Some believe taking a prescription sleeping pill is the simplest way to treat such a frustrating, ongoing problem like insomnia and basically guarantees a night of uninterrupted rest.
However, prescription sleeping pills have side effects that could harm a person’s health if taken improperly. People might become dependent on sleeping pills, making it more difficult to stop taking them completely (10). Also, some individuals have experienced side effects such as sleepwalking and amnesia. In some cases, a sleeping pill might still be active in a person’s system throughout the morning, which can create severe drowsiness (10). WF
Margaret Smith is a freelance writer based in South Carolina.
1. National Sleep Foundation, “What Happens When You Sleep?,” https://sleepfoundation.org/how-sleep-works/what-happens-when-you-sleep, accessed May 10, 2016.
2. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, “Brain Basics: Understanding Sleep,” www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/brain_basics/understanding_sleep.htm, accessed May 10, 2016.
3. U.S. National Library of Medicine, “5-HTP,” https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginfo/natural/794.html, accessed May 10, 2016.
4. University of Maryland Medical Center, “5-HTP,” http://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/supplement/5hydroxytryptophan-5htp, accessed May 10, 2016.
5. WebMD, “Sleep Supplements: Melatonin, Valerian, and More,” www.webmd.com/vitamins-and-supplements/lifestyle-guide-11/natural-good-sleep-tips-on-melatonin-valerian, accessed May 10, 2016.
6. Denver Naturopathic Clinic, “GABA: Gamma-Amino Butyric Acid,” http://www.denvernaturopathic.com/news/GABA.html, accessed May 10, 2016.
7. Progressive Health, “Combine This With Valerian for Better Sleep,” www.progressivehealth.com/hops-can-help-improve-sleep.htm, accessed May 10, 2016.
8. Sleep Passport, “Hops: Great Herbs for Beer. Good Herbs for Sleep,” www.sleeppassport.com/herbs-for-sleep.html, accessed May 10, 2016.
9. Berkeley Wellness, “Can Supplements Help You Sleep?” www.berkeleywellness.com/supplements/other-supplements/article/can-supplements-help-you-sleep, accessed May 10, 2016.
10. Everyday Health, “The Risks of Taking Sleeping Pills,” www.everydayhealth.com/news/risks-taking-sleeping-pills, accessed May 10, 2016.
Published in WholeFoods Magazine August 2016