Nootropics That Put Sleep Disorders to Rest
Sleep has been described as a drug, an altered state of consciousness, and a mysterious landscape, but it’s truer to say that it’s a form of nourishment for your brain.
Unfortunately, insomnia is very common and can lead to a variety of health problems. Failing to get high-quality sleep, as you’re probably aware, has been scientifically linked to cognitive deficits, memory problems, mood swings, hypertension, heart disease, and obesity.
Research has also established that sleep deprivation can lead to hormonal imbalances, metabolic disorders, and food cravings (yes, that midnight snack is probably a sign your biological clock is out of sync).
Yet, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), at least 1 in 3 of today’s adults does not get the recommended 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night, which is necessary to support optimal health.
Top 7 Best Nootropics For Sleep
St. John’s Wort
What Factors Influence Your Sleep?
Quality sleep depends on a complex mix of neurochemistry, your body’s circadian rhythms, and hormonal signaling. There’s very little doubt that diet, exercise, stress, and environmental factors (like light exposure) play a huge role in regulating your sleep/waking cycle.
So, it’s no wonder that people throughout the ages have been interested in foods, nutritional supplements, and activities that promote sleep. Traditionally, for example, herbs like lavender, tryptophan-rich foods like turkey, and activities like sex have been associated with better sleep.
Nootropics, a fancy (but cool) word for compounds that can enhance cognitive function, have also attracted interest as sleep aides. Like certain foods and nutritional supplements, some nootropics may help nurture biological processes that are conducive to sleep. They do so by optimizing your circadian rhythms and the neurochemistry that underlies the sleep/wake cycle.
To understand how certain foods, activities, and nootropics can promote a good night’s rest, it’s important to understand the biological mechanisms behind sleep.
The Fantabulous Neurobiology of Sleep
Virtually every creature under the sun requires some form of sleep. In humans, the mechanisms that govern slumber are tied to a hormone called melatonin, which regulates our circadian rhythms (a fancy word for our biological clocks).
Melatonin is manufactured by the pineal gland in the brain. Levels of this neurochemical messenger are largely determined by the presence (or absence) of the light your eyes are exposed to throughout the day.
For example, when retinal cells in the back of your eyes detect less light in the evening, it sends a signal to increase melatonin production, which makes you feel drowsy.
Melatonin is actually made from a neurotransmitter called serotonin. This important neurochemical messenger is in turn made from an essential amino acid called tryptophan, which is found many foods (such as poultry, salmon, eggs, and cheese).
This is one reason that many scientists (and nutritionists) believe that tryptophan-rich foods (and supplements) can improve sleep quality. According to an article in the Journal of Psychiatric Research, most of the evidence available indicates that tryptophan does have an effect on sleepiness.
By the way, additional studies have found that tryptophan depletion is associated with memory impairment, depression, and insomnia. This lends credence to the theory that consuming tryptophan-rich foods (or taking tryptophan supplements) can promote better sleep in some people.
As you might expect, melatonin is just one compound that figures in the biochemistry of sleep. Scientists have identified a wide variety of neurotransmitters and hormones that can play a big role when it comes to feelings of alertness or drowsiness.
Orchestrating Sleep (the Neurotransmitters That Induce Slumber)
For instance, here’s a quick look at the most important chemical messengers that affect and help regulate wakefulness and grogginess:
Adenosine is a neurotransmitter the body manufacturers while a person is awake. As levels increase, it has an inhibitory effect that produces feelings of sleepiness.
GABA (and glutamate) is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that down-regulates parts of the brain responsible for arousal. As a result, studies indicate that GABA is critical to initiating sleep states.
Acetylcholine is an organic compound that functions as a neurotransmitter. It plays a role in triggering REM sleep, which is the highest quality and deepest form of slumber.
Dopamine is central to the brain’s reward and motivational systems. It tends to counteract neurotransmitters that promote drowsiness.
Serotonin is a precursor to melatonin. Optimizing levels of this neurotransmitter may help avoid imbalances that cause sleep disorders.
Norepinephrine is a stress hormone that can block the occurrence of high-quality REM sleep.
Cortisol is a stress hormone and the main component of the body’s “fight or flight” response. Elevated levels of cortisol are known to disrupt the body’s circadian rhythms and sleep cycles.
Health Hassles That Hamper Sleep
Sleep deprivation can occur when your delicate balance of neurochemistry is upset, or the biological mechanisms that produce these chemical messengers are impaired. There are a variety of factors that can disrupt normal levels of sleep-inducing hormones and neurotransmitters:
Leaky gut syndrome. Chronic inflammation in the digestive system impairs the production of neurotransmitters like serotonin, which are actually manufactured in the intestines.
Chronic stress. Elevated levels of stress hormones (particularly cortisol) can interfere with chemicals that regulate your circadian rhythm.
Diet, medication, genetics, hormonal changes, and exposure to environmental toxins can also alter the delicate balance of the chemicals that orchestrate your sleep/wake cycle.
Foods, nutritional supplements, nootropics, and many activities can help restore or at least compensate for the biological imbalances the undermine high-quality sleep.
Nootropics That Help Knock You Out at Night
L-Theanine is a naturally occurring amino acid that helps support the production of GABA and serotonin (a precursor of the sleep hormone melatonin). The compound is found in tea leaves and Bay Bolete mushrooms.
Scientists have found that L-Theanine is associated with a number of health benefits including improved immune function, better blood pressure control, and anxiety relief. According to one study, published in the journal Alternative Medicine Review, L-Theanine improved sleep quality in children with ADHD.
L-Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that can be found in poultry, salmon, spinach, eggs, cheese, and nuts. The body uses tryptophan to make the “feel-good” neurotransmitter serotonin and the sleep hormone melatonin.
There have been dozens of studies linking tryptophan to improved cognition, better mood, and less insomnia. However, mental health experts caution that L-tryptophan supplements can interact with anti-depressant medication. Anyone taking serotonin-reuptake inhibitors should discuss nootropics or L-tryptophan supplements with their psychiatrist beforehand.
Magnesium is nature’s “chill pill.” This mineral is integrally involved in hundreds of bodily processes, but deficiencies are quite common. In addition, the nutrient is not easily absorbed.
Good food sources include bananas, tofu, dark chocolate, almonds, and spinach. Specially formulated supplements improve magnesium absorption while paring it with other sleep-inducing nutrients (such as GABA supportive amino acids).
4. St. John’s Wort
St. John’s Wort is a popular herbal remedy that has been used to treat depression, menopausal symptoms, and insomnia for thousands of years.
Derived from the flowers of the Hypericum perforatum shrub, St. John’s Wort contains compounds such as hypericin, hyperforin, and adhyperforin, which appear to stimulate the production of both GABA and serotonin pathways in the brain.
A study published in the journal Planta Medica did find that St. John’s Wort has therapeutic potential in managing sleep deprivation.
5. Lion’s Mane Mushroom
Lion’s Mane Mushroom is a fungus long revered in Chinese (and Japanese) medicine. A number of studies have found that this mushroom, contains beta-glucans and other beneficial compounds, which boost brain function through neuroprotective and anti-inflammatory effects.
Research shows that compounds in lion’s mane mushrooms appear to support cognitive health by promoting nerve regeneration in ways that may protect against Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer's.
It is increasingly clear, however, that lion's mane mushroom can support brain health broadly, but it is still uncertain how the fungus might improve sleep quality.
Nevertheless, a study published in the journal Personalized Medicine Universe found that compounds in lion’s mane mushroom improved sleep-quality in female undergraduates.
6. Bacopa monnieri
Bacopa monnieri is an herb that proven enduringly popular in Ayurvedic medicine. Studies show that daily doses of Bacopa monnieri supplements can improve many aspects of cognitive function including memory, mental clarity, stress reduction, and anxiety relief.
The herbal supplement appears to boost brain health in a number of ways including:
It has adaptogenic effects that help lower stress hormones like cortisol.
It stimulates the release of nitric oxide, which enhances blood flow in the brain.
It’s natural antioxidant properties help optimize the production of neuromodulators like serotonin.
Bacopa monnieri has been used in Aryuvedic medicine to treat insomnia for centuries, but there are few modern studies investigating its use to treat sleep disorders. Nevertheless, by supporting cognitive health broadly, Bacopa monnieri holds promise to help restore normal sleep patterns.
Ashwagandha is another staple of Ayurvedic medicine. Like other adaptogenic herbs, ashwagandha is packed with chemicals that help counteract the effects of stress hormones.
By reducing stress, anxiety, and depression, this member of the nightshade family helps alleviate biological states that disrupt your biological clock and normal sleep patterns.
In fact, according to a recent study in the journal PloS One, an active ingredient in ashwagandha (Triethylene glycol) plays an important part in inducing sleep.
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Sleep is an integral part of the human experience and one of the primary ways your body (and your brain) restores and repairs itself.
If you are like most people, it’s harder than ever to get a good night’s rest. Chronic stress, environmental toxins, and even digital devices are just a few of the factors that can adversely impact your neurochemistry and your biological clock.
However, improved diet and nutritional supplements can often help restore neurochemical imbalances and biological impairments that disrupt your circadian rhythms.
What foods and nootropics will help restore your sleep patterns? Discovering the answer will depend on your unique individual makeup and symptoms, but you can start by educating yourself on how neurotropic compounds can support your cognitive health broadly.
To learn more about how these “brain hacks” can bolster your brainpower, please click here.
To watch a video that will help you better understand the role nootropics can play in promoting sleep, please check out this informative Youtube video, which also explains why you should avoid sedatives made by pharmaceutical companies.
Scott O’Reilly is a freelance writer with degrees in psychology and philosophy. He frequently covers plant-based medicine, nutrition, and other wellness topics for a variety of sites.