Best Nootropics for Sleep
Come sleep, come to my eyes!
Nowadays one of the most sought things in the world is a good night’s sleep. If you go to bed and sleep immediately, you are one of the luckiest people. But if you aren’t able to fall asleep sometimes, or if this is happening to you on a regular basis, and feel tired because of it, then you know very well how important sleep is in your successful life. Sleep deprivation can cause you to be less energetic and less productive the following day. Over time this can actually negatively affect your brain function and cognitive health.
Actually, we spend one-third of our life sleeping. A sound sleep helps our body recuperate and restore. Systems within our body are repaired and prepared for the following day. And we now know that quality sleep is essential for optimal memory consolidation. Remember, the best nootropic stack in the world will not work if you don’t get enough sleep. Again, it is an established fact that sleep benefits memory. 
In this article, we’ll discuss about how sleep works in your body and brain, and the problems that arise without it, and finally, we’ll dive into how to fix insomnia. And also how you will know and choose a right nootropic stack,
How sleep works
You need sleep for your finest cognitive function and healthy living. Let’s see how sleep works and how nootropics can help you support healthy sleep.
The hypothalamus is the part of your brain that contains clusters of cells that receive information about light exposure from your eyes. It works with your brain stem to produce GABA that helps reduce arousal levels in this area of your brain. Your pineal gland receives signals from the hypothalamus to synthesize and secrete the hormone melatonin. This plays a role in your circadian rhythm and sleep cycle. This circadian rhythm or body’s biological clock synchronizes with environmental cues like light and temperature. This natural process can get disrupted by exposure to artificial light (i.e. cell phone screens), medical conditions, medications, stress, and food and drink. It can also get out of whack by flying to a different time zone or from working the night shift.
One of the neurotransmitters adenosine is created over the course of your day as a natural by-product from the formation of adenosine triphosphate (ATP). ATP is the fuel that powers mitochondria in each of your cells. Your natural homeostatic sleep drive regulates sleep intensity depending on the amount of natural stress you’ve put on your system. Stimulants like caffeine work as an adenosine antagonist that inhibits its sleepiness effect.
There are 2 basic types of sleep – rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, and non-REM sleep. Again, non-REM sleep has 3 different stages. Let’s see –
Stage 1: Non-REM sleep is where you changeover from being awake to asleep and ideally lasts only a few minutes where heartbeat, breathing, and eye movements slow and muscles relax. Brain waves slow to theta brain waves, punctuated occasionally by brief bursts of alpha brain waves.
Stage 2: In this second stage your alpha brain wave activity dies down, your heart-rate and breathing slow even more, and muscles relax even further. Body temperature drops and eye movements stop.
Stage 3: This is where slow wave sleep begins and it occurs in longer periods during the first half of the night. It brings your heart beat and breath to the lowest levels, and your muscles relax to the point where it may be difficult to wake you. Brain waves then enter delta activity.
REM sleep occurs about 90 minutes after falling asleep. Eyes move rapidly from side to side. Brain wave activity varies between theta, alpha and beta brain waves which is closer to that of wakefulness. You breathe faster and irregularly and your heart-rate and blood pressure increase to near waking levels. Afterwards, you spend the rest of your night cycling between stages 2, 3 and REM sleep.
How much sleep do you need?
People of different ages need different quantity of sleep. For example, school-age children and teens need more than 9 hours per night whereas adults need 7 – 9 hours per night. However, need for individual sleep can vary such as some are naturally short or long sleepers and these are not considered as ‘sleep disorder’. Again, a recent study shows an interesting effect of a good night’s sleep that can contribute to your happiness level as much as winning the lottery.
Sleep as a public health concern
Insomnia and other sleep disorders are looming large. A study shows that about 70 million Americans have problems sleeping. Another study shows that 17% of the population in the USA were dealing with sleep problems. Actually, sleep affects almost every type of tissue and system in your body – from the brain, heart, and lungs to metabolism, immune function, mood, and disease resistance. Several studies show that a chronic lack of sleep, or getting poor quality sleep, increases your risk of disorders including high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, depression, and obesity.
The National Institute of Health in the USA has created a separate division entirely devoted to sleep called “The National Center on Sleep Disorders Research”. It’s because sleep problems are now recognized as a serious public health concern in the USA and about $15.9 billion is added to the national health care bill.
Impact of Sleep on learning & memory
You may find your mental tasks difficult and inefficient after a night of poor quality sleep. It’s because the experience throughout the day leads to a progressive increase in synaptic strength in your brain. This is the ‘encoding’ phase of memory formation. The inputs during the day are stored for later ‘consolidation’ at night while you sleep. When it happens recurrently, your brain soon becomes insensitive to new knowledge and ideas as neurons lose their ability to fire selectively where synapses lose integrity and neuroplasticity becomes overloaded.
Deep sleep or slow-wave sleep is the key for memory formation and processing. But if it’s disturbed, your synapses cannot rest and restore themselves in preparation for the next day’s activities which inhibits neuroplasticity meaning learning is no longer possible. Studies also show that REM sleep is needed for several types of memory including spatial (environment) and contextual (specific) memory consolidation. But, disturbed REM sleep hampers your memory greatly. And for this reason, a good night’s sleep is very important for a happier and more productive day.
ADHD and sleep disorders
A study on adult ADHD was published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology where a huge number of patients reported a lifetime of sleep problems and some used hypnotics to help them sleep. The symptoms reported by those patients included excessive daytime sleepiness, cataplexy, loud snoring, breathing pauses during sleep, restless legs, and periodic limb movements in sleep. However, it is noted that ADHD stimulant medications were NOT associated with more sleep-related problems.
Another study shows that children with ADHD nearly always also dealt with sleep problems. It may be a cause that mainstream medicine does not recommend using prescription sleep meds for treating sleep disorders in children. On the other hand, nootropics are very much helpful and work well for any age group dealing with ADHD, ADD and sleep problems.
Sleep and quality of life
Sufficient sleep at night is associated with feelings of higher quality of life. A study shows that people who sleep less than 6 hours, or more than 9 hours per night are associated with a decrease in quality of life and an increase in depression. Dr. Matthew Walker at the University of California – Berkeley notes that “Nearly every disease killing us in later life has a causal link to lack of sleep”. Inadequate sleep has been linked to many disease like Alzheimer’s, heart disease, obesity, diabetes and stroke.
Sleep and feelings of fear
Adequate REM sleep reduces fear. Yes, researchers at Rutgers University conducted a study indicating that better sleep quality reduces brain activity in regions tied to fear learning. The study found that more time in REM (dream) sleep dampened activity in the region of the brain associated with fear learning. REM sleep moderates levels of the neurotransmitter called norepinephrine in the brain which is linked to the regulation of the fight-or-flight response.
Sleep and sexual satisfaction
Sleep is very much connected to your sex life for both men and women of all ages. Research shows that lack of sleep even in younger men can reduce testosterone levels and completely wipe out sex drive. While sleep-deprived women are less likely to have sex than those who have had proper sleep. Sleep deprivation lowers sperm count in men. Fewer hours sleep causes cortisol levels rise. And the rise in cortisol negatively impacts sex drive. And also in men, poor sleep quality can result in erectile dysfunction. Again, shorter sleep duration and higher insomnia scores are associated with decreased sexual function.
Sleep and lucid dreaming
In lucid dream you remain fully aware of your dreaming can control the dreamscape. Lucid dreaming may be helpful in treating Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). A study conducted at the University of Adelaide in Australia worked with 169 participants in 3 groups. Each group was assigned a different combination of lucid dreaming techniques as follows:
- Reality testing: It involves examining one’s surroundings multiple times throughout the day and questioning whether one is awake or dreaming.
- Wake back to bed: It involves going to bed and waking up after 5 – 6 hours. Staying awake for 10 minutes to 1 hour. Then going back to sleep again. The idea is to launch directly into REM sleep which tends to be the stage involved in lucid dreaming.
- Mnemonic induction of lucid dreams: It is often combined with the Wake back to bed technique. But before going to bed, you repeat a phrase such as “next time I’m dreaming, I will remember that I’m dreaming”.
The study found that those who reported success using the 3rd technique were significantly less sleep deprived the next day which indicates that lucid dreaming might have a positive effect on sleep quality. There are certain nootropics that have shown promise in achieving this sleep state which we’ll cover next.
Sleeping pills prevent memory formation
Now science says that prescription drugs for sleep cause memory problems. Drugs like zolpidem (Ambien®) are GABAa receptor agonists binding to the α-1 subunit that is believed to be responsible for the drug’s relaxation properties. Turns out this mechanism of action is likely responsible for memory prevention effects as well. Though multiple studies show that hypnotic sleep meds impair memory, the good news is this impairment of short- and long-term memory are of short duration. Memory consolidation returns to normal once you stop using the drugs. Remember, any medication that begins with ‘anti’ including antihistamines, antidepressants, antipsychotics, antibiotics, antispasmodics, or antihypertensives negatively affects acetylcholine levels in the brain. Low acetylcholine can lead to brain fog, mental confusion, delirium, blurred vision, memory loss and hallucinations. The final sleeping pills people often turn to are benzodiazepines (benzos) which are used as a sedative, anti-anxiety and for muscle relaxing properties. But the most noticeable problem associated with benzos is that they inhibit neurotransmitter GABA and interfere with the formation and consolidation of memory. So, a safer alternative for you is nootropics that come to the rescue.
Recommendations: Best Nootropics for Quality Sleep
We need quality sleep mainly for learning and memory consolidation. So in the following recommendations, select a nootropic that helps you fall asleep, and another that helps optimize memory.
Nootropics that help you fall asleep
Ashwagandha is an ancient Ayurvedic herb with remarkable stress relieving qualities. It helps reduce anxiety and depression in part by reducing the stress hormone cortisol.
Bacopa Monnieri is an adaptogen that helps prevent the chemical and physical effects of stress. Research at Banaras Hindu University in India showed Bacopa as effective for anxiety as the benzodiazepine drug lorazepam. Research also has shown Bacopa improves signaling of electrical impulses between neurons in your brain. It improves memory consolidation during REM
GABA is the major inhibitory or relaxing neurotransmitter in your brain. GABA’s primary role is to keep the major excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate in check. A study conducted in patients split into 2 groups giving one a placebo, or Gabadone (a combination of GABA and 5-hydroxytryptophan). The study shows that the Gabadone group fell asleep faster, stayed asleep longer, and had a better quality of sleep than the placebo group.
Kava is an herb that has been used for millenia by the islanders of South Pacific to help with relaxation, anxiety, and depression. Studies show that besides improving mood, Kava may boost cognitive function. A study shows that kava relieved not only anxiety, but also restlessness and insomnia.
Lemon Balm has a long history as a treatment for stress, anxiety, thyroid issues, indigestion, infections, viruses and inflammation. One way Lemon Balm does this is to promote GABA, a glutamate inhibitor in your brain. Lemon Balm promotes a better balance in glutamate levels, and helps new cell growth.
Magnesium is called the 4th most abundant mineral in your body and very important for optimal cognitive health. It is important for improved quality of sleep. It is a cofactor in more than 300 enzymatic reactions in your body. Magnesium is required for ATP synthesis which is the main energy source for the mitochondria in brain cells. Without magnesium, your brain cannot produce ATP, and all brain function breaks down. Magnesium supplements can help increase your focus, memory, energy, and cognitive levels.
Melatonin is a hormone primarily produced in the pineal gland which acts as your body’s central clock through its secretion of melatonin telling your brain, body and organs when it’s time to be active and when it’s time to rest. For this reason melatonin is referred to as the “sleep hormone”. This powerful sleep aid is registered as a drug in Europe. Studies show that melatonin is effective in improving quality of sleep and how fast a person went to sleep.
However, some might show different reaction to this effective hormone. Tryptophan is considered safer and more effective than melatonin supplementation for boosting serotonin and melatonin naturally.
Phenibut is an analogue of the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA. The addition of a phenyl ring allows Phenibut to cross the blood-brain barrier (BBB). Phenibut is one of the only tranquilizers that lowers stress levels without negatively affecting performance. Phenibut was originally developed in Russia and was required for Russian astronauts to take it before embarking on a mission to help them think clearly without anxiety. According to the research, it has also been shown to help with mood and relaxation.
Tryptophan is an essential amino acid and precursor to serotonin, melatonin and niacin (Vitamin V3) in your body and brain. Tryptophan and serotonin play a significant role in memory and mood. Increased serotonin levels in those that are deficient can help with anxiety, ADHD, depression, insomnia, memory loss, pain and eating disorders.
Since Tryptophan is also a precursor to the synthesis of Vitamin B3 (niacin), if you don’t have enough niacin in your body, supplementing with Tryptophan will not efficiently produce serotonin because it’s being used to produce niacin. It also depletes stores of the vitamin cofactors Vitamins B1, B2 and B6. You can stack it with a highly bio-available B-Complex vitamin along with magnesium an hour or two before bed.
Nootropics for better quality sleep
Following are the nootropics that can help you promote quality sleep, optimal memory consolidation and better dreams.
Aniracetam is a fat-soluble ampakine nootropic in the racetam family and up to 10-times more potent than Piracetam, the original racetam. Most people use Aniracetam to boost memory and learning and to relieve anxiety, depression, stress, and improve sociability. There are also some who report that Aniracetam helps promote lucid dreams.
DMAE occurs in your brain naturally. As a nootropic, this is good to improve vigilance, attention, mood and energy while alleviating depression. Studies show that DMAE induces lucid dreaming.
Gotu Kola is one of the most important herbs in the ancient tradition of Ayurvedic medicine. Gotu Kola is known “the student herb” in some regions such as in Bali, because it sharpens the mind. It is also used it to combat senility. Gotu kola may be considered even more effective in reducing anxiety and relieving stress than Ashwagandha.
Huperzine A is a water-soluble alkaloid nootropic derived from Chinese Club Moss (Huperzia serrata). It is a reversible acetylcholinesterase (AChE) inhibitor and prevents the breakdown down of acetylcholine (ACh). Studies show that acetylcholinesterase inhibitors may enhance REM sleep. In a study it’s seen that using the ACh inhibitor donepezil, percentage of REM sleep and REM density increase. The researchers found a correlation between memory performance and REM sleep.
L-Theanine is a non-dietary amino acid found in green tea. It is similar to the neurotransmitters l-glutamate and l-glutamine. L-Theanine boosts the neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine and GABA in your brain. It also increases Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) and Nerve Growth Factor (NGF).
L-Theanine improves your quality of sleep. A study shows that sleep quality, recovery from exhaustion, and feeling refreshed were all enhanced by L-Theanine.
Pikamilon (also known as N-nicotinoyl-GABA, pycamilon, and pica-milon) is a combination of the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA with nicotinic acid (Vitamin B3or niacin). GABA alone has difficulties when attempting to cross the blood-brain barrier. The addition of niacin allows GABA to cross the blood-brain barrier (BBB). Pikamilon reduces stress. It has similar benefits to phenibut including its strong effects related to reducing anxiety.
The perfect nootropic supplement for sleep
Nootropics can help you deal with ongoing problems of insomnia or poor quality sleep. You can wake up feeling refreshed the next day. The above discussed nootropics have been shown to contribute to improving sleep quality. However, it’s up to you to find one or two that work for you. Keep in mind, in case of nootropic supplements you need to work with your doctor to experiment for a perfect suitable compound and proper dosage. Though nootropics are safer, observe the side effects for each. Choose perfect nootropics and enjoy great quality sleep night after night and feel amazing the next day.
- Ballenger J.C. “Benzodiazepine receptors agonists and antagonists”. In Sadock VA, Sadock BJ, Kaplan HI. Kaplan & Sadock’s Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry (7th ed.). Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. pp. 2317–23