On nutrition: Supplements for sleep
It’s true that as we get older, we sleep less well or as long. Why is that? Scientists say that several changes occur with aging that disrupt our natural sleep cycle.
That’s why I was intrigued by a TV ad for a product that claims to be “clinically tested” and “proven effective” in helping people fall asleep faster and sleep longer.
“I bet it contains magnesium,” I remarked to my husband as we listened to the compelling spiel. Indeed, the supplement contains magnesium, a mineral which, among other things, can help promote healthy sleep.
Other ingredients commonly found in sleep supplements that may help include:
— Valerian, an herb historically used for the treatment of nervousness and stress. According to the National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements, some studies have shown that valerian can help reduce the time it takes to fall asleep. Other studies, however, show no benefit.
— Hops, the flowers of the plant used to make beer, have sedative effects, say the researchers. Although there are no strong studies to support its use for sleep, a small amount of hops (about what you would get in a non-alcoholic beer) can cause drowsiness in some people.
— Ashwagandha extract is made from an evergreen shrub that grows in Asia and Africa. According to the National Library of Medicine, the herb is “possibly” effective for insomnia and stress.
— GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is a chemical in our brains that slows down the messages we receive and therefore helps us feel calm, explains the Cleveland Clinic. However, scientists are still examining the effectiveness and safety of GABA supplements for improving sleep. Interestingly, this chemical is also found in many plant and fermented foods, including spinach, brown rice, and kimchi.
– Chamomile (German type) may help improve sleep quality, although there is not enough information to know its effects on insomnia on its own, according to the National Center for Complementary Medicine and integrative.
— Passionflower is a climbing vine that has been used as a sedative. Again, it hasn’t been studied extensively to improve sleep, although it may cause drowsiness in some people, experts say.
— Melatonin is a hormone in our brain that makes us sleepy. It is made synthetically or from animals and microorganisms for use in dietary supplements. Although it may help you fall asleep faster, sleep experts do not currently recommend it for the long-term treatment of insomnia due to a lack of information about its safety.
Also remember that even if a product claims to be 100% natural and without side effects, anything we ingest for a certain result can affect our health. Always check with your doctor and/or pharmacist for any interactions that may occur with your current medications, especially if you are pregnant.
Barbara Intermill is a dietitian nutritionist and unionized columnist. She is the author of “Quinn-Essential Nutrition: The Uncomplicated Science of Eating”. Email him at [email protected]