Every night 5% to 10% of us wrestle with problems like this, usually followed by an inability to stay awake and alert the next day. Pharmaceutical options may seem easy, but they also come with side effects and the risk of dependency.
Fortunately humans have been sleeping soundly for thousands of years, long before pharmaceuticals came onto the scene. This means nature offers a wide range of safe and simple strategies to help us achieve sound sleep night after night.
There are two general types: NREM (non-rapid eye-movement) and REM or (rapid-eye-movement) sleep. NREM prevails, especially in the beginning, while precious REM stage sleep increases with each cycle. A full night’s sleep typically stacks four about-ninety minute cycles of increasingly deeper sleep. REM sleep is critical to mental and physical well-being, as it facilitates healing processes and memory consolidation. A complete four-cycle night’s sleep gives us that magic six-to-eight hour envelope research has linked to longer and healthier lives.
Our body clocks are not irreversibly ‘set’ to be “evening people” or “morning people.” In a recent study of 1572 children from 4th to 8th grades, those claiming to be “evening people” simply drank more coffee, had less parental monitoring, had more environmental disturbances, and tended to be older than did self-determined “morning people.”
Sleep is an intrinsic biorhythm, and our bodies secrete biochemicals periodically to stimulate energy and relaxation alternatively. Four decades of sleep research confirms that sleep directly relates to environmental rhythms of light, diet, mood, body temperature, activity, and stress. When light strikes the pineal gland first thing in the morning, it stimulates biochemicals that either orchestrate relaxation (namely melatonin, serotonin, dopamine and GABA), or drive heightened activity and alertness (cortisol, adrenaline, thyroxine and insulin). Melatonin is the central sleep biochemical, while cortisol is pivotal for our active cycles. Melatonin levels rise slowly after nightfall, peaking around midnight, and falling thereafter. As melatonin rises, core temperature drops and metabolism slows. Melatonin levels fall to a low point at about three a.m., just as cortisol levels begin to rise in anticipation of our body’s awakening. During the day, cortisol levels rise and fall through the afternoon and early evening, ushering melatonin’s slow rise after dark. Supporting melatonin’s functions are serotonin, dopamine and GABA—biochemicals that help relax the body and nerves, and help us submerge into the depths of sleep. As these biochemical messengers connect with receptors lying on cell membranes, the cells slow down and cool off.
Melatonin levels slow with age. Reduced melatonin is tied not only to insomnia, but also to a number of degenerative diseases including cancer and arthritis. This means that higher melatonin levels are critical to the body’s well-being. We might conclude that supplemental melatonin is the solution. Not so fast, Sherlock. Recent studies have confirmed that endogenous (produced by the body) melatonin is necessary for falling asleep, but exogenous (supplemental—not produced by the body) melatonin is not much better than placebo—although it can sometimes help in delayed sleep phase syndrome. Indeed, like other non-bioidentical hormone replacement, the long-term safety of exogenous melatonin use remains unclear.
A number of foods stimulate the body to produce these biochemicals, and thus promote sleep. Foods containing the amino acid L-trytophan are used by the body to produce serotonin, a hormone that promotes positive moods and relaxation. Serotonin also happens to convert to melatonin. Foods that contain tryptophan include milk, cheese, whole grains, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, soy foods, cottage cheese, cooked beans, rice, peanuts, hazelnuts, spinach, pumpkin seeds, wheat germ and encourage insulin release by reducing amino acids in the bloodstream competitive to tryptophan. Calcium-containing foods increase conversion of tryptophan to serotonin and melatonin.
Eating tryptophan-rich foods early in the day can dramatically affect sleep quality. In a randomized study of seventeen healthy adults, a lack of dietary tryptophan during the mid-morning caused a drop of 71% serum serotonin at three p.m. and a 44% drop at nine p.m., resulting in falling asleep an average of 26 minutes later, and a 58% increase in waking episodes during the night.
A number of foods also contain phytomelatonin, which increases endogenous melatonin. Montmorency tart cherries have some of the highest levels, along with oats, sweet corn, rice, ginger, tomatoes, bananas and barley.
Nutrients that help maintain proper levels of serotonin and melatonin include B vitamins, calcium and magnesium. A calcium/magnesium supplement prior to bedtime has been known to almost immediately relax the body. Magnesium deficiency, on the other hand, stimulates brain neurons—increasing our tendency to overthink things when we should be sleeping. Magnesium-rich foods include bananas, barley, milk, oats and beans.
Foods and drinks that disturb sleep include refined sugar and carbohydrates, chocolate, coffee, black tea, carbonated drinks, and eating too much too late. Caffeine takes several hours to clear the bloodstream so should not be taken in the evening. Despite alcohol being a central nervous system depressant, it can cause rebound insomnia.
Herbs to Sleep By
A number of well-researched herbs effectively promote sleep. Research has shown that the phytonutrients in these plants work variously to stimulate particular biochemicals and receptors, soothe nerves, cool body temperature, and safely slow metabolism. Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) has been used for thousands of years. Numerous controlled studies have illustrated its effectiveness for many sleep issues. It was included in the U.S. National Formulary as a sleep aid and anxiolytic agent for many years until being bumped by pharmaceuticals. Over 150 active constituents have been identified in valerian. Passiflora (Passiflora incarnate) has been found to elevate mood and decrease anxiety and overthinking. Its relaxant effects have been observed over thousands of years of use, and research has confirmed its ability to increase sleep quality. Hops (Humulus lupulus) has been recognized to relieve tension and anxiety-related sleeplessness. Research has shown subjective sleep quality improvements and quality of life improvements comparable to pharmaceutical benzodiazepines, without their side effects and dependency issues. Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora) has been used traditionally as an antispasmodic, sedative and anticonvulsant. Its leaves and blue flowers also stimulate a cooling of the body.
A number of other herbs support sleep by relaxing the body and nerves, and reducing pain and inflammation. These include wild lettuce (Lacuca virosa), known traditionally for its mild sedative, antispasmodic, bitter and stomachic effects. Asafoetida (Ferula asafetida L.) has also been used traditionally for its antispasmodic, carminative, nervine, and sedative properties. California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) contains natural alkaloids known for muscle relaxing and pain relief. Poppy seeds from Papaver somniferum contain small amounts of the alkaloids codeine and morphine but not enough to influence dependency or other effects known from restricted extracts. Poppy seeds provide sedative, hypnotic and anodyne effects, used frequently in traditional herbology as a tincture. Lavender (L. angustifolia or L. officinalis) is well known for its sedative effects in tinctures, infusions and aromatherapy applications. Kava (Piper methysticum) has been used traditionally for its sedative, psychotropic and nervine effects. The raw powder (mixed with water, by tincture or capsule) relaxes and calms muscles, soothes tensions, and improves moods. Wild oats (Avena fatua) has been used traditionally as a nervine, tonic, sedative and demulcent to strengthen and soothe nervous exhaustion insomnia. Catnip (Nepeta cateria) has been used traditionally for its antispasmodic, sedative, diaphoretic and cooling properties, to relax muscles and slow metabolism. Sage (Salvia officinalis) contains volatile oils known for their cooling effects upon the body.
These can be taken as tinctures, hot teas, tablets or capsules. Combinations of three to five are recommended—with at least two of the first group above—as they tend to synergize each other in the right combinations. A number of herbalist-formulated combinations of these can be found in health food shops.
Our body’s sleep patterns can be adjusted naturally through light therapy. The easiest form of light therapy is to stand, sit or walk in direct sunlight early in the day—preferably just after sunrise—for 10-15 minutes each day for a few weeks. This resets the pineal-driven body clock, and alters our cortisol and melatonin cycles, helping us become sleepier earlier in the evening.
Another form of light therapy is rotational therapy. This is done by going to sleep later and later on progressive days until we cycle into the next evening. Sleep researchers typically recommend falling asleep three hours later each day to accomplish this. This effectively rotates the body clock forward a few hours a day until we reach our desired bedtime. This can be exhausting and difficult to do without being on a week’s vacation.
Other Sleep Strategies
Sleep research has revealed a number of simple lifestyle changes to increase our sleep quality. Vigorous daytime exercise tend