Sleep disturbance is widespread and has many causes, such as stress, dietary factors, trauma or illness. Poor sleep leads to sleep deprivation, which can have serious health consequences, including weakened immunity and hormonal disruption. Some causes of sleep disturbance require medical attention and prescription medication, but others may respond to natural means. Melatonin and magnesium are supplements used to naturally promote sleep, albeit in different ways.
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Insomnia is the most common sleep disorder, affecting virtually everyone at some stage. Insomnia is a short-term or chronic inability to get high-quality sleep, but usually has innocuous causes such as stress, ambient noise, caffeine use, altered sleep schedule or physical discomfort, according to “Professional Guide to Diseases." These causes often have common sense solutions, although they may not be obvious to the insomniac. Other causes of insomnia, such as emotional trauma, nutritional deficiencies and hormone imbalance can cause more profound sleep disturbances that are not easily remedied, because they can disrupt the body’s sleep cycle.
In addition to individual requirements of bedtime comfort, hormones triggered by darkness are needed to begin the stages of sleep. The two main types of sleep are distinguished by rapid eye movement, or REM. Non-REM sleep consists of four stages of sleep. The first stage is transitional and lasts about five minutes; your muscle tension decreases and you are easily awakened. The second stage is light sleep and lasts about 10 to 25 minutes; your eyes stop moving, heart rate slows and body temperature decreases. The third stage is deep sleep and may last a few hours; you are very difficult to awaken. Stage four is the deepest stage of sleep and is vital for cellular repairs and boosting the immune system; your brain waves are extremely slow.
REM sleep is when dreaming occurs and begins about 70 to 90 minutes after falling asleep; your eyes move rapidly, breathing is shallow, heart rate and blood pressure increase, and your arm and leg muscles are paralyzed. According to the National Institutes of Health, the average adult sleeps less than 7 hours per night, although most need between 7.5 to 9 hours of sleep per night to function well.
Melatonin is a hormone synthesized by a small structure in the middle of the brain, called the pineal gland. Melatonin is released into the bloodstream from the pineal gland when triggered by periods of darkness or episodes of reduced sunshine. Levels are highest about 45 minutes before bedtime. Melatonin is considered a master hormone that dictates sleep and maintains our circadian rhythm, or body clock, as described in “Human Biochemistry and Disease." Aging, dietary factors, disease, jet lag, head trauma and emotional trauma can all disrupt melatonin production and release, leading to an inability to initiate the sleep cycle or achieve deep, stage four sleep. Supplementing with melatonin, typically between 1 and 5 mg about 45 minutes prior to when you want to fall asleep, can help stimulate the sleep cycle and re-establish normal rhythms.
Magnesium is an essential mineral for bone health, but also for muscle contraction and relaxation, according to “Doctor's Complete Guide to Vitamins and Minerals." Deficiency in magnesium can cause muscle tension, muscle cramps and possibly “restless leg” syndrome, which can all disrupt sleep and lead to insomnia. Supplementing with magnesium prior to bedtime can help your muscles relax, which is essential to progressing beyond stage one of non-REM sleep.
- “Professional Guide to Diseases: Ninth Edition”; Springhouse Publishing; 2009
- National Institutes of Health: Your Guide to Healthy Sleep
- “Human Biochemistry and Disease”; Gerald Litwack; 2008
- “Doctor's Complete Guide to Vitamins and Minerals”; Mary Dan Eades and Philip Lief; 2002