As you grow older, you may notice that you do not sleep as well as you used to. Older adults tend to find it harder to get to sleep and spend less time sleeping during the night. The quality of this sleep is also reduced: sleep becomes more fragmented and more easily interrupted, while the amount of time spent in slow wave sleep (a deep sleep phase thought to be important for memory consolidation) is shortened.
Poor sleep quality appears to accelerate ageing at the cellular level: sleep loss is associated with shorter telomeres and possible increased cellular senescence, both of which are key mechanisms underlying the ageing process. Changes in sleep patterns in old age may also include a propensity to fall asleep during the day.
It is still not entirely clear whether older adults simply need less sleep, or whether they find it harder to get the sleep that they need. There is no doubt that sleep deficits lead to physical and cognitive impairments. Many studies have found impaired sleep to be associated with poorer performance in memory tasks in both younger and older adults. Furthermore, interventions aimed at improving sleep quality have been found to benefit memory, suggesting that sleep disturbance may cause cognitive impairment rather than the other way around.
Minimising your exposure to blue light in the evening, avoiding late caffeine consumption and maintaining regular sleeping and waking times are all ways in which you can help maximise your sleep quality. There are also many supplements that research suggests can help you to sleep better. What follows are 7 such supplements and the research behind them.
Melatonin is a hormone secreted by the brain, and is well known for its role in regulating sleep. Light suppresses melatonin production, while in the absence of light melatonin levels rise and promote sleep.
How Does Melatonin Benefit Sleep?
Melatonin supplementation improves sleep quality, mainly by decreasing the time taken to fall asleep and increasing total sleep time. Melatonin also appears to be highly effective in treating insomnia.
Forest plot depicting reduction of sleep latency in melatonin compared to placebo. Meta-analysis demonstrated a significant benefit of melatonin in reducing sleep latency. WMD = weighted mean difference; CI = confidence interval.
Ferracioli-Oda, E., Qawasmi, A., & Bloch, M. (2013). Meta-Analysis: Melatonin for the Treatment of Primary Sleep Disorders. Plos ONE, 8(5), e63773. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0063773
Melatonin may have further protective effects in the brain due to its potent antioxidant properties. It may also carry a number of other benefits that are being investigated, including anticancer and anti-obesity properties.
In summary: Melatonin supplementation has been well studied and is effective in promoting sleep onset, extending sleep duration and improving sleep quality. Melatonin may also have a wide range of additional health benefits.
Magnesium is a mineral present in many foods, and is the 4th most abundant mineral in the body. Studies suggest that almost 50% of people in the USA and Western Europe have below ideal magnesium intake. In the central nervous system, magnesium has a calming effect, and low magnesium levels are highly associated with stress.
How Does Magnesium Benefit Sleep?
Magnesium supplementation appears to reduce the time it takes to reach a sleep state, increase total sleep time, and reduce sleep disturbances.
Magnesium also appears to have multiple additional benefits aside from sleep promotion, most notably a reduction in blood pressure and blood sugar.
In summary: Magnesium appears to induce relaxation and sleep. It may also protect against high blood pressure and diabetes.
GABA, or gamma-Aminobutyric acid, is the body’s main inhibitory neurotransmitter. GABA reduces the activity of neurons throughout the nervous system to produce a calming effect.
How Does GABA Benefit Sleep?
Scientific studies suggest that GABA can have stress-reducing and sleep-enhancing effects. Supplementation with GABA may both help people to fall asleep quickly and increase the duration of slow wave sleep. The benefits of GABA seem to be geared more towards the early stages of sleep.
In summary: GABA appears induce relaxation, help you get to sleep faster and reduce stress and fatigue overall. While more evidence is needed to better understand the effects of GABA supplementation, existing research seems promising.
L-tryptophan is an amino acid used in the synthesis of the neurotransmitters melatonin and serotonin. As already discussed, melatonin promotes sleep in response to low light levels. Serotonin, while best known for its role as a ‘happiness neurotransmitter’, also appears to be necessary for sleep.
How Does L-Tryptophan Benefit Sleep?
Tryptophan is used to treat insomnia and sleep apnea, and its sleep promoting effects are well established.
In summary: L-tryptophan appears to accelerate sleep onset and improve sleep duration. As L-tryptophan boosts serotonin levels, it may have the added benefit of improving mood and aiding weight loss (as serotonin suppresses appetite).
5-HTP, or hydroxytryptophan, is a naturally occurring amino acid. Like tryptophan, it is used to synthesise the neurotransmitters serotonin and melatonin.
How Does 5-HTP Benefit Sleep?
Studies in both humans and animals suggest that 5-HTP can reduce the time it takes to fall asleep and improve sleep quality. 5-HTP appears to be particularly effective when combined with GABA.
In Summary: The existing evidence for the sleep-promoting effects of 5-HTP are encouraging, especially when combined with GABA. Unfortunately, there is a lack of human trials investigating the benefits of 5-HTP.
Valerian is a herb that has been used since ancient times to promote relaxation and sleep. It inhibits the breakdown of GABA, the body’s main inhibitory neurotransmitter, and thereby produces a calming effect.
How Does Valerian Root Powder Benefit Sleep?
Research suggests that valerian is an effective and safe supplement for improving sleep quality.
In addition to its effects on sleep, valerian root may also help you relax.
In summary: Valerian root powder inhibits the breakdown of GABA and may promote relaxation and sleep. While there is anecdotal evidence for the benefits of valerian, more robust human studies are needed to confirm its effects.
Chamomile is a herb that has been consumed for centuries as a remedy for several health conditions. Its tea is a caffeine-free alternative to green or black tea that appears to offer a variety of health benefits, which include improved sleep quality. Chamomile contains apigenin, a compound that binds to GABA receptors and may thereby produce a calming effect.
In addition to its effects on sleep, chamomile also appears to have a wide range of additional health benefits due to its high content in anti-inflammatory and antioxidant compounds.
In Summary: Chamomile activates GABA signalling and may thereby promote relaxation and sleep, but this needs to be confirmed with more human studies. Chamomile is rich in antioxidants which may provide a variety of health benefits.
Sleep and Human Aging: DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2017.02.004
Meta-Analysis: Melatonin for the Treatment of Primary Sleep Disorders: doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0063773
Melatonin for the prevention and treatment of jet lag: DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD001520
Melatonin, xanthurenic acid, resveratrol, EGCG, vitamin C and alpha-lipoic acid differentially reduce oxidative DNA damage induced by Fenton reagents: a study of their individual and synergistic actions: DOI: 10.1034/j.1600-079x.2003.00041.x
Role of melatonin in mucosal gastroprotection against aspirin-induced gastric lesions in humans: DOI: 10.1111/j.1600-079x.2010.00755.x
Effects of melatonin and tryptophan on healing of gastric and duodenal ulcers with Helicobacter pylori infection in humans: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22204799/
Melatonin in the treatment of cancer: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials and meta-analysis: DOI: 10.1111/j.1600-079X.2005.00258.x
Melatonin improves memory acquisition under stress independent of stress hormone release: DOI: 10.1007/s00213-008-1344-z
Melatonin Supplementation Lowers Oxidative Stress and Regulates Adipokines in Obese Patients on a Calorie-Restricted Diet: doi: 10.1155/2017/8494107
Melatonin increases brown adipose tissue mass and function in Zücker diabetic fatty rats: implications for obesity control: DOI: 10.1111/jpi.12472
The effect of magnesium supplementation on primary insomnia in elderly: A double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trial: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23853635/
Magnesium and stress: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK507250/#
Oral Mg(2+) supplementation reverses age-related neuroendocrine and sleep EEG changes in humans: DOI: 10.1055/s-2002-33195
Dietary magnesium deficiency decreases plasma melatonin in rats: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17172005/
Effect of magnesium supplementation on blood pressure: a meta-analysis: DOI: 10.1038/ejcn.2012.4
Effects of Magnesium Supplementation on Blood Pressure: https://doi.org/10.1161/HYPERTENSIONAHA.116.07664
Effect of magnesium supplementation on glucose metabolism in people with or at risk of diabetes: a systematic review and meta-analysis of double-blind randomized controlled trials: DOI: 10.1038/ejcn.2016.154
Effects of Oral Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid (GABA) Administration on Stress and Sleep in Humans: A Systematic Review: doi: 10.3389/fnins.2020.00923
Safety and Efficacy of Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid from Fermented Rice Germ in Patients with Insomnia Symptoms: A Randomized, Double-Blind Trial: doi: 10.3988/jcn.2018.14.3.291
GABA and l -theanine mixture decreases sleep latency and improves NREM sleep: DOI: 10.1080/13880209.2018.1557698
Relieving Occupational Fatigue by Consumption of a Beverage Containing γ-Amino Butyric Acid: https://doi.org/10.3177/jnsv.57.9 Evaluation of L-tryptophan for treatment of insomnia: a review: DOI: 10.1007/BF00175180
Tryptophan Intake in the US Adult Population Is Not Related to Liver or Kidney Function but Is Associated with Depression and Sleep Outcomes: DOI: 10.3945/jn.115.226969 A randomized, placebo-controlled trial of an amino acid preparation on timing and quality of sleep: DOI: 10.1097/MJT.0b013e31819e9eab
Therapeutic Symptomatic Strategies in the Parasomnias: DOI: 10.1007/s11940-018-0508-3 Valerian for sleep: a systematic review and meta-analysis: DOI: 10.1016/j.amjmed.2006.02.026
Effect of valepotriates (valerian extract) in generalized anxiety disorder: a randomized placebo-controlled pilot study: DOI: 10.1002/ptr.1027
Anxiolytic effects of a combination of Melissa officinalis and Valeriana officinalis during laboratory induced stress: DOI: 10.1002/ptr.1787
Critical evaluation of the effect of valerian extract on sleep structure and sleep quality: DOI: 10.1055/s-2000-7972 Investigation effect of oral chamomilla on sleep quality in elderly people in Isfahan: A randomized control trial: doi: 10.4103/jehp.jehp_109_15
Preliminary examination of the efficacy and safety of a standardized chamomile extract for chronic primary insomnia: A randomized placebo-controlled pilot study: doi: 10.1186/1472-6882-11-78
Assessment of some Herbal Drugs for Prophylaxis of Peptic Ulcer: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4177631/
Antidiarrheal and antioxidant activities of chamomile (Matricaria recutita L.) decoction extract in rats: doi: 10.1016/j.jep.2014.01.015.
The effect of Greek herbal tea consumption on thyroid cancer: a case-control study: DOI: 10.1093/eurpub/ckv063
Effectiveness of chamomile tea on glycemic control and serum lipid profile in patients with type 2 diabetes: DOI: 10.1007/s40618-014-0170-x