“The best cure for insomnia is to get a lot of sleep.” — W.C. Fields
It’s no surprise that both stress levels and sleep patterns have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Two in three adults have reported experiencing increased stress levels during the pandemic, according to an American Psychological Association survey, while four in 10 say they have had a sleep problem during the pandemic (Jahrami et al. 2022).
This rise in stress and sleep issues has pushed consumers to look for more ways to cope, from mobile apps like Headspace and Sleep Cycle to food and beverage products that tout their ability to provide relief. Herbal teas have long been popular for both sleep and stress relief, especially those containing chamomile, valerian root, or lavender, but new rollouts in this market are moving beyond traditional types of products. Nightfood Holdings, for example, has launched Nightfood sleep-friendly ice cream in hotels in more than 40 states across the country. The frozen treat is formulated to be a more sleep-friendly snack for those craving ice cream at night. It contains less sugar and fat and includes vitamins, minerals, and amino acids that may support sleep quality, including tryptophan and magnesium. The company recently announced it also will be introducing sleep-friendly Nightfood cookies that are gluten-free and nut-free.
As researchers delve deeper into more nutritional ingredients, the number of snack and beverage options that help promote sleep quality and reduce stress will continue to grow. Here are some of the most promising ingredients being explored.
One of today’s top sleep supplements, melatonin is a hormone that the body produces naturally. It helps organize the body’s circadian rhythms—the 24 hr sleep-wake cycles. Studies have shown that melatonin appears to help reduce the amount of time people need to fall asleep and increase the total amount of sleep time. In a review of randomized clinical trials, researchers in Iran reported that melatonin had a significant beneficial effect on sleep quality in adults as assessed by the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index, a standardized sleep questionnaire (Fatemeh et al. 2022).
Magnesium may help regulate neurotransmitters related to sleep and anxiety. Current research indicates that additional magnesium can help the body relax and can even improve symptoms of insomnia. While more studies are needed to support the relationship between magnesium and sleep quality and stress, it is often found in supplements alongside melatonin.
A lesser-known benefit of probiotics is their potential effect on stress. Using Lactobacillus plantarum P-8, researchers in China recently showed a potential link between probiotic-induced gut microbiota modulation and stress/anxiety alleviation in stressed adults, supporting the idea that the gut-brain axis can be involved in relieving symtoms related to stress (Ma et al. 2021).
An Italian study suggests probiotics administration may boost psychological well-being by improving aspects of mood and sleep quality (Marotta et al. 2019). For this double-blind, placebo-controlled research, 38 healthy volunteers assigned to either an experimental or a control group consumed a daily dose of a probiotic mixture (Lactobacillus fermentum LF16, Lactobacillus rhamnosus LR06, L. plantarum LP01, and Bifidobacterium longum BL04) or a placebo, respectively, for 6 wk. Mood, personality dimensions, and sleep quality were assessed four times (before the beginning of the study, at 3 and 6 wk, and at 3 wk of washout). Researchers observed a significant improvement in mood in the experimental group, with a reduction in depressive mood state, anger, and fatigue, and an improvement in sleep quality.
Ingredia’s Lactium is a novel milk protein hydrolysate that contains alpha-casozepine, a decapeptide with relaxing properties. Lactium originates from the tryptic hydrolysis of casein alpha S1, the main protein found in milk. The novel hydrolysate increases the activity of gamma-aminobutyric acid, a neurotransmitter known for its inhibitory action on anxiety and its relaxing properties. Nine randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical studies conducted between 1999 and 2018 on more than 500 healthy volunteers demonstrated Lactium’s efficacy in stress reduction through several physiological (blood pressure, heart rate, cortisol levels) and psychological (visual analogue scale for perceived stress) markers.
Ingredia recently reported on a Lactium study it conducted in France, the United States, and China in women and men aged 18–65. In the United States, 85% of consumers felt an improvement in stress after 1 mo of treatment, and 86% felt an improvement in sleep (better sleep quality, felt less tired). Similar results were recorded in France (73% improved stress, 69% improved sleep) and China (75% improved stress, 76% improved sleep).
Adaptogens are plants and mushrooms that help the body respond to stress, anxiety, and fatigue. They are believed to help bring the body back to a steady balance by managing physical and mental stressors.
One adaptogen generating increased interest among consumers is reishi mushroom. In February, Lifeway Foods introduced its MSHRM Oat line of adaptogenic functional mushroom beverages with 10 live and active probiotic cultures plus heart-healthy beta-glucans. The Calm flavor contains adaptogenic reishi mushrooms, which are thought to help decrease stress and anxiety while promoting calmness.
Zembrin from P. L. Thomas is a patented, standardized, and clinically studied extract of Sceletium tortuosum, a plant grown sustainably in South Africa. The product has a patented dual mechanism of action that includes phosphodiesterase-4 and serotonin reuptake inhibition. It offers mood-enhancing, anxiety-reducing, and cognitive function–enhancing activities.
In 2020, researchers provided behavioral evidence to support the anxiolytic (anxiety reduction) properties of 25 mg Zembrin (Reay et al. 2020). Two studies utilized a placebo-controlled, double-blind, between-subject experimental design to investigate the effects of a single dose of the Sceletium tortuosum extract on laboratory stress/anxiety response in 20 young, healthy volunteers. To elicit feelings of stress/anxiety, participants completed 20 min of a multitasking framework and a 5 min simulated public speaking task. Treatment had no effect on subjective experiences of mood during multitasking, but in the public speaking task, subjective anxiety levels were found to be significantly lower in the Zembrin group at the prestress induction point, and there was a significant interaction between treatment and time on heart rate.
L-theanine, an amino acid naturally found in tea leaves, has been shown to promote relaxation and stress reduction. Researchers have suggested that L-theanine has the potential to promote mental health in the general population for stress-related ailments and cognitive impairments. In one study, participants with no major psychiatric illness took either 200 mg/day of L-theanine or placebo tablets, randomly and blindly assigned, for 4 wk. After L-theanine administration, stress-related symptoms decreased, and scores for sleep latency, sleep disturbance, and use of sleep medication were reduced compared with the placebo (Hidese et al. 2019).
Suntheanine, which was used in the study, is produced via a fermentation process that mimics the natural process in green tea leaves. This results in a 100% pure L-isomer-theanine. It is not an extract of green tea but a patented enzymatic fermentation process using the amino acids ethylamine and L-glutamine that assures an isomerically pure L-theanine.