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The last thing someone who chronically struggles with sleep wants to hear is how important those nightly z’s are, followed by a laundry list of health problems that can ensue from a lack of sleep. Through the fog of exhaustion, they know. But for someone who faces this nightly battle, the harder they chase sleep, the more elusive it can become. Sleep is something that cannot be forced (anyone who has ever found themselves wide awake in the middle of the night knows this), but there are things that can help support the body’s natural circadian rhythm and a normal sleep cycle, including lifestyle habits, certain nutrients, and supplements.
Before we dive into the solutions, let’s recap what a normal sleep cycle looks like: Sleep occurs in two major phases—non-rapid eye movement (NREM) and REM sleep. NREM is divided into stages 1-3, from falling asleep to light sleep to “slow-wave sleep,” or deep sleep, followed by REM (“dream”) sleep. Over the course of night, we cycle through these phases multiple times, from NREM to REM sleep, with deep sleep predominating in the early part of the night and bouts of REM sleep getting longer in the latter part of the night. REM sleep is when our brains process and store relevant events of the day, while deep sleep is when tissues are repaired and built, immunity is strengthened, and metabolic waste (including protein plaques and tangles that are associated with Alzheimer’s disease) is cleared from our brains.
It’s no secret that anyone living in the modern world deals with stress, and chronic stress can be a major sleep thief. Sleep is a natural shift from the sympathetic (“fi ght or fl ight”) to the parasympathetic (“rest and digest”) nervous system, and if all goes well, levels of the stress hormones cortisol, norepinephrine, and epinephrine drop, while levels of melatonin, the hormone that regulates the sleep-wake cycle, increase. But if you are turned on fi ght or fl ight all the time, with chronically elevated cortisol levels, sleep is going to be challenging, if not impossible. If stress is derailing the sleep train, focus on reducing stress levels fi rst. Exercise, yoga, breathing exercises, walks in nature, and meditation can help reduce stress and support sleep. Adaptogens like tulsi (“holy basil”) and reishi mushroom can help stabilize cortisol levels and are great for supporting the body during times of stress; they can encourage healthy sleep as well.1 2 Nutrients that provide extra stress support include the B-complex vitamins, vitamin C, magnesium, and the omega-3 fats EPA and DHA.
While your diet may not be the first thing that comes to mind when contemplating a good night’s sleep, what you eat can have a profound effect on how well, or poorly, you sleep. There are the obvious dietary tips, like avoiding caffeine in the latter part of the day, but did you know that a diet full of refi ned carbs, grains, and sugars can seriously jeopardize a healthy sleep cycle? This type of diet leads to blood sugar instability, inflammation, insulin resistance, and cortisol dysregulation, all of which can lead to poor sleep quality. A diet rich in vegetables, healthy fats, and moderate protein supports healthy blood sugar balance, inflammation levels, and adrenal health. Additionally, consider regularly consuming foods like tart cherry (including tart cherry juice), walnuts, and kiwi, all of which may support healthy sleep.3
Along with getting your stress levels in check and consuming a healthy, nutrient-dense diet, supplementing to build optimal levels of these specific nutrients can support a healthy sleep cycle.
One of the effects of a magnesium deficiency is sleep disturbance, including less slow wave, or deep sleep, a decrease in total sleep time, and increased waking during the night. Magnesium plays an important role in regulating the body’s stress response system (the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis, or HPA axis) as well as supporting the normal production of GABA, a neurotransmitter integral to healthy sleep. Magnesium supplementation has been shown to increase deep sleep and reduce nighttime cortisol levels in older adults, as well as help those suffering from poor sleep quality due to Restless Leg Syndrome.4 5 6 The B vitamins B12, folate, and B6 are required for the synthesis of neurotransmitters involved in sleep, including melatonin and serotonin7 8 9 and vitamin B6 appears to help cells absorb magnesium more effectively.10 11
The RDA for magnesium ranges from 310 to 420 mg daily for adults 18 and older.12 Try this in combination with a high quality B-complex supplement.
Low levels of vitamin D have been associated with poor sleep quality and quantity, with research indicating that levels less than 20 ng/mL can significantly increase the risk of “unhealthy sleep.”13 Vitamin D is known to influence the activity of hundreds of genes, and now researchers have discovered that it appears to activate two genes which control our circadian rhythm. The circadian rhythm affects body temperature and hormone production (including melatonin) and is heavily influenced by sunlight. Our bodies also naturally produce vitamin D upon exposure to sunlight, leading the researchers to suggest that vitamin D may play an important role in the “maintenance of circadian rhythms at the cellular level.”14
Experts recommend maintaining blood levels of vitamin D at 50 ng/mL to support optimal health.15
This amino acid found in green tea has a calming, relaxing, and anxiety-reducing effect.16 It helps support healthy sleep via several changes in the brain including increasing levels of the calming neurotransmitter GABA, which is intimately involved in sleep, while decreasing levels of excitatory neurotransmitters. It also increases alpha brain waves, present during REM sleep.17 L-theanine has been shown to cross the blood-brain barrier, within about 30 minutes of taking it. GABA is also available as a supplement, and a study published earlier this year found that a combination of L-theanine and GABA was more effective compared to either supplement taken alone. Using an animal model, the researchers discovered that taken together, L-theanine and GABA decreased sleep latency, the time it takes to fall asleep, and prolonged sleep duration, including increasing both REM and NREM sleep, deeper sleep during which the body restores and repairs.18
For sleep support and reducing stress, try 100-400 mg of L-theanine19 and 100-200 mg of GABA.20
A foundation of good health is built on a healthy diet, regular movement, and quality sleep. If one of these components is missing, overall health will suffer. Natural sleep aids are abundant, but sometimes the best tactic is to build a foundation for healthy sleep from the ground up by reducing stress, eating well, and supplementing with a few basic nutrients that are known to support your body’s sleepwake cycle.