Sleep has become a huge industry worth billions of dollars per year. Besides the conventional products that immediately come to mind like mattresses, pillows, and pajamas, the sleep industry has started making its way into our food and beverage choices.
Millions of Americans regularly take a sleep aid medication to help them sleep, and about 70 million have been diagnosed with a sleep-related disorder.1,2 Collectively, poor sleep is one of the most critical health issues we face, and one that, if improved, could have a profound effect on outcomes in chronic disease, mental health, and more.3
With this in mind, many consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies have taken on this sleep-deprived market and come up with enticing food and beverage products that promise to take consumers off to dreamland for a full-night’s sleep. But are they (and their sleep-promoting ingredients) really a healthy and effective option? Let’s dig into the research.
In this Blog:
- What’s changed with our view on sleep?
- New sleep-promoting foods and beverages
- Nootropics (Melatonin, L-theanine, L-tryptophan, GABA)
- Minerals (Magnesium, Calcium, Zinc)
- Adaptogens (Ashwagandha, Valerian root)
- The bottom line on sleep-promoting foods
What’s changed with our view on sleep?
The “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” ideology has become old-fashioned. We know a lot more about sleep now in the first quarter of the 21st century than we did in the last quarter of the 20th—and as the benefits of sleep become more well-known, the general public is showing that they are willing to pay for better sleep, whether it’s a new mattress or an adaptogen-infused beverage.
The connection between sleep and brain health has also been highly investigated. We know that sleep is important for managing neurons and their communication. And sleep has been suggested to play a role in physically removing toxins from the brain.4
A recent study on 8,000 middle aged British participants found that those who consistently slept 6 hours or less in their 50s and 60s were 30% more likely to develop dementia later in life, regardless of their cardiometabolic, mental health, or other risk factors.5
In addition, sleep researcher Matthew Walker explains in his 2019 TED talk that we need sleep both before and after learning in order to integrate what we’ve learned into our memory. When the brain and body is sleep deprived, there is a 40% deficit in your ability to remember information. The amount of sleep you get also has impacts on your immune system (lowering natural killer cell activity), and night shift work has been classified as a probable carcinogen by the World Health Organization.6
Walker lays it out simply, “The shorter your sleep, the shorter your life… Sleep is a non-negotiable biological necessity. It is your life support system.”7
New sleep-promoting foods and beverages
These days you can find everything from classic sleep-promoting teas to adaptogen-infused drinks to sleepy snacks like better-for-you ice cream and pre-bedtime gummies. Many products sport dark blue and purple packaging to reflect a sense of nighttime relaxation and calm––but what’s really in them? Are the sleep-related ingredients really helping you sleep?
Each food and drink product has their own concoction of sleep-promoting supplements that they claim will get you the best night’s rest. Let’s take a look at some of the most popular ingredients.
Popular sleep-promoting ingredients: What should you choose?
Nootropics are brain-boosting nutrients that support cognition, focus, motivation, relaxation, and more.8 Here are some of the popular nootropic ingredients you might find in sleep-promoting foods and supplements.
Melatonin supplementation has been around for some time now, and while some health advocates and practitioners promote its sleep-inducing effects, others say that you should not supplement what is essentially a hormone produced naturally by the body. However, melatonin has anti-oxidative, anti-inflammatory, and neuroprotective effects, to name a few benefits. It also seems to have a role in detoxifying the brain while we sleep, dispelling brain fog, and increasing our mental energy during the day.9
You can find melatonin in supplements, drinks, gummies, and more. Research has been done on doses from less than one to 12mg, but most studies favor a dose between 1 to 3mg. While some studies indicate minor side effects like drowsiness and headaches, melatonin has been shown to be generally safe and improve sleep quality in otherwise healthy adults.10
L-theanine, a calming amino acid found in green tea, is another popular addition to many sleep-promoting food and beverage products as well as supplements. L-theanine is the reason matcha lovers say they feel a sense of energized calm and focus after drinking matcha (which is essentially green tea powder); the caffeine and L-theanine combine to create this calm energized state, versus coffee, which provides the caffeine but no L-theanine, resulting in more jitters and less focus.11
L-theanine has been proven to have anti-stress, attention-improving, and sleep-improving effects in clinical studies. It has also been shown to be useful in the treatment of depression. Overall, it is considered a safe nutraceutical ingredient for improving mental health and sleep quality in healthy individuals.12
You’ve probably heard of L-tryptophan as the amino acid that makes you sleepy after a big Thanksgiving meal, since it’s found in turkey. Except with tryptophan, the way it induces sleep is a little different. L-tryptophan actually converts to both serotonin (the “happy” hormone) and melatonin, which we’ve already covered above. Due to this conversion, L-tryptophan infusions have been shown to cause significant sleep-inducing effects and raise melatonin levels with minimal side effects.13, 14
GABA is the main inhibitory (versus excitatory) neurotransmitter of the central nervous system, and activating GABA receptors can promote sleep. GABA is also present in the enteric nervous system, aka your gut, and there is some evidence that it could mediate sleep and other neurological processes via the gut-brain axis.15
You can get GABA from some foods naturally, such as tea, tomato, soybean, and some fermented foods. Still, research shows that there is “very limited supportive evidence regarding the role of oral GABA intake on objective sleep improvement.”15 Studies seem to favor the ability of GABA to induce sleep but not maintain the deeper stages of sleep throughout the night.16
Minerals are more readily present in our diet and recommended nutrient intake than many nootropics. These are some of the common minerals you’ll find in sleep-promoting foods and supplements and what forms to watch out for.
Magnesium is one of the most crucial minerals we need to function every day, and its deficit can result in anxiety, migraines, inability to focus, muscular weakness, and more.17 What’s not clear is the exact relationship between magnesium levels and sleep.
A study of the effect of magnesium citrate supplementation on inflammatory stress in older adults showed that participants achieved improved sleep regardless of magnesium or placebo supplementation. (However, they did show that magnesium lowered inflammatory stress, which may have an effect on sleep quality.)18
But another study showed that magnesium oxide supplementation at 500mg per day significantly improved sleep in elderly adults with insomnia.19 These studies seem to indicate that the amount and type of magnesium is very important with regard to its effect on sleep, so look out for the various types of magnesium you’ll find in different enhanced food and beverage products.
In general, calcium intake has been associated with less difficulty falling asleep.20 Calcium levels have also been shown to be higher in the deepest stages of sleep, like the REM cycle.21 Calcium and tryptophan work together to produce melatonin, which explains why dairy can often make you sleepy since it contains both nutrients.
As for supplementation, no studies we found specify a certain type of calcium supplement, such as calcium citrate, that have an impact on sleep.
Zinc has been all the rage for immune system support over the last year, but it might help you sleep better too. Oral zinc supplementation has been shown to increase both length and quality of sleep in mice and humans.22 This is somewhat unsurprising since zinc is a key player in the central nervous system and modulates neuron activity.23
One study on ICU nurses shows the effectiveness of zinc sulfate for improving sleep quality, but many other studies do not specify a specific type of zinc supplement.24
Adaptogens are herbs or mushrooms that have modulatory and protective effects on our bodies, often neurologically and hormonally. They can be used to balance out over- or under-producing adrenals, for example, modulating the stress response. Some of these adaptogens have become quite popular additions to food, drink, and supplement products.25
Ashwagandha is an adaptogenic, Ayurvedic herb commonly used for its anti-anxiety and anti-depression effects. It has been shown to be “well-tolerated” in studies and is even an effective treatment for insomnia.26, 27
Researchers found a compound in ashwagandha called triethylene glycol (TEG) that they connected with the sleep-promoting effects. They noted that a water-based extract of ashwagandha leaf improved non-rapid eye movement (non-REM) sleep while an alcoholic extract did not have an effect on sleep. This may be worth noting when purchasing food products or supplements with ashwagandha as an ingredient.28
Valerian root has been used for decades as a relaxing, sleep-inducing herb. Studies have indicated that valerian could be an effective therapeutic for sleep-related disorders with no “severe adverse events” associated with use in people from age seven to age 80.
However, there has not been a definitive research-supported decision on valerian for insomnia or other sleep problems. Results seem to be mixed, and repeated use may be needed for significant effects.29