Could Pumpkin Seeds + Carbs = Better Sleep?

Let’s begin with a caveat: no organic sleep aid on the market has been shown to cure insomnia.

But if you like warm, nonalcoholic, caffeine-free liquids, and if drinking a beverage is part of your evening routine, you might be interested in trying Zenbev Drink Mix. Here’s more information about it.

Insomnia sufferers may want to try a sleep aid called Zenbev Drink Mix, made from pumpkin seedsLet’s begin with a caveat: no organic sleep aid on the market has been shown to cure insomnia.

But if you like warm, nonalcoholic, caffeine-free liquids, and if drinking a beverage is part of your evening routine, you might be interested in trying Zenbev Drink Mix. Its claim as a sleep aid and alternative treatment for insomnia is based on a study showing that food bars made from the same ingredients significantly reduced insomnia subjects’ time awake at night.

Here’s more information about it.

What Is Zenbev Drink Mix?

It’s made from pumpkin seeds that are cold-pressed to remove the oil and made into pumpkin seed flour. The flour is then combined with dextrose (the sugar found in plants), rice starch (a carbohydrate), and guar gum (a binder–thickener); flavored with chocolate or lemon; and sold as a powder, to be mixed with warm milk or warm water. It’s touted as promoting “a natural and healthy sleep.”

A Tryptophan–Carbohydrate Combination

Research suggests there may be grounds for this claim. Like other protein sources—turkey, fish, milk—pumpkin seeds are high in tryptophan, an essential amino acid. Tryptophan is a precursor to melatonin, a hormone secreted at night. Your melatonin levels start to rise a few hours before bedtime, which helps you fall and stay asleep. Tryptophan is also a precursor to serotonin, a neurotransmitter the body eventually converts into melatonin.

But tryptophan has to cross the blood–brain barrier to exert its sleep-inducing effects. It competes with other amino acids to cross that barrier, so a drink high in tryptophan alone would not have much effect on sleep.

Adding a carbohydrate to the mix might help. It would promote the release of insulin, inhibiting production of competing amino acids or diverting them into muscle. With less competition at the gate, more tryptophan would be expected to cross the blood–brain barrier and begin its conversion into serotonin and melatonin, in turn promoting sleep.

Effects on Sleep

To test the effects of the pumpkin seed–carbohydrate combination on sleep, Biosential, the company that makes Zenbev Drink Mix, set out to conduct a randomized controlled trial, enrolling 57 people with insomnia.

Forty-nine participants completed the 3-week study. Each week they were randomly administered 3 different food bars. One week, the food bars contained deoiled pumpkin seed flour mixed with carbohydrate. Another week, the food bars contained pharmaceutical-grade tryptophan mixed with carbohydrate. In another week, the food bars contained carbohydrate only.

The bars containing deoiled pumpkin seed and those containing pharmaceutical-grade tryptophan led to significant improvements in sleep, as reported by study participants. The bars made of carbohydrate alone led to some improvement, too.

Measured objectively, the pharmaceutical-grade tryptophan outperformed the deoiled pumpkin seed when it came to increasing sleep duration. But the bar containing the deoiled pumpkin seed-carbohydrate preparation was the only treatment to significantly cut down on wake time after sleep onset.

The Take-Away

Offering the results of a single trial as proof that a treatment works is better than offering no results at all. Yet the study would have to be repeated—with Zenbev Drink Mix instead of food bars—to substantiate the claim that this beverage can actually improve insomniacs’ sleep.

Still, enough evidence points to tryptophan’s helpful effect on sleep that Zenbev Drink Mix may be worth trying, especially if you’re looking for alternative treatments for insomnia and interested in exploring the idea that dietary changes might help. The product is sold in the United States, Canada, and Europe.

Tart Cherries: Helpful to Sleep but Harder to Find?

First, the good news: a small body of research suggests that tart cherry juice holds promise as an alternative treatment for insomnia, especially in older adults.

Now for the bad news: tart cherry juice, already pricey, is set to become pricier still as growers weigh whether to give up on cherries and plant apple trees instead. Here’s more on the benefits of tart cherry juice for sleep and why it may soon become scarce.

Insomnia, alternative treatment tart cherry juice not so plentifulFirst, the good news: a small body of research suggests that tart cherry juice holds promise as an alternative treatment for insomnia, especially in older adults.

Now for the bad news: tart cherry juice, already pricey, is set to become pricier still as growers weigh whether to give up on cherries and plant apple trees instead. Here’s more on the benefits of tart cherry juice for sleep and why it may soon become scarce.

Sleep Benefits of Tart Cherry Juice

A handful of studies conducted on the effects of tart, or Montmorency, cherry juice on sleep suggest it may be helpful for people with insomnia:

  • It may help you sleep longer. In a randomized controlled trial (RCT) published in 2012, drinking tart cherry juice concentrate mixed with 8 oz. of water twice daily for 7 days increased the total sleep time of 20 healthy volunteers by an average of 39 minutes.
  • Seven older adults with insomnia slept over an hour longer after 2 weeks of drinking 8 oz. of tart cherry juice twice a day. Results of a randomized crossover trial presented at the 2014 meeting of the American Society of Nutrition (still unpublished) showed that participants’ total sleep time increased by an average of 84 minutes.
  • Tart cherry juice may cut down on nighttime wake-ups and improve sleep quality. In an RCT published in 2010, drinking 8 oz. of tart cherry juice twice daily for 2 weeks significantly cut down on wake-ups and insomnia severity in 15 older adults with sleep maintenance insomnia.
  • The same twice-daily regimen of tart cherry juice had similar effects on the sleep of 30 healthy young, middle-aged, and older adults in a study published in 2013. Older participants’ sleep improved the most.

The evidence is not conclusive: these studies were small and only two looked specifically at the effects of tart cherry juice on people with insomnia. Still, unless you dislike or can’t tolerate tart cherries, drinking tart cherry juice twice a day is worth consideration as an alternative treatment for persistent insomnia.

Melatonin and Tryptophan-Enhancing Effects

Montmorency cherries are rich in melatonin, a sleep-friendly hormone secreted by the pineal gland at night. Melatonin production often falls off as people age, and lower levels of endogenous melatonin can make it harder to get to sleep and stay asleep at night. Tart cherry juice may exert its soporific effects mainly by increasing levels of melatonin at night.

Another mechanism by which tart cherry juice may benefit sleep can be found in the effect it has on tryptophan. Tryptophan is an amino acid humans need but cannot produce themselves, so it must be gotten in food. Tryptophan is a precursor to both melatonin and serotonin, a neurotransmitter important to sleep. Researchers who conducted the 2014 study found that tart cherry juice inhibited the degradation of tryptophan, thereby making more of it available for serotonin synthesis.

The sleep benefits of Montmorency cherry juice may be due to both its melatonin and tryptophan-enhancing effects.

Climate Change and Market Forces

But some fruit growers are now on the verge of abandoning cherry orchards and planting apple trees instead. Two factors are behind the change, according to an Interlochen Public Radio report last week:

  1. Most of the nation’s tart cherries are grown in northern Michigan, where almost the entire cherry crop was lost in 2012 due to an early spring followed by over 2 weeks of below-freezing temperatures. Cherry trees planted in Michigan are actually shipped from nurseries in the Pacific Northwest. Extreme weather events there have killed off thousands of cherry saplings. Michigan orchardists who want to continue producing cherries now can’t buy enough young cherry trees to replenish aging stock.
  2. Also, the demand for apples is on the rise, and growers are planting high-density varieties so they can plant many more trees per acre of land. Commercial nurseries are now struggling to keep pace with the demand for apple trees. Nursery owners may decide that planting for small specialty crops like cherries just isn’t worth it any more.

Now back to trouble sleeping: if you find that tart cherry juice helps you sleep, you’d be wise to stock up on it now.

L-Tryptophan May Help You Sleep

Interesting but dangerous: that’s what I heard about L-tryptophan supplements for several years. Research starting in the 1960s was showing that L-tryptophan might be an effective remedy for insomnia.

Then came the tryptophan-related outbreak of eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome (EMS) in 1989, killing 37 people and sickening thousands. The United States subsequently banned the supplements, and research on L-tryptophan and sleep came to a halt.

Now reviewers of alternative treatments for insomnia are again mentioning L-tryptophan as a substance of interest. Here are the pros and cons.

Mild Insomnia may respond to treatment with L-tryptophan supplementsInteresting but dangerous: that’s what I heard about L-tryptophan supplements for several years. Research starting in the 1960s was showing that L-tryptophan might be an effective remedy for insomnia.

Then came the tryptophan-related outbreak of eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome (EMS) in 1989, killing 37 people and sickening thousands. The epidemic was traced to contaminated L-tryptophan produced by a single Japanese company, but the United States banned L-tryptophan supplements from 1990 to 2001. Research on L-tryptophan and sleep came to a halt.

Now reviewers of alternative treatments for insomnia are again mentioning L-tryptophan as a substance of interest. Here are the pros and cons.

What It Is

L-tryptophan is an essential amino acid the body requires in order to synthesize proteins and other key molecules. It’s a precursor to serotonin, a neurotransmitter important to sleep, and melatonin, a hormone secreted at night.

Humans cannot produce L-tryptophan on their own. So it has to be gotten from food (or supplements). In one experiment, depriving insomniacs of L-tryptophan made their insomnia worse, as recorded by studies conducted in a sleep lab. Low levels of tryptophan resulted in sleep that was lighter and less continuous. This suggests that something about L-tryptophan facilitates sleep.

Laboratory tests show that tryptophan administered at night increases concentrations of both serotonin and melatonin in the brain. So its sedative effects are probably due to its enhancement of the melatonin or the serotonin system.

Randomized Controlled Trials

Taken at bedtime in amounts of 1 to 4 grams, L-tryptophan has been found to be at least somewhat effective for people with insomnia in several studies, including double-blind trials. But results from three randomized controlled trials, considered the highest standard of evidence, are mixed.

  1. In an early study of 96 “serious insomniacs,” weeklong treatment with tryptophan was compared with weeklong use of a placebo. No differences were noted during the tryptophan treatment—but participants taking tryptophan reported falling asleep more quickly than normal in the week following treatment.
  2. In a subsequent study, people with severe chronic insomnia were divided into two groups: one group took tryptophan nightly for 4 weeks, followed by 4 weeks of placebo; the other began with placebo and after 4 weeks swtiched to tryptophan. Group A reported improved sleep quality while taking the tryptophan; group B did not.
  3. In a more recent study, tryptophan from squash seeds and pharmaceutical-grade tryptophan, both in the form of food bars, significantly improved sleep duration and sleep quality in study participants compared with a food bar containing carbohydrate alone. The tryptophan from squash seeds outperformed the pharmaceutical-grade tryptophan in reducing time awake at night.

Well yes, these results are underwhelming.

Consider This, Too

Other research is more encouraging. L-tryptophan in some studies has reduced participants’ sleep latency and cut down on nighttime wake-ups. Reviewers make these comments:

  • The best results seem to occur in cases of mild insomnia with long sleep latency.
  • People with more severe forms of insomnia may need to take L-tryptophan for several nights before they notice improvement in their sleep.
  • In people with sleep maintenance insomnia, L-tryptophan may be more effective for those who wake up several times a night rather than for those who awaken less frequently.           

Foods High in Tryptophan

As alternative treatments for insomnia go, L-tryptophan supplements are now considered safe and relatively free of side effects. (For pregnant and breast-feeding women, however, L-tryptophan is listed as “likely unsafe.”)

But you may be able to get most of what you need in your daily diet. Meat, fish, and seafood contain lots of of L-tryptophan; eggs, cheese, and milk contain quite a bit, too. The following foods are also high in L-tryptophan:

  • soybeans and soy products
  • sesame seeds
  • seaweed
  • spinach
  • mushrooms, wild and garden variety
  • turnip and mustard greens
  • asparagus

One last caveat. By itself, L-tryptophan does not cross the blood-brain barrier. Combining an L-tryptophan-rich food with a carbohydrate greatly improves L-tryptophan uptake in the brain. So for your evening snack, have your cheese on a cracker and your tofu with rice.

If you’ve tried L-tryptophan supplements, what effect did they have on your sleep?

Food for Sleep

Will a cup of warm milk at bedtime entice the Sandman your way?

Research suggests there’s a link between food and sleep, say the authors of a comprehensive review of the effects of diet on sleep length and quality, and milk is rich in tryptophan, an amino acid important to sleep.

Insomniacs | snack on tryptophan-rich food and carbohydrateWill a cup of warm milk at bedtime entice the Sandman your way?

Research suggests there’s a link between food and sleep, say the authors of a comprehensive review of the effects of diet on sleep length and quality,* and milk is rich in tryptophan, an amino acid important to sleep.

Tryptophan is a precursor to melatonin, the hormone of darkness. Your body begins secreting melatonin a few hours before bedtime, helping you fall asleep and sleep through the night. Tryptophan is also a precursor to serotonin, a neurotransmitter which, in addition to promoting alertness, gets converted into melatonin.

Foods high in tryptophan include

  • Meat, fish, seafood and egg whites
  • Cheese, milk and yogurt
  • Pumpkin and sunflower seeds, cashews, almonds and walnuts
  • Beans, split peas, peanuts and lentils.

The Devil in the Details

But tryptophan has to cross the blood-brain barrier to exert its sleep-inducing effects. It competes with other amino acids to cross that barrier, so a bedtime snack high in tryptophan alone may not yield much bang for the buck.

One way to ensure that lots of dietary tryptophan DOES get across the blood-brain barrier is to have a snack that combines a tryptophan-rich food with a carbohydrate:

  • Milk and cereal
  • Beans and rice
  • A turkey sandwich
  • Hummus on pita bread.

Eating the carbohydrate promotes the release of insulin, which inhibits the production of competing amino acids or diverts them into muscle. With less competition at the gate, more tryptophan gets across the blood-brain barrier. It then begins its conversion into serotonin and melatonin, in turn promoting sleep.

Nutritional deficiencies in the group B vitamins and magnesium have been found to impair sleep, say the authors of the review. A sleep-friendly diet will include foods high in tryptophan and unrefined carbohydrates, as well as group B vitamins and magnesium.

*Diet promotes sleep duration and quality