Nearly one third of adults worldwide suffer from insomnia.1 It is most common in women; however, the quality of sleep often decreases equally in both women and men as they age.2 Insomnia can be caused by a number of factors, such as:3
- Stress (including anxiety about being unable to sleep)
- Extreme temperature fluctuations
- Environmental noises or changes
- Medication side effects
- Regular sleep-pattern disruption
In addition, depression, chronic pain, and sleep apnea can cause insomnia.4 Lifestyle can be another big contributor.5 Consuming alcohol and caffeine and smoking cigarettes before bedtime can also disrupt the sleep pattern.6 Excessive napping in the afternoon or evening can also contribute to insomnia.7
If you find yourself suffering from sleepless nights and you’re not quite ready to go the prescription route (or maybe you’ve already tried prescriptions and didn’t benefit), there are numerous natural methods of dealing with insomnia.
The most organic approach to dealing with insomnia may be through modification of your diet. Reducing or eliminating caffeine and sugar can help the body maintain a more even flow of energy and blood sugar. Magnesium is also a natural sedative and can be found dark leafy green vegetables, almonds, cashews and many other foods.8 It can be amazing what simple, easy changes to a diet can do.
After diet modifications, stress reduction techniques can prove beneficial in calming the mind and body. There are several relaxation techniques that can be beneficial in regards to sleep including:9
- Relaxation response – a technique based on Transcendental Meditation
- Mindfulness – this type of meditation brings the focus of the mind to the present
- Progressive Muscle Relaxation – an easy to learn technique during which you progressively tense, then release different parts of your body.10
There are also natural sleep aids you can try. Melatonin is one of the most commonly used natural sleep aids.11 It began its rise to popularity in the mid-1990s.12 Melatonin is a naturally derived hormone that can be found in many animals and other living organisms, such as humans and algae.13 Melatonin’s major function in the body is to normalize circadian rhythms.14 The body’s daily rhythms, such as the time we spend awake and the time we spend sleep, are regulated by melatonin levels.15
Some studies have found that taking a melatonin supplement may improve sleep latency.16 A person who consumes melatonin may have a feeling of sleepiness.17 Melatonin consumption may also improve sleep duration.18 Proponents of melatonin have suggested that melatonin may be more effective than some slow-release sleep aids.19
Reported side effects of melatonin consumption include:20
- Hormone fluctuations
- Vivid dreams
- Reduced blood flow
In addition, some people have reported falling asleep quickly and then waking up half way through the night.21
Because melatonin is classified as a dietary supplement, it’s not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Melatonin should only be taken as a temporary supplement. Some studies have found that short-term use—three months or less—is safe for most people.22
It used to be thought that warm milk can improve a person’s ability to fall asleep.23 The sleep-inducing effect was usually attributed to an ingredient called tryptophan, which was purportedly responsible for the sleep-improving qualities of milk.24 Unfortunately, the amount of milk contained in tryptophan is so small that it’s not capable of inducing sleep.25 A person would have to consume a few hundred gallons of milk for before tryptophan could induce sleep.26
Tryptophan itself is a somewhat controversial health topic. Some people taking tryptophan developed symptoms of the disease called scleroderma.27 Scleroderma is a chronic autoimmune disease characterized by a hardening of the skin or other organs.28 Some people even died. Scientists later concluded the deaths were caused by tryptophan consumption.29 In 1991, most kinds of tryptophan were banned in the United States.30 Today, tryptophan is still being explored as a natural sleep aid by major sleep laboratories.31
Another popular sleep aid is valerian or valerian root.32 Valerian may be an effective sleep aid if consumed shortly before bedtime.33 It is purported most effective as a sleep aid for people who have trouble falling asleep and those who suffer from poor sleep quality.34 Some studies have shown that valerian may provide quick relief for some, and for others, it may take 2 to 4 weeks of daily use before improved sleep patterns occur.35
The reported side effects of valerian have included:
- Mild headache
- Upset stomach
- Abnormal heartbeats
Valerian should not be consumed when you need to be alert (e.g., driving). It shouldn’t be consumed with calming medicines or antidepressants because of its calming effects.
Because natural products and dietary supplements are not regulated by the FDA, educate yourself about sleep herbs before you purchase them. As with any meditation or supplement, there are often known issues when ingesting more than one supplement or medication. Be sure to educate yourself about the possible side effects or drug interaction problems before ingesting something new to your system. For optimum results, consult with a physician before adding a natural sleep aid to your bedtime regimen.