Health & Nutrition

Healthy sleep - getting enough sleep & improving sleep quality

Healthy sleep - getting enough sleep & improving sleep quality

07 December 2020

Sufficient sleep is vital for maintaining optimal health and wellbeing and it is just as important as eating a balanced diet and exercising regularly. But what ingredients can support sleep and improve sleep quality?

Insomnia is an increasing problem and an estimated 40-50 % of the population in Denmark, Sweden and Norway experiences sleeping problems for a short or long period of time. Getting insufficient sleep has a huge impact on health and quality of life and has been linked to a higher risk of conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and obesity [1]. On the other hand, getting a good night’s sleep helps your body and brain function and can improve your learning ability, memory, creativity and decision-making [2].  

Modern lifestyle involves stress, blue light screens before sleep, caffeine and irregular bedtime. All these factors may contribute to sleep problems, and it can be very hard to break the cycle of insomnia. Cutting out the things in our life that deprive us of our sleep is an obvious first choice for improving our sleep. However, a 100 % lifestyle intervention is not always possible or is not enough to get the good sleep back on track. In that case natural sleep-promoting and  sleep quality improving supplements might be helpful. Here is a list of botanical extracts, minerals and amino acids which can support healthy sleep:


Melatonin is a hormone that is produced naturally in the pineal gland of the brain. The production of melatonin is influenced by time of day, and the levels naturally rise in the evening and fall in the morning [3].  Production of melatonin generally decreases with age, which potentially could result in sleep disorders [4]. Melatonin supplement may improve quality and duration of sleep [5]. Cherries such as Tart Montmorency cherries (Prunus cerasus) have high levels of phytochemicals including melatonin research has shown. Consumption of cherry juice concentrate provides an increase in exogenous melatonin that improved sleep duration and quality [6]. 


Prunus cerasus cherries have high levels of phytochemicals including melatonin


Magnesium is essential for human health and is involved in more than 600 cellular reactions in our body [7]. It is needed for bone health, proper brain, heart and muscle function. Besides that it has been linked to benefits such as fighting inflammation, relieving constipation and lowering blood pressure [8,9]. Magnesium may also treat sleep problems. It regulates neurotransmitters which send signals throughout the nervous system and brain, and it also regulates the hormone melatonin, which is involved in sleep-awake cycles in our body. Furthermore, magnesium increases gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), an inhibitory neurotransmitter that promotes sleep by reducing neuronal excitability throughout the nervous system. Low GABA levels in the body make it difficult to relax and sleep [10]. In addition, research indicates that magnesium supplements may improve sleep quality, especially in people with poor sleep [11].


Valerian (Valeriana officinalis L.) is a flowering perennial plant native to Europe and Asia, which bears scented pink or white flowers. Crude extracts of the valerian root have traditionally been used to promote tranquillity and improving sleep since the time of ancient Greece and Rome. The valerian root contains a number of compounds that may promote sleep and reduce anxiety, e.g. valerenic acid, isovaleric acid and a variety of antioxidants. Valerenic acid has been found to inhibit the breakdown of GABA, promoting feelings of calmness and tranquillity. The antioxidants hesperidin and linarin also appear to have sedative and sleep-enhancing effects [12,13]. In addition, research has shown that intake of valerian could improve the sleep quality and reduce sleep disorder symptoms in menopausal and postmenopausal women [13,14].


"Getting a good night's sleep helps your body and brain function and can improve your learning ability, memory, creativity and decision-making."


Hops (Humulus lupulus L.) is a herbaceous climbing plant native to Europe, Western Asia and North America. The female plants have cone shaped fruits, which are used by breweries to preserve beer and to give it a bitter flavour. There is a long history of using hops as herbal treatment to promote sleep. In Europe, it was noticed that field workers who cultivated hop plants tended to fall asleep on the job more than usual. Hops contains myrcene, humulene, xanthohumol, myrcenol, linalool, tannins, and resin and owe their pharmacological activity to their bitter resins, alpha acid component 2-methyl-3-buten-2-ol. The action mechanism of the resins consists of increasing the activity of the neurotransmitter GABA, inhibiting the central nervous system [15]. Thus the mechanisms which cause the sedative effect are very similar those of valerian. Combining valerian and hops might also be more effective. In addition, hops help lowering body temperature which is an important physiological step towards sleep. 


Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla L.) is an annual plant with white ray florets and yellow disc florets. It is native to Southern and Eastern Europe. The flowers contain a blue essential oil with many interesting health properties and have also been used for centuries as a natural remedy for several health conditions including as a mild tranquilizer and sleep promoter. More than 120 chemical constituents have been identified in chamomile flowers. Most of them are found in the blue essential oil. The sedative effects may be due to the flavonoid apigenin that binds to benzodiazepine receptors in the brain. Other compounds found in chamomile extract can also bind benzodiazepine and GABA receptors in the brain and might also be responsible for some sedative effect [16].


Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata L.) is a climbing vine native to North, Central and South America, but currently cultivated in Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia. The fruit and flowers contain components such as tannins, coumarin alkaloids, flavonoids, tyrosine and glycine [17]. It has long been used by American Indians due to its sedative and anxiolytic effects. Passionflower’s sleep-promoting effects have been demonstrated in animal studies [18]. Furthermore, in a recent study of people with insomnia who took passionflower extract over a 2-weeks-period, significant improvements were found for certain sleep parameters [19]. Passionflower appears to work by modulation of the GABA system [20].


Passionflower has sleep-promoting effects


Lavender (Lavandula) is a strongly aromatic shrub with pinkish-purple flowers, which can be found on almost all continents. Lavender has traditionally been alleged to have therapeutic and curative properties ranging from inducing relaxation to treating parasitic infections, burns, insect bites and spasm [21]. Research has also indicated that inhalation of lavender oil shortly before sleep could improve sleep quality in persons with mild insomnia [22].

Lemon balm

Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis L.), an aromatic and lemon-scented herb belonging to the mint family, is found all over the world.  It has traditionally has been used for reducing stress and improve sleep since the Middle Ages. Studies indicate that the action mechanism is that lemon balm increases GABA levels [23].


Glycine is an amino acid and its principal function is as a precursor to protein. However, glycine is also an inhibitory neurotransmitter playing an important role in the central nervous system. Research suggests that glycine intake before bedtime may help to improve sleep quality and sleep efficacy (sleep time/in-bed time) [24].


Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that is used in the biosynthesis of proteins. Tryptophan is also a precursor to the neurotransmitter serotonin, the hormone melatonin and vitamin B3. Studies have indicated that tryptophan supplements help to improve sleep [25].

Another form of tryptophan is 5-hydroxy-l-tryptophan (5-HTP), which is naturally produced in our body from L-tryptophan. 5-HTP is the immediate precursor to serotonin, which can be converted into the hormone melatonin. Interestingly, this form of tryptophan is found abundantly in the seeds of Griffonia simplicifolia (DC.) Baill., a woody climbing shrub native to West and Central Africa. Research has found that combining 5-HTP and GABA reduced time to fall asleep, increased the duration of sleep and improved quality of sleep [26].


By Rison Thumboor from Thrissur, India - Mucuna pruriens Beans (Velvet bean) - നായ്ക്കുരണപ്പയര്‍., CC BY 2.0,



L-Dopa or levodopa is an important amino acid in our body. It is needed for the brain to produce dopamine and has many brain-related functions such as mood, motivation, memory, and sleep regulation. Some legumes such as velvet bean (Mucuna pruriens) have a high level of L-dopa [27]. Velvet bean is native to India, Africa and China and has long been used in traditional Ayurvedic medicine. Research has shown that seed powder preparations of Mucuna pruriens help boost dopamine levels in humans [28]. Mucuna extracts are often used in sleep aid supplements in combination with e.g. magnesium, GABA, 5-HTP and other sleep-promoting remedies. 




Why is sleep so important?

Together with nutrition and exercise, sleep constitutes the three important pillars for maintaining good health. Though treating our bodies as temples, making sure to eat healthy and exercise regularly to stay healthy and fit, many of us neglect to get sufficient sleep and have sleeping habits that can have a bad impact on our health and keep us from performing well in everyday life. Here is why sleep is so important to us:


  • Sleep is important for the immune function. When we do not sleep enough the body will be less able to form certain substances which are important for the immune system.
  • Sleep links to brain functions such as concentration, productivity and cognition. Deprivation of sleep over a certain time impacts our ability to learn new things and will also affect our mood and memory negatively.
  • Sleep disturbance is also highly linked to development of psychical disorders – primarily anxiety and depression.
  • Sleep lowers the risk of gaining weight. When we sleep, the amount of the stress hormone cortisol in our body controlling our appetite is reduced. 
  • Sleep lowers the risk of heart disease – getting adequate rest allows the body’s blood pressure to regulate itself.
  • Sleep is very important for rebuilding body tissue. During sleep, different hormones are produced which contribute to rebuilding the brain and the body.
  • Sufficient sleep enables greater physical performance.








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