There is a veritable cornucopia of sleep remedies, from the ‘natural’ (a decidedly non- specific term) to the more synthetic, and from the time and research proven, to the downright ridiculous snake-oil-esque.
But let’s get one thing clear, sleep supplements are just that, supplementary aids to sleep. What they are not are the front-line, first port of call for fixing your sleep issues.
Relying on sleep aids such as supplements is akin to wearing elastic bands around your lower trouser leg to stop your money falling out of the hole in your pocket.
Does it help? Yes. But it doesn’t address the underlying problem.
So first and foremost we need to address that metaphorical hole in your sleep hygiene.
Setting a regular sleep and wake time would be my first fix, and optimising it for the best sleep period length, between 7-9 hours.
Next would be a sleep haven audit. This is a simple checklist to go through to make sure your sleeping quarters are best aligned for slumber heaven. This is one of the tasks we set all our participants of the 5 Circles of Health: Revolution programme.
We can also look at our nutritional strategies. When are we eating? What are we eating? What’s our caffeine and alcohol intake looking like?
Then our stress management. What’s our nervous system state like on the lead up to bedtime? Do we need to down regulate our system to a more sleep conducive ‘rest and digest’ parasympathetic response?
When we have our lifestyle elements working in our favour we can then begin to consider supplementary aids, be they tools like I mention in this article, or more nutritional ones such as those that follow.
With any kind of ingested (or indeed any) supplement, we need to be aware that it’s not a one size fits all approach. Some substances won’t work for everyone. In fact some may have a deleterious effect on some individuals. We need to bear this in mind, and approach any new supplement/ingredient with caution. If in doubt seek the advice from a medical professional. Also understand that certain ingredients can have a negative effect on some medications.
Let’s jump in and look at some of my favourite supplements to aid sleep.
Magnesium is hugely important to human health and is involved in over 300 different enzyme-related reactions in the body’s cells. It’s been shown to help the body regulate cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar levels, help with bone construction, as well as modulating the activity of the body’s stress response system.
Low levels of magnesium have been directly linked to low levels of melatonin, the hormone associated with controlling our sleep-wake cycle. See this study.
On top of this link with melatonin, magnesium has been shown to have good effect with symptoms of anxiety and depression, possibly suggesting that a deficiency in magnesium could be a driver in the occurrence of these conditions. See this study.
Again, if we are able to manage our stress and anxiety levels and down regulate the nervous system before bed, sleep will come easier.
In theory, if we have a well balanced diet then we should be getting more than enough magnesium from things like nuts and leafy greens. Sadly though, our soils have been so denuded by modern agriculture that this is no longer the case, and supplementation becomes a must.
There are many types of magnesium supplements available, coming in a variety of different forms. Magnesium glycinate seems to be the preferred form for enhancing sleep due to it’s combination with glycine.
Magnesium citrate is considered to be the most bioavailable (easily absorbed) form of magnesium, and is probably the most common form found in supplements. It does, however, have laxative qualities, as do most forms of magnesium to differing levels, so it’s worth starting at low doses and tritrating up over time to avoid a ‘CODE BROWN’ mishap.
Cannabidiol (CBD) Oil
Cannabidiol is the non-psychoactive derivative of the cannabis plant. And while some research suggest that CBD acts as a mild stimulant, many research papers have been written on the sleep aid potential of this supplement.
One theory pertaining to the seeming efficacy of CBD as a sleep aid lies in it’s ability to reduce anxiety. And while anxiety is not a sleep disorder itself, it is a potential contributor to sleep issues. One study showed 80% of participants that used CBD to help with anxiety reported a reduction in anxiety levels within a month, and 65% of these noted improved sleep.
Another factor may be the cortisol lowering effect of CBD. Cortisol is our body’s stress hormone that is most prevalent in the morning and helps us jump to action. Too much of it and we suffer a whole host of negative issues. It’s essentially the antithesis of melatonin (the sleepy hormone), so reducing this in the evenings is probably going to help. This may also be a contributing factor in the anxiety story above.
CBD oil is now pretty mainstream and you can find it in a number of high street shops and in a variety of delivery methods from vaping to gummy sweets. It does appear to have a ‘Goldilocks’ zone with regards to dosage; not too little, not too much. This may mean a little personal tinkering could be needed.
L-theanine is a naturally occurring amino acid commonly found in things like green tea.
L-theanine increases the amounts of GABA and serotonin in our system. GABA is a neurotransmitter that inhibits the action of excitatory brain chemicals, creating a sedatory effect. Serotonin is the precursor to melatonin, the ‘sleep hormone’.
At the same time, L-theanine looks like it reduces various chemicals in the brain linked to anxiety and stress. So it’s a bit of a double whammy. See this study.
Mushrooms are big in the health world at the moment especially in the biohacker and nootropic spheres. Claims about everything from uber-focused cognition to sex-god prowess are abound. And while all these things are great, what a lot of us would like is just a bit more sleep.
Enter the Reishi mushroom. This has been heralded as beneficial in immune support, cancer prevention, liver function, blood pressure maintenance, stress and fatigue reduction, and increased brain function.
One recent study suggests it may well be useful in aiding sleep. Extracts of a type of reishi mushroom appears to increase the levels of sleep-inducing neurotransmitter, 5-hydroxytryptamine, a precurser to serotonin (in turn a precursor to melatonin), as well as positively altering the gut microbiota to enhance sleep quality and reduce sleep latency (taking a long time to fall asleep).
Thankfully, there are a number of reishi based products available today. My all-time favourite is Four Sigmatic’s Cacao with Reishi Extract. The reishi in conjunction with the tryptophan (another serotonin inducing ingredient) rich cacao is the perfect sleep mix. They do some great mushroom coffee for the morning too.
Who doesn’t like a warm cocoa before bed?
Finally we come to an old classic that shows that ‘Old Wives’ should probably be listened to more often. Chamomile has been used for millennia to treat a plethora of ailments. In fact, tartar sample of 50,000 year old Neanderthal remains from Spain shows that chamomile was used even back then.
Current research is looking at it’s efficacy in fighting cancer and other diseases, but chamomile has long been used as a sleep remedy.
It looks like the sleep-inducing properties is all down to the chemical apigenin, which chamomile is chock full of. The apigenin binds itself to the GABA receptors (we looked at GABA earlier) and creates a sedatory, calming effect on the system. See this study, and this study. for more info.
This also has a positive effect on anxiety too, further adding to the benefits for sleep.
And what can be simpler than a nice warm cup of soothing chamomile before bed? Let’s raise a cup to all the old wives, keeping humanity safe and well for millennia.
One thing that jumps out from the page as I write this, and something that hadn’t occurred to me before is that all of these supplement are anxiolytics – substances that reduce anxiety.
Maybe this should be our first port of call in aiding our sleep hygiene; addressing our underlying anxieties.
Our world has moved to totally new terrains, and anxiety struts around this terrain like a T-rex.
Anxiety is everywhere in our modern society, added to by fear of climate change, global pandemics, financial crash, war, and the endless bombardment of negativity from social media.
Combine this with the perceived need to be endlessly on call with work, always contactable, and glued to our devices like they are some kind of blue-lit magic eye. It’s not surprising to see why we are drowning in a sea of sleep deprivation and anxiety, each one compounding another.
The power is yours to make a difference. It always has been. Hopefully some of the tips may help you in your quest for better sleep.
Sleep well my friend.