Let’s Put Insomnia to Rest!
Running on Empty
Sleep is a little like oxygen. You don’t miss it until you stop getting it. Although lack of sleep may not dispatch you as quickly as lack of oxygen, miss enough of it and you could find yourself wishing for a quick exit. If you’ve reached that stage, it’s time to declare war on sleepless nights.
What follows are profiles of three natural-source sleep aids, each with a reputation for getting the job done. They may not all work for you, but these are the types of weapons you should consider in your battle with insomnia. One of these, coupled with a new sleep strategy, could finally be your ticket to a good night’s sleep.
Like many of us who struggle with insomnia, you may have fallen into habits that are sleep antagonistic. It’s important that you set and stick to regular sleep schedules, even on weekends. It’s also recommended that you disengage from electronic devices, particularly computers and tablets, and anything beginning with a lowercase vowel. Late meals and stimulants such as coffee or intense exercise are also taboo.
Your bedroom should be reserved for two things, sleep and sex. When it comes to sleep, it should be two more things, cool and dark. If you can also manage quiet, so much the better. Darkness can’t be overemphasized. It’s the trigger that causes your body to produce melatonin, nature’s own sleep potion, and number one on our list.
Melatonin is a hormone produced in the brain by the pineal gland. Its levels climb with the onset of evening, peaking at about 9 p.m. and remaining elevated for 10 to 12 hours. Levels are barely detectable during the day. Like a vampire, melatonin shrinks from sunlight; unlike a vampire, its powers are also drained by artificial light.
As a sleep aid, melatonin is sold in pill form at doses 10 to 30 times the levels produced by your body. It acts quickly, and rapidly leaves the body. However, because it’s sold as a natural food supplement, doses are not standardized and can vary from product to product.
Possible side effects include nausea, vivid dreams or nightmares, and pronounced drowsiness for up to five hours after taking. It can affect natural hormone levels and, as such, is not recommended for pregnant woman or for couples who are trying to conceive. Prolonged use can also encourage dependence.
Including melatonin-rich foods in your diet is a good long-term strategy. Tart cherries contain more melatonin than any other food, and are best eaten an hour before bedtime. Dried cherries or tart cherry juice are just as effective as the whole fruit. Pineapples and bananas also raise melatonin levels. Make that nightcap a fruit salad.
Tryptophan is an amino acid that acts as a metabolic precursor in the production of serotonin, one of the body’s neurotransmitters. Serotonin regulates mood and feelings of well-being. Increased levels contribute to relaxation which, in turn, encourage sleep. It also assists in the body’s production of melatonin and vitamin B3.
Tryptophan is an essential amino acid, meaning the body can’t manufacture it and, therefore, must acquire it through diet. Rich sources include poultry (not just turkey), fish, eggs, and beef. The plant kingdom is also well represented, with soybeans, sesame seeds, and oats boasting excellent tryptophan levels.
Supplement forms (powder and capsules) are designed to boost levels not met through diet and to address the reduction in tryptophan levels caused by normal aging. Possible side effects include stomach upset, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Headache, blurred vision, muscle weakness and sexual problems can also occur. Supplements should be avoided during pregnancy and breast-feeding.
Valerian is a flowering plant native to Europe and parts of Asia. In pharmacology and herbal medicine, valerian also refers to the herb or dietary supplement prepared from roots of the plant. Extract of the root has sedative and anti-anxiety properties.
Used as a sleep aid in ancient Greece and Rome, valerian has more recently been used as an alternative to sedatives in the treatment of anxiety disorders. It’s also been used to treat intestinal issues, such as cramps and irritable bowel syndrome, where its role as a muscle relaxant is likely a key factor.
It’s these qualities, the ability to calm anxiety as well as promote relaxation, that make valerian an ideal sleep aid. Recent studies have confirmed that valerian, either on its own or in combination with other ingredients (typically hops), has the ability to promote a more restful sleep, even succeeding in trials involving postmenopausal women.
When buying capsules, look for a standardized version. Be forewarned, however. valerian has a strong smell, even in capsule form. As for dosage, research has been based on a range of 400 to 900 milligrams, taken anywhere from between two hours and 30 minutes before bedtime.
Few adverse effects have been reported. Large doses may result in stomach upset, apathy, lack of concentration, or mild depression. In rare cases, valerian may cause an allergic reaction, characterized by a skin rash or hives, and difficulty breathing. You should also consider valerian’s sedating properties before driving or operating heavy equipment.
A good night’s sleep can’t be overrated. The way you view the world, the way you react, your ability to make sound decisions, are all affected by sleep, or the lack of it. Recent studies in athletic performance have revealed that a well-rested athlete reacts much quicker than an opponent who is even moderately sleep-deprived, sometimes up to twice as fast.
Think of that the next time you’re driving through traffic on three hours sleep. It’s in your own best interests, and those of everyone around you, that you overcome your sleep issues and put insomnia to rest.