Sleep problems like difficulty falling asleep, decreased sleep duration, and inconsistent sleep and wake patterns affect 56 percent of people in the United States. This is a concerning statistic, given that getting inadequate sleep can be detrimental to many areas of your well being.
There are many types of treatments that claim to help with improved sleep quality and other sleep issues, and supplements are one of them. For example, dietary supplements such as melatonin and magnesium are often marketed as natural sleep aids. But are these treatments actually effective?
If you are someone who has trouble sleeping, you may have wondered if supplements can help you get a good night’s sleep. Let’s explore the research on sleep supplements and learn about their potential benefits.
Why Good Sleep Matters
Getting good, healthy sleep can be crucial for your health, happiness, and even survival. In fact, chronic insufficient sleep is associated with an overall increased risk of mortality. Studies suggest that adults should be getting somewhere between seven and seven and a half hours of sleep per night.
Interestingly, researchers have found that there may be a connection between inadequate sleep and the development of many serious health conditions. Hypertension, obesity, type 2 diabetes, impaired immune system function, cardiovascular disease, mood disorders, and even dementia are a few examples of long-term sleep deprivation effects.
Lack of sleep may also affect psychological well being, impacting our emotional interpretations and responses to events and exacerbating stress. Research shows that sleep loss can even result in social isolation and increased feelings of loneliness.
The ability to think clearly, be vigilant and alert, regulate your emotions, and sustain attention during the day are all dependent on sleep. After more than 16 continuous hours of being awake, our cognitive performance and attention begin to decline quickly.
Sleep deficit can also accumulate over time, resulting in a steady deterioration of cognitive ability and alertness. Lack of quality sleep can also increase the risk of accidents and injuries, including workplace accidents and car crashes.
Sleep and Blood Glucose
Good sleep is important for metabolic health. Studies show that sleep deprivation can lead to elevated blood sugar levels after a meal in some cases. Sleep problems may even contribute to insulin resistance.
What are Sleep Disorders?
Sleep disorders can disrupt and change the way you sleep. Researchers estimate that up to 80 percent of sleep disorders may go undetected or diagnosed.
Furthermore, about 35 percent of adults in the U.S. report that they sleep less than seven hours per night on average. This may be why almost half of all Americans report feeling sleepy during the day between three and seven days per week.
Symptoms of Sleep Disorders
Some common symptoms of sleep disorders may include:
- Drowsiness during the daytime
- Trouble falling asleep at night
- Falling asleep at inappropriate times
- Breathing in an unusual pattern
- Feeling an uncomfortable urge to move while you are falling asleep
- Unusual or bothersome movements or experiences during sleep
- Having an irregular sleep and wake cycle
Types of Sleep Disorders
There are a number of different types of sleep disorders including insomnia, sleep apnea, parasomnia, and narcolepsy. Let’s take a deeper look at some of the different conditions that can affect sleep quality.
Keep in mind, however, that only your doctor can diagnose a sleep disorder. If you are worried you may have one of these conditions, you may want to visit your doctor or medical provider.
Insomnia is characterized by difficulty falling or staying asleep, which can lead to a decreased quality of life and impaired daytime functioning. This condition is associated with an increased risk of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, suicide, motor vehicle accident, and immune system dysfunction.
- Sleep onset insomnia, or difficulty or inability to fall asleep
- Sleep maintenance insomnia, or difficulty staying asleep
- Early morning insomnia, or waking up too early in the morning.
Some experts may consider early morning insomnia to be a type of sleep maintenance insomnia, while others consider it as a separate category.
These are a group of disorders characterized by abnormal motor, verbal, or behavioral events during sleep. Sleepwalking, night terrors and nightmares, sleep paralysis, and sexsomnia are a few examples of parasomnias.
Sleep-related eating disorders, such as involuntary binge eating after partial waking from sleep can also be considered parasomnias. These disorders can occur on their own, or as a result of trauma, psychiatric illness, other sleep disorders, or even Parkinson’s disease.
Sleep apnea or sleep-disordered breathing, is characterized by abnormal episodes of breathlessness or pauses in breathing during sleep. There are several types of sleep apnea, but obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) accounts for 85 percent of all sleep-related breathing disorders.
OSA occurs when an obstruction in your upper airway cuts off airflow when you are trying to breathe. It is often accompanied by loud, disruptive snoring. It affects more than 12 million Americans, and can also increase the risk of mortality, hypertension, stroke, heart failure, and coronary heart disease.
Narcolepsy is a neurological condition that affects the brain’s ability to control your sleep and wake cycles. The main symptom of narcolepsy is excessive daytime sleepiness, which is characterized by persistent sleepiness regardless of how much sleep you get at night.
This can cause “sleep attacks,” in which an overwhelming sense of sleepiness suddenly overtakes you. People with narcolepsy may unwillingly fall asleep, even in the middle of activities like driving, eating, or talking.
Supplements and Sleep
There are many treatments for sleep disorders, and some people turn to supplements to help them sleep. In 2021, 20 percent of adults in the United States tried natural remedies like supplements for sleep problems. Some of the most popular sleep-promoting supplements are melatonin, magnesium, L-theanine, and tryptophan.
But do they really work? Let’s take a look at some of the research behind these four supplements.
Melatonin is a hormone that helps with the timing of your circadian rhythm and your sleep cycle. It is produced by your brain in response to darkness. Exposure to light can interfere with natural melatonin production.
It is available in supplement form, and is probably one of the most well known supplements for sleep. Melatonin supplements can be purchased over the counter in most drug stores and are available in liquid form, rapid-dissolve tablets, gummies, and solid tablets.
What The Science Says
Some researchers have expressed concerns about the quality of melatonin supplements on the market. One study analyzing 31 different brands of melatonin supplement found that the melatonin content of 71 percent of brands did not meet label claims.
The study also found that 26 percent of the supplements also contained serotonin, a much more strictly controlled substance that could lead to serious side effects. Another review found that the effectiveness of melatonin was inconclusive.
The study also concluded that melatonin shows promise in treating things like jet lag and insomnia. However, more high quality studies with large sample sizes are needed for a stronger recommendation.
Similarly, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine published clinical practice guidelines in 2015 that suggested clinicians not use melatonin as a treatment for sleep problems because the overall evidence in favor of melatonin’s effectiveness is lacking.
If you’re considering melatonin for better sleep, you may want to consult a doctor before starting a new dietary supplement.
Melatonin and Glucose
Melatonin’s effect on glucose has been the subject of confusion and conflicting data. A recent 2020 study shows that taking melatonin in the evening could result in impaired glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity.
People with a common genetic variant may have a higher risk of experiencing melatonin’s negative impact on glucose. To combat these risks, researchers suggest timing an evening dose of melatonin further away from evening meals, and possibly eating evening meals earlier.
What You Can Do
Low melatonin levels can disrupt your circadian rhythm and increase your risk of health problems including obesity and cardiovascular disease. Luckily, you may be able to increase melatonin levels without using supplements.
Studies have shown that limiting blue light from screens after sunset and healthy weight management can both increase melatonin levels. Melatonin is naturally found in plant foods, so a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and grains may boost daytime melatonin levels.
Magnesium is an essential mineral that is crucial for many functions in your body, including muscle function, nerve function, immune function, energy production, managing blood sugar, regulating blood pressure, and making proteins, bones, and DNA.
Taking magnesium supplements in appropriate doses generally poses few risks. Healthy kidneys will usually eliminate extra magnesium in the urine. However, magnesium may interact with some medications. You may want to seek medical advice or talk to your doctor before taking magnesium.
What the Science Says
One study looking at insomnia in older adults found that magnesium supplements can improve many of the hallmarks of insomnia, including sleep efficiency, sleep time, early morning waking, sleep onset latency, and early morning waking.
People with restless leg syndrome (RLS) experience uncontrollable urges to move the limbs and sometimes cramping or crawling sensations, often peaking in the evening hours, which can affect sleep. Research shows mixed results when using magnesium to treat patients with RLS.
One small study found that sleep efficiency increased significantly when RLS patients took magnesium for four to six weeks. In contrast, however, a study of magnesium as a treatment for nocturnal leg cramps in older adults showed no significant change in symptoms.
More research may need to be done to determine the benefit of magnesium as treatment for RLS and sleep quality.
What You Can Do
The American Dietary Guidelines recommend that most of your nutritional needs are met by consuming nutrient-dense food and beverages. Before starting magnesium supplements, you may want to see whether you’re getting the proper amount of nutrients in your diet.
Food sources of magnesium include leafy green, nuts and seeds, legumes, soy products and whole grains.
If you want to try magnesium supplements for your sleep, you’ll want to consult a medical professional. Be sure to talk about your current medications, as you want to ensure the magnesium will not interfere with other medications.
L-theanine is an amino acid that is found in tea leaves. It’s well-known for its ability to improve sleep disturbances, NREM sleep, and modulate stress.
What the Science Says
There are many studies that suggest L-Theanine may have neuroprotective effects, can reduce psychological stress, and may reduce sleep disturbances. Animal studies have shown that L-theanine may oppose caffeine’s effects and promote sedation.
This amino acid has also been shown to have a positive effect on central nervous system disorders. For example, one study of elderly people with cognitive dysfunction found that those who ingested powdered green tea with high theanine content.
Researchers found that those who drank the green tea showed significantly less cognitive decline than those who did not. However, green tea does contain other bioactive compounds that may also have impacted the study outcome and need to be considered.
It’s also important to keep in mind that many of these studies have not looked at long-term effects of regular intake of L-theanine. More research is needed to learn if exposure over time may alter some of the effects or perceived benefits.
What You Can Do
Studies on L-theanine’s effects on humans are currently limited, preliminary, or short-term. Consult with your doctor before you consider using L-theanine to improve sleep.
Tryptophan, or L-tryptophan, is another essential amino acid that is found in all animals. It is necessary for the synthesis of serotonin in the brain and gut, and melatonin in the pineal gland.
Tryptophan also plays a crucial role in behavioral and neuroendocrine stress response in animals. The daily nutritional requirement for L-tryptophan is about 5 milligrams per kilogram of bodyweight.
What the Science Says
Research has shown that tryptophan supplementation may reduce wake after sleep onset, meaning that it may decrease the amount that you wake up during the night and support better sleep. Tryptophan is also an important part of the synthesis of serotonin, though only about three percent of dietary tryptophan is used for this purpose. Despite these promising results, there are potential side effects associated with tryptophan supplements.
Some of these effects may include tremors, nausea and dizziness. Taking tryptophan with other drugs that increase serotonin, such as SSRIs, may cause serotonin syndrome, so be sure to consult your doctor before taking tryptophan supplements.
What You Can Do
Tryptophan can be found naturally in oats and many protein-rich foods and animal products such as poultry, dairy, seafood. However, the best dietary sources of tryptophan are those that have a favorable CAA ratio, like wheat bread and whole milk.
CAAs, or competitive amino acids compete with tryptophan for absorption. This means that foods high in certain CAAs may offset the high tryptophan content of certain foods. Ideal dietary sources of tryptophan will have relatively higher tryptophan amounts and lower CAA amounts.
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Heather has worked in healthcare and nutrition for over 15 years, with bachelor's degrees in Microbiology and Philosophy and a master's degree in Nutrition Science. Her professional background includes nutrition and diabetes research, nutrition education, medical writing, and extensive clinical work in a functional neuroendocrine specialty practice.