Sleep is a precious commodity these days. Trying to balance a 40+ hour working week with eating, training, meal prep, talking to your family, looking at memes, having a social life and getting 8 hours of sleep a night is a tough one. As a result, sleep often ends up being the thing that gets cut.
If you happen to be experiencing stress from your job or personal life, once you’re in bed you may find yourself lying awake, staring at the ceiling as your precious few hours of shut-eye gradually tick away from you. This is a pretty frustrating situation to find yourself in. So, what natural sleep aids can the world of supplements offer to help you out?
Magnesium is an essential mineral which is found in milk, meat, green leafy veg and a bunch of other food and drink. Interestingly, a surprisingly high number of adults in the UK don’t come close to the recommended daily intake of 375mg Magnesium. When people start becoming deficient, there can be some fairly broad knock-on effects, one of which may be reduced sleep quality. The good news? Whilst it’s early days in terms of human studies, the results so far do seem to suggest an improvement in sleep quality with supplemental magnesium.
A study from Nielsen et al (2010) demonstrated improvements in sleep following supplementation with Magnesium Citrate. 100 adults were assessed in this study, some of whom showed signs of a magnesium deficiency at the start of the study. Seven weeks of supplementation, with 320mg magnesium helped to normalise serum magnesium levels for the deficient subjects, helped to reduce markers of inflammation and helped to improve sleep quality. Winner.
Another study by Held et al (2002) demonstrated a significant increase in slow wave sleep and a significant decrease in the stress hormone cortisol following 20 days supplementation with Magnesium. Interestingly subjects in this study didn’t have a magnesium deficiency but they were over the age of 60, aging tends to be associated with a decrease in sleep quality. Whilst there’s still a lot of ground to cover in terms of human studies, magnesium in the form of our highly-bioavailable Magnesium Bisglycinate could represent a low cost and low risk bedtime supplement.
Well, we can’t sell you Melatonin but we know that it works! Briefly, Melatonin is naturally produced by the body and controls the sleep/wake cycle. Levels of melatonin increase after the sun goes down, letting us know that it’s time to sleep. One of the reasons why it’s so important to avoid electronic devices such as phones and laptops directly pre-bed, is that the bright blue light can interfere with melatonin production. As little as 1mg of supplemental Melatonin can help to reduce the amount of time it takes to fall asleep. Efficient. Melatonin is classed as a medicine in Europe meaning that we’re unfortunately not allowed to sell it. However, the rules in the States are different with regards to this, meaning that melatonin is a very popular inclusion in bedtime protein blends and other supps over there.
Another one that we’re not currently allowed to sell is Valerian (Valeriana officinalis). Whilst Valerian isn’t classed as a medicine, it falls under the category of ‘Traditional Herbal Remedies’ which require a licence to sell. Valerian is one of the better known supplements for sleep and it’s widely available in over the counter products, but to be completely honest, the supporting evidence for improvements in sleep latency and sleep quality is currently lacking. A meta-analysis by Fernández-San-Martín et al (2010) reported no significant difference between supplementation with Valerian and placebo. Now those two are out of the way, let’s get into some supplements that you can pick up a bit more easily.
4) Lemon Balm (Mellissa officinalis)
Now, Lemon Balm is an interesting one. You’ll probably recognise it as the perennial that has a habit of taking over unattended gardens. Whilst this might cause a bit of stress to your avid gardener, if they were to dry the leaves out and ingest them, the gardener in question may feel a bit more relaxed. Lemon Balm has been traditionally used for calming purposes, as a result it’s gathered a lot of interest from researchers looking into anxiety-related insomnia. So, what does the research say with regards to this humble herb?
One of the proposed mechanisms of action for Lemon Balm is that it attenuates the breakdown of Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid (GABA); a depressive neurotransmitter that is naturally produced in the brain. Preliminary research from David Kennedy in the early 2000s reported that supplementation with Lemon Balm Extracts could help to improve self-reported feelings of calmness under simulated stressful conditions. The doses used were as follows:
Kennedy et al (2002): 600mg dried Melissa officinalis herb powder.
Kennedy et al (2003):1600mg dried Melissa officinalis herb powder.
Kennedy (2004): 600mg dried Melissa officinalis herb powder.
Apparently David Kennedy really likes Lemon Balm.
The link to perceived feelings of calmness prompted a further trial by Cases et al (2011). This found that 600mg of standardised Lemon Balm Extract taken on a daily basis for 15 days could help to alleviate mild to moderate symptoms of anxiety. The extract in this study was standardised for rosmarinic acid and hydroxycinnamic acid, two naturally occurring organic acids. The most interesting finding from this study was that symptoms of insomnia were significantly reduced by 42% in a young and otherwise healthy population. This definitely warrants future research and it will be interesting to see if these results can be replicated in a larger study.
Hops and Chamomile
You’ll recognise Hops from beer and Chamomile from bedtime tea. Personally, the former has been known to knock me out more frequently than the latter…
These are interesting supplements and you’ll see them popping up more and more frequently in herbal sleep and anti-anxiety formulas. Both Hops (Humulus lupulus) and Chamomile (Matricaria recutita) currently have sleep-related health claims being evaluated by the European regulatory body.
Let’s tackle hops first. There are a few studies available which show an improvement in sleep quality when subjects consume non-alcoholic beer with dinner. This has prompted further research into the active parts of the hops themselves. Initial human evidence suggests that they may work by a similar mechanism to Lemon Balm and may indirectly aid sleep by acting as a calming agent. For example in a recent study a cohort of young, mildly depressed & stressed but otherwise healthy adults were supplemented with 400mg Hops extract per day for four weeks. This was found to significantly reduce self-reported stress, depression and anxiety scores, along with improved sleep when compared to placebo (Kyrou et al, 2017). As per Melissa officianalis, it’s unclear as to the relationship between supplementation, reduced anxiety & stress with sleep and whether this would be a cause or effect (i.e. would reduced stress result in improved sleep, or would improved sleep result in reduced stress?) One significant point to reinforce before you reach for that beer, is that it’s important to note that all of the studies which show positive effects have been for non-alcoholic extracts and drinks. Whilst boozing will typically send you to sleep, we should stress that this typically won’t lead to a healthy sleep cycle as well as the potential for plenty of health problems down the line.
This plant has been used as an agent for promoting relaxation and sleep for hundreds of years, with Chamomile being one of the most popular ingredients in relaxing herbal teas. Interestingly, research into whether this actually works or not only started relatively recently. Similarly to Hops, there is some promising evidence for the effect of Chamomile on feelings of anxiety, with a couple of exploratory trials reporting reductions in self-reported feelings of anxiety following supplementation. In the first of its kind, Amsterdam et al (2009) observed a reduction in anxiety scores of 61 outpatients with Generalised Anxiety Disorder following 8 weeks supplementation with a standardised chamomile extract.
Getting straight to the point of this article, so far Chamomile has been shown to be equivocal when it comes to sleep itself. Kupfersztain et al (2003) noted an alleviation in sleep disturbances and fatigue in menopausal women following supplementation with a combination of Chamomile and Ginseng. Conversely, Zick et al (2012) reported no significant improvement in sleep latency or quality in individuals with primary insomnia following 28 days supplementation with 540mg of a standardised Chamomile extract.
As with Hops, the exact mechanism of action of Chamomile is not yet known. It’s possible that it is at least in part due to a naturally occurring bioflavonoid known as Apigenin. The Chamomile supplements used in the studies by Amsterdam et al and Zick et al were both standardised to 1.2% Apigenin. This bioflavonoid is thought to produce sedative effects through modulation of GABA receptors. However, the levels of Apigenin required to be effective are typically thought to be higher than those provided by the Chamomile extracts in this study, suggesting there is probably something else at play here too. The conclusion for Chamomile and sleep – interesting and requires more research.
7 & 8) Tryptophan and 5-HTP
Well, it’s only appropriate that I finish this article with something you can currently buy from us!
Tryptophan is an essential amino acid which is typically obtained in the diet from meat and dairy sources. Turkey meat is a particularly good source of Tryptophan, so if you felt the need for a post-Christmas dinner nap last month, it could well be the Tryptophan at work!
Tryptophan has many roles within the body. It is directly used in protein synthesis and is a precursor to many bioactive compounds, including Tryptamine, Niacin, Picolinic Acid, Melatonin and Serotonin (the ‘happy’ hormone). Once ingested it undergoes a series of changes and processes before it becomes one of these end products. 5-HTP or 5-Hdroxytryptophan is a metabolite created as Tryptophan progresses to becoming Serotonin. The thinking is, that as 5-HTP is the direct precursor to serotonin and can’t be shunted into muscle protein synthesis or niacin production, it should therefore be more effective than pure Tryptophan at raising serotonin levels. The Tryptophan metabolism cycle in the body is shown below in Figure 1 by Birdsall (1998).
As far as sleep and relaxation are concerned, both supplements are backed by a decent amount of research. Strangely, most of the research on the effect of 5-HTP supplementation on sleep dates from the 1970’s and 80’s. The results were generally positive in favour of 5-HTP aiding sleep onset and quality, but given the age of the studies I won’t reference them here. One thing that is worth a mention is that a couple of studies from the early 2000’s found that acute supplementation of 200mg 5-HTP was effective at reducing feelings of anxiety and panic in scenarios designed to elicit a panic-response. This was demonstrated both in patients with panic disorder (Schreuers et al, 2002) and in healthy volunteers (Maron et al, 2004).
The effect of Tryptophan on sleep has been the subject of more recent research. On the whole, this looks promising. In a recent large scale dietary study of almost 30,000 US adults, it was found that higher dietary Tryptophan intake was significantly positively associated with sleep duration (Lieberman et al, 2016). The actual requirement of Tryptophan by the body is around 5mg per kg bodyweight per day (350mg for a 70kg male), however higher intakes of Tryptophan from diet and supplementation are common in Western society (up to around 70mg per kg bodyweight per day). As always, correlation doesn’t equal causation, so let’s take a look at a couple of recent studies on Tryptophan on sleep.
Van Dalfsen and Markus (2015) demonstrated a significant improvement in sleep quality following seven days of supplementation with 3g L-Tryptophan. It is worth noting that subjects in this study were predisposed to stress-related sleep disturbances, therefore the results may not be applicable to the general population.
In another study (Fukushige et al, 2014), it was noted that consuming a breakfast rich in L-Tryptophan could increase melatonin secretion at night. Subjects in this study were young and healthy. The increase in melatonin was highest when the high protein breakfast was combined with sitting in bright light during the daytime. Interestingly, there was no significant improvement in sleep quality noted in this study, despite the increased melatonin levels. The total amount of subjects in this study were relatively low, so it’s entirely possible that future studies will find more conclusive results.
Supplemental Tryptophan and 5-HTP are frequently used by consumers with the intention of increasing serotonin levels as well as increasing melatonin release & improving sleep quality. One thing that we would always recommend is to not double up on these supplements, just pick one. We would also strongly advise never to take something like Tryptophan or 5-HTP alongside any medication for depression or chronic anxiety, such as SSRI’s. Having too much serotonin in the brain has some very negative side effects, including death. If you’re at all concerned or confused then we’d strongly recommend speaking with a doctor or healthcare professional before starting supplementation.
With this article I’ve tried to outline the pros and cons of some of the most popular sleep and relaxation supplements. To do this properly this article has had to be written with a fairly science-heavy approach. There’s every chance that this approach has sent you to sleep without the need for supplementation. If this is the case then nice one me, job done.
From personal experience, it’s not a case of a one-size-fits-all effect with these supplements. It’s about finding the supplement(s) and dose(s) that work for you, individually. So, my recommendation would be to see which ones appeal to you the most, do some reading around them and give them a try. Happy snoozing!
About the Author
Jack (MSc Sports Nutrition, BSc Hons Sport and Exercise Science) works within the BULK POWDERS® product team. His role includes all aspects of new product development, from recipe concept and formulation, to website content and legislation.
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