Dr. Spencer Nadolsky is a practicing medical physician. He is based in Suffolk, Virginia.
We spend a third of our lives asleep, and with our general health and mental and physical performance so closely correlated to the amount and quality of the sleep we get, it’s surprising more people don’t consider supplementation.
The reason why we need to sleep is still not understood, but we do know that it has a plethora of beneficial effects and, without it, your ability to function diminishes rapidly. We also know that one night or two nights of impaired sleep isn’t the end of the world with regards to athletic performance – you might just be a little grouchy – but the failure to get enough sleep each night for an extended period is catastrophic. You’re more likely to gain body fat, muscle mass may be reduced, and you’ll lack the motivation to stick to your training and nutritional protocols.
We all know the lifestyle decisions we can take to improve our chances of achieving a full and deep night’s sleep – avoiding caffeine later in the day; limiting alcohol consumption; turning your bedroom as dark as the Bat Cave are the easiest ones – but if you’ve tried all this and more and are still struggling to drift off, then there are a selection of supplements that can help.
No magic pill
Magnesium is sometimes recommended as a sedative to be taken before sleep. While this is true to a degree, magnesium is not a ‘true’ sedative but just limits sedation when you are deficient in it. Supplementing magnesium – around 200mg per day – to prevent deficiency can help preserve sleep patterns and should be one of the first things to look into, but if you’re hoping that I have the magic pill for better sleep, then I am afraid you’re going to be disappointed.
The issue lies in that there are numerous sleep-related problems you might be dealing with, such as trouble falling asleep; waking up frequently in the night; or never reaching the deeper stages of sleep that are responsible for waking up feeling fully refreshed. Each of these various problems may have different approaches to overcoming them.
The major issue is what is known as ‘sleep latency’, which is how long you take to actually fall asleep. If you go to bed at 10pm but are still tossing and turning at midnight, your sleep latency needs fixing.
Currently the best supplemental option for sleep latency with no known root cause (ie. you just can’t get to sleep and don’t know why) is melatonin, the hormone produced in the pineal gland in response to darkness that serves to take you off to dreamworld.
Supplementing melatonin, if it’s available without prescription in your country, is basically as close as a nutraceutical can get to knocking you out via blunt force. Melatonin, unlike other compounds that knock you out, such as benzodiazepines, does not appear to have any habit-forming or addictive properties and so can be taken indefinitely. A good starting dose is 500mcg taken 30 minutes before sleep, and you should gradually work up to a dose of 3mg and then opt for the lowest effective dose.
There are other ways that sleep latency can be screwed up, and if you can accurately trace them back to anxiety then these supplemental options may be even better than melatonin. Anxiety, in this sense, is not as powerful as you might think and simply refers to intrusive or persistent thoughts that pop into your head when you’re trying to drift off. If this happens to you then you may benefit from supplements that can help prevent this happening.
As mentioned, taking sedatives such as benzodiazepines to blunt these thoughts is a huge no-no, because they can be addictive. But research has found that there are two herbs – lemon balm and lavender – that replicate some of the benefits of clinical sedatives without any habit-forming side-effects. Lemon balm is an effective calming sedative that is also linked to a reduction in attention and working memory at the effective dose of 600mg before bed. Lavender taken in the early evening also improves sleep quality. An orally-ingested dose of 80mg is clinically effective for generalised anxiety disorder, and the combination of anxiety reduction plus sleep-quality enhancement positions lavender as an effective sleep aid.
Wake up energised
If you drifted off to sleep quickly, and can’t remember waking up during the night, but still wake up each morning feeling tired and sluggish, then you may not be entering the deeper, restorative stage of REM sleep. If this sounds familiar, then it might be worth taking 3g of glycine. This amino acid is a sedative neurotransmitter, although much less potent than the more commonly referenced GABA, adenosine, and melatonin. While the empirical evidence so far says that supplementing with glycine before bed doesn’t actually improve sleep quality, under placebo-controlled conditions subjects given glycine felt more refreshed and energetic the next morning.