Last time I began a series on insomnia, including the different types, and discussed blood sugar regulation. This time, we will discuss the role of neurotransmitters and magnesium.
Many people have heard of tryptophan, which is an amino acid found in turkey, chicken, milk, cheese and eggs that is known to play a role in sleep. I know growing up we would joke about being in a “turkey coma” after thanksgiving, and my parents would often tell my sister and I to have a glass of warm milk to help us get to sleep when we were kids. Tryptophan metabolism can take several pathways in the body, one of them being to synthesize the neurotransmitter serotonin (which is known as the “feel good” neurotransmitter). The intermediate product as tryptophan is made into serotonin is something called 5-hydroxytryptophan, also known as 5HTP for short. 5HTP gets converted into serotonin, which then gets chemically altered in the pineal gland located in the brain, to eventually synthesize melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone that plays a role in the sleep wake cycle. 6 The production of melatonin is affected by light exposure to the eyes, as well as the amount of serotonin available to be converted to Melatonin. It is important to point out that this metabolic pathway requires certain nutrients including iron, vitamin C, folic acid, magnesium, to convert tryptophan to 5HTP, and vitamin B6 is required to convert 5HTP to serotonin, so sometimes just starting on a multivitamin can help. 7(220),8
I do recommend supplementing with 100-300mg of 5HTP about 30-45 minutes prior to bedtime (only if you are NOT taking an antidepressant medication because they do interact), however keep in mind that some people will experience side effects from these supplements. 4,9 If you experience irritability, agitation or GI symptoms such as nausea, or gas, discontinue its use. Melatonin can also be helpful for occasional bouts of insomnia, however I generally don’t recommend taking melatonin every night because as you begin to continuously supplement, the body eventually stops production. Keep in mind this normally occurs in the elderly (production of melatonin diminishes, but you don’t want to have your body stop producing this if you can help it). Treatment with melatonin is most effective in people who have low levels to start with 2(752), so please keep this in mind if it doesn’t work when you take it. If you want to give melatonin a try, a dosage of 1-3gm at bedtime generally does the trick for most people with low levels. 2(756) There are several products that can be recommended that only have a small amount of melatonin and other sleep inducing botanicals. (more on botanicals in the coming weeks)
Magnesium is a mineral most known for its involvement in several hundred enzymatic reactions in the body as well as its role in the structure and function of our body. 60% of the magnesium in the body is found in the skeleton10 and this mineral plays a role in energy production, muscle relaxation, and helps regulate other minerals in the body including calcium, copper and zinc. 11 In addition, magnesium is important in muscle relaxation, and can have a calming effect on people, as their muscles become more relaxed. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, a magnesium deficiency can cause restless leg syndrome, irritability, and sleep disorders including insomnia. 11 I often recommend taking a magnesium supplement at night- about 200-400mg. Rich food sources of magnesium include tofu, wheat bran, nuts, legumes and green leafy vegetables.
2 Murray & Pizzorno. The Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine- 3rd edition. New York: Atria; 2012.
7 Bralley J & Lord R. Laboratory Evaluations for Integrative and Functional Medicine- revised 2nd edition. Metametrix Institute: Duluth, Georgia; 2012.