In the busy pace of everyday life, there are many factors that work to keep us healthy. Unfortunately, at times it can be a little too easy to take these pillars of health—nutrition, exercise, sleep—for granted. Just as we fudge on eating healthy and exercising, we don’t always give sleep the credit it’s due. The National Institutes of Health recommends that adults older than 18 get seven to nine hours of sleep each night. When we don’t, we set ourselves up for myriad health issues.
“The most common sleep problem is simply not getting enough hours of sleep. About 40 percent of adults don’t get seven hours or more,” says Catherine Darley, N.D., founder of the Institute of Naturopathic Sleep Medicine in Seattle. “People should feel energetic and on top of their game throughout the day, with maybe a little dip in their energy midafternoon. They should not feel like they have to sleep or must have caffeine to get going.” Likewise, she says, if you sleep more on the weekends or on vacation, that too is a sign of not getting enough sleep. Conversely, if a person is spending time in bed but not sleeping, it can be a sign of an underlying health issue that needs to be addressed.
An inability to sleep can in fact be a window into our health. “There are many things that cause insomnia; there also are very many things that insomnia causes. It’s kind of a circular thing,” says Amy Rothenberg, N.D., who practices natural medicine in Connecticut. “Insomnia can cause so many problems, and not just around the things you would think of like a lack of focus, creativity and coordination. All the statistics point to a lack of sleep increasing the risk of a number of chronic diseases.”
Research has associated poor sleep with heart disease and stroke, hormone and blood-sugar-regulation issues, obesity, and even cancer. This is why Rothenberg says when she works with a patient, it’s important to gauge their quantity and quality of sleep. “It’s a reflection of overall health and impacts overall health,” she says.
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Both Darley and Rothenberg emphasize sleep hygiene, such as no screen time or bright light before bed and limiting caffeine and alcohol intake. Rothenberg points to the importance of exercise in mitigating stress and aiding sleep, and Darley’s first go-to is usually cognitive-behavioral therapy. “There are a lot of psychological factors that contribute to insomnia, and supplements don’t address those or remove them,” she says.
Even so, dietary supplements can be
a good option to include in an overall sleep toolkit, because they are not habit-forming, nor do they have side effects, as many prescription drugs do.
When trying a new sleep supplement, wait two weeks to evaluate its effectiveness, says Catherine Darley, N.D. “Give it time to react and take effect. Sometimes, people having sleep difficulties can get really panicked looking for results. It can be helpful knowing that you are just going to stick with a therapy for a few weeks to see how it works.” Committing to a time frame can help people stay calm, Darley says, and it’s better than switching the therapy every other night. Here are Rothenberg’s and Darley’s top suggestions for natural sleep remedies.
This sleep hormone, which influences the sleep-wake cycle, is produced naturally from the amino acid tryptophan and secreted by the pineal gland in the brain and microbiome. Our natural melatonin levels decline as we get older, Darley says, so it is common for older people to use melatonin for a longer period of time. But keep doses relatively low, Darley recommends. If you are falling asleep easily but waking up in the middle of the night, then consider taking a timed-release melatonin. A recent study found that sustained-release of
2 mg of melatonin given to insomnia patients ages 55 to 80 was notably effective. Recommended dose: 1 to 3 mg before bedtime.
This nonessential (meaning our body produces it, so we don’t have to get it through diet alone) amino acid is an inhibitory neurotransmitter in the central nervous system. What does this mean? It actually lowers your core body temperature. “Our core body temp is not steady throughout the 24-hour day. It goes down before bed, and when it is decreasing or low we will feel sleepy. Glycine has been shown to decrease the amount of time it takes to fall asleep,” Darley says. Recommended dose: 3 grams.
This amino acid is found in tea leaves, particularly green tea. It’s also found in some mushrooms. What does it do? It helps transmit nerve impulses to the brain. “I use it with people having a harder time budging insomnia,” Rothenberg says. L-theanine boosts brain-calming neurotransmitters such as GABA, serotonin and dopamine, and for this reason is considered an effective, gentle and helpful supplement to calm a restless, active mind at bedtime. GABA, which is also an amino acid and used for reducing anxiety, is often paired with L-theanine in sleep formulas to assist GABA uptake. Recommended dose: 200 mg at bedtime or half an hour before.
This herb is thought to decrease sleep latency, or the time it takes to fall asleep. Studies suggest that it helps with insomnia and improves sleep quality. It can take time to be effective, so if this is your supplement of choice, Darley says, give it a couple of weeks to work. Recommended dose: There is not a standard dose; studies recommend between 400 to 900 mg taken 30 to 45 minutes before bed, or as early as two hours before bed.
Additional Natural Remedies
Try calming chamomile tea or decaffeinated green tea before bedtime. Green tea is rich in L-theanine, and chamomile contains an antioxidant called apigenin that is thought to decrease anxiety and mellow us out. Similarly, diffusing lavender oil in your room before sleep or rubbing a few drops on your neck and temples, or even your pillow, can also induce sleep. “It’s not just a cultural myth; lavender is showing that it does improve sleep quality, and people feel less sleepy upon wakening. Try one of those aromatherapy pillows or a drop or two of lavender oil on your pillow,” Darley says.