I wrote a post earlier on some helpful habits to maximize your ability to get better sleep. Today I am going to put on my nutritionist hat and go deeper into specific nutrients that could help in the sleep department. So let’s jump right in….
We need magnesium for proper sleep. Unfortunately, it has been estimated that as much as 68% of the American population is deficient in magnesium (1). It’s the fourth most abundant mineral in the body and plays a role in over 350 enzymatic processes. Moreover, maintaining optimal magnesium levels is also critical in the proper function of GABA receptors. GABA is inhibitory neurotransmitter, which can induce a calming state (2). And let’s not forget that magnesium is a cofactor for serotonin production, which is a hormone that converts into melatonin, our sleep hormone (3).
So are you deficient in magnesium? A good indicator is if you cramp regularly, experience muscle spasms, find that fluids pass through you easily, and/or have cold hands and feet (4).
Increase your levels by eating magnesium-rich foods or simply supplement with magnesium. As a rule, it is always best to get any nutrient first from food and then supplement if you can’t sufficiently meet your nutrient needs. Some of the highest magnesium foods are things like green leafy vegetables, almonds, buckwheat, millet, pumpkin seeds, cashews, black beans and soybeans. Also, grass-fed, pastured animals tend to have a sizable amount of magnesium.
If you wish to go the supplement route, researchers have also found that when subjects supplement magnesium at 320 mg/day, in addition to diet, symptoms issues relating to insomnia do improve (5).
There are various supplementation types. The chelated forms, such as citrate, taurate, glucinate, succinate and malate are the most absorbable. To increase absorbability, take magnesium with vitamin B6, at 25-50 mg. Be also aware that the citrate version of chelated magnesium can have a laxative effect. Magnesium oxide is a waste of money; it also induces a laxative effect and has around a 4% absorption rate . Magnesium chloride has been found to be the safest magnesium supplement for individuals with kidney disease. And if possible, look for a version that is applied topically instead of in the pill form. Topical magnesium goes directly into the bloodstream, bypassing the stomach.
A 1991 study from the University of California–San Diego found that when subjects took an oral potassium chloride supplement (96 mg/day) resulted in staying asleep longer than the placebo group (6).
But again, I have to press the point that it is always better to get adequate potassium levels from foods instead of supplements. Especially with potassium, supplementation is generally not recommended. If levels of potassium get too high in the blood you can develop what is called hyperkalemia, which can be fatal (7). Therefore, below are supplement RDIs some high-potassium foods one could use instead of supplements.
You can find a sizable amount of potassium in foods like avocados, lima beans, tomatoes, bananas, cantaloup, peaches, and even in fish and other animal products.
3) Vitamin D
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin used in many biological processes. Interestingly, although it is possible to get small amounts from food, the largest amounts are generally obtained from sunlight skin exposure. And relating to sleep, research has found that subjects who were experiencing sleep issues saw improvement after supplementing with vitamin D (8).
The specific recommended dosage for vitamin D varies per individual and situation. Often if someone is exposed to enough sunlight each day they may meet the required amount, but this has been shown to be increasingly rare as it is reported that as much as 85% of the American population is vitamin D deficient (9).
The safest method of knowing if you are vitamin D deficient is by getting a blood test. Ask your physicians or order the test here.
Regarding vitamin D supplementation, generally you can find D3 supplements in the form of soft-gels capsules, tablets, sprays or sublingual drops. For best absorption, go with the sublingual spray or drops. It is also recommended to take a vitamin D supplement not too late in the day because it does suppress melatonin production, which would negatively impact sleep (10).
Eating things like fish, pastured-egged and meats will help you meet healthy levels of vitamin D.
Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is classified as an inhibitory neurotransmitter, which helps decrease excitability and balance mood.
GABA is found in supplement form. It is recommended to take 100 mg, tid, to help induce a relaxed state. Also, taking GABA with vitamin B6 is recommended for better absorption.
With that said, there has been a debate regarding if or if not taking GABA really works due to its inability to cross the blood brain barrier. In fact, if you do notice a change after taking GABA that could be a strong indicator that you may be having what is called “leaky brain” which is increased permeability in the blood brain barrier.
5-hyroxytrptophan (5-HTP) is made from the essential amino acid tryptophan, which converts into serotonin and then melatonin. It is an important neurotransmitter that helps regulate various things like sleep, mood, anxiety, aggression, appetite, temperature, sexual behavior and pain sensation (11).
Research has found that taking 5-HTP increase REM sleep by 25% and increases deep sleep stages 3 and 4 without increasing total sleep time (12).
5-HTP is often found in the capsule form. To improve sleep, it is recommended to take 100-300 mg, 30-45 minutes before bed. Start with a lower dosage and slowly work your way up after 3 days (13).
This sleep aid can be effective, but research has found that it can only work when
the body’s natural production of melatonin is low. 5-HTP has been found to be more effective. Melatonin dosage should be taken around 3mg right before bed (14).
7) Valerian (Valeriana officinalis)
Used widely in folk medicine this herb is found to be effective for calming and lowering blood pressure. Typically valerian is found in an herbal extract form. Recommended to use for improving sleep duration, night awakenings, and just generally feeling tired in the morning. Research has found this herb to have the most significant effect on irregular sleepers (particularly woman), smokers, and individuals who can’t stay asleep. It has been found to be as effective at improving sleep latency as barbiturates and benzodiazephanes. Interestingly, while these drugs tend to have a higher side-effect of morning sleepiness, valerian does not. Research has tested valerian with a placebo and found that subjects reported an 89% improvement with their sleep and 44% of the subjects reported “perfect sleep.” Taking a combination of valerian root extract (160 mg) and lemon balm extract (80 mg) has been found to increase deep sleep stages 3 and 4, but without day time sedation, which is experienced while taking a benzodiazephine (15).
Glutamine is a “non-essential” amino acid; non-essential because our body can synthesizes it, but truly essential because our body depends on it for so many important functions. It does everything from balancing the immune system, repairing the gut, to fighting stress, depression, and anxiety (16). This occurs in part because Glutamine is converted in the neurotransmitter GABA.
Glutamine has also been shown to helps decrease the amount of ammonia that is circulating in the body. Ammonia is a by-product of amino acid utilization and can be toxic when levels are too high. This also causes toxicity in the brain which has been linked to sleepiness (17).
Protein foods, such as meat, eggs and dairy are great sources for glutamine. Glutamine is found in the form of powder or supplement capsules. The recommended dosage is generally between 3-5 grams per day (18), but it is safe to take up to 14 grams per day (18). Also, always take glutamine with vitamin B6 so it won’t convert into glutamate, an excitotoxin.
Supplementing with Tryptophan has been found to positive affect those that suffer from insomnia, but has been shown to be more useful to help induce sleep, rather than maintain sleep throughout the evening. Tryptophan has been found to be just as effective as some over the counter drugs and prescriptions, but without the daytime side-effects of feeling groggy (19).
Tryptophan works by enhancing melatonin synthesis (20). Some foods that are high in Tryptophan can be found in many foods such as soy, cocoa powder, cashews, chicken, peas, pork, salmon and walnuts (21). When taking in the supplement form, first make sure there are no niacin deficiencies present. When niacin levels are low, tryptophan is converted into niacin. Also, tryptophan competes and often loses out when trying to cross into the blood brain barrier. To help tryptophan across the blood brain barrier, eat a carbohydrate-containing food to induce a rise in insulin. This effect will force the other competing amino acids into the muscle cells, allowing tryptophan to cross into the blood brain barrier. Recommended dosages have been shown to be effective at 2-4 grams and results may not be seen immediately and may take a few nights to begin to experience the results (22).
Taurine is an amino acid that has been found to be great with stress management, anxiety and calming. It has also been found to improve athletic performance and recovery. Natural sources of this amino acid are typically found in seafood, meat, eggs, and dairy. Vegetarians and especially vegans have been found to be chronically deficient in taurine. Due to its calming effects, taurine has been found to be a great tool for calming the body and inducing sleep. In addition, taurine raises GABA, while balancing cortisol and other stress hormones (23). For supplementation, it is recommended to take between 1-3 grams per day.
You may wonder why green tea, even though it has some caffeine, provides a calming effect. This is attributed to the amino acid, theanine. Research has found that this amino acid helps maintain mental alertness during the day, but interestingly, also supports deeper rest at night. Although it appears that in order to reap the benefits of theanine, drinking tea is not enough; therefore, supplementation is good way to go. It is recommended to take between 50-200 mg at bedtime. Also, make sure to purchase the pure, active version of L-theanine. Some brands sell a less expensive inactive version, which do not provide the same calming benefits (24).
Well that about does it for now. Feel free to leave your comments or additional sleep nutrients suggestions below!