Suffering from insomnia is hard. We often wish we could just take some magic herbs or supplements to sleep well again.
Real insomnia help typically involves more than just taking some valerian or melatonin. Sure, these types of herbs or supplements can help some people. But they rarely make a dent in longer-term, chronic insomnia.
There are valuable supplements and herbs that can make a lasting difference in your sleep—what I call foundational supplements for sleep. We identify these types of supplements by first understanding why you are experiencing the insomnia.
Taking herbs and supplements for insomnia
You close your eyes and minutes later (if you are lucky) you doze off into dreamland. It seems like an easy enough process, but in order to actually fall asleep and stay asleep, it takes proper multisystem function and communication. It’s not only the brain and its neurotransmitters; it’s the gut, the hormones, the blood sugar, the nutritional status, and vitamin levels in the body.
Let’s explore three interconnected systems and why they are important for healing insomnia. Once we have a better idea which system may be most affected in you, you may use my suggestions for more specific herbs or supplements.
Gut health and insomnia
Here are some of the main reasons why gut health is important in insomnia:
- Serotonin, one of the relaxing neurotransmitters and necessary for good sleep, is produced mostly in the gut (around 90%). If the gut is inflamed and necessary nutrients are not in abundance, the production of serotonin will be affected.
- Melatonin is also produced in the gut. Though most of the melatonin that affects sleep is produced in the pineal gland. (It’s still important to keep your gut healthy!)
- Gut inflammation (due to poor diet or food sensitivities) will affect cortisol levels and affect your sleep.
- Imbalanced blood sugar levels are one of the main reasons why people don’t sleep well. Or why they wake up in the middle of the night.
- Poor diet and impaired gut health may lead to nutritional deficiencies such as B vitamins. Especially B6 since it’s a co-factor for neurotransmitter production, but also iron, magnesium, zinc, and others.
Now that you understand some of the reasons why gut health is important for your sleep, how do you know you actually may have a gut problem? This is some of what you may observe:
- You may experience bloating, gas, belching, or acid reflux.
- You may have painful sensations in the stomach or intestine area.
- Your bowel movements may be less than ideal. Ideal is once to three times per day, formed (not too hard or loose), easy to pass, and sinking into the toilet bowl (rather than floating).
- You get headaches often and wonder if they may be related to the foods you eat.
- You crave sugar and find yourself lightheaded, then you feel better after eating.
- There is an autoimmune disorder that you are diagnosed with; regardless if you have symptoms of gut issues, if you have an autoimmune disorder, your gut is impaired. This because the development of autoimmunity has gut involvement as a prerequisite.
- You tend to ruminate, overthink, get stuck on thoughts in the middle of the night. Some of my patients are asymptomatic as far as digestive symptoms go, but this tendency to overthink often points towards an underlying, less-than-ideal health. Think about it this way: if we can’t “digest’ our thoughts, we likely don’t do a good job at digesting our food either (an important clinical concept from Chinese medicine).
Herbs and supplements to help insomnia and gut health
So what are the best supplements and herbs to resolve gut issues to help heal from insomnia? Healing the gut is truly complex and it takes a proper assessment to figure out what the root problem is. In general, here are my top three suggestions and why:
- Probiotics and prebiotics: You can’t really go wrong with taking these. (One exception, if you take them and feel worse and more bloated, check for SIBO, small intestinal bacterial overgrowth). Prebiotics are what feed your own beneficial bacteria, so taking them is a great long-term strategy. Read “Can your digestion affect your sleep” article to learn more about prebiotic sources. Probiotics will start improving your health immediately. I usually use the two in combination.
- L-glutamine: This is an amino acid that will heal the lining of your gut. It is much needed in our society because most of us are exposed to stress, a less-than-ideal diet, chemicals such as glyphosate, and food sensitivities. These can all affect the health of the gut lining. Note that there is a small sub-group of people where L-glutamine can affect their sleep negatively if, genetically, they have trouble converting glutamate to GABA. If the L-glutamine you are taking converts into glutamate and you have trouble converting glutamate to GABA, the glutamate will then be in excess and cause you more sleep issues.
- Six cups of fresh fruits and vegetables: I’m sorry, but I can’t help myself! Instead of giving you a supplement or herb, I am telling you to eat these every day: two cups of green leafy vegetables, two cups of rainbow-colored veggies, and two cups of fruit (more berries if you have blood sugar issues). This will increase the amount of nutrients in your body, affect your gut health positively, and improve your sleep. Nutrients on the plate versus a pill!
Hormonal health and insomnia
You may have experienced firsthand, especially as a woman, the fluctuation of good nights versus bad nights all throughout the month. This may be because the highs and lows of your hormones may be affecting your sleep. Or you may notice that hot flashes or night sweats are waking you up and then you have a hard time going back to sleep.
Let’s explore in more detail why insomnia is so strongly related to the health of your hormones:
- Low progesterone/high estrogen. What we call estrogen dominance can cause insomnia, especially the week before the bleeding period.
- Hormonal fluctuations, likely low estrogen and/or progesterone will cause hot flashes and night sweats, which greatly disrupt the sleep, especially at those famous times of 1am or 2am.
- High testosterone (common in PCOS) tends to affect circadian rhythms and often causes insomnia, especially trouble falling sleep.
- Thyroid dysfunction will affect sleep, causing either needing too much sleep, or simply being unable to sleep soundly.
- Low melatonin levels can affect your sleep; this could be either because melatonin decreases with age or because high cortisol stunts its production. Read more about it in this article.
How do we know if your hormones are playing a role in your insomnia? Here are some things to watch for:
- Keep track of your menstrual cycle and track your sleep along with it.
- If you always experience insomnia the week before you bleed, likely your hormones are imbalanced; this is often associated with breast tenderness and irritability.
- If you tend to get worse sleep during the bleeding period or that first week after your start bleeding, you may not necessarily have a hormone problem. But you may be borderline anemic and the blood loss intensifies it. Ask your doctor to test your ferritin; optimal levels are 50 to 150.
- If you are having irregular periods and approaching the perimenopause age, along with hot flashes and night sweats, likely the insufficient hormones are affecting your sleep.
- If you always experience a few days of insomnia that’s worse around ovulation, you likely have a hormonal imbalance (possibly a subtle one); it may be associated with spotting.
- Sometimes the insomnia is every night, yet there can still be a hormone component to it. Testing helps assess that, along with your other symptoms.
Herbs and supplementsto help insomnia and hormonal health
Just as we discussed in the gut section, healing the hormones takes proper assessing and testing, but if I had to choose some herbs and supplements to recommend, here they are:
- Maca is one of my favorite supplements when it comes to hormones. Since it is considered an adaptogen, it can be more safely and widely used. I particularly like the Femmenesence brand, which uses Maca phenotypes (basically its color) and has different formulas for fertility, menopause, and postmenopause.
- Omega-3 oils are highly beneficial for the production of hormones and also highly anti-inflammatory in the body. The source of omega-3 and the quality can range a lot; my favorite is cod liver oil from Rosita. The best deal is buying the liquid form, if you can stomach it! Check it out at Long Natural Health.
- My absolute favorite Chinese medicine herbal formula that can work well for insomnia that’s associated with irritability and breast tenderness (mainly the week before your cycle) is Xiao Yao San. The name translates as “free and easy wanderer.” Caveat: I don’t recommend you use this one on your own; it’s better to work with a Chinese medicine practitioner (most acupuncturists are trained in herbal medicine, too) to make sure this is the appropriate formula for you. Besides your symptoms, we look at tongue and pulse for a much more complete picture of what is happening your in your body.
Stress response and insomnia
I left this for last, but honestly, healing the stress response in the body is the single most important thing you can do to help your insomnia.
A good supplement or herb will support that system, but it will take a consistent engagement on your part to enhance the relaxation response, over and over again.
Why is the stress response in the body so important in order to sleep? Well, in simple terms, if you are stressed, your body is keeping you up to deal with the danger (real or perceived). To look at it in more detail, here are some aspects to think about:
- As we feel stressed, stress hormones get produced in the body; adrenaline gets produced within seconds (sometimes milliseconds), and cortisol also gets produced and released within about 10 minutes of the stressor.
- Over longer periods of time, the feedback mechanism between the adrenals (which produces these hormones), the hypothalamus, and the pituitary can be a little off and we start producing hormones at inappropriate times, like at night (hello wired and tired!), the middle of the night (usually accompanied by blood sugar issues), or early in the morning (jerked out of sleep).
- Stress in the body doesn’t just have to be emotional stress (though that is usually a big part of it), but the body can be in a stress mode due to low-grade “not-so-obvious” chronic infections, chemical exposures, food sensitivities, poor diet, or blood sugar imbalances, to give you a few examples.
You may say, but we are all stressed, there is so much going on in the world! How do I even know if stress may actually be affecting my health and sleep? Here are some symptoms that could give you a hint that it may be an issue for you:
- You feel wired and tired at night.
- When you wake up at night, there is overthinking and spinning out of control.
- In the morning, you wake up feeling stressed, possibly too early in the morning.
- There is tension, you have tense shoulders or jaw, or you clench your teeth.
- You get frequent headaches, especially at or after work, or the week before your cycle.
- As you notice your breath, you catch yourself breathing shallowly, almost holding your breath at times.
- You are short-tempered with your family and even co-workers.
- You are eating in a rush, always rushing somewhere, often running late.
Herbs and supplements to help insomnia and the stress response
These are only a few of the signs, but you get the idea. So let’s find those three magic things that at last will get you going so you can feel a little more at ease.
- Magnesium is a wonderful mineral, much-needed by our bodies, and many of us are low in it. Magnesium threonate is the type that will be most beneficial for sleep.
- Ashwagandha is an adaptogenic herb that will work with the stress response and in time will support healthier cortisol production. Take it within 30 minutes of waking up for best results.
- Eat within 45 minutes of waking up. Yet again, I just can’t help myself, instead of giving you a supplement or herb, I am telling you that one of the best ways to reset your stress response shortly after waking up is to eat a complete meal: protein, fat, and carbs. If you are just not at all hungry, you could try collagen powder (it will provide the protein) mixed with some coconut oil and some fresh fruit and greens. Blend it and enjoy it! Eat consistently throughout the day and eat complete meals with all the macronutrients. We want stable blood sugar levels because with the drop of blood sugar, cortisol gets activated yet again.
You may wonder why I don’t talk about taking GABA and 5HTP; that’s because that subject is a bit more complex and I do not recommend these lightly, unless there is a real need and an understanding that it is safe for you and actually beneficial.
In addition, getting acupuncture and properly winding down in the evening are some of the best ways to further relax your nervous system. If you want my guide The Hour Before Sleep, you can download it here.