By Dr. Alex Dimitriu, February 21, 2019
We all have occasional trouble sleeping. Stress, anxiety, a change in routine, something we ate, …any number of things might be responsible for a night of restless tossing and turning. For most of us, bouts of insomnia are of short duration. But for many millions of people, sleepless nights are a regular occurrence, as are the daytime sleepiness, irritability, impaired job performance, accidents, and health risks that follow. In search of a good night’s sleep, many are tempted by the quick fix of sleeping pills but while they can be effective in the short term, they don’t offer a long-term solution.
Sleeping pills come with troublesome side effects and most people quickly build up a tolerance to them and must take higher and higher doses to achieve the same effect. No wonder many ask if natural, herb-based sleep remedies might be a better choice. They may be but your first order of business should be to develop better sleep habits and make lifestyle changes that are conducive to better sleep. If you still feel you need help, a natural sleep remedy might be useful, particularly in helping you relax at bedtime. Here are some suggestions that will help you achieve restful sleep.
Improve Your Sleep Hygiene
Create a quiet, calming bedroom, keeping it cooler than during the day. Reduce or eliminate stimulants such as caffeine and nicotine during the day and alcohol in the evening. Don’t eat a heavy meal or drink a lot of liquid close to bedtime. Avoid naps, or limit them to 30 minutes, and don’t nap after 3:00 pm. Stick to a sleep schedule, going to bed and waking at the same time each day, including weekends. Don’t use a computer, tablet or smartphone right before going to bed!
Make Lifestyle Changes
Physical activity is essential to getting a good night’s sleep but don’t exercise within a couple of hours of bedtime. Get as much natural light as possible during the day to keep your circadian rhythm in balance. Try activities that encourage relaxation like yoga and meditation. A glass of warm milk and a warm bath are time-tested bedtime relaxation aids.
Natural Sleep Remedies
A natural sleep remedy isn’t a substitute for good sleep habits but can be a useful additional item in your toolkit. Keep in mind that “natural” doesn’t necessarily mean healthy and supplements are not regulated as to their safety, effectiveness, or proper dosage. Always ask your doctor if a supplement is right for you and at what dosage. Here are some of the more common remedies that might be helpful:
Melatonin is the naturally-produced hormone that regulates the sleep-wake cycle. Its levels are highest when exposure to light decreases at night. When taken as a supplement three hours before bedtime, it boosts melatonin levels that are low due to aging, shift work, jet lag, or other sleep-cycle disruptions and can improve time to fall asleep and duration of sleep. Melatonin is generally considered safe for short-term use. I have observed people’s sleep improve but also have marked next day sedation, especially at 3mg. Most studies point to 300micrograms (1/10 the typical over the counter dose) as a good starting point. You can always go higher if needed.
Chamomile tea is an age-old relaxation aid. Studies haven’t proven its effectiveness for insomnia but It appears to act as a mild sedative, calming the nerves, relaxing the muscles, and reducing anxiety.
Valerian root, like chamomile, has been used for centuries to promote relaxation and reduce anxiety. It can be brewed as a tea or taken as a supplement. Studies on its effectiveness for insomnia have been inconsistent but there is some support for valerian’s ability to help you fall asleep more quickly and sleep more soundly. It is safe for short-term use.
Lavender’s purple flowers have a soothing fragrance that is believed to help sleep. Scent is known to have a strong effect on mood and in some studies, simply sniffing lavender oil for thirty minutes before bed seemed to improve sleep. Lavender’s use in aromatherapy is safe and may help sleep but lavender supplements have caused side effects and are not recommended.
Restorative sleep is as important to your health as healthy nutrition and regular exercise. The best way to achieve it is by developing habits that promote a restful night. Remember that there is little conclusive evidence about the safety and effectiveness of natural sleep remedies and most can be recommended only for short-term use. Proceed with caution: Do some research and take a supplement only with the approval of your doctor.
Alex Dimitriu, MD, is founder of Menlo Park Psychiatry & Sleep Medicine in Menlo Park, CA. He is dual board-certified in psychiatry and sleep medicine.