Americans are desperate to get more sleep.
More than a third of us fail to manage the recommended 7-8 hours per night, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and about one in four of us will also develop insomnia each year.
Chronic sleep deprivation has been linked with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, obesity, depression, and even a shorter lifespan. Yet despite your best efforts, sometimes you just can’t fall asleep like you should.
What do you do then?
Don’t reach for those sleeping pills—they’re dangerous. Instead, consider nootropics, dietary supplements that enhance brain function so you sleep well and awake refreshed and ready to tackle your day.
Why Sleeping Pills are a Bad Idea
The FDA recently required manufacturers of certain prescription sleeping pills to add a new “boxed warning” to their product labels. This is the most serious and visible of all FDA-required warnings and will alert the public to the potential for serious injuries while taking these drugs.
So far, there have been over 60 reported cases of people on sleeping pills getting hurt because they were sleepwalking or engaging in other activities while not fully awake. Some of them fell, others nearly drowned, some got into car crashes, and some died. Even those taking the lowest possible dose or who were just starting their prescriptions suffered from these experiences.
Studies have linked sleeping pills to other problems, too, including next-day sleepiness and brain fog, memory lapses, and dependency. In 2010, scientists reported that people relying on the drugs to get a good night’s rest had a three-fold higher risk of death—even when taking less than 18 pills a year—and a significant increased risk for cancer.
A 2016 research review also concluded that sleeping pills were related to an increased risk for serious illnesses and premature deaths from cancer, serious infections, mood disorders, accidental injuries, suicides, and homicides.
It’s just not worth the risk, particularly when there are safer options available.
What are Nootropics?
We’re all used to taking supplements to improve our health in a variety of ways.
Those living in the northern latitudes without enough sun exposure, for example, may turn to vitamin D supplements. Those wanting to stay active as they age may use CoQ10 to support energy production. Those looking to ease digestive ailments might consume probiotics.
All of these supplements help support optimal body function. So why not do the same for our brains?
It was back in the 1970s that the term “nootropics” first came to light. The word comes from the Greek nous, which means “mind,” and trepein, which means “to bend.”
Romanian psychologist and chemist Dr. Corneliu E. Giurgea is credited with creating and defining the term. He discovered the first nootropic when developing a drug to treat motion sickness. During testing, he found that it also boosted mental performance, improved memory consolidation, and sped up information processing.
Based on his research, he developed a set of criteria that constitutes a nootropic:
- it must enhance brain function in some way—often by protecting brain cells, encouraging cell-to-cell communication, and increasing resistance to stress
- it must not create the usual side effects of psychotropic drugs like lithium or antidepressants
In other words, a nootropic must help improve brain function while simultaneously maintaining or supporting a healthy brain.
Today, we define a nootropic as any supplement or substance that boosts brainpower and benefits your life. In our fast-paced, technologically driven world, many of us welcome assistance in dealing with things like stress, lack of focus, low energy, and most certainly, insomnia or difficulty getting enough sleep.
How the Brain Affects Sleep
It makes sense to target the brain when struggling with sleep deprivation because several structures in the brain are involved with sleep.
- Hypothalamus: This peanut-sized structure deep inside the brain controls sleep and arousal. Cells in the hypothalamus receive information about light exposure from the eyes, which in turn, affects hormones that make you sleepy (or not).
- Brain stem: At the base of the brain, the brain stem interacts with the hypothalamus to help you transition between being awake and going to sleep. Cells within both of these structures produce “GABA,” which is a brain chemical that helps you feel calm and relaxed.
- Thalamus: These two masses of gray matter on each side of the brain relay information from the senses to the cerebral cortex. They go quiet during most stages of sleep until you start dreaming.
- Pineal gland: This gland produces the sleep hormone “melatonin,” which helps you fall asleep.
- Basal forebrain: This is near the front and bottom of the brain, and helps promote sleep and wakefulness. It also releases “adenosine,” which supports sleep. (Caffeine blocks the action of adenosine, which is part of the reason it keeps you awake.)
The brain is also in charge of your “circadian rhythm,” which is that internal clock regulating your sleep and wake times. Also known as your sleep/wake cycle, it’s controlled by the hypothalamus and affected by your exposure to light. That’s why you normally feel awake in the daytime and sleepy at night.
Your eyes actually have specialized cells inside them specifically designed to take in the light you see and send corresponding signals to the brain, letting it know whether it’s time to stay awake or go to sleep. Stare at your smartphone for too long into the night, and the blue light it emits will fool your eyes and your brain into thinking it’s time to be awake, even if it’s way past midnight.
Recent studies have indicated that supporting your unique circadian rhythm or natural sleep-wake cycle is important to overall health. Going against it—like working the graveyard or other unusual shifts—can throw this body clock off, and increase your risk of health problems like weight gain, type 2 diabetes, and even cancer.
Similarly, working on computers or using cell phones way past your bedtime can also short circuit your body clock, making it more difficult to fall asleep and resulting in sleepiness the next day.
There’s one more system to be aware of when it comes to sleep—your brain’s desire for stability. You operate best both physically and mentally when there is equilibrium in all your systems. That’s why you tend to feel at your best when you get a good, restorative night’s sleep—particularly if you tend to get 7-8 hours every night on a regular basis.
Because of this desire for what’s called “homeostasis,” the brain will keep track of your need for sleep. That’s why if you don’t go to bed on time, you grow increasingly sleepy for each hour you stay awake. This “drive for sleep” will cause you to sleep longer and more deeply after you’ve gone without for a while.
8 of the Best Nootropics for a Good Night’s Sleep
Fortunately, there are a number of nootropics that may help you to get a better night’s sleep. They include the following:
Melatonin is a hormone that helps tell your body that it’s time to go to sleep. Exposure to light can disrupt melatonin production, as can going against your body clock, such as when you travel to other time zones.
Melatonin is such a powerful sleep aid that it’s actually registered as a drug in Europe. Studies have shown that it can help you go to sleep faster, and may also help improve the quality of your sleep. The National Institutes of Health notes that it may help with a number of sleep disorders, including those caused by shift work, jet lag, and delayed sleep phase disorder.
Some people may feel sleepy the next day when using melatonin, so start with the lowest dose possible and see how it affects you. Though the supplement is safe, too much can lead to headaches, dizziness, and irritability. For trouble falling asleep, try 0.3 to 5 mg of melatonin 60 minutes before bedtime.
If you tend to feel anxious before sleep, or can’t get your brain to stop worrying, this may be the nootropic for you. Ashwagandha is an ancient Ayurvedic herb that helps relieve stress and anxiety so you can relax.
In a 2017 study, researchers found that an active compound from Ashwagandha called “triethylene glycol” helped induce sleep, writing that Ashwagandha leaves “could potentially be useful for insomnia therapy.”
The American Sleep Association adds that Ashwagandha has been used for centuries to treat sleep disorders, with several studies validating its sleep-inducing effects. Typical effective doses range from 125 mg to 600 mg per day.
GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is a naturally occurring agent found in the human central nervous system. It’s also a natural component in green, black, and other forms of tea, as well as in fermented foods.
GABA is a major communicator in the brain (neurotransmitter), blocking certain impulses so that you don’t become overly stressed or anxious. GABA is also linked with a more balanced mood and pain relief.
For stress-related sleeping disorders, GABA can help. Researchers reported in 2010 that patients receiving supplements of GABA combined with 5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan, a natural amino acid) were able to fall asleep faster, and slept longer than those who received a placebo. Morning grogginess also improved in the GABA group.
A later 2018 study found similar results—after 4 weeks of treatment with GABA extracted from fermented rice germ, insomnia patients fell asleep faster and experienced improvements in sleep quality.
If you’re under chronic stress, feeling anxious or depressed, or struggling with muscle pain and headaches, you may want to try GABA. It could be that you’re low in the nutrient. In one 2008 study, researchers found that participants with insomnia were 30 percent lower in GABA than participants who were sleeping well. Try about 300 mg daily.
This herb is native to the South Pacific islands and has long been used to calm mental anxiety. It contains compounds called “kavalactones” that help increase GABA and serotonin, the “good-mood” neurotransmitter. Both of these are necessary for relaxation and sleep. It can also raise levels of dopamine, which is another positive neurotransmitter, and has sedative properties that can make you feel sleepy.
Studies are mixed on this one, but some show that kava may help you sleep better. One small study of 24 people found that it reduced stress and insomnia when compared to a placebo, while another larger study found the same results.
You may try kava tea or take it in tablets or a tincture. Experts recommend a dose of 70-250 mg of the active compounds, kavalactones. Check the label carefully. If the capsule contains 100 mg of kava root extract, standardized to 40 percent kavalactones, that results in 40 mg kavalactones.
There is some concern about liver damage with this supplement, but usually only with poor quality supplements that include other parts of the plant in addition to the root. The root is the beneficial part—leaves and stems should not be included. To be extra safe, use this one only short-term.
5. Lemon Balm
This gentle herb helps promote relaxation and stress-relief, and may also help ease indigestion. It can promote the production of GABA, too, which is one of the reasons it may help ease insomnia.
In a small 2010 study, stressed volunteers with mild-to-moderate anxiety disorders and sleep problems took a standardized lemon balm extract for 15 days. Results showed that the extract reduced anxiety manifestations by 18 percent, soothed anxiety-associated symptoms by 15 percent, and lowered insomnia by 42 percent. A total of 85 percent of the participants achieved full relief of their insomnia.
If you’re feeling nervous or edgy before bed, try a cup of lemon balm tea. A regular supplement twice daily can also improve sleep in those with sleep disorders. A typical dosage is 300 mg of standardized lemon balm extract twice daily.
This mineral is necessary for many bodily functions, including nerve and muscle function, but it’s also critical for a good night’s sleep. In fact, many studies have shown that dietary magnesium can be used to improve symptoms of insomnia.
In 2018, for instance, researchers evaluated nearly 1,500 adults aged 20 and above and found that those who were getting more magnesium on a daily basis were less likely to report daytime sleepiness.
In an earlier study, researchers split participants into two groups: one took 500 mg of magnesium a day, and the other took a placebo, for 8 weeks. At the end of the study period, those taking the magnesium experienced significant increases in sleep time and sleep efficiency, and were also able to fall asleep faster than those taking the placebo.
If you’re struggling to fall asleep, if you wake frequently during the night, or if you have restless leg syndrome, try 350 mg of magnesium per day.
This is an amino acid found in green tea that’s similar to some of the neurotransmitters we have in our brains. It helps boost levels of serotonin, dopamine, and GABA, and can help encourage` slower alpha waves in the brain, which are associated with calm and relaxation, as well as with creativity.
Studies have found that l-theanine can help improve mood, promote alertness, and boost memory, and it may also help improve the quality of your sleep. It creates an almost immediate relaxation effect, reducing stress and anxiety, and can help you feel more like sleeping.
If you struggle with hyperactivity, including ADHD, this may be the nootropic for you. In a 2013 study, researchers found that participants with ADHD-related sleep disorders experienced improvements in sleep efficiency. Try 100 to 400 mg per day.
This essential amino acid is a precursor to serotonin, melatonin, and niacin in the body and brain, meaning that it’s necessary for their production. It also helps improve mood and ease symptoms of anxiety.
This is one nootropic that is likely to be effective the first time you take it. One study found that it was effective in helping participants get to sleep faster after the first dose. In those with more chronic cases of insomnia, repeated administrations of low doses over time created improvement. This supplement is well tolerated and usually lacks any side effects.
Tryptophan was also effective in adolescents that had gone through detoxification from drug dependency. Those who took tryptophan supplements significantly reduced insomnia symptoms, compared to those taking a placebo.
You Don’t Have to Go Without Sleep
If you’re struggling to get a good night’s sleep, think about why that may be. Are you stressed out? Depressed? Struggling with restless leg syndrome or muscle aches? Or is your brain running non-stop and you can’t seem to get it to quiet down?
Once you get a general idea of what may be going on, check out the eight supplements above and choose one or two to try for a few weeks. (Always check with your doctor before starting any new supplement, particularly if you’re taking medications.)
Of course, don’t forget to practice good sleep hygiene, which includes these tips:
- Keep your bedroom cool and dark.
- Make sure you have a comfortable mattress—those 5-8 years old probably need to be replaced.
- Don’t take any technological gadgets into your bedroom, as they interfere with melatonin production. That includes cell phones, televisions, computers, and tablets.
- Practice a before-bed routine that includes dimming the lights, shutting off the technology, and engaging in a quiet activity like reading, stretching, listening to calming music, or taking a warm bath or shower.
- Exercise every day. It helps improve sleep.
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With over 20 years as a professional writer/editor in the health and wellness industry, Colleen M. Story has authored thousands of articles for publications like “Healthline” and “Women’s Health;” worked with high-profile clients like Gerber Baby Products and Kellogg’s; and ghostwritten books on back pain, nutrition, healthy diet, and cancer recovery. She’s also an award-winning author of both novels and non-fiction books, and a frequent motivational speaker inspiring people from all walks of life to overcome modern-day challenges and find creative fulfillment. Find more at her author website and her LinkedIn profile, or follow her on Twitter.