The National Institute of Health (NIH) estimates 50-70 million Americans either have wakefulness issues or some type of sleep disorder. That means as much as one in five Americans have problems getting a good night’s sleep.
Sleep allows us to reset, heal, renew, grow, repair, and commit things to memory. Poor sleep affects physical and mental well-being, attention, and the ability to learn and remember. Several health-related issues are linked to poor sleep. They include high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity, and some cancers.
Why are Americans having difficulties sleeping? Key indicators include stress, shift work, physical issues like restless leg or sleep apnea, not enough physical activity, or too much caffeine or screen time. These things can throw off one’s internal clock and mess with the circadian rhythm.
The circadian rhythm regulates sleep through melatonin production based on reduced light exposure. As dusk settles in, we produce higher amounts of melatonin to reduce metabolism and induce sleepiness. Based on an individual’s body clock, melatonin levels peak between 2 and 4 AM (prime sleep time).
Americans are looking to improve their sleep naturally. According to Grand View Research, millennials with strong purchasing power prefer natural relaxation drinks and sleep aid supplements to pharmaceutical ones. This is a growing market that is expected to double if not triple from 2018 to 2025, making it a billion-dollar market by 2025.
Are sleeping pills a good idea?
No. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warns 26 years of data links prescribed sleeping pills (Lunesta, Sonata, Ambien) with complex sleep behaviors, including sleepwalking and driving. Taking the lowest recommended dose or even one dose of these “Z-drugs” has resulted in life-threatening situations.
The FDA also warns taking sleeping pills can impair mental alertness and decision making the subsequent morning.
Sleeping Pills versus Sleep Aid Supplements
Prescription “Z-drugs” (named because many of the first of these drugs to be marketed begin with the letter “Z” E.g. Zopiclone, eszopiclone, zaleplon and zolpidem) promote sleep by slowing brain activity. However, they may restrict the flow of deep brain waves produced during the rapid eye movement (REM) stage of sleep. This not only reduces overall sleep quality but can cause a sleep disorder called parasomnia.
During the REM sleep stage, the brain is active, but the body is paralyzed. During the sleep REM stage with parasomnia, the body is not paralyzed. This is a dangerous sleep disorder where the person can unconsciously act out his/her dreams.
On the other hand, sleep aid supplements work with the body to promote better sleep and reduce wakefulness. Sleeping aids can either help reestablish the circadian rhythm or help to relax and quiet the mind to encourage natural sleep.
Sleep Aid Supplements that Support the Circadian Rhythm
Taking a melatonin supplement may help decrease the amount of time it takes to get to sleep. This is especially true when the body’s natural circadian rhythm is interrupted through things like shift work or jet lag. When crossing two time zones or more, taking 2 mg of melatonin has been proven effective in reducing or preventing jet lag when taken between 10 PM and midnight in the new time zone.
Melatonin taken between 0.5mg and 5mg doses may be one of the safest natural sleep aids for seniors over age 55 who suffer from insomnia. In a 2007 study, taking 2mg of prolong-released melatonin at bedtime significantly improved seniors’ sleep quality and morning alertness.
Research on melatonin to help children sleep is limited. However, a study involving children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and one involving children with autism show the benefits of melatonin supplementation. These benefits include getting to sleep faster and improved sleep quality.
Safety of Melatonin Supplements
In the 2007 three-week study involving seniors with insomnia, there was no evidence of withdrawal effects or rebound insomnia. We continue to produce melatonin even when taking melatonin supplements. Melatonin supplements are generally considered safe for otherwise healthy adults and children.
Glycine is a non-essential amino acid that appears to affect the part of the brain that regulates the body’s circadian rhythm. In a 2012 study, 3 g of glycine taken before bedtime improved fatigue and sleepiness in sleep-restricted but otherwise healthy participants.
For seniors, magnesium taken either alone (500 mg) or in combination (225 mg) with melatonin and zinc may help reduce time to get to sleep, increase time spent asleep, and improve daytime alertness. Magnesium is readily available in seeds, nuts, and leafy green vegetables.
Supplements to Reduce Anxiety for Better Sleep
With our hectic lifestyles and constant bombardment of information, stress and anxiety can spin out of control. This can leave too many of us lying in bed wishing for sleep but not able to shut off racing thoughts. Dietary supplements that aid stress and anxiety reduction also help provide a better night’s sleep.
Many of these supplements also support mental clarity. And no wonder since a good night’s rest restores and resets the mind.
GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that is necessary to relax and sedate the brain. Though further studies are warranted, initial studies show GABA supplements may aid sleep.
In a study involving 40 insomnia sleep patients, the time to sleep was significantly improved by as much as nineteen minutes and the percentage of time spent asleep by as much as 30 percent.
In Ayurveda medicine, the root extract of ashwagandha aids stress reduction. Research shows taking 300 mg daily over sixty days helps reduce the stress hormone cortisol in healthy but stressed individuals by up to 27.9%.
L-Theanine is a plant-based amino acid found in low quantities in green tea. It is thought to increase both GABA levels and levels of the feel-good hormones, dopamine and serotonin. Theanine relaxes a person but does not sedate them.
Research shows 200 mg of L-Theanine taken before bed may naturally support improved sleep quality.
One study found 240-480 mg of ginko biloba extract may help reduce anxiety symptoms in people suffering from generalized anxiety disorder by fifty percent.
It is thought valerian enhances GABA signaling. For most people, studies show valerian does not improve sleep quality and/or the time to get to sleep over a placebo. However, for post-menopausal women dealing with insomnia, a twice-daily dose of 530 mg of valerian was shown to improve self-reported sleep for 30% of participants.
Used in aromatherapy, lavender helps to temporarily relieve anxiety to promote better sleep. Some researchers suggest lavender may increase the slow-wave sleep (SWS) patterns of stages 3 and 4. Though SWS is not understood completely, it is thought SWS is involved in brain restoration and recovery.
Numerous studies of college students, hospitals patients, individuals with subsyndromal (mixed) anxiety disorder, and assisted living residents show lavender improves sleep duration and quality.
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