Certain herbs and tinctures have long been associated with relaxation and improved sleep. While modern science has explained the mechanism behind some of these remedies, others remain elusive; but in either case, countless people have found they can make a positive difference in the timing and the quality of their sleep. When a group at the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California at San Diego conducted a double-blind, placebo-controlled study of common herbal sleep supplements — including valerian root and chamomile — they found that subjects fell asleep faster and reported better sleep overall.1
That said, vitamins and herbal treatments are supplemental. There are no magic cure-alls for fixing poor sleep habits; however, combining a more regular sleep schedule and a more relaxing sleep environment with the short-term or long-term use of some of these dietary supplements can be a great way to reinforce better rest. Make sure to introduce new variables slowly, one at a time, and observe how you feel over a period of a week or two before changing anything else. And as always, check with your primary care physician before starting any new medication or supplement. Even seemingly harmless herbs can interact with prescription medications or have unintended effects on certain medical conditions.
A Matter of Timing
Some supplements are best suited for half an hour to an hour before sleep. Others help you relax any time of day and can be especially potent when taken at night. Still others have an energizing effect and should be avoided near bedtime. For example, many health care specialists suggest that you relegate vitamin C and many of the B vitamins — including B6, B12, and even folate — to the morning or with your midday meal to avoid restless sleep or dreams. Additionally, synthetic vitamin D, a vitamin which is naturally produced by the body’s absorption of sunlight, is best taken during daylight hours. Especially if you take a multivitamin, consider taking supplements earlier in the day so your B’s and C’s don’t prevent you from getting your best Zzzzz’s.
Other vitamins are supportive of good sleep and especially impactful when taken in the evening. Magnesium and calcium are two such elements. They work hand in hand for many functions in the body, including heart, nerve, and muscle function. But balance is key. And since recent studies suggest that magnesium deficiency is much more common than previously thought, be wary of boosting calcium without first incorporating more magnesium into your diet. Natural food sources for magnesium include leafy greens like spinach or swiss chard or certain nuts and seeds. Pumpkin seeds are particularly high, so you might try a handful of pumpkin or sunflower seeds before bed, which also serves as a light protein source to stave off hunger without overworking your digestive system. If you do decide to take additional supplements through pills or topical treatments, remember that not all forms of are as easily absorbed by the body. Talk to your doctor about what form might be right for you
Tinctures and Tonics
Some of the herbs traditionally used for improved sleep include valerian root and passionflower. Valerian root in particular has been associated with decreased sleep latency and improved slow-wave sleep, meaning that subjects tended to fall asleep faster and sleep deeper with the short-term use of valerian. 2 Other herbs, including chamomile, peppermint, and kava, are touted as great general relaxers that can help the body and mind let go of stress and become more receptive to sleep.
Research on the efficacy of some of these herbs has mixed results, but often merely the act of sipping a hot tisane, or herbal based “tea,” can be relaxing. Valerian, passionflower, chamomile, and peppermint can be commonly found in various bedtime “tea” blends. Traditional kava preparation involves kneading the powder in water mixed with a small amount of milk or another fat-binding ingredient, but it is often included with less effect in these bedtime blends as well. Finally, there’s the adage of warm milk before bed. Whether cow, goat, almond, or coconut are more your cup of… well… milk… adding a bit of grated nutmeg is said to have additional sleep benefits.
The Sleep Specialists
In addition to the vitamins and herbs detailed above, certain supplements specifically address sleep. One of the most popular of these is melatonin, which adds a boost to the body’s naturally produced sleep hormone. Our body’s melatonin production naturally goes up at nightfall and continues through our natural sleep cycle. But sometimes our melatonin cycle, along with our sleep cycle, can be off. Small oral doses of this sleep hormone have been shown to be effective in improved sleep maintenance. In this case, however, more is not necessarily better; some studies indicate that this hormone is most effective in small 1 or 2 mg doses. And some theorize that long-term use can affect the body’s own production, so melatonin may be most effective in resetting a disjointed sleep cycle due to shift work or jet lag and not as effective as a long-term supplement. For naturally occurring melatonin, try a small glass of tart cherry juice before bed.
Tryptophan, brought to popular attention for its suggested role in the post-Thanksgiving turkey lull, is another sleep stimulator. While the amount in your Thanksgiving turkey is not likely significant enough to have a major impact, taking l-tryptophan supplements for its sedative effects may be a good alternative. The amino acid tryptophan is used in a number of body functions and forms the building block for 5-hydroxytryptophan or htp-5, also available in supplement form, the mood-boosting serotonin, and the aforementioned sleep hormone melatonin. Tryptophan may offer a way to boost the body’s own melatonin production rather than overriding it, making it a better alternative for intermittent or long-term use.
Valerian, passionflower, chamomile, magnesium, melatonin: whatever you try, keep detailed notes including when you take it and how much you take. Everyone is different, and keeping track of how your own body responds to not only supplements but to certain foods, sleep schedules, and effective relaxation techniques can be your most effective tool against insomnia. Little by little, you’ll find your way back to the rejuvenating and restful slumber you need.
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1. [Farag, N.H. and Mills, P.J. (2003). “A randomized-controlled trial of the effects of a traditional herbal supplement on sleep onset insomnia.” Complementary Therapies in Medicine, 11(4): 223-225. Retrieved on http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0965229903001080]
2. [Donath F., Quispe S., Diefenbach K., Maurer A., Fietze I., and Roots I. (2000). “Critical evaluation of the effect of valerian extract on sleep structure and sleep quality.” Pharmacopsychiatry 33(2) 37-53. Retrieved on http://europepmc.org/abstract/med/10761819]