Archive for the ‘neurotransmitters of sleep’ category

Neurotransmitters: Brain Chemicals of Sleep

October 31, 2011

Over the last newsletters we’ve talked about many behavioral skills and strategies to help ourselves sleep well naturally. Sometimes though, we do everything in our power to sleep well, but without success. At that time, other therapies are in order.

One of the options is supporting neurotransmitters with specific nutrients. Neurotransmitters are brain chemicals which help us sleep at times and be alert at others. Some of the ones we think of which promote sleep include serotonin, dopamine, GABA, histamine, glutamate, and norepinephrine.

In the clinic, neurotransmitter levels can be tested by doing urinary analysis. This test has been used by holistic physicians for the last 12 years.

When neurotransmitter levels are out of balance, the nutrients which are their building blocks can be used to increase their levels. These are primarily amino acids (parts of proteins) and the vitamins and minerals to help form the neurotransmitters. This can be a very effective treatment for people whose sleep hasn’t improved with other strategies.

Because this is a powerful therapy, it is not a treatment to try on your own. If you would like to try amino acid therapy for yourself, go to a licensed holistic healthcare provider. They will get a detailed history of your sleep problem and current medications, do testing as appropriate, then recommend the right combination of amino acids and other nutrients.

Tryptophan for sleep: Truth or Turkey?

November 26, 2009

Many stories abound about how the tryptophan in turkey or a glass of milk before bed will help you sleep.  Is this true or not?  Let’s look at the information.

Tryptophan is an amino acid found in foods.  Many amino acids combine to make a protein.  These proteins are then digested and broken down into the amino acids.  Amino acids are carried by the blood throughout the body.  When we think about sleep, the important organ is the brain.  There is a “blood-brain barrier,”  which substances in the blood need to be transported across.  Tryptophan uses the same transporter as several other amino acids.  If those amino acids are in the blood at the same time, they will compete with tryptophan, so less tryptophan will cross into the brain.

Why is tryptophan relevant to sleep?

Several of the neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) of sleep rely on tryptophan for their production.  Among these are serotonin and melatonin.  Melatonin has been discussed in other blog posts here.  Increasing tryptophan by taking tryptophan supplements does help treat insomnia.  These supplements provide higher doses of tryptophan than can be found in food.  Cottage cheese has the most tryptophan per serving, at 400mg tryptophan in 1 cup.  A 3oz serving of turkey provides 283mg of trytophan, and 1 cup of milk 110mg.

Does the tryptophan in our Thanksgiving turkey help sleep?

Thinking about the tryptophan basics we first discussed above, the tryptophan in turkey probably doesn’t help you sleep.  This is because there are other amino acids in the turkey, some of which may compete with tryptophan to be taken into the brain.  That said, enjoy the sleepy reverie that often follows the Thanksgiving feast!

Your Cortisol Rhythm and Sleep

November 23, 2009

Cortisol is an intrinsic hormone we all have. It is secreted by the adrenal glands on a regular daily basis.  There is a daily fluctuation in levels, called it’s circadian rhythm.  Cortisol should be low at night while we sleep.  It rapidly rises in the early morning, helping us have the energy to start our day.  Cortisol also can increase due to acute stress, such as an auto accident, or can be chronically elevated due to a chronic stressor.  It is thought that after long periods of chronic stress the adrenal glands get fatigued, so that cortisol is abnormally low.  Cortisol is typically elevated in depression, and low in Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS).

So how does our cortisol levels affect our sleep? 

Cortisol is a wake-promoting hormone, so it can contribute to insomnia when it is high.  In my naturopathic sleep medicine practice we evaluate cortisol when the patient reports high stress levels and difficulty sleeping in the middle of the night.  Salivary cortisol levels are typically tested at four time points throughout a day – 7am, noon, 4pm and midnight.  The patients results are then compared to the normal profile. 

What will help normalize cortisol levels?

Many nutrients are needed by the adrenal glands to function well.  These include vitamins C, B6, and zinc and magnesium.  Some botanical medicines will also support adrenal function.  When the 24 hour cortisol profile is abnormal, supplements are typically recommended for 3 months, then levels are re-tested.  As always, it is equally (or more) important to address the underlying reason that the cortisol has gotten out of balance.  Behavioral approaches to decreasing stress include deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, good diet with avoidance of caffeine and alcohol, and good relationships.  If you suspect your cortisol levels may be affecting your ability to sleep consult with a physician for evaluation and treatment if necessary.

For more information about Naturopathic Sleep Medicine go to

Sleep Related Movement Disorders

November 18, 2009

Do you know someone who twitches their leg all night?   Or someone who feels like they just have to move their legs in the evening, or when sitting in a cramped theater?   Chances are, they may be suffering from a movement disorder.

What are Movement Disorders?

It is normal to move some during sleep, to change position, or have a few rhythmic movements.  In Sleep Related Movement Disorders a person moves part of their body involuntarily.   When these movements are associated with sleep disturbance or impaired daytime functioning they are classified as a disorder.   Commonly the arms or legs move, but in some cases the whole body is involved, as in Sleep Related Rhythmic Movement Disorder.   Tooth grinding at night, called Bruxism, is another movement disorder.   Let’s touch on the most common disorders.

Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS)

5-10% of Americans are thought to suffer from this disorder.   There is an irresistible urge to move the legs or feet, often accompanied by an uncomfortable or painful feeling deep in the legs.   RLS is usually worse in the evening or in cramped places like airplanes, and is better with movement or in the morning.   These symptoms can make it difficult to fall asleep at the beginning of the night, or return to sleep after awakening.   Restless Legs Syndrome tends to run in families.   RLS can be associated with iron deficiency, and for some people treating the iron deficiency will resolve their symptoms.

Periodic Limb Movement Disorder (PLMD)

About 80-90% of patients who have RLS have Periodic Limb Movements of Sleep.   These are repetitive, stereotypical movements of the lower extremity which may be as subtle as flexing the big toe.   These movements will disrupt sleep by causing brief awakenings that break up the normal sleep cycle, causing less restorative sleep.   Patients frequently will be unaware of these movements, it is only during the overnight sleep study that it is diagnosed.   Patients will however be aware of being fatigued during the day, and also have higher rates of depression, and attention deficit.

Because these disorders on our daytime health and well-being they need to be taken seriously and effectively treated.   Since people are unaware that these movements occur, please bring it to your bedpartners’ attention if they are moving excessively in his sleep.   Who knows, you just might be able to get a better nights sleep too!





Melatonin, the Sleep Hormone

November 11, 2009

You have probably heard of melatonin, one of our bodies’ endogenous hormones. Today we’ll talk about natural melatonin cycles, how melatonin relates to health, and also how melatonin is taken as a supplement.

Your Natural Melatonin Cycle
Melatonin is a hormone produced by the pineal gland. It also acts as a neurotransmitter. In dim light conditions melatonin levels will start to rise about 2 hours before your habitual bedtime, and peak about 2 hours afterwards. This increase is partly responsible for tired feelings before bedtime. It will decline during the night and be at very low levels during the day. Melatonin is suppressed by bright light, such as sunshine.

People who are either “larks” or “owls,” have a melatonin rhythm that is different from the norm. This causes them either to get sleepy much earlier in the day – “larks”, or much later than usual – “owls.” An example is found during puberty in teenagers whose melatonin rhythm shifts later, causing their sleep and wake times to shift later.

Uses of Melatonin
Melatonin can be taken as a supplement to improve sleep. In the past, higher doses (5-10mg) were used like a pharmaceutical drug, and some people experienced a hang-over effect the next morning. Newer research has shown that much lower doses (.3-3mg), which are in line with the levels naturally found in the body, are just as effective.

– Precisely timed melatonin can be used to shift the habitual sleep time for those people who are “owls” or “larks.” Exposure to bright light can also be used to shift sleep times as it will suppress melatonin.
– Melatonin can be used by travelers to reduce jet-lag symptoms. It is especially effective when used in combination with a well-thought out sleep schedule, bright light exposure and limiting light with sunglasses.
– Melatonin can be a gentle aid in promoting sleep for those who have sleep onset insomnia. There are also time-released formulas for people who have difficulty staying asleep through the night.

You can always take advantage of your endogenous melatonin rhythm by going to bed at approximately the same time each night, and getting bright light exposure in the morning. This is one way to naturally keep your sleep healthy!