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Good sleep is incredibly important for athletes. It’s also incredibly hard to get, and it seems like we’re all struggling to get truly restful, restorative sleep at night right now. Fortunately – or maybe not-so-fortunately – there are plenty of sleep supplements available that promise to help you drift off to sleep more easily. But do we really need to be taking dietary supplements to get good shut-eye? Do these supplements even work?
With seemingly easy sleep solutions available in the form of gummies, pills, powders, and even patches, here’s what you need to know about taking this trendy supplement and how it can impact your nightly rest.
We’re taking more sleep supplements than ever before
If you’ve been reaching for sleep supplements more often, you aren’t alone. According to the National Institutes of Health, these products are becoming increasingly popular, with melatonin use alone jumping from 0.4 percent in 2000 to 2.1 percent in 2018. And starting in 2005, individuals started to report taking “high dose” supplementation of 5 milligrams or more daily.
So many of us are turning to melatonin and other natural sleep remedies like dietary supplements because the last few years have rocked our sleep schedules. Research suggests that the psychological distress of the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in sleep problems across the population, with increased anxiety, stress, and other factors leaving many struggling to sleep at night.
And sleep supplements offer a convenient solution. Plus, one of the biggest reasons sleep supplements are so attractive is they tend to be marketed as a “natural” sleep aid. When you’re trying to get some serious shut-eye and don’t want to take a prescription sleep aid or an over-the-counter medication, these “natural” alternatives sound like a safer, better pick.
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Sleep supplements can be effective, but their impact may be subtle
If you’ve ever taken a supp like melatonin and found yourself wide awake in the middle of the night, you’ve likely wondered if these dietary extras actually work. The true effect of sleep supplements varies quite a bit.
Supplements can have a different effect in different individuals. And surprisingly, some of the most popular sleep supps might seem like they’re helping you sleep better, but the impact may be more of a placebo effect than actual changes to your sleep quality or duration.
Take melatonin, for example. As Dr. Donald D. Hensrud, M.D., M.S. of the new Mayo Clinic Diet, says, “[Melatonin] really doesn’t increase the duration of sleep that much. In one study, if you took it, [you’d get] about 15 to 20 minutes extra. So overall, the efficacy isn’t as great as it seems.”
Additionally, as Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDCES, LDN, CPT points out, taking a sleep supplement may help temporarily, but it doesn’t really do much more than cover up whatever’s keeping you awake at night. “Some research shows a few natural sleep aids like melatonin and magnesium can be effective with minimal side effects. However, the root cause of sleep issues needs to be addressed to understand what sleep supplement, if any, may be effective for the individual,” she says.
And Dr. Hensrud points out that when it comes to the research on melatonin in particular, there isn’t much that points to its effectiveness for the everyday struggling sleeper. “There’s more data on changing your circadian rhythm than there is on sleep,” he says.
Sleep supplements are only meant for short-term use
Even if dietary supplements do help you sleep, you don’t want to rely on them long-term. Taking too much melatonin can disrupt your natural circadian rhythms – which makes sleep worse. And after about 1 to 2 weeks of use, Johns Hopkins Medicine suggests stopping supplements to reassess how you’re sleeping naturally.
Additionally, it’s a good idea to consult an expert before you start taking sleep supplements. “Most natural sleep aids come with minimal side effects, but they are still possible and some may interact with medications so you should always consult with your doctor before starting a sleep supplement,” Palinski-Wade notes.
Try to get sleep-inducing nutrients from food first
In lieu of supplements, Palinski-Wade recommends adding foods with the right nutrients to your diet.“Try adding foods such as tart cherries, pumpkin seeds, or fatty fish to your evening meal. Tart cherries contain melatonin, the hormone responsible for healthy sleep while pumpkin seeds are rich in magnesium, a natural relaxant. The combination of vitamin D and vitamin B6 found in fish may also help to improve sleep quality,” she says.
You can also prioritize foods with calcium, probiotics, and tryptophan. “Yogurt[‘s] probiotics can improve gut health, which is directly linked with sleep, along with providing a source of calcium and tryptophan,” Palinski-Wade notes. “Tryptophan is an amino acid that is converted into serotonin and has been shown to have a calming and relaxing effect in the body. The mineral calcium aids in production of melatonin in the brain, which may be why calcium rich diets have been shown to improve symptoms of insomnia.”
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