Now we will continue our discussion of natural sleep aids. A good way of framing it is to say that we are only interested in substances that may help sleep indirectly rather than directly. Anything that helps directly- to put you out, or knock you out- is, undoubtedly, a drug and therefore a harmful influence. We're not looking for some drug-induced "altered state." Don’t settle for anything less than real sleep.
2 Tryptophan- This essential amino acid was off the market as a supplement in the USA for about 15 years but came back in 2008. A bad batch out of Japan resulted in several dozen cases of eosinophilia myalgia, and there were several deaths. It was not due to the tryptophan; it was due to a contaminant derived from the manufacturing process. It was an awful tragedy, but now, the problem is completely understood and rectified, and so long as you source it reliably, that is, from a reputable, first-rate company, there is no outstanding risk from taking tryptophan.
However, I do not take tryptophan, and I am not that enthused about it. For one thing, presumably, the purpose of taking tryptophan for sleep is because it is a precursor to serotonin and melatonin. But, since I am taking melatonin, I really don’t need tryptophan. Another factor is that tryptophan usually involves heavy dosing to get the desired effect- as much as 3 grams a night. That’s a lot of bulk, especially if you are going to take it every night. It’s cumbersome.
Tryptophan is a normal dietary component, and presumably, if you are getting enough protein, as most people do, including most vegetarians, there should be no need to take supplemental tryptophan. However, some individuals, particularly those who follow low-protein, vegan diets, may have marginal tryptophan status. Also, there are some people who just do not want to take hormones, including melatonin. They’re afraid of it, and they are unwilling to do it, and for such people, taking tryptophan is an alternative. There is also 5htp which is an intermediate metabolite between tryptophan and serotonin. It has the advantage of lower dosing. Typically, people take only 50 to 100 mgs of 5htp. However, there is some concern that 5htp may produce elevated serotonin levels where you don’t want it. The advantage of tryptophan is that it only raises serotonin levels in the brain where you do want it. So, I would have to say that taking tryptophan is more natural and safer than taking 5htp, although some people swear by 5htp, and in low doses, I am not opposed to it. But, for myself, I don’t bother with 5htp or tryptophan.
3 Taurine- This is an amino acid that I am much enthused about taking than tryptophan. Taurine is not considered an essential amino acid because it can be made from cysteine, which can be made from methionine. However, there is no taurine at all in plant foods (which presumably comprise a large part of every healthseeker’s diet), and all of these biochemical conversions- such as methionine to cysteine to taurine- tend to slow down with age.
A relative deficiency of taurine is extremely common. Vegans, of course, get none, but even milk and eggs are low in taurine. And, muscle meats aren’t swimming in it either. The only way to get a substantial amount of taurine from food is to load up on organ meats and seafood. How many people do that? Therefore, taurine is a marginal nutrient for a great many people, and not just vegetarians.
Taurine has great importance to the heart, but in the brain, taurine acts as a calming, inhibitory neurotransmitter. Taurine increases GABA levels in the brain- GABA being the most abundant inhibitory neurotransmitter. The irony is that taurine is often added to energy drinks, such as 5 Hour Energy and Red Bull. I don’t know why they include it, but it may be to counteract the jittery effect of all the caffeine they include. Research studies on the cerebral effects of taurine are ongoing. I have mentioned before on this blog that taurine is the most abundant free amino acid in the heart. Well, the same is true in the brain, and that speaks volumes for its importance.
Taking taurine may benefit your sleep- and I mean that in two ways. It may help in the immediate sense of helping you relax and fall asleep on the night that you take it. But, it may also help in the cumulative sense, meaning that over time, if you start taking taurine regularly, that it may help you gravitate to a more wholesome sleep pattern. A good dose would be 500 mgs a night.
4 Theanine is an amino acid from green tea. It may occur in other plants, but it is not widely distributed in other plants. It’s just one of those rare and unique things about tea. But, that’s no reason to reject it. Theanine is an excellent way to encourage relaxation. Theanine fosters alpha brain waves, which are not sleep waves, but they are conducive to transitioning to sleep because they are associated with feeling calm and relaxed. Second, theanine, like taurine, increases GABA levels in the brain. Gamma amino butyric acid is the most abundant inhibitory neurotransmitter. GABA supplements are available, but there is concern that GABA does not pass through the blood-brain barrier very readily or at all. It has been shown that theanine increases GABA levels in the brain better than GABA itself. Theanine also increases dopamine, which has been described as your brain’s “feel-good” neurotransmitter, associated with feelings of well-being. And feeling well is certainly conducive to sleep, is it not? For example, by raising dopamine levels in the brain, having sex is conducive to sleep. Does that mean that if you are having trouble sleeping that you should try having sex? Well, sure; why not? You have my permission.
Theanine does not make a person drowsy. You could take it during the day and function just fine. In Japan, theanine is added to children’s soft drinks instead of caffeine- and presumably, they are not trying to put the kids to sleep. And, theanine has been shown to increase attention, concentration and learning in both children and adults. However, if you are lying in the dark with your eyes closed, theanine may indeed foster a smooth transition to sleep- and I mean good, natural, wholesome, restorative sleep with plenty of deep sleep and without the slightest morning hangover. For these reasons, I consider theanine to be one of the best sleep aids out there- even though it only helps indirectly, and precisely because it only helps indirectly. I take it myself- not every night, but whenever I feel that I need help relaxing. And I have never had the slightest negative after-effect from theanine, and I have been using it for years. The only caveat is that you should make sure to take SunTheanine, which is from a Japanese company called Taiyo International. Sun Theanine is the purest and most stable form of theanine. Many American companies distribute SunTheanine, including VRP, which I offer on this website. So, you will definitely get Sun Theanine if you order theanine here.
5 Magnesium –This white mineral has a relaxing effect on nerves and muscles, and that, obviously, is conducive to sleep. Of course, people take magnesium during the day, and they get it from foods, particularly unrefined plant foods, and it doesn’t put them to sleep. But again, if you’re lying in the dark with your eyes closed, a little extra magnesium in your system may help you get to sleep, and it certainly can’t hurt. The same is true of calcium, but I’m a little reluctant to recommend more calcium in light of recent perturbing reports that calcium may be a renegade factor in heart disease. There is definitely a huge problem with calcium being deposited in the wrong places, that is, soft tissues, and that includes arteries. When they speak of “hardening of the arteries” it’s calcium that makes them hard- not cholesterol. However, it’s hard to know what role calcium supplements play in this patholotical process, per se. Even people who go their whole lives without ever taking calcium supplements can and do wind up with pathological calcinosis, and, to some degree, it is considered universal. But, could calcium supplements be feeding the process? A little, perhaps? Who can say no? So, when it comes to supplemental calcium, I think it should be kept low, and I would not want to increase it just for the sake of sleep. But, magnesium is a different story. People do not build up magnesium in their arteries. And, it does not wind up in any wrong places that I know of. If you took too much magnesium, you might get some loose stools, as in “Milk of Magnesia” but that’s about it. And magnesium does so much good for the body. Magnesium lowers your blood pressure, and it should be a prime consideration for anyone with hypertension. Magnesium helps your body utilize sugar, and it helps lower blood sugar and prevent diabetes. Magnesium acts as a co-factor in over 300 enzymes. So taking a little extra magnesium before bed is not a bad idea. We offer an excellent magnesium supplement called Opti-Mag which contains several highly available forms of magnesium. Opti-Mag is one of our oldest and most popular products. Two small capsules provide 240 mgs of magnesium.
We’ll stop now, but next time, I am going to delve into the whole area of herbal sleep aids. Some I like, and some I don’t, and I’ll tell you why. And then, I’ll share some final thoughts with you about sleep. So, please tune in next Sunday, and we’ll put this sleep series to bed, which is exactly where I’m going. Good night.