If you suffer from chronic difficulty sleeping – like I do – you will know very well how debilitating and miserable it can be! Lack of sleep saps your productivity, puts brakes on your performance, and makes you more vulnerable to accidents. And it just plain leaves you feeling like something the cat dragged in…
Chances are, you’ve already tried some of the more obvious things, like not drinking coffee late at night. (And if you haven’t, that’s a good place to start… )
Maybe you’ve asked your doctor for sleeping pills, or tried one or more alternative remedies - and found either that they don’t help very much, or else leave you feeling wiped out and groggy next day.
So what else can you do?
A lot of people have found that taking 5 HTP for sleep can be helpful. But before you rush out and buy some, read on to find out more about it first…
Sleep problems - the problem
If you have trouble with your sleep, you’re not alone.
According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) around 70 million Americans suffer from chronic sleep problems. Some of those problems are due to another underlying medical or mental health issue, while others are classified as sleep disorders on their own.
There are some simple strategies that might help and certainly will do no harm no matter what the problem… still, it’s a good idea to learn a little more about your own type of sleep problem before you try any type of remedy. The most basic distinction is between insomnia and sleep apnea - the two most common sleep disorders, and both conditions that can leave you feeling tired and dysfunctional. The treatment strategies are quite different, however, and since sleep apnea can be serious, you might want to check whether or not its symptoms could apply to you.
Here is an article which has some good general information about different types of sleep disorders and their symptoms - and some guidelines about when you might need to have a professional assessment of your sleep problem.
It also offers some excellent advice on basic “sleep hygiene” – the healthy habits that can help promote good sleep.
What is healthy sleep?
Scientists have identified 4 different stages of sleep, plus REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, which is sometimes referred to as Stage 5. We all cycle through these stages several times each night. Each cycle lasts about 90 minutes, but the cycles change as the night progresses, with more deep sleep in the earlier part of the night, and longer periods of REM sleep towards morning. Healthy sleep includes all of these stages, but the two most important are
- deep sleep – characterised by very slow brain waves known as delta waves – which allows healing and regeneration at a physical level, and
- REM sleep (dream sleep) which you need for processing information and emotions from the day. People deprived of REM sleep (as can happen with many sleep medications) have been found to be more prone to irritability as well as impaired memory, concentration & cognitive function.
Healthy sleep – sleep which keeps you functioning to your maximum potential – includes all of these stages in a natural rhythm so that your brain and body can recharge properly for the day ahead.
Serotonin and sleep
Serotonin is one of the most important brain chemicals affecting sleep. It seems to do its job at least partly through the regulation of circadian rhythms, i.e. the systematic cycles your body goes through in each 24 hour light-dark period – but we don’t know exactly how it does this.
This next part is a bit technical, for those who are interested in the science behind this. If that is not you, please feel free to skip ahead!
We do know serotonin (as well as its cousin, melatonin) is significant in the pineal gland and in a part of the brain located in the hypothalamus called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), both of which are involved in regulating circadian rhythms. The SCN can be thought of as your main body clock, and gets information about light and dark mostly from your eyes via the optic nerve. (Surprisingly, the skin also can pick up information about light - but is usually not so important).
Light is one of the key factors driving circadian rhythm, and one of the ways it does this is by increasing serotonin production in the brain (and decreasing melatonin), via the SCN.
Serotonin also seems to play a role in modulating your circadian rhythm in its sensitivity to light. That is, if your serotonin levels are high, your circadian rhythm tends to be less sensitive to light (which is in general a good thing). In practice, what this means is that you are less likely to get depressed on gloomy days and less susceptible to SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder).
Adequate serotonin also means you are more likely to sleep better, and particularly in terms of the deep sleep you need for your body to regenerate and heal. During the stages of deep sleep your brain’s serotonin system is more active - while during REM sleep, it is less so, with noradrenaline (norepinephrine) becoming more dominant.
To help get this adequate brain level of serotonin, you need L-Tryptophan (either from food, or from a supplement) or 5 HTP (which your brain can make from L-Tryptophan if it has an adequate supply).
Does 5 HTP help sleep?
5 HTP started to become popular as an insomnia remedy in 1989, after L-Tryptophan – which had previously been widely used as a natural sleep supplement – was banned in the USA as a result of several deaths, all traced to a contaminated batch of L-Tryptophan from Japan.
L-Tryptophan is now once again widely available in the US (though you might want to make sure it comes from a properly certified facility) and preferred by many health practitioners, but 5 HTP has some advantages of its own.
While many people (including myself) have had good results using 5 HTP for sleep, there has been very little formal research done to confirm this.
I found one clinical study (reported by the University of Maryland Medical Center) that did find that people taking 5 HTP at night fell asleep faster and slept more deeply than others in a control group who took a placebo.
5 HTP dose for insomnia relief
The above researchers suggest taking 200-400 mg of 5 HTP for sleep, and that it may take 6-12 weeks to have its full effect.
However, I’ve found myself that taking just 100 mg of a slow-release form of 5 HTP can work very well to help me sleep (this is the one I use and recommend), and that dose is the maximum I need. Dosage needs vary individually though, and you should experiment yourself to find what works for you. It’s best to start with a low dose and build up to a higher dose gradually if you need it, and always remember that too much serotonin can be as problematic as too little. You definitely should not take more than 400 mg 5-HTP per day, and though it won’t lead to dependency in the same way that most sleeping medications do, many practitioners recommend that you take a break from it, for example one day each week, or one week each 2-3 months.
That said, 5-HTP is generally considered safe, with relatively few side-effects or disadvantages to its use.
Other natural sleep supplements
One of the best researched natural sleep supplements is L-Tryptophan, which is now available again in the United States after being banned for over 12 years because of a contamination scare.
A number of studies have shown that L-Tryptophan is a very effective remedy for insomnia, taken before bed with a small amount of carbohydrate to help it reach your brain. Because L-Tryptohan (unlike 5 HTP) has to compete with other amino acids in getting across the blood-brain barrier, you also need to take a higher dose to get the same effect – starting at 1000 mg.
Once it gets into your brain, L-Tryptophan is converted into 5 HTP, which is then converted into serotonin. So both 5 HTP and L-Tryptophan help insomnia in exactly the same way.
Although there is no evidence for any concern about taking L-Tryptophan as a supplement - providing you get it from a certified facility - there have been concerns raised about taking large doses of L-Tryptophan over a long period of time, as with any intensive supplementation. The main takeaway from this, as I see it, is that serotonin is a powerful regulator not only of sleep, but also of many other functions in your body, and you need to be cautious in overdoing any serotonin supplements, alone or in combination.
Melatonin – a hormone produced by the pineal gland in response to an absence of light – has also become popular as a natural sleep supplement. Melatonin is not a direct sleep regulator, but works by managing your circadian rhythm, including your sleep-wake cycle.
As such, it is especially effective for helping overcome insomnia caused by jet-lag, or by shift-work, or other circadian rhythm disruption.
Is melatonin a good natural insomnia remedy?
Recent evidence from MIT suggests that it can be, and at lower doses than most supplements provide (as low as 0.1 mg).
This study showed that melatonin was significantly effective for insomnia relief for a group of insomniacs over 50. Here is the link to the actual research paper:
These researchers warn about taking too high a dose: the highest dose they tested resulted in more side-effects such as feeling sleepy during the day, and also quickly became ineffective as the melatonin brain receptors stopped responding.
Bottom line: melatonin can be helpful for insomnia, but remember that it is actually a hormone and designed to work naturally at quite low levels. High levels taken over long periods can lead to side effects, less responsiveness, and disruption of other cyclic patterns such as fertility.
Herbal sleep remedies
Valerian is one of the best known herbal sleep remedies, used in traditional herbal medicine and with effectiveness supported by many research studies.
It’s classed as GRAS - generally recognised as safe - by the FDA, though like everything else, you need to be careful at higher doses.
I’ve found that high dose Valerian supplements do help me sleep, but leave me feeling quite groggy next day. So I recommend using it sparingly!
This article has a good discussion of the research, and concludes:
In general, clinical studies with valerian extracts show the mild hypnotic effects of valerian decreases sleep latency and improves sleep quality.
Traditionally valerian was taken as a tea. But here’s a warning: it tastes foul! You might want to be nice to your taste buds and try it as a standardised extract…
Passion Flower is another traditional herbal remedy that has been used for centuries for its calming effect, for both anxiety and insomnia. One study found that Passiflora extract was as effective as oxazepam in reducing anxiety, but with fewer side effects. Passion flower has a long history of use and is often included with other calming and sedative substances in commercial remedies. You can read more about it here.
Just one warning: don’t use this if you are pregnant, as it has some (mild) stimulating effect on the uterine muscles.
Lemon Balm has also been used traditionally to help with stress and anxiety. It’s less sedative than valerian, and tastes better too, if you want a mild, pleasant tasting tea to relax you before bedtime. It is also included in a number of commercial remedies for both anxiety and insomnia. This one won’t give you any groggy after-effects!
Hops is used to make beer - and this well-documented sedative herb is often included in natural sleep remedies. (This might be one of the reasons that beer can make you sleepy!)
This is another one to avoid if you are pregnant, though, as it also has an estrogenic effect.
Camomile is yet another traditional herbal relaxant, usually taken as a tea before bed, though is also often used with other ingredients in natural sleep or stress remedies. Camomile is pleasant and safe, and though its effect is only mild, it is worth trying.
What is the best natural sleeping pill to take?
I’ve found two natural sleeping pills that really work for me.
One is slow release 5-HTP, by Jigsaw Health.
It’s fairly mild, but effective, and safe to take on a long-term basis. I’ve not experienced any adaptation (i.e. the need to take a higher dose to get the same level of effect after you’ve taken it for a while) and it also gives me a bonus: a general serotonin boost that helps with my mood and appetite.
The other thing I really like about 5-HTP is that it is ok to take at those 2-3 a.m. times when you lie awake tossing & turning and can’t get back to sleep without help. I don’t generally take it after 3 a.m., especially if I need to get up early. But it doesn’t leave me feeling drugged all day if I do… and up until 3 a.m. is fine, even though it is a slow release tablet.
While 5-HTP does help with sleep, it is not really intended as a sleep remedy.
Sleep Fast by Tranquility Labs
The other natural sleeping pill I really like is Sleep Fast which contains Melatonin and 5-HTP, but blended with several other ingredients too.
I use Sleep Fast on those nights when I just can’t get to sleep at all.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that Sleep Fast really does help me sleep soundly – it’s that deep, refreshing sleep, too, and I wake up ready to go, with none of that morning-after grogginess I’ve experienced after taking high dose valerian, or valerian, hops and passionflower mixtures.
Unlike stand-alone 5-HTP, Sleep Fast is designed as a sleep remedy, and so it packs more of a punch if you need something that will have a stronger effect. I’ve taken it on a few occasions up until 2 a.m. too - and I still feel alert enough in the morning. Although Sleep Fast contains valerian – which can be quite sedative – the dose is just enough to relax you without causing any problems next morning.
The makers of Sleep Fast have really done their research, and there is just enough of each ingredient to be effective without any after-effects.
Sleep Fast contains a synergistic combination of some of the sleep boosters I’ve discussed above – 5-HTP, Melatonin, valerian, camomile and lemon balm, with synergistic B6, that have proven benefits for stress and anxiety. No single one ingredient is present in super-high dosage, so you are not risking any of those side effects or loss of effectiveness that can sometimes occur if you overdo it.
And it works!