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Botanicals Can Help Improve Sleep, Mood and More

July 19, 2022

Google “botanicals” and you’ll get a lot of hits about craft cocktails and cannabinoids. But a lesser-known benefit is starting to get more attention: Using botanicals to improve your sleep and mood.

Humans have employed plant-based remedies for all kinds of ills for thousands of years, but botanicals typically fall outside the realm of mainstream medicine. They are not addressed in medical school, and many have not been widely studied, so doctors might not be comfortable using them in an evidence-based practice.

Yet in areas such as sleep and mood, there is research to go on, and reasons you might want to incorporate botanicals into your diet.

Double Dipping

Before adding botanicals to your routine, make sure you are not introducing anything that compounds or conflicts with medicines you already take. If a prescription med and a botanical work on the same neuro-receptor — tiny, protein-based elements of our nervous system that help our bodies and brains communicate — adding the botanical could overload that receptor. Talk to a dietitian experienced in botanicals to be sure you are not doubling up.

Go Slowly

When introducing botanicals, add one at a time, then pause to assess. Don’t start several at once — that will make it difficult to narrow down the cause if you have a reaction, or to tell how well the botanical is working for you. Always start with the lowest dose — or half — and go up from there, especially if you are prone to allergies.

Three Botanicals to Try

  • 5-Hydroxytryptophan: One substance getting a lot of attention is 5-HTP, made from the seeds of an African shrub called Griffonia simplicifolia. The “T” is for tryptophan, the element in turkey said to make us sleepy. (That’s a myth: Tryptophan degrades when heated and is not active in cooked turkey — we get sleepy because, like the turkey, we’re stuffed.) A transmitter that improves connections between neurons, tryptophan increases serotonin in the brain and has a calming effect. Take 5-HTP later in the day, as a way to wind down — it wouldn’t be as good a choice for, say, calming social anxieties. But it can help prepare you for restful sleep.
  • Melatonin: This hormone has been around a long time and now is being synthesized from plants as phytomelatonin. Take supplemental melatonin before bed for a limited period to increase the natural melatonin in your brain and encourage your body to release it at the same time each evening, promoting your natural sleep cycle. Supplemental melatonin is not a replacement for your natural production — use it as part of a bedtime routine that limits exposure to stimulants like TV, digital screens and noise. The goal is to create nighttime habits that put you to sleep naturally. Melatonin supplements can help — most people who stick to a routine eventually don’t need the supplements.
  • Gingko biloba: Derived from the maidenhair tree native to China, gingko biloba also has been around forever. It’s used to improve:
    • Mood
    • Memory
    • Concentration
    • Word-finding
    • Mental sharpness
    One thing to note: This botanical also improves blood flow and circulation, so if you already take certain blood pressure meds, it could lower your heart rate more than desired. Talk with your doctor or a dietitian before you begin.

Why Isn’t This Working?

With almost any medication or treatment, there are always “receptors” — those for whom the substance works — and “non-receptors,” people for whom it is not effective. What causes a hyper-response in some individuals might do nothing for others — our reactions to pretty much everything are highly individualized to our own biochemistry. Caffeine, one of the most common botanicals, is a great example: We all know people who can drink 10 cups and feel nothing, and people who can have half a cup and are climbing the walls. If you don’t get the expected result from a botanical, you might be a non-receptor.

Reading Is Fundamental

Botanicals are marketed as dietary supplements, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not make determinations about the effectiveness of supplements. They are regulated as a sub-category of food, not a drug, and manufacturers are not required to carry out studies regarding safety or effectiveness. (Pharmaceutical companies must show that they have conducted clinical trials before medications are released.) Look for botanical brands that display third-party certification on their labels from groups like U.S. Pharmacopeia, Consumer Lab and NSF International, which confirm that the supplement contains what it says it does.

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