Case in point: Some may say I have a "melatonin dependence." It's a real thing, and while I haven't been diagnosed with one by a doc, I have relied on the sleep-aid every night for almost 10 years (I know, yikes).
Throughout my time on the (sleeping) pill, I've experimented with the full range of dosages—from .25-10 mg. But most of the time, 10 is my don't-think-twice go-to. So when I heard about time-release capsules, i.e. supplements designed to offer a sustained dosage over the course of many hours, rather than delivering the full bout all at once, it piqued my interest. Maybe I'd be able to reduce my usual dose and clock in those eight hours (*fingers crossed*).
If the marketing materials are to be believed, time-release supplements can also help hone mood and focus by parceling out brain- and energy-boosting ingredients like L-theanine, ashwagandha, and fish oil throughout the day. So, in the name of getting a better night's sleep, waking up refreshed, and hitting a home run at work, I decided to swap my usual supplement regimen with these super-smart pills.
Keep scrolling to read all about a week on time-release supplements.
What is a time-release capsule?
For my experiment, I choose two brands in the business of time-release technology: ORB Wellness and Natrol. And before diving in, I hop on the phone with ORB's founder Matt Hesse and Shannon Wright, RD, a spokesperson from Natrol, to get a quick run-down of how the capsules work.
If you were to cut one of ORB's pills down the middle, it wouldn't look too dissimilar from those cross-sections of the Earth you used in middle school to learn about the planet's layers. The supplement has a solid core, surrounded by multiple layers that are designed to dissolve and enter your bloodstream at different times. "Think of taking a tiny molecule and suspending it inside of a chamber and then spraying ingredients onto it—the ingredients being vitamin A, vitamin B, vitamin C, etc.—in little layers," says Hesse. "And in between the layers, there’s talc and coatings that slowly dissolve. As they do, that releases the next layer of vitamin."
If you were to cut one of ORB's pills down the middle, it wouldn't look too dissimilar from those cross-sections of the Earth you used in middle school to learn about the planet's layers.
To help explain why this type of supplement can be beneficial, Wright compares it to the medication someone with diabetes takes. "If they take a long-acting insulin, then it keeps their blood sugar more stable for a longer period of time, compared to your high peaks and your low valleys," she says. "It’s the same with a supplement."
Time-release capsules can work to evenly dispense the same nutrient over a long period of time (like the insulin Wright mentions), or they can be designed to release different nutrients in a sequence that will meet your evolving needs throughout the course of the dosage. With catching zzz's, Hesse explains, "each stage needs a different kind of ingredient to optimize your sleep." So in ORB's sleep blend, the first ingredient to dissolve will help you wind down and the final will gently ease you back into consciousness.
Both experts say the exact timeline will vary depending on an individual's biological make-up, however, so I'll have to use some trial and error to nail down a schedule that works for me.
Up first: biohacking bedtime
On night one, I swap my melatonin for ORB's Sleep Complex, which combines my drug of choice with valerian root (another sleep-helper), L-theanine (a naturally occurring, calming antioxidant), and B12 (to help gently wake you up in the a.m.). Since I'm used to a higher serving of melatonin than the 3 mgs packed in the capsule, I go ahead and take two. And because I'm not positive how long it will take the time-release to, you know, actually start releasing, I pop the pill about one and half hours before turning in for the night.
Both decisions turn out to be good calls: I don't feel as drowsy as I normally would right before falling asleep, but after about 20 minutes, I black out. I sleep all the way through the night (yes!), and wake up before my alarm with vivid—and I mean vivid—recollections of my dreams. To be honest, it's a little trippy—almost like I spent the last seven hours in an alternate universe.
Within 20 minutes, my eyes can barely focus on the book I'm trying (and failing) to read.
The next night is mostly the same, but I run into trouble on night three. I'm majorly stressed about my to-do list, and even though I take the Sleep Complex well before I want to hit the hay, I'm up for hours tossing and turning. I'm used to having one or two nights like this per month, so maybe it's just bad timing? But nevertheless, I reach for my tried-and-true immediate release to help shut off my mind.
The next night, I switch over to Natrol's time-release melatonin. Anxious about last night's lack of zzz's, I go ahead and take three 3-mg pills. Within 20 minutes, my eyes can barely focus on the book I'm trying (and failing) to read. So I hit the lights early for some extra beauty rest. Almost nine hours later, my alarm interrupts a deep, dreamless sleep. At first, I'm groggy. I nod off a few times during my morning in-bed meditation session, but once I open my eyes again, I feel a little more alert.
As I crawl into bed on Natrol night two, I'm mindful to wait to take my dose until about 30 minutes before I want to pass out. And tonight, I settle on two pills to avoid the NyQuil-esque effect of the prior evening. Less than 40 minutes later, I'm dead to the world. But just like the morning before, my wakeup hits me like a ton of bricks.
The good news? Tomorrow's the weekend; no alarm for me! Flash forward to the next a.m., and I wake up around 9—a total win for someone who usually can't sleep past 7:30. I feel recharged and ready to spend the day running around New York City.
Next: I try time-release supplements to boost my mood, focus, and workouts
Hesse and Wright advise me to use my first day on energy-enhancing pills to get my bearings. The ORB Mental Focus and Mood tablets contain a cocktail of focus-boosting ingredients, including caffeine, fish oil, and ashwagandha. They also contain huperzine A and a propriety type of the brain-health nutrient citicoline made by Cognizin, both of which are "clinically studied ingredients that have a huge effect on alertness and fatigue," according to Hesse.
I knock back my first dose at 7 a.m., right before my morning cup of coffee, because the directions suggest taking the capsules on an empty stomach. By the time I sit down at my desk for work, there's a notable uptick in my mood. I'm smizing at my computer like a total weirdo as I move through my inbox. Despite my glowing mood, though, I do notice that I'm easily distracted (like, set my laptop's notifications to "do not disturb"-level distraction).
Two miles pass, then three, then five. And before I know it, it's time for my cool down. I might have zero focus at my desk, but at least my sweat sesh didn't disappoint.
When 5:00 rolls around, I've somehow managed to check off my daily tasks, so I lace up my sneakers and head to the gym. Now, here's the part where the focus really kicks in. I hop on the treadmill, and after half a mile, I'm completely in the zone. Two miles pass, then three, then five. And before I know it, it's time for my cool down. I might have zero focus at my desk, but at least my sweat sesh didn't disappoint.
To make sure my newfound super-athleticism (hey, I feel like a pro, okay?) isn't just a random coincidence, I take one of ORB's pills right before walking into a hot yoga class at New York's Y7 studio the next day. As the teacher cues us through the first flow, I feel a noticeable shift in my level of presence. I can make tiny adjustments in each pose, and the frustration I usually feel mid-chair-pose is somewhat more tolerable. As I roll up my mat, my post-yoga euphoria is running high. I feel calm and un-rushed, even though I have a ton on my plate at the moment.
The supplement had such a positive effect on my workouts, I wonder how a little extra concentration could upgrade my meditation practice. Would this be a repeat of my failed work experiment, or was I about to take one step closer to Nirvana? A day after my yoga success, I test Natrol's 5-HTP offering—for "mood and stress"—half an hour before sitting down for my 20-minute morning session. Unlike ORB's diverse blend of ingredients, Natrol's time-release offering is straight-up 5-HTP, a precursor to the neurotransmitter serotonin.
While I struggle to keep my attention on my breath at the beginning of my sit, I do notice my focus growing stronger as the meditation wears on. I even have about a minute where my thoughts dissipate entirely—a very rare gift. When I re-enter the plane of the living and sit down at my desk, I feel centered for about an hour before I catch myself online shopping. Whether that first hour of dedication was caused by the supplements or my time on the meditation cushion, I can't say, but I'll take what I can get.
My verdict on time-release capsules
Once I wrap up my experiment, I continue to reach for Natrol's melatonin each night. Because I always forget to take my melatonin until it's too late, the fast-acting option is a game-changer for me. Plus, I've slept through the night about 90 percent of the time since I started taking it. On the rare nights when I do remember to take my melatonin earlier, I take ORB's Sleep Complex instead. The blend provides a much more natural-feeling sleep cycle, and not having to wake up an alarm (thanks, B12!) leaves me feeling rested hour after hour.
The extra good news: Both options have allowed me to shave a few milligrams off my melatonin habit. Whether I take ORB or Natrol, I'm back down to six milligrams after years of depending on the highest dosage offered. I'll count that as as a small victory.
As far as focus supplements go, I've mostly dropped my time-release habit. Other than reaching for a pill here and there to get me through that long run or 75-minute yoga class, I just don't need a helping hand as much during the day as I do at night. What can I say? Meditation and almond milk cappuccinos serve me well.
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