A look at the natural sleep aids market.

Staring at the clock, pulling the cover over our heads and watching late-night TV with the hopes of drifting off to La-La Land. For those that routinely find themselves counting sheep into the wee hours of dawn, it might be time to consider supplements that support healthy sleep patterns.

And to All a Good Night!
The sleep cycle consists of several recurring stages; four non-rapid eye movement (non-REM) stages, one REM stage and waking (1). REM sleep consists of physiological changes, eye movement, increased brain activity, accelerated respiration and muscle relaxation. During this stage, one dreams, possibly from the inactivity of voluntary muscles and excited brain activity (1). These cycles repeat about every 90 minutes during a typical night’s sleep.

Most individuals require about nine hours of uninterrupted sleep for proper rest. If the cycle is cut short, the body cannot complete the repair, hormone balancing and relaxation done during sleep. The end result is grogginess, trouble concentrating and tiredness that lasts throughout the day.

Sleep-Supporting Supplements
Our busy lifestyles can make catching a full nine hours of Z’s tough to do. Luckily, several natural remedies are available that work with the body to support healthy sleep patterns.

Take melatonin, for example. This hormone naturally occurs in the body, and is produced from tryptophan by the brain’s pineal gland (2). Melatonin is thought to play a part in helping to normalize circadian rhythms and sleep. According to Mayo Clinic, “The synthesis and release of melatonin are stimulated by darkness and suppressed by light, levels of melatonin in the blood are highest prior to bedtime” (2). 

Of note, researchers have reported that kidney dialysis patients often complain of sleep problems. A double-blind placebo-controlled study, which was completed in the Netherlands, involved researchers who administered three mg of melatonin to 35 hemodialysis patients on a daily basis, and 35 additional patients were given a placebo for a year (3). Researchers concluded that those given melatonin demonstrated great improvement in sleep time, sleep efficiency and awake time, versus the placebo group after just three months.

As much as we would like to program our internal clocks (circadian rhythms) to make us fall asleep when we desire, this task is virtually impossible to accomplish. But, 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) may help. 5-HTP is a by-product of tryptophan, a natural amino acid present in certain foods (4). Then, 5-HTP is converted to the neurotransmitter, serotonin, which relays signals between brain cells. With sufficient levels of serotonin in our bodies, we feel calm, relaxed and in a euphoric state (4). When serotonin levels are low, our mood and sleep patterns can be negatively affected. Factors that can contribute to depleted serotonin levels include inadequate sunlight exposure, stress, poor diet and one’s genetic make-up. Some individuals find much success using supplemental 5-HTP to help address sleeplessness and support a positive mood.

Kava kava is another plant-based therapeutic believed to help anxiety (7). One trial suggests that kava kava’s effectiveness may be comparable with that of prescription medications for anxiety (8). Kava kava’s active components include kavalactones (kavapyrones), a chemical that has been examined in animal studies (7). Namely, kava kava has been linked to the relaxation of muscles in animals, reduction of convulsions and the promotion of sleep (7). And, when used for stress and anxiety, it is said not to interfere with mental acuity. It also promotes a restful sleep, but is believed not to have an effect on REM sleep (8). Some feel kava kava should not be used by everyone. According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, kava may be taken by those with moderate anxiety, but those who consume alcohol or medications metabolized in the liver are cautioned against using it (8). The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has warned that kava kava may pose a risk of liver damage, so it’s best to take safety precautions by checking with a doctor before consuming kava kava.

Also on the list of botanicals for healthy sleep is chamomile, which is said to have calming properties that may sprout from one of its flavones, apigenin (9). In a small-animal study, apigenin was thought to bind to the same receptors as benzodiazepines (antidepressant drugs), thus producing an anxiolytic and sedative effect. Though considered safe by FDA, chamomile should not be consumed by those who have an allergic reaction to ragweed (9).

Minerals, too, can benefit the sleep deprived. Electrolytes magnesium and calcium, for instance, play a huge role in numerous physiological actions including sleep and relaxation (10). Any change of the electrolytes’ homeostasis can cause deficiency, and can wreak havoc on these bodily functions. Case in point, sleep deprivation can negatively affect physiological, behavioral and cellular functioning, which can reduce calcium and magnesium levels over time (10). Therefore, getting enough of these important minerals is important for proper sleep and other aspects of overall wellness.

In addition, trials show that supplemental magnesium may be useful for those with restless leg syndrome (RLS), a disorder marked by uncomfortable sensations/tingles in the legs that heighten during periods of inactivity. Individuals with RLS have an uncontrollable urge to move their legs while resting, which disturbs sleep. In a 10-person study conducted on those with insomnia-related RLS, those who took magnesium every night for four to six weeks saw improvements in sleep (11). WF

1. Remedy Health Media, LLC., “Sleep Stages Overview, Sleep Cycle,” www.sleepdisorderchannel.com/stages/index.shtml, accessed Dec. 14, 2010.
2. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, “Melatonin,”
, accessed Nov. 22, 2010.
3. N. Melville, “Melatonin Supplements Improve Sleep in Hemodialysis Patients,” www.medscape.com/viewarticle/732984, accessed December 7, 2010.
4. altMD, “5-HTP,” www.altmd.com/Articles/5-HTP--Encyclopedia-of-Alternative-Medicine, accessed December 14, 2010.
5. J. Davis, “Natural Good Sleep: Tips on Melatonin, Valerian, and More,” www.webmd.com/vitamins-lifestyle-guide/natural-good-sleep-tips-on-melatanon-valerian?page=3, accessed December 7, 2010.
6. University of Maryland Medical Center, “Valerian,”www.umm.edu/altmed/articles/valerian-000279.htm, accessed December 7, 2010.
7. University of Maryland Medical Center, “Kava kava,” www.umm.edu/altmed/articles/kava-kava-000259.htm, accessed December 13, 2010.
8. WebMD, “Kava—Topic Overview,”www.webmd.com/balance/stress-management/tc/kava-topic-overview, accessed December 13, 2010.
9. “Top Herbal Products: Efficacy and Safety Concerns,” www.medscape.org/viewarticle/568235_2, accessed December 14, 2010.
10. M.A. Akanmu, et al., “Effects of 6-hour all out sleep tight deprivation on plasma magnesium and…” Sleep and Biol. Rhythms 1 (2), (2003),http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1046/j.1446-9235.2003.00010.x/abstract, accessed December 14, 2010.
11. Mississippi Baptist Health Systems, Inc.,www.mbmc.org/healthgate/GetHGContent.aspx?token=9c315661-83b7-472d-a7ab-bc8582171f86&chunkiid=21806#ref4, accessed December 29, 2010.

Sleep Disorders

Retailers, are you up on your sleep lingo? Here is a primer on some common sleeping disorders:

  • Hypersomnia is sleep deprivation or excessive daytime sleepiness without a pinpointed cause (1).
  • With sleep apnea, breathing gets shallow or stops while one sleeps and can be life-threatening (1).
  •  Periodic limb movement disorder (PLMD) involves involuntary, rhythmic limb movements while one is awake/asleep (1). There is some overlap with RLS in that many with RLS have PLMD, but few with PLMD have RLS also.
  • Narcolepsy is a neurological disorder that usually starts during pre-adulthood and is marked by extreme daytime sleepiness and sleep attacks (1, 2).
  • During sleep walking/somnambulism, an individual may unknowingly walk or do various other physical activities while sleeping (2).
  • Jet lag commonly affects air travelers flying across different time zones (3).

1. HelpGuide, “Sleep Disorders and Problems,” http://helpguide.org/life/sleep_disorders.htm, accessed December 30, 2010.
2. University of Maryland Medical Center, “Common Adult Sleep Problems/Disorders,” www.umm.edu/sleep/adult_sleep_dis.htm, accessed December 30, 2010.
3. Consumers Union of U.S., “What Is Jet Lag?” www.consumerreports.org/health/conditions-and-treatments/jet-lag/what-is-it.htm, accessed December 30, 2010.

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, February 2011