I’ve had sleep issues as far back as I can remember. Even in elementary school, I was never one of those kids who could fall asleep at 9, sleep 10 hours and wake up refreshed at 7 the next morning, eagerly awaiting the school bus. Today, on many days, especially Sundays when my sleep cycle gets out of whack, I am unable to sleep until past midnight unless I take one or more of the supplements that I will discuss later. On these restless nights, it takes until 1, 2 or even 3 in the morning until the alpha and theta waves of Stage 1 sleep kick in. So yes, I’ve always envied you people who can just shut your eyes and be asleep minutes later!
For many of us, it sucks to face the world running on less than 6 hours of sleep, especially if our bodies are not attuned to abbreviated sleep. In my case, when I sleep less than 6 hours, I tend to have a shot memory, I am unable to concentrate and I feel very drowsy at certain parts of the day. These symptoms obviously correlate negatively with productivity in the workplace. As mentioned in prior posts, I avoid coffee, but I tend to reach for caffeinated teas when my 4 substitutes for caffeine don’t work.
These caffeinated teas get me through the day, but I’m back at square one, struggling to sleep that night due to my caffeine sensitivity. End result: a vicious cycle in which I sleep minimally and caffeinate again the following day.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned techniques to address my sleep issues. It helps to avoid TV / computer screens and to dim the lights in the evening, but the only surefire way I know of getting to sleep quickly is through supplements.
So what legal supplements do I advocate taking?
1) Melatonin is, in my opinion, the king of sleep supplements and my go-to helper. Although not a sleep hormone, per se, melatonin is a hormone naturally produced by the body that signals it is nighttime and gives the body context for sleep. Present in trace amounts during the day, melatonin is produced by the pineal gland in the evening to prepare you for sleep1. Humans, especially those in the first world, don’t produce melatonin as early in the evening as their historic counterparts due to the stimuli today involving light and other related factors.
Thus, in these modern times, your pineal gland may delay the production of melatonin. That is why supplemental melatonin is so useful – once you take it, it will tell your body that it is time to go to sleep. In most normal cases—i.e. you are not stressed out or depressed—you should fall asleep within 30 to 90 minutes of taking it. At least I do! In addition to being natural, melatonin is NOT addictive and has been linked to fighting cancer2.
What are the risks of using melatonin? From a usage standpoint, if I take a huge dose (such as > 5 mg) in one sitting, I tend to wake up after 3 to 4 hours of sleep and am unable to go back to sleep without a subsequent dose. What’s the solution to this problem? Don’t take > 5 mg of melatonin in one setting! Take 5 mg or less (for me, 2-3 mg is optimal). If, for some reason, I wake up in the middle of the night and struggle to fall asleep again (a rare occurrence), I take a very small dose (1-2 mg) and am usually asleep again within a half hour. I’ve noticed that on the days following nights like this, I am surprisingly productive and alert anyway despite the disturbance to my sleep the prior night. So, don’t panic!
Clinically, melatonin can cause next day grogginess, nausea and irritability, but you typically experience such symptoms if you screw up dosage as per the example in the previous paragraph. Furthermore, although melatonin has been shown not to be addictive, use common sense— don’t take it every day and don’t use it for months on end. Also, this one should be obvious but don’t take it during the day unless you want to be a mess for your 3 PM meeting. Although melatonin has been clinically proven not to be addictive, in my opinion, melatonin users should cycle melatonin (i.e use it for X number of days, avoid it for a while and use it again if needed) to be on the safe side.
I prefer time release capsules of melatonin as they are built to release melatonin into the body at various intervals through the night to keep you asleep. I’ve had particular success with the brand below (link on Amazon provided):
2) ZMA is a popular supplement generally used by athletes to promote better quality sleep (and thus quicker recovery from the grind of training). ZMA is composed of zinc, magnesium aspartate and vitamin B6. For sleep purposes, zinc aids in the metabolism of melatonin. For men, zinc is crucial for maintaining testosterone levels and, for women, it aids in the synthesis and secretion of sex hormones3. Magnesium is something that most Americans sadly don’t consume enough of – not only does magnesium promote muscle relaxation (and thus sleep) but it also aids in optimizing brain function4. Vitamin B6 has many benefits but its role here is to enhance the effects of zinc and magnesium so that all three ingredients can play their roles in an optimized manner.
Many times, I take ZMA alone, but, on Sundays, I take it with melatonin so that I achieve not only a quicker onset of sleep but also quality sleep to get a strong start to the week. It is important to take ZMA on an empty stomach 30-60 minutes before bed in order to best absorb the zinc and magnesium to produce the desired effects. Absolutely avoid calcium consumption around the time you take ZMA as calcium blocks ZMA absorption.
What are the downsides of ZMA? Be ready for some intense dreams! This is not surprising given the amount of time you will spend in REM sleep with ZMA. Make sure to take the right dosage – from a typical bottle, men should take 3 capsules, which should equate to roughly 30 mg of zinc and 450 mg of magnesium. Going under may not lead to the desired benefits. Going over may cause adverse effects on the immune system, metabolism and muscle growth. Due to the greater testosterone production resulting from ZMA use, women should be careful and stick with 2/3 the standard dose if they do decide to take it.
Although most brands of ZMA are similar, I’ve added a link to the brand I normally buy here:
3) Diphenhydramine HCl is another means to achieve sleep quickly. Popular brands based on diphenhydramine HCl include Zzzquil, my go-to, and Benadryl. Diphenhydramine HCl is an antihistamine. Antihistamines block histamines, which are neurotransmitters that keep you awake.
On a given night, if my goal were to guarantee a full night of sleep, I would pick Zzzquil over melatonin. When I take Zzzquil, I am KNOCKED OUT for at least 7 hours, but the downside is that I sometimes wake up mildly groggy. Take diphenylhydramine HCl at least 30 minutes before bed (I personally aim for 60 minutes).
Zzzquil is a drug that should not be taken regularly. Diphenylamine HCl can build tolerance and lose effectiveness after three days of continued use5. Additional side effects to be aware of include dry mouth, dizziness and headache, although I recall experiencing only the dry mouth.
You can find it in most pharmacies, but, if you’re feeling lazy and have Prime, you can find it on Amazon.
4) Chamomile tea is another popular sleep supplement that has been used for hundreds of years to aid with sleep. In addition to sleep issues, chamomile tea has also associated with treating stomach issues, muscle spasms and inflammation.
When I’ve taken chamomile tea on a standalone basis, I have felt calmer, but sleep efficacy depends on the brand. I’ve found Tulsi Sleep tea to be one of these effective brands (I’ve attached the link below for your reference):
I generally use chamomile tea and melatonin together as chamomile tea taken on a standalone basis doesn’t always guarantee achieving sleep quickly. If you are going to stack the supplements together, from personal experience, I recommend taking chamomile tea T-1 to T-1.5 hours from bed to get the body relaxed and then the melatonin T-30 minutes out so that it kicks in faster.
Chamomile doesn’t have many side effects but you should avoid it if you happen to have daisy allergies.
5) Beyond the supplements I list above, there are others. Some folks I know swear by red wine and, although it can help bring about sleep, be prepared for poor quality sleep as it can disrupt the sleep cycle. A glass of warm milk before bed can be helpful as it contains tryptophan, the same amino acid found in turkey that sends us into drowsy states on Thanksgiving. However, I’ve personally never had much luck with warm milk. Valerian root, which is derived from a flower plant, is another popular sleep supplement that is worth mentioning. I tried it years ago and, from what I recall, it wasn’t as effective as melatonin and Zzzquil were so I stopped using it.
Whether you decide on melatonin, ZMA, Zzzquil, chamomile tea and / or any of the others, use your best judgment when you take it. If you feel serious side effects from using these supplements, which should not happen unless you are reckless with dosage or have a pre-existing condition, talk to a doctor, scale back on dosage or stop taking the supplement. For the 99% of you that will use these supplements correctly, here is to a better night’s sleep!
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