Thursday, 31 October 2013

Naturally enhancing sleep

When we were kids, our biggest enemy was sleep.  I, for one, saw afternoon naps as a complete waste of time, and bedtime was typically too early by 3-4 hours.

We should have enjoyed it while it lasted...

Now, sleep seems to be the one thing we can't get enough of.  Often we're limited by time, but the most frustrating thing is when we lose sleep simply because of a complete inability to fall asleep.

Recently, I wrote an article for Canadian Running looking at the impact of sleep deprivation on weight gain.  While writing this article, I came across a number of studies on what you can do from a nutritional/natural standpoint to help you to fully take advantage of whatever amount of time you have to sleep.  Here are some of the best-researched, natural ways you can enhance your shut-eye:


Tryptophan is an amino acid (a building block of proteins) we all know the effects of (aka the post-thanksgiving dinner nap).  Exploiting tryptophan's sleep inducing influences was one of the strategies Jerry Seinfeld used when trying to play with a friend's classic toy collection- and all he did was feed her excessive amounts of turkey!

The reason why tryptophan helps improve sleep onset latency (makes us fall asleep faster) is because it is a precursor to the hormone melatonin.  As many of you know, an increase in melatonin is what causes us to fall asleep.

Take a look at the above diagram.  Ignore everything on the left.  The oval labeled "Pinealocyte," represents a cell in our pineal gland- a part of our brain where melatonin is produced.  As you can see, tryptophan (at the top of the oval) comes in from the blood stream, goes through a few steps, and produces the melatonin we need to fall asleep.

An interesting side note- this diagram also explains the importance of sleeping in a dark environment.  Without getting into to the details, light that reaches our retina actually signals a stop in production of melatonin.  By contrast, a dark environment will allow tryptophan to be converted to melatonin.  So if you're sitting in bed reading this on your computer, and you can't fall asleep- it makes sense because the light emitted from the monitor is inhibiting melatonin production.

Back to tryptophan: we know from experience that this amino acid makes us feel tired- but does it actually work as a treatment?  Well, in short, the research says yes.  This 2010 review study showed that even taking as little as 1g of the amino acid can enhance sleep latency, making it easier for us to fall asleep.  As always, it's better to get this from dietary sources.  Try turkey, or, perfect for this time of year, pumpkin seeds 1 hour before bed.


So if tryptophan, a precursor to melatonin, improves sleep latency, then why not just take melatonin itself?  Researchers think that melatonin works, but not that well (and not conclusively).  This nice 2012 review of insomnia discusses how more research is needed.  They reference a 2005 study which showed that melatonin allowed for subjects to fall asleep 7.2 minutes sooner- so it should do something to help you sleep, just not that much!

If you don't want to supplement, try cherry juice.  A few studies, like this one, have shown that it helps to raise melatonin levels, and improve sleep.

Valerian Root Extract

Another common supplement that is often suggested for aiding with sleep is valerian root extract.  It is not fully understood why valerian helps, but it is thought to be involved with impacting the part of our nervous system that helps us to calm down- the GABA neurotransmitter receptor system.  Long story short, when GABA binds to its receptor, it has an inhibitory effect, and our excited nervous system calms down.  It is thought that something in valerian root helps to enhance the inhibitory effect of GABA.

So does it work?  There is some good research out there showing that valerian does help us to improve how much time you spend in the deepest phase of sleep.  This is a little different than melatonin and tryptophan because they help us to actually fall asleep in the first place, while valerian simply improves the quality of sleep.  Once again, more research is needed to know exactly how well valerian works, and what type of dose is optimal.  

Dietary Manipulation

This topic is a little tricky because they way dietary interventions are studied is not always easily applied (or practical when considering other factors like weight loss).  For instance, researchers know that consuming carbohydrates 1 hour before bed will improve sleep onset latency.  Good for falling asleep, bad for weight loss.

Researchers also know that a regular diet that is high in protein will result in subjects spending more time in the deepest, most restorative phase of sleep.  

What should I do?

So there you have it- a few ideas to help you take advantage of the time in your schedule allotted to sleep.  It is important to keep in mind that these are only some of the many natural ideas that can help.  It does not even begin to address the importance of good sleep habits that should be mastered first (i.e. sleeping in dark, quite environments and sticking to a regular schedule).  But if you are running out of ideas, and you want to try some natural, nutritional strategies, use this as a guideline:

I am having a hard time falling asleep
  • Try tryptophan (starting with dietary sources like turkey and pumpkin seeds)
  • Try melatonin
  • Try consuming a healthy carbohydrate snack 1 hour before bed
I am having trouble staying asleep, or feeling restored
  • Is your diet low in protein?  Try increasing the percentage of your caloric intake that comes from lean protein sources (chicken breast, fish)
  • Try valerian root extract
*I also should mention that everybody has unique needs, and risk factors.  Make sure to talk to a professional before trying any of these interventions!

Well, that was a longer article than normal.  If the tryptophan didn't put you to sleep, maybe the article did.  Happy napping!

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