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Which natural supplements for insomnia actually work, and for what causes? In this post, we look at the most effective remedies as well as modalities (or wellness methods) that assist the regeneration of sleep mechanisms.
What is insomnia
Insomnia is characterized by difficulty in falling asleep, overnight loss of sleep, trouble resuming sleep, waking up too early, unable to feel refreshed after sleep and loss of working time due to tiredness. (source)
The science of choosing natural supplements for insomnia
As one scientific journal says, “Although drugs such as barbiturates and benzodiazepines are often used for the treatment of insomnia, they are associated with various side effects such as habituations, tolerance and addiction. Alternatively, natural products with minimal unwanted effects have been preferred for the treatment of acute and/or mild insomnia, with additional benefits of overall health-promotion.” (source)
I really like the concept of “overall health-promotion”. Ultimately poor sleep is a reflection of: needing to restore balance to the endocrine and central nervous systems.
Ideally, we can affect our body’s overall wellness when we tackle insomnia.
The emotional side of insomnia
If you’ve suffered from insomnia you know that feeling of fear when you go to sleep — fearful that you’ll wake up again and not be able to go back to sleep.
Maybe you have to grab naps or caffeine to get through the day. Your brain doesn’t work as well, your body doesn’t heal as well, and you may have bursts of irritation or moodiness.
It’s no wonder: We need sleep.
Yet despite this need, insomnia affects 1/3 of all Americans, being the most complained about condition.
And yet, it’s hard to find effective solutions.
As mentioned earlier, many Americans take prescription or over-the-counter sleep aids that have side effects.
Various causes of insomnia
For some, the cause of insomnia is the busy lives we lead — causing elevated stress hormones.
Additionally, our love for late night media disrupts the natural rhythm of our bodies to rest at night — with bright lights and stimulated emotions.
Diet is another a contributing factor. Foods like sugar and vegetable oils can wreak havoc with hormone production.
For others, insomnia starts with the onset of autoimmune related issues or changes in hormone levels, like after pregnancy or during peri-menopause.
Insomnia is more common with women. We deal with hormone variations more often than men do.
Making sure your sleep hygiene is in place
To get the best sleep at night, perhaps you’ve heard of implementing better “sleep hygiene” during the day.
But … if you suffer from insomnia, you may already be doing all of those things right. If you’re like me, you may find it frustrating to implement all the changes in your day and still not see progress at night.
Briefly, let’s cover proper sleep hygiene recommendations. They include:
- having a good diet: healthy fats, good protein (especially at dinner) and foods high in antioxidants (which help with detox and balancing of hormones); plenty of non-essential amino acids from collagen or gelatin … and not eating right before bed
- taking magnesium, because most people are deficient unless they supplement
- getting out in the sun in the morning or midday
- avoiding caffeine after midday
- dry brushing, which improves lymphatic flow, detoxing and balancing of hormones
- reducing blue light, especially before bed (I have f.lux on my computer screen, but try to end screen time early on most nights. Blue-blocking glasses are another common solution.)
- “turning off” your mind, reducing stress and relaxing before bed
- having a completely dark bedroom (and/or wearing eye coverings while you sleep)
- keeping your room on the cooler side
For me, over the years, with more babies and decreasing general health, sleep hygiene choices didn’t make a difference with insomnia.
My adrenals were constantly over-taxed. I began taking melatonin, instead of over-the-counter pills. I knew I needed to sleep to decrease inflammation and for general wellness.
How progesterone affects insomnia
Once perimenopause hit (pre-menopause), a new set of causes were involved that may affect you as well, if you’re over 40: a drop in progesterone, sensitivity to progesterone or a histamine or mast cell reaction.
Progesterone helps with sleep because it converts to a sedating neurosteroid which soothes GABA receptors in the brain. Losing progesterone during perimenopause results in a recalibration of the brain and stress response system.
While I tried taking progesterone (natural cream and stronger oral progesterone) and increasing magnesium to solve this problem, I didn’t find that to be helpful — in my situation. If you haven’t tried that approach, it is often recommended and may be helpful for you.
On a related note, when progesterone decreases, estrogen may then become dominant, not as well balanced by progesterone. For me, the best solution has been to reduce or balance my estrogen.
Interestingly, estrogen deficiency has been linked to waking at 2 or 3 am and is a common symptom of menopause. For me, I’ve struggled with that same waking time, but due instead to estrogen dominance.
What I love about DIM (a supplement mentioned below) is that it doesn’t just block estrogen; it has a balancing effect.
Natural Supplements for Insomnia
I’ve been reading up on and struggling with insomnia for almost 20 years. Typically, I find a solution that works for me for a while. But then it stops working. So I struggle again, until I find a new solution.
Ultimately, while different solutions address various causes, most insomnia traces back to the hypothalamus gland or other brain functions.
This control center affects our other glands and therefore our hormone levels: “…neurons of the lateral hypothalamus project to all of the sleep/insomnia arousal-promoting centers in the brainstem and hypothalamus thereby reinforcing their activity to play on important roles in sleep.” (source)
I first discovered the role the hypothalamus plays in good or bad sleep when I visited a cranial sacral practitioner. He told me my hypothalamus was overactive.
After his massage, I went home to sleep like a baby for the next two months. (!)
I reflected on the hypothalamus’ role in stimulating the adrenal glands. And that formerly, I had often treated my adrenals when addressing insomnia.
The cranial sacral therapist, instead, went straight to the adrenal glands’ source — the hypothalamus.
Later, I also discovered two hormones’ roles in my insomnia: estrogen and Human Growth Hormone.
Below, I share several effective remedies for insomnia, that bear in mind hormone levels, the adrenals and the hypothalamus.
Remedies vary person to person and depend on the cause of the insomnia.
9 Natural Supplements for Insomnia
I’ve broken these supplements into 4 categories: amino acids, hormone-balancing, adrenals and pituitary & hypothalamus supplements.
Amino acid supplements
1.L-arginine — One of the most exciting supplements I’ve ever taken, L-arginine gives me more energy during the day, better exercise performance and helps me to sleep through the night or go back to sleep if I wake up to go to the bathroom. If you’ve tried everything else but haven’t tried L-arginine, I’m excited for you to try this!
Arginine increases Human Growth Hormone, which in turn decreases cortisol. Personally, I only need 500 mg. or less, but many people take higher doses. You can read more about L-Arginine here.
2.Glutathione — Studies show that glutathione directly stimulates GABA release, and L-arginine (mentioned above) increases GABA uptake by the brain. Most oral glutathione is ineffective, but Thorne’s is made with absorption in mind.
Complexed with a time-release coating that protects the glutathione from stomach acid, this product is known for its effectiveness. Most people don’t know that certain amino acids help with sleep, and glutathione is one of them.
Hormone balancing supplements to balance estrogen
3. DIM + I3C — These supplements contain a component of cruciferous vegetables called diindolylmethane, which has been found to be beneficial in creating a healthy balance of estrogen and testosterone.
This compound is found in vegetables like Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage, but not in high enough doses from vegetables alone.
Scientists are also stirred about DIMs effect on breast, cervical, colon and prostate cancers — both in terms of prevention and treatment. (source)
From several studies, the current recommended dosage is 300 mg daily. The more common dosage is 40-60 mg.
DIM, estrogen and insomnia
What I have found, is that my insomnia is partially related to estrogen issues. When I take DIM at night, not only can I tell the difference in my breast health, I sleep well.
However, DIM is not for everyone — especially if you are pregnant or of reproductive age. Because DIM blocks estrogen, my own doctor told me to take it with awareness, as needed, but not to overdo.
How does DIM function? The stronger form of estrogen (estradiol) converts into the weaker form (estriol). Estriol is considered a more desirable form of estrogen because it is less active than estradiol. When estriol occupies the estrogen receptor, it blocks estradiol’s strong “grow” signals.
DIM also blocks the enzyme that converts testosterone into estrogen, so it’s great for body builders, men struggling with “man boobs”, those with extra weight they want to shed, as well as issues like acne.
DIM can affect breast and bone health, and it can affect the way oral contraceptives work. For postmenopausal women, who could be at increased risk for osteoporosis, it could reduce the estrogen in the body that helps maintain bone density. Talk with your doctor first.
Adrenal supplements are a short-term solution for a long term goal. I like to think of the hypothalamus as the topmost goal, because it’s located in the middle of the brain — above all the other glands and organs it regulates.
While we ultimately want our hypothalamus gland to be well balanced (not overactive), we may choose to address a lower set of glands in the process, to just bring about some sleep.
Animal-sourced adrenal extract pills
Regarding animal sourced adrenals, they are based in ancient wisdom: Take from the animal what we are lacking in ourselves. Ancient healers did this with tissue extracts.
When our adrenals are extremely fatigued, herbs are not enough. Herbs alone are powerful and dramatic in certain healing scenarios, but not, in my experience, when this condition has reached its height. (The wrong herbs, however, can be harmful to our adrenals.)
Adrenal supporting herbs help to balance and support systems. But if all of our systems and glands, (digestive, hormonal, thyroid, adrenal), are out of whack we need more than gentle balancing and support. We may need an infusion, a shot of the actual adrenal gland itself.
Adrenal supplementation should not be ongoing. But it can be prescribed intermittently for recurring adrenal fatigue that is not easily resolved. The goal is to assist and bolster, not take over the hormonal controls of the body.*
These extracts are used to replenish and eventually normalize adrenal function. An advantage over cortisol hormone replacement is that adrenal cortical extracts can be discontinued once they have done their job of repairing adrenal function.
I was put on bovine adrenal extract after having my first baby, when my cortisol (a stress hormone produced by the adrenal glands) levels began spiking at 3 am. The pills worked immediately and with full success.
My naturopath at the time had me take the adrenals for two months and then stop. I continued to sleep great. The supplementation jump-started my body back into functioning properly.
Here are the brands that I have used, recommended by the naturopathic doctors I’ve seen. They have all “worked” for me.
4. Adrenal Cortex — This product balances the body’s stress response with actual bovine adrenal gland.
5. Thorne Cortrex Adrenal — This contains bovine adrenal extract as well as nutrients that support the function of the adrenal glands and cortisol production.
Is there a downside to adrenal supplements?
Some medical doctors, like Andrew Weil, advise against the use of adrenals, fearing they may do some harm to the body’s hormonal balance.
Note: It is often best to take adrenals and adaptogens in the morning or before midday. Consult your doctor, as timing the supplement accurately for your body can affect its effectiveness.
Pituitary and hypothalamus supplements
When a patient no longer needs to supplement with animal adrenal extract, there are a few approaches to support the thyroid and adrenals as well as the pituitary and hypothalamus glands, the glands that help to monitor the thyroid.
Some of these vitamins and adaptogens can be used long term. They help to regulate stress levels. The following I have personal experience with, and you can ask your doctor:
6.Cort Rx — Many of us wake up in the middle of the night due to a spike in cortisol. To avoid unhealthy hormonal fluctuations, this company combines four adaptogenic herbs that help to balances hormone levels.
These herbs support the health of the adrenal gland by enhancing the body’s ability to adapt to stress. Many reviewers comment on getting deeper sleep and feeling more relaxed during the day.
7. Metagenics Cortico-B5B6 — For added adrenal support and better energy, this is a great supplement. It is not a glandular extract but can work in conjunction with it to provide hormonal balance. Both my daughter (age 14) and I have taken this product with noticeable benefits.
It can be used during and as you phase off of glandular extract for added support. However, do not use B6 long term, as it’s been link to neurotoxicity with long term use.
8. Interplexus Seriphos — This product takes a different approach by calming the hypothalamus and pituitary glands. It is vegetarian and works great in conjunction with glandular extract. Some individuals get relief from insomnia or improved sleep with this product alone. It can be used during and as you phase off of glandular extract for added support.
9. Metagenics Adreset — For added adrenal support and better energy. It is not a glandular extract but works in conjunction with it to provide hormonal balance. Some individuals get relief from insomnia or increased energy with this product alone or by using it long term in conjunction with Seriphos.
Two natural modalities for insomnia
My sleep improved considerably with the use of adrenals, but I still suffered during certain weeks of my cycle — until I learned about grounding sheets.
1. Sleeping on a grounding sheet
Several years ago, I learned about grounding, bought the half sheet I’d read about, and experienced first hand how effective this method is for rebooting the body for rest!
I had many months of reprieve from insomnia after buying the sheet.
A pilot study, published in 2004, focused on cortisol and sleep disturbances in 12 people suffering from stress, pain, and sleep problems. The subjects slept on a conductive mattress grounded to Earth every night for an 8-week period. Compared with baseline measurements, their average cortisol levels improved significantly, with circadian patterns showing a clear trend toward normalization…On average, the patients showed a 54% reduction in midnight cortisol levels, and a 34% increase in 8 AM levels... Subjectively, they reported better sleep and less pain and stress.
What would this study have looked like if the participants supplemented with an oral supplement as well?
The combination of adrenals and grounding showed a huge reduction in my cortisol spikes, maybe by 85-90%?
Two helpful disclaimers holisticprimarycare.net adds regarding grounding include the following:
During lightning storms, Earthing appliances should be disconnected from power outlets or dedicated ground rods, just as one would want to disconnect all electrical appliances. When lightning strikes close to one’s home, admittedly a rare phenomenon, all appliances can receive a high power surge.
Clinicians should carefully monitor individuals who take medication to thin blood, regulate blood sugar, control blood pressure, or regulate hormone levels, since the regular practice of Earthing may affect all of these—for the better.
Read more about the grounding sheet and “earthing” in general here.
Here’s where to buy a grounding sheet. This is a queen fitted sheet which I would buy if I could choose over again, knowing now how effective the method is. However, you can also buy a half sheet if you have a king size bed or to make a slightly smaller initial investment.
2. Cranial sacral massage
I’ve been to a cranial sacral practitioner about 3 or 4 times. The second time, he told me my hypothalamus was overactive. A lot of his work that day focussed on the gland. After going home, I slept well for two straight months. He could not replicate the work he did that day, but what he did was amazing.
From one website:
Craniosacral therapy or CST is a hands-on approach to pain relief and whole body health. This gentle and effective method uses soft touch to bring about change to the central nervous system. Practitioners of cranial sacral therapy use facilitate physiological releases to improve the flow of fluids and energetic communication within the body and mind.
You may consider finding a cranialsacral therapist. Many specialize in treating insomnia. And what better way to address this common health concern than by directly addressing the endocrine system.
Other considerations with insomnia: histamines
Histamine or Mast Cell Activation Issues
According to 23andme, “… genetic variants … may impair your ability to break down histamine. Too much histamine in the body can lead to … problems sleeping…”. (source)
They continue, “You may think of histamine in relation to allergic reactions, which is when your body produces a bunch of histamine at once. But histamine is used by the body in a number of ways including as a neurotransmitter (wakes you up in the morning, regulates appetite), to signal for the release of stomach acid, and within the immune system.”
A low histamine diet or relief from MCAS may be necessary for some who suffer from insomnia.