Mar 122013

I remember my older relatives not sleeping well when I was young. They easily woke early. Rustled in bed often. Now that I’m that older relative, I understand why they had a hard time sleeping. It’s easy to wake 2 or 3 in the morning with your mind worrying about something. Perhaps you just don’t feel well, or you’re just not very tired. Not very tired, that is, until the next afternoon. Then I can hardly keep my eyes open.

We Sleep Less And Less Well With Age

We tend to believe that sleeping less and less well is just a part of growing older.

It is true that as we age, we may need less sleep. Older adults tend to function just fine with 7 to 8 hours of sleep, while younger adults need closer to 9 hours. It is also true that we experience more fragmented sleep as we age, and we have poor regulation of sleep patterns due to the decrease in natural melatonin levels in our bodies. Many times this means that we seniors get less deep, restorative REM sleep. We get lower quality sleep.

It is the reduction in the quality of sleep, however, that can develop into serious health problems.

Consequences of Poor Sleep

Sleep problems at any age shouldn’t be taken lightly. There are health and safety consequences of poor quality sleep.

Insufficient sleep can lead to disease risks. According to the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School, consistently getting inadequate sleep can increase your risk of developing chronic diseases.

  • Sleeping less than 6 hours each night produces hormonal changes in your body that increases your risk of becoming obese. Less sleep increases your level of insulin, which is associated with weight gain. Your body also produce less leptin, which suppresses your appetite, while making more ghrelin, which stimulates your appetite. This results in increased food cravings even though you’ve had adequate amounts of calories to sustain life and health.
  • Inadequate sleep increases your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
  • Sleep less than you should, and you increase your chances of developing hypertension and heart disease.
  • People who sleep less than the recommended amount have a more difficult time fighting off common diseases, like colds and flu.
  • Sleep 5 hours or less each night, and you increase your risks of death by 15%.

Then there is the safety risks of poor quality sleep. Did you know that investigators claim that sleep deprivation played significant roles in the 1979 Three Mile Island and 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accidents? They also believe that sleep deprivation played important roles in the Exxon Valdez accident in Alaska, and the 1986 Challenger space shuttle explosion.

If you don’t get enough quality sleep, you’ll not function mentally as well as you should. And sometimes, lives are lost.

Is Prescription Medication The Answer To Poor Quality Sleep?

Perhaps not!

You’ve probably heard the sleepwalking, sleepdriving stories concerning Ambien. The most famous being Kerry and Patrick Kennedy having driving mishaps while under the influence of that drug. They’re not alone. There are many stories of people eating, talking on the phone, walking and driving while on Ambien, and not remembering doing any of those things.

And there is the potential of these drugs to have addictive properties. Even though Ambien is not considered addictive if taken as prescribed, people are starting to overuse the drug. Unfortunately, people take more of the drug than they should to relieve rebounds in anxiety as the drug wears off. This often leads to abuse.

Even though these drugs are good at making you unconscious, acting on a subconscious level without remembering it, drug abuse and side effects are good reasons to stay away from prescriptions drugs as sleep aids.

Are There Natural Sleep Aids?

An ideal solution to obtain better sleep is to find something that is a natural sleep aid without the dangerous side effects of manufactured drugs. Not only natural, but perhaps a chemical that is manufactured by your own body to help you sleep.

GABA may be that ideal and natural sleeping aid. In fact, one of the primary causes of poor quality sleep could very well be a GABA deficiency.

What is GABA?

GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter in your brain that counteracts other brain chemicals that keep your brain alert. Called gamma-aminobutyric acid, it helps your brain relax. It is an important ingredient in your sleep cycle that allows you to go into deep REM sleep. Without it, you may experience fragmented, restless sleep. It is possible that age related sleep problems may be associated with a deficiency in GABA.

Your brain produces its own supply of GABA. In the early stages of sleep, GABA is normally released to shut your brain down. Without it, you’ll be deprived of deep, restful sleep. And as we age, our brains may be producing less of this neurotransmitter that is essential for high quality sleep.

Many believe that GABA supplements, however, are ineffective since this chemical can’t pass through the blood-brain barrier. This natural barrier allows beneficial components of blood to enter your brain, but not other components that nature deems unsafe. Your brain is thus protected from foreign substances, hormones and neurotransmitters.

Innovative chemists have developed GABA analogs, which are able to pass through the blood-brain barrier. Chemical analogs are molecules that are similar to the original, but slightly different to overcome some chemical obstacle. These analogs are thought to mimic GABA in your brain. Phenibut is one GABA analog that can be found in health supplement stores. I haven’t tried it myself, but many claim that it provides relaxation and restful sleep. Several drawbacks is that Phenibut is pricy and is still a manufactured drug.

Even though Phenibut may work well to provide high quality sleep, are there ways to naturally entice your own body to make more GABA?

How To Naturally Increase GABA Levels In Your Brain

Valerian root has been used for millennia as a remedy for anxiety and insomnia. It is not known how this root works, but scientist think it may increase GABA levels in your brain. It is slow acting, however. It probably will take 2 to 3 weeks for you to feel any beneficial effects. If you are patient, valerian root will probably improve your quality of sleep over time, as some scientific studies have shown.

Yoga exercises are another way to increase your brain’s level of GABA. A study published by the Boston University School of Medicine concluded that GABA levels increased by 27% following a 60-minute session of yoga. On top of that, yoga is a good form of exercise.

These methods of increasing GABA levels in your brain may not be as convenient as popping a pill. Both valerian and yoga also may not give you the instant gratification that you seek, since they both slowly increase GABA levels. However, you won’t experience dangerous side effects with these two methods, and the results may be longer lasting.


It is true that you need less sleep as you age. However, you still need at least 7 to 8 hours of sleep to stay physically and mentally healthy. Not just any sleep, but deep, high quality REM sleep.

Prescription drugs do put you to sleep, but come with a lot of unwanted side effects. Some of these side effects even involve sleepwalking, driving and eating while still under the influence of the drug. Not only that, but prescription drugs may not be putting you into that deep, high quality REM sleep that you need.

Many of you may be getting fragmented, poor quality sleep due to an deficiency of the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA in your aging brain. Unfortunately, GABA supplements probably don’t work since GABA can’t pass through your blood-brain barrier – at least not easily. There is a chemical analog of GABA called Phenibut that may help you relax and get deep REM sleep. It’s a little pricey and is still a manufactured drug. If you’re a little patient, you can slowly increase your brain’s GABA levels with valerian root and yoga exercises. The good point of these last two options is that they are natural sleeping aids with few side effects.

But there is still another option that I find effective – glycine. For now, I will leave the discussion of that option to Part 2: Natural Sleep Aids – Glycine.


Harvard Medical School: Consequences of Insufficient Sleep
WiseGeek: GABA and Sleep
Livestrong: GABA Supplements that pass the blood-brain barrier
ABC News: Kerry Kennedy Crash Raises Questions About Ambien Use
Health: Can You Become Addicted to Ambien?
Health: Ambien Sleep Walking Turned Me Into a Midnight Binge Eater
Health: Are Sleep Problems Normal as We Get Older?
Neuroscience For Kids: The Blood Brain Barrier
University of Maryland: Valerian
NCBI: Yoga Asana sessions increase brain GABA Levels