Dr. Kevin Passero
In my last blog, How Sleep Impacts Cholesterol Levels, I reviewed some of the most recent research showing how poor sleep or lack of sleep can lead to increased levels of dangerous cholesterol and increase cardiovascular disease risk. In this blog I am going to review four clinically validated natural supplements and herbal extracts that have been proven to improve sleep quality and quantity. So, if you are looking to optimize sleep in order to support healthy cholesterol levels and heart health, or are just looking for increased energy levels and enhanced mood and concentration keep reading to learn about these effective and natural tools.
This is one of my favorite natural solutions for sleep because it has a perfect combination of efficacy and tolerability. It works by regulating a key disrupter of sleep, stress. Ashwagandha has been shown to balance cortisol, a key stress hormone, that can often spike at night when you are under times of increased stress. It leads to that classic feeling of mind racing and can impact your ability to fall asleep and stay asleep at night. There is no better natural remedy for balancing cortisol levels than ashwangandha. It’s effect is gentle enough to not leave you feeling groggy in the morning, but powerful enough to make a noticeable difference in your quality of sleep. A randomized, double blind, placebo-controlled trial done on a patented ashwagandha extract called Shoden® had impressive results including:
- 72% increase in restorative sleep
- 39 minutes of increased quality of sleep per night
- 71% increase in mental alertness scores
These are impressive results by any standards! Restorative sleep is the type of sleep we all strive to get each night because it is this type of sleep that results in waking up feeling refreshed and energized. Other forms of ashwagandha might not work quite as well so make sure to find a high-quality extract like the one used in this study.
GABA , gamma-aminobutyric acid, is a neurotransmitter that helps your mind to “power down”. It is naturally produced by the neurons in our brain to help us relax and balance our metal activity against stress. It can be used as a supplement for relieving anxiety and helping to support sleep, however I have found that most GABA supplements on the market deliver sub-par results. They fail to create significant changes and studies show that they do not cross the blood-brain barrier and have little effect on inducing a shift in brain neurochemistry. Plus, most GABA supplements are derived from synthetic sources, and it is always preferred if a compound can be produced from purely naturally sources.
PharmaGABA® is all-natural and is the only GABA supplement proven to increase alpha brain waves-the brain waves associated with relaxation and improved focus and concentration. It is made through a simple fermentation process using the same beneficial probiotics used to produce the classic Japanese fermented vegetable dish called kimchi.
In one remarkable study, PharmaGABA® significantly reduced the time it took study participants to fall asleep and significantly increased sleep quality. The participants who took PharmaGABA® spent longer periods of time in deep sleep, which is the most restorative, and reported improvements in alertness upon waking.
Indigenous to North America, Passionflower is a beautiful flowering vine and a potent herb that has been used for centuries in traditional medicine to promote relaxation and better sleep. Scientists have discovered that Passionflower is rich in certain plant flavonoids, including high amounts of one called isovitexin. This compound has the amazing ability to bind GABA receptors in the brain to induce relaxation and sleep. In one recent double-blind randomized placebo-controlled study on people with insomnia disorder, researchers found that total sleep time was significantly increased in the Passionflower group compared to the placebo. In addition, sleep efficiency and waking after falling asleep was significantly improved after 2 weeks in the passionflower group but there was no difference in the placebo group.
I like to combine Passionflower with low doses of PharmaGABA® to naturally target one of the key pathways in the brain that regulates relaxation and sleep.
Probably the most well-known naturally remedy, melatonin is backed by solid research for its ability to enhance certain aspects of sleep. It is a key trigger when it comes to inducing sleep, so it works best for people who have trouble falling asleep and not quite as well for the more common issues of needing help staying asleep. However, time-release melatonin can be very useful when used in combination with the remedies listed above to help you stay asleep throughout the night. Melatonin levels tend to decline as we age, so some of the most impressive results are seen in older individuals.
In one study, adults ages 55+ who took delayed-release melatonin before bed reported significant improvements in their sleep quality and morning alertness.
Another study that spanned six months found that delayed-release melatonin helped older adults fall asleep faster and enjoy better sleep quality throughout the entire night
And other research shows that daily melatonin supplementation can have benefits beyond better sleep. Studies show melatonin also provides significant immune, cardiovascular, cognitive and anti-inflammatory support.
One major misconception about melatonin is that if you take it regularly your body will stop producing it. Melatonin is made by the pineal gland in the brain which is not subject to the negative feedback loop the body uses to regulate other hormones. To date, there has been no validated clinical research proving that regular melatonin usage reduces your body’s ability to produce it. We do know that melatonin levels decline with age, stress and exposure to artificial light which are all things we are subject to.
When it comes to melatonin, a lot goes a long way. I prefer to use a low dose of both instant and delayed release melatonin as part of my natural sleep protocols. This helps you fall asleep quickly and stay asleep throughout the night.
The Take Home Message:
These are four of the most effective natural sleep aids I have used in my 20+ years of clinical practice. They are safe, effective, non-habit forming and help people wake up feeling refreshed and ready to take on the day. Some people with sleep issues may just need one of them, while other people with more severe sleep issues may need a combination of them to ensure they fall asleep easily and stay asleep throughout the night. I often prescribe all four together in appropriate doses for my patients.
Did you know that most over the counter sleep aids, like the ones that are advertised as PM formulas, have been linked to increased risk of dementia?! Many of them work by blocking a neurotransmitter in the brain called acetylcholine, which naturally declines as we age and plays a significant role in maintaining the memory centers of the brain. Individuals who used these common non-natural over the counter sleep aids regularly had an almost 50% greater risk of developing dementia.
So, consider trying one, or a combination of the natural products above to ensure you get the sleep you need to keep your body and heart healthy without compromising your brain!