If you’ve memorized the location of every crack and crevice on your bedroom ceiling, you may be one of the millions of Americans who has a sleeping problem. Be it minor or severe, the consequences of sleep deprivation are more than just a nuisance. Adults who don’t get eight hours of Zzzz’s risk having impaired judgment, slower reaction times and a host of health problems. A good night’s sleep can help the body rejuvenate itself and repair damage from stress and illness.
Before you reach for those sleeping pills, however, it’s important to understand that they don’t treat the underlying causes of insomnia, says the Mayo Clinic, and they pose risks to those who have certain medical conditions. Sleeping pills also cause side effects such as dizziness, prolonged drowsiness and sleep behavior (like sleep driving and sleep eating) (1).
Thus, many individuals prefer to address sleep problems with proper nutrition and beneficial dietary supplements. Before doing so, it’s important to have a good grasp of the mechanisms behind sleep.
The Natural Sleep Cycle
The body’s internal clock manages the natural sleep–wake cycle, which is partly controlled by a hormone called melatonin that’s secreted by the pineal gland. This gland translates information from the environment (such as light or temperature) into signals that are transmitted to various parts of the brain and body. During daylight hours, light causes the pineal gland to stop secreting melatonin and start producing mood-enhancing serotonin instead. This helps keep us awake. The opposite effect occurs during darkness, which induces the production of melatonin (starts around 9 p.m. and peaks between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m.) (2).
One way to ensure the body has adequate levels of melatonin is with l-tryptophan, which converts into hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) in the body. The relationship between 5-HTP, melatonin and serotonin is complex, and more research is needed to understand exactly how 5-HTP works. However, Gerald Huether of the University of Göttingen in Germany believes we should consider the likelihood that “5-HTP could be converted into serotonin and then into melatonin in the intestines, thus increasing circulating melatonin levels in the blood” (3).
Another natural calming agent is GABA (gamma-amino-butyric acid), which creates a relaxed state of mind. GABA is the most abundant inhibitory neurotransmitter in the nervous system; and, it prevents the hyperactivity of nerve cells that occurs during bouts of stress and anxiety. It also allows one to rest comfortably as one should. Just picture GABA as being a blocker, which keeps anxiety and stress from invading your brain’s motor centers. Along with serotonin, it controls levels of anxiety and depression. A study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry noted that a decrease in GABA contributes to major depression. In one trial, GABA levels were measured in the brains of depressed patients and in a group of people who had no prior history of mental illness. The depressed patients had 52% lower levels of GABA than the control group (4).
Many health professionals believe that supplementation with melatonin, l-tryptophan, 5-HTP and GABA can benefit those who have trouble falling asleep. Before beginning such a regimen, though, get the permission of your healthcare provider.
The Sleep Tight Diet
Most diet advice includes a warning against eating heavily, or eating at all, after a certain time of night. Your metabolism is in shut-down mode, and you can gain weight easily. But many people find it easier to fall asleep with a quick snack before bed, so for people with sleep issues, a light carbohydrate-based snack might do the trick.
Yet, it’s not that simple. The reason that we may be craving carbohydrates late in the day is a hormonal imbalance, which can be caused by a lack of sunlight (5). So while carbohydrates may help put you to bed, you may be feeding a cycle that can be fixed with a little more time outdoors.
Cutting down on one’s intake of sugar, caffeine or any other stimulants can help you get to sleep easier and to sleep more restfully. Drinking alcohol at night can also interfere with sleep. The sugar in alcoholic beverages and stimulants like caffeine activate your adrenaline response artificially, which can throw off your body’s rhythm (6).
There are positive dietary steps to take that will help promote well-timed tiredness and restful sleep. Foods to consider include turkey, cottage cheese, organic milk or anything with protein. This provides us with tryptophan, which the brain needs to use in the biochemical processes that lead to sleep (6).
Several daily practices contribute to better sleep, and an easier time reaching dreamland when you want to. Balanced and sufficient vitamin intake, consumption of certain foods at various points in the day, consistent moderate exercise, sleeping in a fully darkened room and engaging in relaxing activities are all steps in the right direction. WF
1. Mayo Clinic, “Prescription Sleeping Pills: What’s Right for You,” www.mayoclinic.com/health/sleeping-pills/SL00010, accessed Nov. 30, 2009.
2. R. Sahelian, Melatonin: Nature’s Sleeping Pill (Be Happier Press, Marina Del Rey, CA, 1995).
3. R. Sahelian, 5-HTP, Nature’s Serotonin Solution (Avery Publishing Group, Garden City Park, NY, 1998).
4. R. Alfieri, User’s Guide To Stress-Busting Nutrients (Basic Health Publications, North Bergen, NJ, 2004).
5. M. Adams, “Treating Insomnia/Sleep disorders with Herbs and Nutrition,” NaturalNews.com. Oct. 19, 2004, accessed Nov. 20, 2009.
6. J.L. Hanley and N. Deville, Tired of Being Tired (Berkeley Books, New York, NY, 2002).
Published in WholeFoods Magazine, January 2010