Treating sleep disruptions and menopause symptoms naturally.
So many women I talk to want to treat their sleep problems as naturally as possible. I’m on board with that idea! Lifestyle and behavioral changes, including diet, exercise, mind-body therapies, relaxation exercises and stress management are the foundation of healthy, lifelong sleep hygiene. For many women, supplements can also play a tremendously beneficial role in improving sleep.
The same goes for managing menopause symptoms. The good news is that many of the most well-studied and effective supplements for sleep problems also can help women find relief from menopausal symptoms, and move through the menopause transition feeling, thinking, and performing their best.
Here, I’ll talk about some of the best sleep-promoting supplements—and how they can also address menopause symptoms.
A decision to use supplements should be made in consultation with your physician, taking into account your individual health history and risks. This is not medical advice, but I hope this discussion will give women a starting point for those conversations with their physicians about natural therapies to improve their sleep, protect their health, and reduce their uncomfortable symptoms during menopause.
When you talk to your doctor, be sure to discuss any supplements you’re considering and review potential interactions with any medications or other supplements you’re already using.
Melatonin: the go-to sleep hormone
Most women know melatonin as a go-to supplement for sleep. But a lot of women don’t know that melatonin can treat other symptoms of menopause. I wrote recently about the broad spectrum of benefits melatonin has for sleep, cardiovascular and cognitive health, as well as other health benefits.
Many people think melatonin works as a sedative—but it doesn’t. Melatonin—whether produced by your body or ingested as a supplement—improves sleep by helping the body better regulate its biological clock and sleep-wake cycles. Melatonin can help to strengthen and improve sleep-wake cycles, making it easier to sleep on a regular schedule. Melatonin can also shorten the time it takes to fall asleep, and increase overall sleep amounts. Higher levels of melatonin also may improve the quality of sleep and reduce daytime sleepiness and fatigue, as well as increasing REM sleep.
Melatonin has strong antioxidant powers—and that means it can help protect against cell damage in the brain and throughout the body. Recent research shows that melatonin may exert its protective, antioxidant effect over neural cells, helping to delay or prevent cognitive impairment and memory loss. Women’s risks for cognitive decline increase as they age and move through menopause.
There’s also evidence that melatonin can strengthen aging bones. Scientists have recently identified melatonin as a promising therapy to prevent and to treat osteoporosis. The decline in estrogen and other hormones that happens during menopause increase women’s risk for bone loss and osteoporosis.
Here’s some important information to know, when considering using a melatonin supplement: Recent research found that the actual melatonin content found in many supplements on the market may vary significantly from what product labels claim. Scientists at Ontario’s University of Guelph found that in more than 71 percent of melatonin supplements, the amount of melatonin was more than 10 percent different from what the product label indicated. Some products contained as much as 83 percent less melatonin, while other products contained as much as 478 percent more melatonin. That means a great many consumers aren’t getting the doses they think they are. Before you begin using melatonin, be sure to do your research and get your melatonin from a trusted source.
Magnolia bark: the ancient sleep booster and stress beater
The magnolia plant has an ancient history as a therapeutic compound in traditional Chinese, Japanese, and Korean medicine, used to promote sleep and relaxation, to ease anxiety, and to treat allergies and asthma, among other conditions. (I’ll be sharing a full profile of the therapeutic powers of magnolia bark soon, so check back to learn all about the benefits of this supplement.)
Research shows the bioactive compounds in magnolia bark can reduce the time it takes you to fall asleep, and can increase the amount of time you spend in both REM sleep and NREM sleep. Magnolia lowers levels of adrenaline, making it an effective natural sleep aid for people who tend to be wired or stressed.
Magnolia bark can be highly effective as a stress-reliever and anxiety-soother. Research indicates that one of the active compounds in magnolia bark—honokiol—works as effectively as the drug diazepam to treat anxiety, without the same risks of dependency or side effects. Women going through menopause often experienced heightened stress as well as anxiety and depression, which can interfere with quality of life, daily performance, and relationships.
Magnolia bark affects the activity of both serotonin and dopamine, two neurotransmitters that are important to mood. Research indicates that magnolia can help with depression, both on its own and in combination with ginger. Research shows specifically that magnolia bark helps improve sleep and relieve mood problems in women undergoing menopause.
Magnolia bark’s bioactive compounds can help maintain levels of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that helps the brain process memory and learning.
Weight gain is a common problem and concern for women undergoing menopause. Research shows compounds in magnolia bark extract may help guard against weight gain and decrease body fat. Studies also indicate magnolia bark can improve insulin resistance, and contribute to reductions in triglycerides and cholesterol.
Magnolia bark has long been used in traditional and natural medicine for as an anti-inflammatory and a source of pain relief, and has been used to help alleviate joint and muscle pain, as well as headache and menstrual cramps. Research in mice shows magnolia bark can be effective in reducing pain caused by inflammation.
L-Theanine: the ‘wakeful relaxation’ enhancer
L-theanine is an amino acid that is found in tea leaves. I’m a fan of this supplement for its ability to improve sleep and promote relaxation without making you feel sleepy during the day.
Its benefits for sleep? L-theanine may help people fall asleep more quickly and easily at bedtime, thanks to the relaxation boost it delivers. Research also shows L-theanine can improve the quality of sleep—not by acting as a sedative, but by lowering anxiety.
L-theanine elevates levels of GABA, as well as serotonin and dopamine. These chemicals are known as neurotransmitters, and they work in the brain to regulate emotions, mood, concentration, alertness, and sleep, as well as appetite, and energy. Increasing levels of these calming brain chemicals not only helps sleep, but may provide relief for women experiencing mood swings, difficulty concentrating, and changes to appetite during menopause.
At the same time, it is increasing chemicals that promote feelings of calm, L-theanine also reduces levels of chemicals in the brain that are linked to stress and anxiety. This may also be a way that L-theanine can protect brain cells against stress and age-related damage. L-theanine has positive effects on both the mental and physical symptoms of stress, including lowering heart rate and blood pressure.
Under stress, the body increases production of certain hormones, including cortisol and corticosterone. These hormone changes inhibit some brain activity, including memory formation and spatial learning. L-theanine helps to lower levels of the stress hormonecorticosterone, and avoid the interference with memory and learning.
L-theanine may also play a more direct role in weight maintenance. There’s scientific evidence indicating L-theanine may help to limit fat accumulation and weight gain, and pay help to protect against obesity.
Magnesium: the vital-for-sleep-and-everything-else mineral
Magnesium is about as close as you can get to an all-around sleep and health supplement. Because of its role as an enabler of healthy enzyme function, magnesium plays an important part in most of our physiological functions. Check out the details on the whole spectrum of benefits magnesium can deliver.
Helpful to pre-menstrual women in relieving symptoms of PMS—including mood swings, irritability, anxiety and tension, and bloating—magnesium also can make a big difference to women in menopause. One of the seven essential macro-minerals that the human body needs in large quantities, maintaining healthy magnesium levels protect metabolic health, stabilize mood, keep stress in check, promote better sleep, and contribute to heart and bone health.
Magnesium deficiency is common, with nearly half of adult men and women in the United States are likely deficient in magnesium. Older adults are more vulnerable to magnesium deficiency. Women are also at higher risk for low magnesium, especially with age.
Keeping magnesium levels healthy can lead to deeper, more sound sleep. Research indicates supplemental magnesium can improve sleep quality, especially in people with poor sleep.
Supplemental magnesium has been shown to have a stabilizing effect on mood. This whole-health mineral has been shown effective in relieving symptoms of both mild-to-moderate anxiety and mild-to-moderate depression.
Magnesium plays a critical role in maintaining bone density. It helps the body effectively use the building blocks of strong bones, including the nutrients calcium and vitamin D. The role of magnesium to bone health becomes increasingly important with age. Higher magnesium intake is linked to greater bone density in women. In postmenopausal women, magnesium has been shown to improve bone mass.
Another benefit for women in menopause, especially those with sleep problems and physical pain? Magnesium helps to relax muscles, and soothe muscle and joint pain.
5-HTP: the mood-and-sleep hormone elevator
This one has a funny-sounding name, but it can do a lot for sleep as well as for mood, and to help regulate appetite.
5-Hydroxytryptophan—commonly known as 5-HTP—is a compound made naturally in the body. 5-HTP is created as a byproduct of the amino acid L-tryptophan. Our bodies don’t make L-tryptophan naturally—we absorb this essential amino acid from the foods we eat. As we age, natural levels of 5-HTP appear to decline.
5-HTP helps the body to produce more serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that plays a key role in regulating mood and sleep-wake cycles. Healthy levels of serotonin contribute to a positive mood and outlook and also promote restful sleep. Serotonin also plays an important role in many other of the body’s functions, including digestion, appetite, and pain perception.
Because of its role in creating serotonin, 5-HTP is indirectly involved in producing melatonin, a hormone that is critical for sleep.
Because of its serotonin-boosting capability, 5-HTP may also help with other conditions, including mood problems, stress, pain, and appetite control. Low serotonin may also trigger hot flashes—keeping serotonin levels up may help reduce a woman’s risk for hot flashes.
5-HTP has been shown in scientific studies to promote relaxation and alleviate stress and anxiety. Research also indicates 5-HTP may be effective in helping to alleviate depression.
5-HTP has been recognized as important to appetite regulation. Higher levels of serotonin are linked to diminished appetite. Keeping serotonin levels from dipping can help keep appetite in check, and may help reduce cravings for carbohydrates. As a serotonin booster, 5-HTP may help to suppress appetite. Research indicates that 5-HTP may be effective in helping people who are overweight or obese lose weight.
Scientific evidence shows 5-HTP may be able to reduce the frequency of migraine headache attacks and reduce pain from chronic headaches. Many women experience headache and migraine during menopause.
Valerian and hops: the anti-stress, pro-sleep duo
These are two supplements often used together, and are well known for their sleep-improving abilities. Valerian and hops may help women in menopause by boosting levels of GABA, the calming neurotransmitter that stabilizes mood and boosts relaxation and sleep.
At least a dozen or more scientific studies have found valerian—used on its own or with hops—helps to improve sleep. Research shows that valerian can help people fall asleep more quickly, improve the quality of sleep, and increase amounts of nightly sleep. Valerian can also help ease the symptoms of insomnia. Studies specifically about women undergoing menopause show valerian is helpful to improving their sleep.
Research shows valerian can be effective in helping to reduce stress, lowering blood pressure and heart rate. Studies also show hops can be effective in reducing stress and anxiety.
A flavonoid in hops has also been found to help reduce weight gain, lower elevated cholesterol and reduce high blood sugar.
CBD: the calming, sleep-promoting pain reliever
I am asked all the time: how does cannabis help sleep and health?
The cannabis plant is filled with hundreds of different compounds, and many have been studied for decades for their health benefits. The cannabis compounds that scientists have paid the most attention to are known as cannabinoids. Cannabinoids are now used in treatment for a broad—and growing—range of conditions and symptoms, from sleep and pain, to anxiety and inflammation, to Parkinson’s disease and cancer.
Cannabidiol—or CBD—is a cannabinoid that’s available in supplement form, and can help with stress and anxiety, pain, and sleep problems. Unlike medical cannabis, CBD is legal in all 50 states. Even if you live in a state where medical cannabis is currently not legal, you can still purchase and use CBD.
Let me be very clear: CBD is not “pot.” There is no “high” associated with CBD. (I’ll be writing more in-depth about the difference between CBD Instead, this compound has calming, anti-anxiety effects. CBD is a sleep promoter. Also of relevance for women in menopause, CBD works as an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, as well as an analgesic—a pain reducer—in the body.
CBD can reduce anxiety, making it effective in reducing sleep disruptions and improving sleep quality. CBD may improve insomnia, and increase overall sleep amounts. With its sleep-enhancing abilities combined with its power as an analgesic, CBD has been shown to reduce insomnia in people who suffer from chronic pain.
Cannabis has been used for centuries to treat nerves and anxiety, as well as other mood problems. CBD may help to improve both depression and anxiety, at least in part through its interactions with serotonin receptors in the brain. Research shows that CBD can reduce both mental and physical symptoms of anxiety.
Women who experience insomnia along with symptoms of anxiety or depression during menopause, as well as women who have aches and pains as a menopause symptom, may find relief from CBD.
Michael J. Breus, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and a diplomate of the American Board of Sleep Medicine. He is the author of Beauty Sleep.