If you’re struggling to get an adequate quantity or quality of sleep, then it’s probably having knock-on effects in just about every aspect of your life. Sleep allows our body to recover from the rigors of the day before and provides the opportunity for us to produce important hormones, heal injuries, synthesize muscle and cement memories and things we learned during the day. Without it, we tend to feel grumpy, groggy and lethargic – which is not to mention all of the long-term negative health effects that sleep deprivation can have.
Thus you might find yourself looking for over-the-counter solutions to your problem. Could you benefit from a sleeping aid like melatonin or valerian root? Let’s take a look at some of the sleep supplements on the market and how they each work.
Melatonin is one of the most popular sleep supplements on the market and can help to improve sleep in quite a potent manner. This is because melatonin is the main ‘sleep hormone’ (or neurotransmitter) in the brain. When you increase melatonin, you make yourself immediately sleepy and also enhance the deepness of the sleep that ensues.
The only problem with melatonin is that it can be a little too potent. For starters, it may leave you groggy and slow in the morning as it remains in the system. What’s more, is that it can cause adaptation and tolerance in the brain, meaning that the brain responds to the heightened levels of melatonin by reducing receptors or scaling back natural production. This means you can end up being reliant on melatonin and gradually needing more and more for a good night’s sleep.
Melatonin should not be your first port of call for better sleep then and if you do use it, it should only be for emergencies when you really need a solid night’s sleep and are struggling to get there naturally. Used only on rare occasions, it can be beneficial.
Some companies sell GABA (gamma aminobutyric acid) in its pure form to be used as a sleeping aid. This is very similar to melatonin, in that it involves directly supplementing with one of the primary sleep neurochemicals. GABA is a naturally occurring ‘inhibitory neurotransmitter’ that reduces activity in the brain. If you find that your mind is racing and overly active as you’re trying to get to sleep, then GABA might be the answer that you’re looking for.
Using GABA can have the same negative effects as using melatonin in theory. But that’s actually not likely, seeing as it is largely believed that GABA cannot cross the blood-brain barrier. That means that while it can be absorbed into your brain, it might not have any effect at all on the brain. Rendering it a pointless waste of money…
Valerian root is a natural herb that is believed to increase levels of GABA produced naturally in the body that will therefore be active in the brain. Because the effects are more gentle than taking a hormone or neurotransmitter directly, it’s also less likely to have addictive qualities. Users report that valerian root is pleasantly sedating and helps to relax the muscles for a better night’s sleep. With that said, there is still some risk of adaptation when using valerian and the effects are likely to be very mild at best. Proceed with caution and scepticism.
Threonate is a particular formulation of magnesium that has recently been found to be highly bioavailable and more effective than other forms of magnesium at increasing levels in the brain. Magnesium has a large number of health benefits and is able to improve nerve cell communication, heart rate regulation and blood sugar level. It also appears to enhance feelings of calm, improve testosterone production during sleep and support neuroplasticity. While not much research has been conducted on magnesium threonate yet, the early reports are promising when it comes to the cognitive-enhancing properties of the mineral (1) and its effect on sleep.
I am currently experimenting with magnesium threonate myself and find that it does appear to help me get into a deeper sleep more quickly than I can achieve without it. Though as with many of these things, it is hard to completely rule out a placebo effect. Unfortunately, magnesium threonate is not terribly affordable. It also tends to come in a powdered form that doesn’t mix very well with water and has quite an unpleasantly bitter after-taste!
Before magnesium threonate, there was ZMA. ZMA stands for zinc, magnesium and vitamin B6 (somehow) and this particular combination of nutrients is believed to enhance sleep and boost neuroplasticity and testosterone production during sleep. ZMA is often recommended to bodybuilders to help them enjoy a more anabolic sleep following training. Any effect is mild however.
5-HTP finds itself at the slightly stronger end of the scale. This stands for ‘5-Hydroxytryptophan’, which is a form of tryptophan and in turn, a precursor to serotonin. Serotonin is our ‘feel good hormone’ and also gets converted into melatonin, meaning that you can expect 5-HTP to be a natural stress buster, mood enhancer and sleeping aid.
5-HTP should be considered in the same category as melatonin. While it can be effective, it might also lead to adaptive changes in the brain that are negative for the user. This could lead to lower natural levels of serotonin and a certain level of dependency. Avoid this by using 5-HTP only when it is entirely necessary and by trying milder solutions first.
If you have full-blown insomnia, then your doctor might recommend something stronger via prescription. This is likely to mean some form of anti-anxiety medication, which could be benzodiazepines or barbiturates. These work by dramatically increasing GABA in order to suppress brain activity and put you into a restful state ready for sleep.
Unfortunately, these come with numerous side effects once again and are highly addictive – so you should definitely try other solutions first.
If you are struggling to get to sleep, then any of these options are likely to have some impact on your sleep with varying degrees of success and side effects. Experiment with a few of the gentler options first and speak with your doctor if you think you need something stronger.
And don’t forget to think about what you can remove from your diet to improve your sleep. The biggest culprit here is caffeine and if you currently drink lots of tea or coffee after 12pm, there’s a good chance that you could enjoy better sleep just by cutting back on that habit!