Melatonin, valerian, kava, and others promote sleep naturally
Insomnia is not just having trouble falling asleep, it can also manifest as waking up in the middle of the night and not being able to fall asleep again. Statistics are grim: insomnia is experienced by 95% of adults at some point in their lives.
Insomnia varies in its severity. Transient insomnia lasts only a few nights and is often the result of excitement or minor stress. Short-term insomnia persists for a couple of weeks and stems from major stress or illness. Chronic insomnia is a long-term disorder with many contributing factors, including physical illness, depression, poor sleeping environment, and lifestyle.
Check Diet and Lifestyle Basics
An occasional case of insomnia could be related to poor dietary or lifestyle choices. The stimulant effects of caffeine can disturb sleep patterns for many hours past the last dose of caffeine. Aside from coffee, other sources of caffeine include tea, chocolate, many soft drinks, and some over-the-counter medications.
Foods rich in carbohydrates can act as a mild sleep aid when eaten right before bedtime. Bread, crackers, or other carbohydrate sources increase levels of serotonin in the brain, which in turn promote sleep (Metabol 1992;41:137-40).
For many people, insomnia is triggered by psychological and emotional stress. To complicate matters, stress itself contributes to insomnia, so a vicious cycle of worsening sleep deprivation can develop. Relaxation should be the first ingredient in a successful formula for a good night’s sleep. Exercise is one way to reduce sleep-interfering stress.
The Sleep Hormone: Melatonin
The hormone melatonin is secreted from the brain’s pineal gland and is one of the main players in the body’s circadian rhythm, which regulates our sleep/wake cycle.
Melatonin levels drop throughout adulthood; by old age, melatonin production is only one-fifth of that of childhood. In fact, some sleep disorder experts suspect that impaired melatonin production may be at the root of sleep difficulties in many older people (BMJ 1994;309:167).
A study published in the Lancet compared supplements providing 2 mg of melatonin with look-alike, but inactive, pills (Lancet 1995;346:541-4). Twelve older adults experiencing insomnia took melatonin nightly for three weeks and then were switched to the dummy pills for another three weeks. On the nights that melatonin was taken, these insomniacs reported significantly improved sleep quality and fewer night awakenings.
Other research confirms that melatonin given before bedtime helps alleviate insomnia by shortening the time it takes to go to sleep, reducing the number of night awakenings, and improving overall sleep quality (Neuropsychopharm 1990;3:19-23).
Experts suggest that time-release forms of melatonin best duplicate the way natural melatonin acts in the body. Take 1-3 mg of melatonin about one to two hours before desired bedtime.
Side effects from melatonin include (not surprisingly) drowsiness, but there are also reports of vivid dreaming, sleepwalking, and disorientation. Pregnant or breast-feeding women should not take melatonin supplements.
Additional Sleep Aids
A supplement called 5-HTP is closely related to the amino acid tryptophan and serves as a precursor to serotonin. Insomnia can be related to a tryptophan deficiency in the brain (Psychopharmacology 1986;89:1-7), in which case 5-HTP may provide a remedy for the deficiency. A scientific study reported that a 100 mg nighttime dose of 5-HTP improved duration and depth of sleep (Schweiz Bundschau Med (PRAXIS) 1998;77:19-23).
Some people taking large amounts of 5-HTP experience gastrointestinal upset or, less often, headache, sleepiness, muscle pain, or anxiety. Rarely, some 5-HTP supplements have been reported to cause symptoms resembling a disorder known as eosinophilic myalgia syndrome (EMS). 5-HTP should not be taken with antidepressants, weight-control drugs, other serotonin-modifying agents, or substances known to cause liver damage. Individuals with liver disease and those suffering from autoimmune diseases such as scleroderma should not take 5-HTP without consulting a knowledgeable health care professional.
Valerian root appears to work as a sleep aid by easing stress and exerting a mild sedating effect on the central nervous system. Valerian is non-addictive and only rarely causes side effects, such as mild stomach upset in a small number of people (Planta Media 1985;51:144-8). Valerian root supplements can be used in the amount of 300-400 mg taken about 30 minutes before going to bed.