The Hormone of Darkness
Aptly referred to as the ‘hormone of darkness’, melatonin is a natural neurohormone produced by the brain’s pineal glands. This hormone plays a role in the body’s antioxidant defences and helps regulate blood pressure, body temperature and cortisol levels, as well as sexual and immune function.
However, the hormone’s primary function is to regulate sleep patterns, with levels increasing in the late evening as the body prepares to settle down for a good night’s rest. According to the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine approximately 30% of adults report one or more of the symptoms of insomnia: difficulty initiating sleep, difficulty maintaining sleep, waking up too early, and in some cases, non-restorative or poor quality of sleep (1.) If not remedied in time, insomnia can wreak havoc on your life with conditions such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and even early mortality. With lack of sleep costing the US $411 billion dollars in lost productivity it not only influences an individual’s health and wellbeing but has a significant impact on a nation’s economy, with lower productivity levels and a higher mortality risk among workers (3.) Currently, stresses of modern society and various other factors are causing sleep problems for millions across the world.
For those who have tried all manner of things without success, there are dozens of natural supplements on the market that can provide relief. Sleep supplements come in various forms, including liquid, tablets or chewable lozenges, and can be created synthetically or using natural products. They include Kava, 5-HTP, melatonin, chamomile tea, Ginkgo biloba, lavender, magnesium, GABA, valerian, and L-theanine to name a few. So what happens when reading your favourite book, drinking warm milk, and other tricks fail to help you resolve your situation?
Let’s look at a few of them.
A government study conducted in 2012, revealed the usage of melatonin supplements doubled between 2007 and 2012 (1.) This trend has continued to grow since, no doubt facilitated by the fact that it can be purchased easily over the counter. In contrast, the UK and other European countries require a prescription for taking the supplement, which is intended for specific patients only and short-term use. Melatonin is generally safe short term, however if taken at length it will have a diminished effect and side effects may include sleepiness, headaches, nausea, and abnormal dreams which can cause a sleepover hangover feeling. Other concerns include disrupting the body’s natural hormone production, which could eventually make sleep problems worse.
Valarian derived from the root of the plant is a herbal medicine and was historically used as a stress and anxiety reliever for English soldiers during World War II. It is one of the most trusted sleep aids in the US and Europe (4.) In one clinical trial 121 people with insomnia were given 600mg of dried Valarian root, after a 28 day treatment participants reported decreased symptoms of insomnia (5.) Valerian supplements are available in either liquid or capsule form. Valerian root can also be dried and used as a tea. But even with its indisputable effect on insomnia patients, scientists are not yet 100 per cent sure how valerian works. The general theory, however, is that valerian supplements improve sleep by increasing the levels of GABA. Abruptly ending use may cause symptoms of withdrawal or anxiety. Valarian may cause headaches, impaired thinking, upset stomach and dizziness.
5-Hydroxytryptophan, or 5-HTP, is a derivative of tryptophan, which is an amino acid, used to increase serotonin levels. The brain uses serotonin to regulate mood, appetite, pain perception and helps produce "feel good" chemicals in the brain and body. Healthy levels of serotonin are essential for maintaining healthy melatonin levels as melatonin is made from serotonin in the presence of darkness. Both serotonin and melatonin are critical to sleep and a well functioning bio clock. Because of 5- HTP’s ability to create serotonin research suggests that this may increase sleep amounts and shorten time to fall asleep (6.) Unfortunately, 5-HTP is not found in foods we eat. Recommended supplementing doses range from 25mg-500mg however, you should follow any directions on the product label. Side effects may be heartburn, muscle spasms, loss of appetite and abdominal discomfort.
Magnesium mineral is known to control dozens of body processes, is essential for human health and is used in over 600 cellular reactions in the body (7.) In terms of sleep, magnesium works on several levels. Firstly, magnesium activates the parasympathetic system, which is responsible relaxation, which is necessary for the body to fall asleep and stay asleep. Secondly, magnesium works by regulating the production of melatonin, which is a hormone that regulates the sleep-wake body cycles. Lastly, magnesium binds to gamma-amiobutyric (GABA) which is responsible for quieting nerve activity. The Institute of Medicine recommends 310–360 mg and 400–420 mg for adult women and men, respectively (8.) Studies have shown that increasing levels of magnesium rich foods such as chlorophyll, nuts, seeds and unprocessed cereals or by taking supplements may help you increase both the quality and quantity of sleep. Side effects in some people may be nausea, vomiting and stomach upset.
GABA, or gamma-aminobutyric acid, is the brain’s primary inhibitory neurotransmitter, meaning that it acts as the brakes of the mind. GABA brings a state of calmness and relaxation by slowing down or stopping the brain cells from firing. When your levels of GABA go down, you will likely have insomnia, and you will need GABA supplements to overturn the condition. In one 2018 study participants were given 300 milligrams of GABA one hour before bed reported improved sleep quality as well as falling asleep faster (9.) Commonly reported side effects can include headaches, upset stomach and muscle weakness.
The bottom line is that quality of sleep is just an important as movement and proper nutrition. Emotional balance and management of stress also effect sleep and overall quality of life. Those who that are concerned should try incorporating healthy sleep hygiene practices such as avoiding screens before bedtime, using blackout curtains, and ensuring plenty of sunlight exposure during the day, particularly in the morning hours. The supplements mentioned in the article above can increase and promote a restful sleep however they are most effective when used in combination with good sleep practices.