What if there were a supplement that can simultaneously improve your quality of sleep and daytime alertness, but also – for reasons including, but not limited to better sleep – may help you to stay in better physical condition with the passage of time? A sleep (and daytime alertness) promoting, anti-ageing supplement? While it’s true that for many of us, bio-identical hormone replacement can be significantly helpful in all these areas, the subject of this article isn’t a hormone, but an amino acid that’s been available in natural health food stores for decades. And it’s inexpensive, too!
Although statistics vary, it’s estimated that approximately 30% of American adults suffer with some degree of insomnia. The number of adults in the UK suffering from insomnia has also been estimated at around 30%. When you look at those over the age of 60, that figure shoots up to between 40% and 60%. That’s a very high percentage of people suffering through sleep-deprived nights and drowsy days.
If this amino acid can help the majority of these millions to start getting a good night’s sleep – and preliminary clinical indications are that it might be able to do just that – that’s a very significant number. And if the supplement has the ‘healthy ageing’ potential for adults that many of us believe it does (more about that later), then its impact could be really – really! – major.
So why haven’t you heard about this powerful amino acid before? Well, the research on its effects on sleep was first published in 2006 – really just a moment ago in scientific time. And the research on its healthy ageing effects is still an inference, but (as you’ll read later), a very reasonable one.
The amino acid is glycine, the smallest of the 20 amino acids commonly found in proteins. Unlike most amino acids, glycine is not ‘L’ (or ‘R’), but simply ‘glycine’.
Fall asleep quicker and reach deep sleep faster with glycine
In 2007, a study was published that measured the effects of glycine on sleep quality and the common next-day symptoms often caused by lack of sleep.1 Objective measurement was done with a ‘polysomnograph’ (an electronic instrument very much like an electroencephalogram or ‘EEG’) which measures brain waves during sleep.
Research volunteers (eight women, three men) were asked to take either 3,000mg of glycine or a placebo before bedtime. The volunteers who had taken a glycine supplement fell asleep significantly quicker and entered into the ‘slow wave’ sleep, commonly called ‘deep sleep’, significantly faster as well. The volunteers reported less daytime sleepiness and they improved their performance on memory recognition tasks.
In a prior randomised, placebo-controlled study, 15 female volunteers with sleeping problems took either 3,000mg (3g) of glycine or a placebo before bedtime.2 The next morning, they completed two standardised questionnaires (for the technically inclined, the ‘St. Mary’s Hospital Sleep Questionnaire and Space Aeromedicine Fatigue Checklist’). The volunteers who took glycine had a significant improvement in fatigue, ‘liveliness and peppiness,’ and ‘clear-headedness’. Although in this study the researchers did not ‘objectively’ evaluate sleep itself, they assumed that with significantly less daytime fatigue, and improvement in the other parameters noted, the study participants who took the glycine must have slept better.
When they took into consideration the objectively measured changes during sleep as well as the subjective changes (improved daytime mental performance), the researchers concluded: “… glycine before bedtime seems to produce subjective and objective improvement of the sleep quality in a different way than traditional hypnotic drugs such as benzodiazepines.”
Unravelling the mystery behind glycine’s abilities
Research scientists are still trying to figure out exactly how glycine helps with sleep. The amino acid is a very important component (approximately 30%) of collagen, the number one protein in human and animal bodies (more about that in a bit), but it also functions solo as a neurotransmitter in the brain and nervous system, carrying messages between nerve cells. Glycine is predominantly an inhibitory or calming neurotransmitter. This may be how it promotes sleep – but in some circumstances it can also be an excitatory neurotransmitter.
Another clue to the amino acid’s ability to promote better sleep was revealed through animal research in 2011. Researchers reported that orally administered glycine raises levels of serotonin in the prefrontal cortex (front part) of rats’ brains.4 This is similar to the action of tryptophan, an essential amino acid that can help some people with sleep. Tryptophan metabolises into serotonin and niacin (among other things) and can help with sleep, improved mood and attitude.
In 2012, members of these same research groups published two papers on the use of glycine for sleep. The first focused on sleep quality and reported on some of glycine’s effects on experimental animals – specifically rats – during sleep.
Giving the rats glycine before their rodent rest time resulted in a significant decrease in core body temperature. At the same time there was an increase in blood flow in the skin. The researchers point out that in humans the onset of sleep is already known to coincide with a decrease in core body temperature, which is maintained during sleep in humans.5
The second 2012 report focused on daytime performance in partially sleep-deprived individuals. If you’ll recall the 2006 ‘glycine and daytime performance’ research noted above was on individuals who got adequate sleep. The newer 2012 research instead concentrated on volunteers whose sleep was deliberately restricted. Why is this important?
On the websites of the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) or the National Sleep Foundation you’ll find that what happens to us when we don’t get enough sleep is a major concern. This can include ‘nodding off’ or unintentionally falling asleep during the day, which can lead to poor concentration, a poor memory, difficulty performing job duties, and, tragically, accidents such as car crashes.
Of course the solution to these problems is getting a good night’s sleep. But you and I both know that this can be a lot easier said than done. What if you’re up at night with a fussy baby or a sick child? What if you’re working two jobs? Unfortunately, there are countless reasons why some of us simply can’t get a good night’s sleep, no matter how much we desperately want to.
But let’s get back to that 2012 deliberately-restricted sleep research. In that study 10 male volunteers with no known sleep difficulties were deliberately restricted to three quarters of their usual sleep time for three consecutive nights.6 Before bedtime every night, each took either 3g of glycine, or a placebo. Daytime sleepiness, fatigue, and mental performance were evaluated the next day.
The men who took glycine before bedtime had a significant reduction in fatigue and a tendency towards reduced sleepiness when compared to the placebo group. Computerised testing also showed significantly greater ‘psychomotor vigilance’ a combination of degree of alertness, problem-solving ability, accuracy of responses, and brain-muscle co-ordination in the glycine group. (If you want to take an online ‘psychomotor vigilance’ test yourself, go to www.sleepdisordersflorida.com/ pvt1.html)
How a ‘non-essential’ amino acid is essential to healthy ageing
Decades-old research placed glycine very firmly in the ‘nonessential’ amino acid category.7 Since our own bodies can make glycine from serine, (another amino acid), it’s always been assumed that our bodies will synthesise as much as is needed, in addition to what we can get from the protein in our diets.
So you may be wondering why supplemental glycine would help anyone sleep or improve daytime alertness if diet and our own bodies provide us with all of the amino acid that we need. A relatively recent research publication reveals the answer in just two sentences.8 Quoting directly from the abstract of that article: “… the amount of glycine available from synthesis, about 3g per day, together with that from the diet, in the range 1.5-3.0 grams per day, may fall significantly short of the amount needed for all metabolic uses, including collagen synthesis, by about 10 grams per day for a 70 kilogram [154 pound] human. This result supports earlier suggestions in the literature that glycine is a semi-essential amino acid and that it should be taken as a nutritional supplement to guarantee a healthy metabolism.”
Remember, glycine is approximately 30% of collagen. (The next-highest percentage of any other amino acid in collagen is 15%-16%). Collagen is the most abundant protein (25% to 35%) in our bodies. It’s the main component of connective tissue, and is found in large quantities in tendons, ligaments, skin, cartilage, bone, blood vessels, intestines, intervertebral discs, and in the cornea of the eye.
Unlike bone, which has a very low turnover rate, most other high-collagen content tissues are in constant need of renewal and repair. Tendons, ligaments, skin, cartilage, blood vessels, intestines, intervertebral discs… all are under constant physical stress, in need of repair much more often than more inactive tissues such as bone and brain.
Obviously, keeping collagen in good repair is an important component of healthy ageing, and since more glycine goes into collagen than anywhere else, if your body doesn’t make enough glycine, that simply can’t happen.
Doing the maths on glycine
How much glycine might we need for more healthy ageing? We can reveal those numbers… and the weak link in metabolism that makes glycine supplementation so important… by doing a little maths (sorry about that).
Although amounts vary from person to person, protein is most often stated to be 16% of a human body. If we use 70kg to represent a typical adult (that’s what’s used in most medical schools) 16% of that is 11.2kg of protein. (Please tolerate the kilograms here, they take us where we need to go, which is grams.)
Next, since 25% to 35% of the overall protein content of our bodies is collagen we can now figure out that 2.8 to 3.92kg of that 11.2kg is collagen. (Still with me? Hang in there, we’re in the home stretch now.) We know that glycine is 33% of collagen, so that’s 924g to 1,294g (not milligrams) of a single amino acid in a typical adult (less in smaller adults, more in larger adults)!
Now we just learned earlier about the research that revealed the glycine that our body makes, along with what we get through diet, likely falls short of what we need by about 10g per day. Ten grams a day is 10,000mg.
This means that 3g (3,000mg) taken at bedtime is still less than one-third of what these researchers say is needed for ‘all metabolic uses, including collagen synthesis’. The maths makes it crystal clear that a glycine shortage is not only possible for many of us, but also likely. And if we have a chronic glycine shortage, we also can’t possibly repair collagen – our #1 body protein – adequately.
Why our modern diet leaves you glycine deficient
I know, you’re probably thinking, ‘Good grief! Yet another supplement I have to take? Do I really, really need it?’
One of the main reasons we do need it is that in the 21st century we’re no longer eating many of the foods that are high in collagen (and therefore glycine) content.
As Dr. David Williams (who writes Alternatives newsletter) points out, many sources of collagen such as oxtail, joints and skin are probably not on your shopping list. Neither are chicken gizzards, calf trachea, chitlins (intestine), or tripe (stomach lining). Be honest, how often do you make broth from bones, joints or skin the way our ancestors did? All of these foods are high in collagen, and therefore high in glycine. And our modern diet is simply lacking in them.
Restore your glycine levels with dessert!
Fortunately, there’s another way to get these research suggested amounts of glycine ingested without downing buckets of glycine capsules or powder. It’s not only less offensive to 21st century palates and sensibilities than tripe and chitlins may be, it’s also better balanced and can be delicious!
It starts with totally natural unflavoured gelatin. (And no, I don’t mean Jello®, with its artificial flavours, sweeteners, and chemicals.)
I use a kosher unflavoured gelatin powder from the Great Lakes Gelatin Company (www.greatlakesgelatin. com) which I am not affiliated with in any way. (UK readers can visit: www. greatlakesgelatin.co.uk). It’s derived by entirely natural, no chemical processes from collagen, and contains the same amino acid content.
Glycine is the amino acid in greatest quantity in these products (as it is in collagen), but in this case it’s not alone. In gelatin the glycine is accompanied by greater than 10% each of proline, hydroxyproline, alanine and glutamic acid. (For the record, the only essential amino acid totally missing – by Nature and Creation – from collagen is tryptophan.)
This is important because, as we can see all around us in Nature, balance is important. It’s likely – although not yet proven in every case – that just like the rest of Nature, amino acids have a natural balance among themselves, too. They certainly do in individual tissues, such as collagen.
It’s also possible – although again not proven – that if glycine is taken daily in the amounts suggested necessary (10g a day) that sooner or later an amino acid imbalance might occur. So getting a significant proportion of the glycine you need from collagen-derived sources that include all the other amino acids is likely better in the long run. It tastes much better this way, too!
Gelatin can be fun to work with. I’m not at all a good cook – Holly is the cook in our home, and she’s much more than just good at it! But I was pretty fair in chemistry class, and can turn a blender on and off, so gelatin is the perfect kind of ‘cooking’ for me. Putting the right proportions of gelatin into coconut, rice, almond, or hemp milks in the blender is the first step. If used frequently, soya milk with its phytoestrogens is mostly for the ladies. Adding liquid stevia ‘to taste’ and then letting the blender do its job is step two.
Then the real fun starts. Holly likes me to add no-sugar chocolate powder for her, and maybe a tiny bit more liquid stevia. For me, there are added blackberries newly thawed from picked-in-summer freezer storage. The possibilities with gelatin are truly endless. After pouring the entire mixture into cups and letting it gel in the refrigerator, it makes one of the healthiest desserts there is!
You can even add some extra glycine punch to your gelatin desserts by dropping in some powdered glycine. Powdered glycine is really quite inexpensive. Glycine is quite sweet and goes well in this mixture. A lot fewer capsules to swallow that way!
If you have less-than-optimal digestion, or don’t want to bother with a blender, Great Lakes Gelatin also produces – by a heat-only process – a ‘collagen hydrolysate’ (in effect a ‘predigested’ collagen) which dissolves in water or other liquids without turning into a gel. Just stir it into the liquid of your choice and swallow.
If you’re over 40 you may not be digesting your food as well as you did when you were younger and collagen hydrolysate is a good way to raise your glycine levels. You can add extra powdered glycine to this combination, too.
Get your glycine dosage right
Your glycine goal for better sleep, improved daytime performance, and optimal collagen and tissue repair is 10g daily. So you may be wondering exactly how much gelatin or collagen hydrolysate is needed to help attain that goal. One half ounce to 1oz equals 14g to 28g; using 30% glycine content for ‘easy maths,’ that’s 4.2g to 8.4g of glycine along with the other amino acids in collagen. If you add an additional 3,000mg at bedtime for sleep problems, you’re either close to or at the ‘more healthy ageing’ goal.
Glycine is safe… researchers say: “No adverse effects
With the exception of those who very unfortunately have cancer (see the box on page 6), glycine appears to be very safe. An older research report tells us that 31g (31,000mg) of glycine a day had no significant adverse effects.9
The research group which reported glycine’s effect on sleep asked 12 research volunteers (six men, six women) who had no sleep trouble to take 9g of glycine each during the day. According to the researchers: “Glycine (9g) administered during the day did not induce sleepiness and had no adverse effects.”
Is this for real?
If mainstream doctors and patent medicine companies were asked for an opinion about glycine as an essential amino acid, a nontoxic, non-habituating sleep aid, a daytime performance enhancer, and a ‘healthy ageing’ supplement, there might be some partial concession about it being essential, or at least semi-essential. The researchers who made that claim reached their conclusions based upon their own years of research and expertise, as well as an extensive review of the work of others.7
I’ve read many, many scientific reports, and this one appears very solid. Just glycine’s collagen repair function and its apparent chronic shortage in humans alone qualifies it as a ‘healthy ageing’ nutrient and supplement, no matter how that supplementation is done. (Can I interest anyone in a natural gelatin dessert?)
Taken alone, the glycine and sleep research might be described as ‘interesting but too early to tell’. That’s because all the data published so far is from one research group, and based on two human studies. Even though the research was double-blind and placebo-controlled, only 15 research volunteers completed the first study, 11 – were in the second one.
But that’s just research alone and leaves out clinical experience, which is just as important. Glycine and sleep was one of the topics at Tahoma Clinic’s weekly doctor’s meeting. The next week, three Tahoma Clinic doctors reported that they’d slept better from the first night they’d tried it. And then there’s me.
My father had an increasing problem with sleep after the age of 50, and ‘genetic clockwork’ being what it is, so did I. Of course I tried melatonin, which helped for a while. But by last year – despite the use of L-tryptophan, L-theanine, other nutrients, valerian, other botanicals, homeopathy, and just about everything else I could find – very little worked reliably well. It’s not that I wasn’t sleeping at all; just less than desirable (by me, anyway) and unpredictably. Glycine has changed all that. Sleep for me is rarely a problem anymore.
Everyone over 40 that I’ve worked with (so far) who’s not been sleeping well has reported at least some improvement… and most have noted very significant improvement… with glycine.
Even a caller to ‘Green Medicine,’ my Saturday radio show phoned in to say that after hearing about glycine and sleep on the program, she tried it, and it worked quite well for her.
So when the available human research (limited as it was, but placebo-controlled and double blind), animal research, and clinical experience so far is all taken into consideration, my conclusion is: GLYCINE HELPS SLEEP! It also helps with daytime alertness, even if circumstances prevented enough sleep. And it’s very, very likely a healthy ageing supplement, too!Wishing you the best of health,
Dr. Jonathan V. Wright
Nutrition & Healing
Volume 7, Issue 3 – March 2013
Full references and citations for this article are available in the downloadable PDF version of the monthly Nutrition and Healing issue in which this article appears.