According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 9 million Americans are using prescription sleep aids. With the increase in prescription sleep aids also came the increase in the use of more natural sleep aid supplements, like melatonin. In 2019, melatonin sales increased by about 30% and are projected to continue to rise.
Your gut is connected to sleep health in a few ways. The most direct connection is that about 90% of serotonin, the precursor to melatonin, is produced in the gut. Melatonin is a hormone that is produced by the body and is essential for regulating sleep. The gut is also responsible for digestion and nutrient absorption. If nutrients that support sleep hormones are not properly absorbed, the body may not be able to adequately support a regular sleep cycle.
One nutrient that is important for sleep is the essential amino acid, tryptophan. An essential amino acid needs to come from the diet. Because tryptophan is the precursor to serotonin, a diet rich in tryptophan, paired with a well-established gut microbiome, is needed to support serotonin production and therefore sleep. Tryptophan from the diet enters the gut, where our friendly bacteria turn it into serotonin. Serotonin is turned into melatonin when the body starts to notice cues, darkness for example, that signify that it is time for bed.
Here is a simple breakdown of how tryptophan turns into melatonin.
Including tryptophan-rich foods like poultry, almonds, eggs, and edamame to support your gut health are good first steps to supporting sleep, but there are times when natural sleep aid supplements are necessary.
Natural sleep aids can be used as a short-term solution for sleep trouble, or they may be considered for long-term use for chronic sleep troubles. Natural sleep aids are a far better choice than prescription sleep aids because if prescriptions are used long term you can start to rely on them or cause worse sleep without them. While natural sleep aids are the better option, it is still important to talk to your doctor before starting any new supplements.
Lavender, a medicinal herb, is among the most popular essential oils. Although research on essential oils is hard to conduct, there is evidence that lavender essential oil has a calming effect that can promote sleep. Inhaling lavender before bed for five consecutive nights was found to have a positive association and/or trend in improved sleep quality. Lavender is safe to use for all populations, making it a great option to support sleep hygiene and relaxation. However, the sole use of lavender may not be the most effective option for individuals with chronic sleep struggles.
Valerian root extract is derived from a plant with mild sedative properties. It can be used to promote relaxation and sleep and improve sleep quality. Results vary from person to person, but several studies support that it improves sleep quality compared to the placebo. Research also shows that the use of valerian root extract does not cause any side effects like grogginess, trouble waking up, or dependency on the supplement after prolonged use.
Magnesium is an abundant mineral in the body that is an important cofactor for a variety of systems in the body. Magnesium is found in a variety of plant- and animal-based foods, such as almonds, cashews, spinach, edamame, yogurt, milk, and halibut. Magnesium has shown to be beneficial to help individuals fall asleep and as an effective therapy for restless legs syndrome.
Glycine is a nonessential amino acid, which means that the body can produce it on its own, but glycine is also commonly found in a variety of protein-dense foods. Glycine plays an important role in the peripheral and central nervous systems. The inclusion of glycine before bed can shorten the time it takes to fall asleep, enhance sleep quality, and lessen daytime sleepiness.
Melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone in the body that plays a role in sleep. There are a variety of factors that can affect the body’s natural melatonin production, including daylight, age, work schedule, prolonged sleep disruptions, and being overweight. Melatonin can help to decrease sleep latency, increase total sleep time, and improve overall sleep quality.
How to use melatonin: Melatonin dose recommendations vary from 1 to 10 mg, but everyone should start with a low dose of 1 to 3 mg to support sleep. Taking a high dose of melatonin can lead to reduced focus and concentration during the day, trouble waking up, and feeling chilled throughout the day. The prolonged use of a melatonin supplement can also reduce the body’s natural ability to produce melatonin, so it is best to use it only as needed. For example, if you have chronic sleep troubles for three months or longer, consider including melatonin immediately before bedtime or 30 minutes before bedtime. For occasional sleep troubles, consider trying some of the gentler supplements listed above.
After taking a melatonin supplement, it is important to avoid spending too much time in a bright room. Exposure to bright lights in the evening can suppress the body’s natural melatonin production and affect how well the melatonin supplement works. This is because darkness helps to signify that it is time for bed. After taking melatonin, turn down the lights or use a dim lamp until bedtime. It is also a good idea to avoid screens, so turn off TVs and computers, and put down cell phones.
Natural sleep aid supplements are safe to use for most populations, but before considering a supplement, take time to assess your diet, gut health, and lifestyle habits. Aim to include a variety of protein-dense foods to support the conversion of tryptophan into serotonin and then finally into the sleep hormone melatonin. Start taking better care of your gut health by including a variety of fibrous vegetables and fermented foods on a daily basis. Finally, assess your evening routines and look for ways to better promote restful sleep: turn off screens an hour before bed, practice calming breathing exercises, and dim the lights.
While there are many things you can do to support sleep, what should you do? We recommend measuring the function of your gut to determine if that’s the culprit behind some of your sleep challenges. The Ixcela Internal Fitness™ Test will tell you if important markers like tryptophan and serotonin are not within optimal levels. Build confidence in your gut health and start your wellness journey from the inside.
Registered Dietitian Nutritionist Rachel Stuck has a background in culinary arts and nutrition counseling. Rachel takes a positive approach to nutrition: she avoids recommending restrictive diets and instead focuses on helping people choose foods that promote health and well-being. She is passionate about empowering and assisting Ixcela members as they develop their unique, gut-healthy lifestyles.
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Interested in learning more about Ixcela? Check out Ixcela’s microbiome test, personalized nutrition and fitness plans, and other tools to help you optimize your health.
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