Balance the Forces of Sleep

Better Sleep Can
Rejuvenate Body and Spirit

long with decreased energy, inadequate sleep is one of the most common complaints related to aging. That's bad enough, but now, in this time of great stress and anxiety, many people of all ages are having difficulty sleeping. Thus it is a good time for some good news on what we can do to improve our sleep.

A recent study has found that administration of the amino acid 5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan) to adult male hamsters increased both rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep and total sleep time.1 5-HTP is a natural precursor to the brain neurotransmitter serotonin, whose role in promoting restful sleep is well established.

To be truly restful, our sleep must be about 25% REM sleep, the type associated with dreaming. In REM sleep, brain electrical activity is high, and the rate and depth of our breathing increase, but our muscles are profoundly relaxed - even more so than in the deepest stages of non-REM sleep. REM sleep is believed to be largely under the control of cells in a certain region of the brain stem that are activated by the neurotransmitter acetylcholine.

In the study, methysergide, an antimigraine drug that stimulates serotonin receptors in the brain, facilitated REM sleep. Physostigmine, a memory-enhancing drug that has the effect of boosting acetylcholine levels, increased REM sleep, without altering the total sleep time. Not surprisingly, these two drugs taken together increased the amount and frequency of REM sleep.

By contrast, atropine, a drug that depresses acetylcholine activity by interfering with the function of acetylcholine receptors in the brain, made REM sleep disappear, both in the absence and the presence of the serotonin precursor 5-HTP. In other words, the beneficial effect of serotonin was apparently impaired when acetylcholine activity was inhibited.

The results of this study suggest that the role of serotonin in REM sleep is regulated, at least in part, by acetylcholine activity. The systems of nerve cells governed by the actions of serotonin and acetylcholine are called the serotonergic and cholinergic systems, respectively.

The cholinergic system mediates the transition of sleep states from deep to light, permitting arousal as the occasion warrants.2 Acetylcholine may induce a state of "sleep vigilance," allowing the sleeping mind to distinguish between the innocuous noises of the night and alarm signals that are worth waking up for. This protects us from awakening with every creak or murmur (or our spouse's rolling over), while arousing us to thesounds of breaking glass or a child's cries, or to the need to urinate.

You may sleep better with no drugs, but with a combination of natural ingredients designed to promote better sleep: the serotonin precursor 5-HTP; the acetylcholine precursor choline, with its essential cofactor, vitamin B5; the natural hormone melatonin; and the herb valerian. The latter two play multiple roles, including shortening the time needed to fall asleep and improving sleep vigilance.3 (See article, Life Enhancement, September 1999.)

Because these ingredients support the proper function of both the serotonergic and cholinergic systems, they may be supportive of rejuvenating sleep, which we all need - especially now, when our waking hours are so burdened by world events. So see if you face the day with renewed energy and enthusiasm after a good night's sleep.


  1. Guha M, Biswas S, Poddar MK. Possible involvement of central cholinergic-serotonergicinteraction in natural sleep. Methods Find Exp Clin Pharmacol 1988 Apr;10(4):243-5.
  2. Koyama Y, Imada N, Kayama Y, Kawauchi A, Watanabe H. How does thedistention of urinary bladder cause arousal? Psychiatry Clin Neurosci 1998 Apr;52(2):142-5.
  3. Houghton PJ. The scientific basis for the reputed activity of valerian. J Pharm Pharmacol 1999 May;51(5):505-12.

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