Before I dive in, I’d like to preface this post with two comments:
- Supplementation NEVER replaces good, wholesome nutrition. If your diet is sub-optimal, if you don’t take action to mitigate the stress or other lifestyle factors in your life which are aggravating your anxiety and pushing you into making poor dietary choices — there is no supplement on the planet that will save you. So don’t waste your time and money. Focus on your diet first.
- This post is for information purposes only and it is not meant to be read as your personal prescription. I genuinely believe that each one of us unique and we each have our own dietary and nutritional requirements. What might be good for you, may not be good for your neighbour. I certainly have no way of knowing if any of the supplements I talk about are exactly what you need. So please, talk to your doctor, your naturopath or your nutritionist to see how these supplements may be right for you. We take a lot of factors into account when recommending supplementation, including what medication you are on already, what nutrient deficiencies you may have, how efficient you are at detoxifying, whether you are pregnant (!!), digestive health….many factors!
Having said that now, I do believe that a post on supplementation is valuable because for any of you out there who have ever used sleeping pills — they suck! The mental fog that ensues is simply scary and has a massive impact on productivity. This is because prescription sleeping pills like Ambien and benzodiazepines interfere with your body’s ability to actually enter into the deepest stages of sleep.
As a result, many people want to turn to natural supplementation. The problem is that the supplementation business can be a racket. Even when you’re buying high quality supplements, it’s difficult to make informed decisions as to whether the supplement you are choosing is actually going to bring you the benefits you want. And let’s face it – even medical professionals sometimes don’t do their homework. How many of us have been prescribed Materna as our pregnancy multivitamin – a pretty little pill with synthetic fillers, dyed using pink food colouring?
So, in this post, I’d like to de-mistify some of the natural supplementation options for sleep out there.
For those of you who have been reading my sleep posts, I’ve talked about the amino acid (tryptophan) that our body uses to create the precursor (serotonin) for the hormone (melatonin) that actually controls our sleep cycle. Tryptophan is readily available from protein sources like chicken, beef, lentils, beans & eggs. You can also find tryptophan available in capsule form from a variety of high quality supplementation brands.
There is some research indicating that l-Tryptophan can support emotional well-being and restful sleep. So, does that mean you should invest in a tryptophan capsule to help get to sleep?
- tryptophan competes with other amino acids to get to the brain. You’ve got to take tryptophan with carbohydrates in order to get more tryptophan to the brain. So, if you are currently taking tryptophan suplementation, this point is worth keeping in mind;
- you also need some co-factors to help convert tryptophan into serotonin. These co-factors include: Iron, Magnesium, Vitamin B6 & Vitamin C. So if your supplement doesn’t include these co-factors, it’s doubtful you’ll actually be getting the benefit you need from the tryptophan unless you’re quite careful about taking the supplement with food that includes these co-factors;
- Tryptophan is degraded in the body by something called cytokines – which are pro-inflammatory proteins which get released when we are sick or when we eat foods that are really high in transfats. So, again – this speak directly to the point I made above regarding diet. If you’re knocking back the Jaffa Cakes and chips, please do not bother trying to supplement with tryptophan.
L-Theanine is an amino acid found in green tea. It is capable of crossing the blood-brain barrier and reducing symptoms of anxiety. L-theanine increases activity in the brain’s alpha waves which indicates that it relaxes the mind. It’s natural, has little to no side effects, and does not build addictions.
If you have anxiety issues that are keeping you from quieting your mind at the end of the day, then perhaps L-Theanine would be a good option for you. However, just be aware of a few things:
- L-theanine does not induce sleep or help to keep you in deep, regenerative sleep, i.e. put you in theta or delta waves. It just helps to relax the mind.
- Suntheanine is a registered trademarked type of Theanine and the only one used in clinical trials. As a result, it’s a bit misleading to say that all L-theanine supplements can help you reduce anxiety. Not all are created equal. So, if you’re a stickler for supplements backed by data – then you might want to only use L-theanine supplements made with the Suntheanine extract.
This is probably the most widely used natural supplement for sleep. Melatonin is a hormone produced by the pineal gland and it regulates our body’s wake and sleep cycle. Melatonin is activated in our body by darkness and depressed by light.
A few bits to keep in mind when considering melatonin:
- Many medications are contraindicated with melatonin. For example, (and this is not an exhaustive list): anti-depressants, medication to suppress the immune system, blood thinners or blood pressure meds. Please speak to your doctor as melatonin may be dangerous for you to take.
- Coffee also screws up our body’s natural ability to produce melatonin because of its effect on our cortisol levels. As a result, if you insist on drinking coffee throughout the day, popping a melatonin tablet may not bring you the benefits you seek. I tried taking 3mg of melatonin once when I was extremely anxious and my cortisol levels were pretty high and it did nothing for me.
So – again – melatonin may be great for jetlag for example, when you are trying to get your body to adjust to a new night/day rhythm. But if your sleep issues are related to anxiety, high levels of chronic stress — melatonin may not be the panacea you seek.
Having said that – melatonin coupled with glycine, a naturally-occurring non-essential amino acid could be a good option for people whose sleep issues have to do more with waking up in the middle of the night. Glycine seems to reduce core body temperature, which reduces fragmentation of sleep and promotes longer periods spent in that beautiful, deep delta wave sleep.
Many people swear by the calming effects of magnesium and it is true. Magnesium is nature’s relaxant. Magnesium is especially important for pregnant women as deficiencies can cause leg cramps, restless leg syndrome and eye twitching which can keep you from getting a restful night’s sleep. A few bits to bare in mind:
- Magnesium also absorbs well through the skin – and if you’re someone who has compromised digestion, you might want to consider supplementing your magnesium via Epsom salt baths (magnesium sulphate) and magnesium lotions, gels or oils (usually magnesium chloride).
- There are many forms of magnesium supplementation on the market. Read the label and if you can, choose magnesium glycinate as it is the form which is most readily absorbed. Magnesium citrate is a good second choice and usually more readily available at the health food stores.
- Calcium competes with magnesium for absorption, so best not to pop your magnesium tablet with a cup of hot milk or after a cheese sandwich. (Ever wonder why they say that eating cheese at night gives you a bad night’s sleep? ) If you are taking a chelated form of magnesium or magnesium glycinate, you can take it on an empty stomach.
Hope this helps give you some insight as to how supplementation can be used to support you in your sleep goals. Supplementation is not a one-size-fits all approach and the best one for you will depend on the root cause of your sleep problem, as well as your diet and lifestyle. Do speak to your doctor and ask questions about the brands they recommend:
- do they have fillers?
- are they allergen and GMO free?
- are they dyed?
- which form of the vitamin or mineral they are suggesting is best absorbed by the body?
- what helps absorption and what sabotages it?
Research and due diligence is important.
Because no one cares more about you than you.
Cristina Tahoces is a holistic nutritionist and owner of Thrive Nutrition Practice. Please join her Facebook group “Thrive Nutrition Practice” for daily articles, recipes, promotions on professional grade supplements and upcoming workshops.
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