Dear JJ: Many nights I struggle to fall asleep. I've seen a wide variety of over-the-counter natural sleep aids. Can you tell me which ones are most effective?
I've written about seven fat-regulating hormones that can become out of whack with sleep loss. One study found even a partial night of sleep deprivation could make you more insulin resistant, increasing your risk for obesity and Type 2 diabetes.
I could go on (this chart elucidates sleep deprivation's wide-ranging devastation), but you understand how critical getting seven to nine hours of quality, uninterrupted sleep every night can become for fat loss and optimal health.
Manufacturers understand our epidemic sleep struggle. That's why any drugstore or health-minded grocery offers a wide array of natural sleep aids. How do you choose the best one? Based on research coupled with three decades of working with clients, these are the natural sleep aids I find most effective.
This hormone helps control circadian (day/night) rhythms. Melatonin production, therefore, should peak at night for quality sleep. As we age, our bodies make less melatonin, which might explain why we also have more sleep difficulties.
If you struggle to drift off, supplementing might help. "Melatonin supplements can also be a great way to break the cycle of insomnia, deal with jet lag, or adjust to life as a shift worker," says Dr. Sanjeev Kothare.
One meta-analysis about sleep disorders concluded melatonin supplementation "decreases sleep onset latency, increases total sleep time and improves overall sleep quality."
Ideally, you should take supplemental melatonin bout 30 minutes before you want to fall asleep. While supplements contain different amounts, studies suggest the ideal dose is 3 mg.
Many healthcare experts use this little-known member of the B-vitamin family to promote more restful sleep at night and create a more even-tempered mood during the day.
"Inositol is 'nature's sleeping pill,'" writes Dr. Jonny Bowden in The Most Effective Natural Cures on Earth. "Taken before bedtime, it can significantly improve sleep quality. People who take it report a general relaxed feeling akin to having a few calming 'sleepy-time' teas."
Supplementing with inositol promotes calmness, and studies show it can ameliorate a wide range of mental health disorders including depression and anxiety, panic disorder, and obsessive-compulsive behavior.
Inositol supplements come in capsules or powder. For insomnia, Bowden recommends two grams of powdered inositol with water before bed. For difficulty falling or staying asleep, I find smaller doses (say, 500 mg) combined with other sleep-aiding nutrients like melatonin work well.
5-hydoxytrytophan (5-HTP) is synthesized from the amino acid tryptophan and eventually converted to serotonin, your feel-good neurotransmitter.
Compared with supplemental tryptophan, researchers believe supplementing with 5-HTP can better replenish serotonin levels because it is only one metabolic step away from serotonin and has an easier time crossing the blood-brain barrier.
"5-HTP dietary supplements help raise serotonin levels in the brain," write researchers from the University of Maryland Medical Center. "Since serotonin helps regulate mood and behavior, 5-HTP may have a positive effect on sleep, mood, anxiety, appetite, and pain sensation."
According to Bowden, because 5-HTP increases serotonin, it "has a calming, relaxing effect on brain chemistry. [A]t night, serotonin converts into melatonin, which is important for a great night's sleep."
One study found people who supplemented with 5-HTP fell asleep faster and slept more deeply than those who took a placebo.
While people with insomnia and other sleep disorders might benefit from higher doses, the University of Maryland Medical Center recommends 50 mg of 5-HTP one to three times a day for general use.
Worth noting: Because it serves as the cofactor to convert 5-HTP to serotonin, look for a 5-HTP supplement that also contains vitamin B6.
"Theanine works by increasing the production of GABA in the brain," writes Dr. Natasha Turner. "Similar to the effects of meditation, it also stimulates alpha brainwaves naturally associated with deep states of relaxation and enhanced mental clarity."
That deep relaxation can also help you drift into slumber: Studies show supplementing with 200 mg of L-theanine before bed could improve your sleep quality.
Your turn: If you've ever used sleep supplements, which one do you find works best to help you fall or stay asleep? Share yours below, and keep those great questions coming at AskJJ@jjvirgin.com.
Jonny Bowden, The Most Effective Natural Cures on Earth, (Massachusetts: Fair Wind, 2008).