An old adage asserts that fitness is 80 percent diet, 20 percent exercise, but that equation is missing 33 percent: the 8 hours you should be sleeping. That's when the body rests and recovers from hard workouts. During sleep, the body secretes the majority of its anabolic hormones. The deeper and longer your sleep cycles, the greater the anabolic hormone secretions. So if you spend your working hours thinking of ways to be more anabolic, only to shortchange your sleep, you're shooting yourself in the foot.
Unfortunately, stress (particularly cortisol), intense workouts, and life often get in the way of sleep—and ultimately, recovery. So before you go through another sleepless night, check out these supplements to help you sleep better and recover faster for yet another day at the gym.
Supplements For Better Sleep
I know we've all experienced the epic Thanksgiving post-meal nap a time or two. I mean really, is there anything better than stuffing yourself full of turkey and Mom's homemade sweet potato casserole and drifting off into a food coma? However, the well-known myth that the tryptophan found in turkey is the culprit for making you feel sleepy is only marginally true. Although turkey does contain some tryptophan, it's typical of what is found in most meat. In fact, it contains less tryptophan than egg whites, soybeans, and cheddar cheese!
If you're having trouble falling asleep at night, leave the turkey in the fridge and reach for L-tryptophan. Converted through a series of reactions, L-tryptophan is a precursor that ultimately leads to the synthesis of melatonin in the brain, as well as niacin production and protein synthesis. Because amino acids compete for absorption and transport into the brain, take L-tryptophan on an empty stomach before bed to optimize melatonin production and thus put you to sleep faster.1
Dosage: Take 2-5 g of L-tryptophan one hour before bedtime.
The second step of the five-step sleep cascade is 5-HTP. Since L-tryptophan can be converted to other metabolites, supplemental 5-HTP is likely even more beneficial for melatonin production. Additionally, 5-HTP increases the production of serotonin, which not only affects sleep, but can help curb late-night cravings.2
Dosage: Take 100-300 mg 30-60 minutes before bedtime.
Although supplementing with 5-HTP has been shown to increase levels of melatonin via production of serotonin, it's likely not enough to give you a full night's sleep. You can take melatonin by itself and skip the aforementioned precursors, but combining melatonin with L-tryptophan and 5-HTP may lead to a prolonged release of the sleepytime supplement.
Melatonin is known to decrease the time taken to fall asleep, and is thought to promote more restful sleep based on its circadian rhythmic functions.3 Since melatonin is secreted during darkness, it would be wise to shut off all of your electronics and keep your room dark.
Dosage: Give melatonin adequate time to work by taking 5-10 mg one hour before bedtime.
GABA is the major inhibitory neurotransmitter of the brain and promotes relaxation and sleep by "flipping the switch" on arousal hormones (e.g. adrenaline) and halting their actions.4 Interestingly, serotonin (an intermediate in melatonin production) inhibits GABA, so it is ideal to consume GABA along with an L-tryptophan or 5-HTP supplement to help blunt the effects of serotonin when it comes to nighttime snoozing.5
As an added bonus, GABA is also shown to stimulate growth hormone production, furthering the anabolic benefits of sleep.6
Dosage: Take 5 g 60 minutes before you hit the sheets
Valerian root, a plant native to the European continent, has the ability to boost the effects of GABA and affect serotonin's role in the brain.7,8 Falling short on energy even after eight hours of sleep? Valerian can not only help you fall asleep, but may improve your quality of sleep, allowing you to wake up with all the energy you need to get your butt in the gym.9 Just make sure to take for at least 2-4 weeks to maximize the benefits.
Dosage: At least 600 mg one hour prior to bedtime.
Supplements For Recovery (While You Sleep, Of Course)
Don't have the time for a full night of rest and can't afford to buy supplements? Take a nap! No, seriously, researchers out of Liverpool (UK) found that when sleep deprived, taking a nap prior to training actually improves performance compared to just being flat-out sleep deprived.10 If you're feeling tired, try a 30-45 minute nap half an hour prior to training.
What about growth and repair? After all, it is rest and recovery. There are hundreds of supplements on the market claiming to create the perfect anabolic environment for your muscles while you sleep. Fortunately for you, I've outlined the most supported ingredients out there for better recovery while you sleep.
ZMA is one of the leading supplements when it comes to overnight muscle repair and recovery. The combination of zinc, magnesium, and vitamin B-6—the common ingredients in ZMA—is typically taken before you hit the sack for the night, and has been shown to be an effective supplement for enhancing muscle recovery and boosting muscle size and strength.11,12
Despite popular belief, ZMA does not appear to have a direct effect on testosterone levels.13,14 However, supplementing with ZMA can help lead to a quicker recovery time through energy regeneration and deeper sleep cycles.
Dosage: Look for ZMA supplements that contain 30 mg of zinc, 450 mg of magnesium, and 10.5 mg of vitamin B-6. Take before bed on an empty stomach for enhanced absorption.
Fear of the fishy burp keeping you away from supplementing with fish oil? You might want to reconsider, as you may be short-changing your recovery process. Fish oils, which contain the omega-3 fatty acids ALA, EPA, and DHA, play an important role in optimizing cardiovascular health.15 A strong cardiovascular system means that nutrients will reach the proper tissues more efficiently.
Fish oils have also been shown to reduce post-exercise inflammation and soreness, which will boost your nighttime recovery efforts due to much of the inflammatory process taking place overnight.16,17,18
Dosage: Take 1-2 g of EPA plus DHA along with 2-3 g of ALA 30-60 minutes prior to bedtime.
We all know that vitamin D is important for bone formation, but did you know that it has a laundry list of other functions, including improvements in immune function, reduced inflammation, and improved muscle function?19,20
You don't want to skimp on this vitamin, because deficiency is shown to reduce athletic performance.21 Since vitamin D is fat-soluble, taking it with fish oil will undoubtedly improve absorption.
Dosage: Give adequate time for vitamin D to build up in the body (2-4 weeks) by taking 1000-2000 IU each night with fish oil before bed.
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but vitamin C does not benefit the immune system—it's a long-standing myth (see "Vitamin C and the Common Cold", by Linus Pauling) that has been dispelled by numerous researchers over the years.22 Vitamin C does, however, serve a direct role in the conversion of tryptophan to serotonin. Additionally, it maintains direct support in producing L-carnitine, which can help promote fat oxidation.
What's more, its role as a strong antioxidant can help spare muscle tissue from destruction.23 Taking large doses of vitamin C is not beneficial, because the absorption is reduced as doses get larger, not to mention it could easily cause diarrhea, cramping, and bloating at high doses. Not exactly what sweet dreams are made of!
Dosage: Take 60-90 mg of vitamin C with your nighttime sleep boosters 30-60 minutes before sleeping.
- Hartmann, E. (1983). Effects of L-tryptophan on sleepiness and on sleep. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 17(2), 107-113.
- Birdsall, T. C. (1998). 5-Hydroxytryptophan: a clinically-effective serotonin precursor. Alternative Medicine Review: a Journal of Clinical Therapeutic, 3(4), 271-280.
- Macchi, M. M., & Bruce, J. N. (2004). Human pineal physiology and functional significance of melatonin. Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology, 25(3), 177-195.
- Saper, C. B., Scammell, T. E., & Lu, J. (2005). Hypothalamic regulation of sleep and circadian rhythms. Nature, 437(7063), 1257-1263.
- Ciranna, L. (2006). Serotonin as a modulator of glutamate-and GABA-mediated neurotransmission: implications in physiological functions and in pathology. Current Neuropharmacology, 4(2), 101.
- Powers, M. (2012). GABA supplementation and growth hormone response. Medicine and Sports Science, 59, 36-46.
- Santos, M. S., Ferreira, F., Cunha, A. P., Carvalho, A. P., Ribeiro, C. F., & Macedo, T. (1993). Synaptosomal GABA release as influenced by valerian root extract—involvement of the GABA carrier. Archives Internationales de Pharmacodynamie et de Thérapie, 327(2), 220-231.
- Dietz, B. M., Mahady, G. B., Pauli, G. F., & Farnsworth, N. R. (2005). Valerian extract and valerenic acid are partial agonists of the 5-HT 5a receptor in vitro. Molecular Brain Research, 138(2), 191-197.
- Shimazaki, M., & Martin, J. L. (2007). Do herbal agents have a place in the treatment of sleep problems in long-term care? Journal of the American Medical Directors Association, 8(4), 248-252.
- Waterhouse, J., Atkinson, G., Edwards, B., & Reilly, T. (2007). The role of a short post-lunch nap in improving cognitive, motor, and sprint performance in participants with partial sleep deprivation. Journal of Sports Sciences, 25(14), 1557-1566.
- Brilla, L. R., & Conte, V. (2000). Effects of a novel zinc-magnesium formulation on hormones and strength. Journal of Exercise Physiology Online, 3(4), 26-36.
- Brilla, L. R., & Haley, T. F. (1992). Effect of magnesium supplementation on strength training in humans. Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 11(3), 326-329.
- Koehler, K., Parr, M. K., Geyer, H., Mester, J., & Schänzer, W. (2009). Serum testosterone and urinary excretion of steroid hormone metabolites after administration of a high-dose zinc supplement. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 63(1), 65-70.
- Wilborn, C. D., Kerksick, C. M., Campbell, B. I., Taylor, L. W., Marcello, B. M., Rasmussen, C. J., ... & Kreider, R. B. (2004). Effects of zinc magnesium aspartate (ZMA) supplementation on training adaptations and markers of anabolism and catabolism. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 1(2), 12-20.
- Kris-Etherton, P. M., Harris, W. S., & Appel, L. J. (2002). Fish consumption, fish oil, omega-3 fatty acids, and cardiovascular disease. Circulation, 106(21), 2747-2757.
- Jouris, K. B., McDaniel, J. L., & Weiss, E. P. (2011). The effect of omega-3 fatty acid supplementation on the inflammatory response to eccentric strength exercise. Journal of Sports Science & Medicine, 10(3), 432.
- Tartibian, B., Maleki, B. H., & Abbasi, A. (2009). The effects of ingestion of omega-3 fatty acids on perceived pain and external symptoms of delayed onset muscle soreness in untrained men. Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine, 19(2), 115-119.
- Gudewill, S., Pollmächer, T., Vedder, H., Schreiber, W., Fassbender, K., & Holsboer, F. (1992). Nocturnal plasma levels of cytokines in healthy men. European Archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience, 242(1), 53-56.
- Gunville, C. F., Mourani, P. M., & Ginde, A. A. (2013). The role of vitamin D in prevention and treatment of infection. Inflammation & Allergy Drug Targets, 12(4), 239.
- Larson-Meyer, D. E., & Willis, K. S. (2010). Vitamin D and athletes. Current Sports Medicine Reports, 9(4), 220-226.
- Cannell, J. J., Hollis, B. W., Sorenson, M. B., Taft, T. N., & Anderson, J. J. (2009). Athletic performance and vitamin D. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 41(5), 1102-10.
- Briggs, M. (1984). Vitamin C and infectious disease: a review of the literature and the results of a randomized, double-blind, prospective study over 8 years. Recent Vitamin Research, 39-82.
- Frei, B., England, L., & Ames, B. N. (1989). Ascorbate is an outstanding antioxidant in human blood plasma. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 86(16), 6377-6381.