“Insomnia? I know a great cure for it... get plenty of sleep”
Do you dread going to bed for fear for fear you won’t sleep? Do you wake in the night only to find that you can’t go back to sleep again? Well, you’re not alone. Over half of the population of both the UK and the United States—where Big Pharma collected $3.7 billion for selling drugs for sleep in 2012 alone—have problems with some form of “sleep disorder.” Many take hypnotic drugs despite the fact that at least two dozen published studies have examined mortality associated with these medications. Eighteen of these report significant connections between using these drugs and increased mortality. Taking sleep inducing drugs is also associated with a greater than three-fold increased risk of death, even when less than 18 pills a year have been taken. Bottom line: Hypnotics ain’t worth the risk. There are better ways of handling insomnia.
There’s no doubt about it, disrupted or poor quality sleep can be dangerous. I learned this myself first hand after taking a flight that crossed twelve time zones. I found— unusually for me—that my body never readjusted to the new time zone, and I was sleeping only an hour or two a night, and at very irregular times. This went on for almost two weeks, at the end of which I was in severe physical pain. I went to see my doctor, also a skilled acupuncturist, concerned that I may have contracted some fairly serious illness. He treated me with acupuncture and sorted out the pain within two treatments, as well as my inability to sleep. He also told me that he had seen this in patients of his who are pilots.
Research studies show that when healthy male volunteers were deprived of four hours of sleep for a single night, the activity of the natural killer cells in their immune system fell by as much as 30 percent. That’s the bad news. The good news is that a single good night’s sleep brought normal functioning back to the cells. It has also long been known that shift workers, whose hours of sleep continually change, have increasing difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep. They also have more accidents, suffer more illness and die younger than people with normal sleep schedules.
Fear of insomnia
Stimulants such as coffee or alcohol
Eating too many high glycemic carbohydrate convenience foods which disturb blood sugar
Low levels of melatonin
Low levels of serotonin
A lot of so-called insomnia is nothing more than the result of worrying about getting to sleep. Many people who consider themselves insomniacs are really victims of the general propaganda about sleep, rather than true non-sleepers. Many people seek treatment because they can only sleep four or five hours a night, although that may be all they need. There is nothing more likely to cause sleeplessness than the worry that you won’t be able to drop off. Sometimes sleeplessness can be normal. After all, we all experience a sleepless night every now and then, particularly if we are over-tired, worried or excited about coming events.
Real chronic insomnia is less frequent. There are many things that can cause it, from taking stimulants such as chocolate, soft drinks, coffee and tea, to not getting enough exercise. Nocturnal hypoglycemia is another major cause of insomnia in many people.
BEWARE OF BOOZE
Alcohol can severely interfere with sleep for a number of reasons. First, it brings about the release of adrenalin giving you a sense of excitement—a totally inappropriate condition for putting your head down on the pillow. It also interferes with the transport of tryptophan into the brain. And since the brain depends on a good supply of tryptophan in order to produce serotonin—the neurotransmitter that brings about sleep—drinking alcohol late in the evening severely disrupts serotonin levels. Alcohol, of course, also has a relaxing effect, which for many people will put them to sleep immediately, provided they have drunk enough of it. Then they find that, two or three hours later, they awake dehydrated and unable to sleep for the rest of the night.
LOOK TO NATURE
For my money, botanical sleep support wins the battle against insomnia better than almost anything else. There are several botanicals I turn to and recommend to others.
Some of the most powerful helpers for insomnia have botanical origins. Many plants, from skullcap (Scutellaria laterifolia) to hops (Humulus lupulus), can be used to help promote sleep. I use them often. Here are some of the most effective.
This gentle but effective sedative is also an antidepressant and a mood stabilizer, and the seeds of the plant offer excellent natural relief for someone living with chronic pain. It appears to work by telling the brain to increase your opiate receptors, which automatically decreases pain and brings relaxation. California Poppy is also non-addictive. But it should not be taken during pregnancy as it might stimulate uterine contractions.
A natural sedative and anti-hypertensive, valerian has been used on both sides of the Atlantic for generations, not only to induce sleep but to help protect people from the negative effects of stress. A double blind study involving 128 people showed quite clearly that a water extract of valerian root significantly increased the quality of sleep. The study, which was quite thorough, measured night awakening, people’s own perceptions of the quality of their sleep, sleeplessness in the morning and sleep latency—that is, how quickly a person got to sleep. In another double blind insomnia study, 20 people were given either a combination of 160mg of valerian root extract and 80mg of Melissa officinalis extract, or menzodiazapine (Triazolam 0.125mg), or a placebo. (Melissa, by the way, belongs to the mint family and also has a powerful anti-viral activity.) Researchers discovered that the valerian-melissa preparation was comparable to the benzodiazepine drug in its ability to increase deep sleep. However, unlike the drug, it did not cause side-effects—diminished concentration, impairment of physical performance or daytime sleepiness. My only problem with valerian is that to me it smells like dirty socks.
From the pepper family, this plant is consumed in liquid by the cultures of Polynesia. It is both an effective sedative and hypnotic. It also acts as a muscle relaxant, anticonvulsant, and anti-depressant. When you take it, it first stimulates then begins to sedate the central nervous system. Small doses can produce a euphoric sense of wellbeing. Larger doses or small doses repeated frequently produce deep relaxation, lethargy and induce sleep. Human studies where kava is given in therapeutic doses have failed to show any toxic effects. Nonetheless, kava should not be used by people who have or have had liver problems, who drink alcohol, or take drugs. Children, pregnant and breastfeeding women are not to take kava either.
This magnificent climbing plant, with its white flowers and extraordinary purple centers, is mildly narcotic and a wonderful sedative for the body. It’s an anti-spasmodic, sedative, hypnotic, hypotensive anti-depressant and nerve relaxant. It is particularly useful if you are someone who tends to suffer from nervous tension as well as insomnia. Not as strong as valerian in its action, it is more calming than sedating, and is therefore a superb alternative to tranquilizer drugs. Passionflower works particularly well for sleep when taken together with 5-HTP as an herb, a tincture, or fluid extract or in dried powered form in capsules. Passionflower was used by the Aztecs as an analgesic and sedative. One of its plant chemicals is called harmine, which has an interesting ability to bring about a contemplative state and a feeling of mild euphoria. It was even used during World War II as a “truth serum”. Harmine and other plant chemicals in passionflower, which work synergistically with it, prevent serotonin levels from falling and therefore works extremely well with 5-HTP against insomnia.
The flowers from this common herb are often used together with other remedies to treat everything from indigestion to edgy nerves. Like valerian, hops have a pronounced sedative effect but it is much milder. You can use hops in the form of a tincture, but it can be particularly useful as a tea for people who awaken in the middle of the night. Prepare it before going to bed by steeping the flowers for 10 minutes in hot water and then straining and allowing to cool. Put the tea, sweetened with a little honey or preferably stevia (if you can get it), by the side of your bed so you can drink it if you awaken during the night. Some people also swear by small pillows stuffed with dried hops blossoms which you put under your neck when you go to bed or if you awaken.
LET GO OF FEAR
Experiment with these wonderful plants. Get to know them. Each has its own personality and its own soul. I have used them all over the years and come to love each one of them for their beauty and their effectiveness. Just as when you meet a new friend, it takes time to experience all their gifts. But you will, and it will be wonderful. Meanwhile, forget worry about sleep. Do what you need to do and then just let it happen. If it doesn’t happen tonight, so what? It will tomorrow night, or the next. Lack of sleep is not likely to kill you, but worrying about it for long enough just might. St. Patrick began each day with a prayer, regardless of how much or little sleep he had, or how he felt when he awakened. It is my favorite celebration of new beginnings and can wipe away worries following a sleepless night:
I arise today
Through the strength of heaven
Light of sun,
Radiance of moon,
Splendour of fire
Speed of lightning
Swiftness of wind.
Depth of sea
Stability of earth,
My favorite herbal company is Gaia Herbs who are fanatical in their methods of gathering and processing each and every product. I buy them from iHerb. Here are some of the Gaia products I especially like:
Gaia Herbs, Kava Kava Root, 60 Vegetarian Liquid Phyto-Caps
Many systems of the body can be negatively affected by stress. That is why achieving a state of calm and relaxation is so important for optimum wellness. Gaia Herbs' Kava Kava is a potent herbal extract which helps support emotional balance. Made from ecologically harvested Kava Kava from Vanuatu, it contains a guaranteed 225 mg of active Kavalactones per serving.
Order Kava Kava Root from iherb
Gaia Herbs, Valerian Root, 60 Vegetarian Liquid Phyto-Caps
Valerian root has long been used to promote deep and restful sleep in those with occasional sleeplessness. Made from Valerian grown on Gaia's own certified organic farm, this extract delivers 1.8 mg of Valerenic acid derivatives per serving. By promoting a sense of calm and relaxation, Valerian Root supports the body in falling asleep naturally.
Order Valerian Root from iherb
Gaia Herbs, Sound Sleep, 60 Vegetarian Liquid Phyto-Caps
Getting a restful night's sleep is essential for optimal health. Sound Sleep is an all herbal formula with botanicals historically recognized to address difficulty with sleep. It works to normalize restlessness, physical tension, and worry sometimes associated with occasional sleeplessness. It may also be used when nervous excitement and/or stress affected normal sleep patterns.
Order Sound Sleep from iherb
Gaia Herbs, Serenity with Passionflower, 60 Veggie Liquid Phyto-Caps
Occasional nervous stress and tension can interfere in the enjoyment of everyday life by disrupting the functioning of body and mind. Serenity provides the support you need to help restore a sense of calm and relaxation your life. Made with certified organic Passionflower and Skullcap, this formula gives your nervous system the nourishment it deserves.
Order Serenity from iherb