Should you use sleep supplements? How to choose the best one for you

Getting enough, high quality sleep is so important in ensuring our brains and bodies function properly day to day.

But whether it’s down to stress, money worries, your menstrual cycle or a snoring partner, people are finding it increasingly difficult, not just to fall asleep, but to wake up feeling well rested.

While we all know the foundations of a good evening routine, getting a grip on your sleep hygiene and following a strict regime can be difficult and not always realistic – which is why some people turn to sleep supplements to help them get some well needed shuteye. 

Who should take sleep supplements?

According to Dom Haines, founder of the supplement company Oxford Organics, sleep supplements are usually used by people battling sleep disorders such as insomnia without turning to meds, but can be just as beneficial for the average person just hoping to improve their sleep quality. 

‘Supplements are also often chosen when the trade-off between prescription medication and their side effects aren’t worth the gains, so people look to supplements as an alternative and often a more natural solution,’ he says. 

He adds that some people simply choose to take supplements in the short term, such as in preparation for an exam. 

How often should you take sleep supplements?

‘As with most things in life and health specifically,’ says Dom, ‘balance is key.’

Not everybody needs to take sleep supplements every night, unless their sleep is disrupted every single night.

‘There’s no need to take them if they aren’t needed,’ Dom adds. 

He says that supplements with certain ingredients, such as 5-HTP – a chemical produced by the body that raises serotonin – should be taken with care and only when necessary, and under the guidance of a doctor

However, he adds: ‘More gentle supplements like those containing ingredients such as magnesium, zinc and glycine can be used every night if deficient in those nutrients.

‘If the effects reduce over time, it may be worth cycling the supplement, so taking breaks to maintain effectiveness.’

How can you choose the best supplements for your needs?

If you’re trying your best with your sleep hygiene and you still can’t quite master the art of a good night’s sleep, you might decide that supplements are for you – but the next question you need to tackle is: which? 

‘You can check with a healthcare professional or doctor in the first instance if you’re unsure or are worried about contraindications with other supplements or medication,’ says Dom.

However, he adds, a large part of finding the right supplements for you is going to involve trial and error. 

‘Everyone’s body is different and responds to different things,’ he says. 

‘It’s generally a good idea to start gently with an essential mineral-based supplement. 

‘If they aren’t helping with your sleep,  consider a 5-HTP-containing supplement or melatonin on prescription.’

Should you take supplements with 5-HTP?

Dom errs on the side of caution when recommending using supplements with 5-HTP, which are made from a plant. 

Because it helps the brain to produce serotonin, 5-HTP dietary supplements can help regulate mood and behavior and have a positive effect on sleep, mood, anxiety, appetite, and pain sensation.

In turn, serotonin helps to produce melatonin, the hormone that makes us sleepy. Straight melatonin supplements are only available on prescription.

He says that, while more human trials need to be done on the effect of 5-HTP and sleep, anecdotally, people who try it report positive results.

However, it isn’t without its risks.

‘The problem with 5-HTP is its primary function is to increase levels of serotonin, the colloquially termed ‘happy hormone’,  and not melatonin,’ says Dom.

‘Consequently, increasing levels of serotonin may improve mood but users must be very careful with dosage and interactions with other substances (like MDMA or SSRIs) because it can lead to serotonin syndrome in the wrong doses.’

Other side effects can include muscle issues and sexual dysfunction, he adds.

‘If you consider the risks worthwhile, it would be wise to seek professional medical advice before taking 5-HTP,’ says Dom.

‘However, perhaps one might be better off taking melatonin itself with a prescription in this instance.’

Alternatives for 5-HTP

Zinc and magnesium 

Essential minerals like magnesium and zinc are good alternatives to 5-HTP due to their abilities to relax and regulate sleep.

Magnesium oxide is not best used for sleep due to its laxative properties and poor bioavailability. 

A more suitable source is magnesium glycinate which provides the synergistic effects of magnesium and glycine in a more gentle and bioavailable form.

Amino acids

Amino acids such as glycine can help regulate neurotransmitters such as GABA. Studies show glycine can help you reach deep sleep more quickly.

Herbal substance

Chamomile and lemon balm can be used as a tea or pill form to help with sleep.

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