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Natural Sleep Aids

IMAGE Maybe you have just crossed a few time zones, or you work the night shift, or you are just stressed out and it's interfering with your sleep. A natural remedy may help you get some restful sleep.
In some cases, insomnia may be a sign of an underlying illness. Talk with your doctor about this possibility. However, if there does not appear to be a condition that interferes with your ability to snooze, some of these natural options may help you get quality sleep.

Valerian

For centuries, people have turned to the herb valerian to help them sleep. The particular plant species that is used to counter insomnia is Valeriana officinalis. Like other orally administered sleep aids, valerian is recommended for occasional insomnia only. Though it is unclear exactly how valerian works, some research suggests that, like sleeping pills, valerian affects the neurotransmitter GABA. The evidence is mixed if valerian actually aids in sleep.
The FDA categorizes valerian as GRAS—generally recognized as safe. A few people experience mild gastrointestinal distress when taking valerian, and there have been rare reports of people developing a paradoxical mild stimulant effect from valerian. Valerian does not appear to impair driving ability or produce morning drowsiness when it is taken at night, though it is recommended that you do not drive immediately after taking valerian. There have been some reports, however, of dangerous side effects from products containing valerian in combination with other potentially toxic herbs or medications, like benzodiazepines.

How to Use It

For insomnia, the standard dosage of valerian is 2 g to 3 g of dried herb, 270 mg to 450 mg of an aqueous valerian extract, or 600 mg of an alcohol-based extract, taken 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime. If you are interested in valerian, be sure to inform your doctor before taking it.
Note: Do not take valerian root if you are taking drugs like benzodiazepines that sedate you. Consult your physician for advice.

Melatonin

Our bodies use the hormone melatonin to help regulate our sleep-wake cycles. When exposure to light decreases, the pineal gland (located in the brain) makes serotonin and then converts it to melatonin. Taking supplemental melatonin seems to stimulate sleep when the natural cycle is disturbed. Although several studies have supported the use of supplemental melatonin to treat insomnia, there are also many studies that have found this supplement to have no effect.
Reasonably good evidence tells us that melatonin can help people with jet lag or other similar sleep disturbances adjust to a new schedule, although there have been negative studies as well. Melatonin may also be helpful for many other forms of insomnia, although the evidence isn't entirely consistent.
Melatonin may also be beneficial for people who have difficulties falling asleep until early morning, a condition called delayed sleep phase syndrome (DSPS). In addition, individuals trying to quit using sleeping pills in the benzodiazepine family may find melatonin helpful.

How to Use It

Melatonin is usually taken 30-60 minutes before bedtime. The best dose of melatonin is probably between 1 mg and 5 mg. Ask your doctor what a safe dosage is for you.
Note: The long-term safety of melatonin usage has not been established. Do not give your child melatonin except under physician supervision.

Acupuncture

Acupuncture involves the insertion of tiny needles into specific points on the body. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the balanced flow of a “vital force” called qi (pronounced "chee") maintains the health of body and mind. In TCM, insomnia is thought to result from an imbalance of this qi, and acupuncture is believed to restore this balance—thereby improving sleep. It is unclear exactly how this therapy could help induce sleep. One theory is that acupuncture causes the release of chemicals in the central nervous system that promote calmness and sleep.

Acupressure

Acupressure stimulates the same healing points used in acupuncture, but does so with manual pressure, rather than needles. Proponents of acupressure feel that it can help relieve tension and many common stress-related ailments, including insomnia.

Mind-Body Therapies

There is good evidence that mental and/or physiologic arousal causes insomnia. Therapies that aim to relax the body and the mind have shown some success in helping people get to sleep. These therapies include:
  • Progressive relaxation—This is the tensing and relaxing of various voluntary muscle groups throughout your body in an orderly sequence. The theory is that when you are emotionally tense, you unconsciously clench or tighten your muscles. Progressively relaxing your muscles releases both the physical and mental tension.
  • Meditation—Meditation is the focusing of your mind continuously on one thought, word (mantra), object, or mental image for a period of time. It can also involve focusing on your breathing or on sensations in your body. The goal of meditation is to quiet your mind.
  • Hypnosis—This is a state of inner absorption, concentration, and focused attention. The unconscious mind is allowed to take over, and positive imagery and suggestions are used to help improve mental and physical health.
  • Yoga—Yoga is a practice that includes physical exercises, postures, balancing, breathing techniques, and meditation.

Lifestyle Habits

There are a few things you can change in your lifestyle to promote good sleep. For example:
  • Begin a safe exercise program with the advice of your doctor.
  • If you smoke, quit.
  • Cut down on alcohol and caffeine.
  • Go to bed and get up at the same time each day.

RESOURCES

National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine http://nccam.nih.gov/

National Sleep Foundation http://www.sleepfoundation.org/

CANADIAN RESOURCES

The Canadian Sleep Society http://www.css.to/

Better Sleep Council Canada http://www.bettersleep.ca

References

Acupressure. EBSCO Natural and Alternative Treatments website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/healthLibrary/. Updated August 2012. Accessed September 4, 2012.

Acupuncture. EBSCO Natural and Alternative Treatments website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/healthLibrary/. Updated August 2012. Accessed September 4, 2012.

Gooneratne NS. Complementary and alternative medicine for sleep disturbances in older adults. Clin Geriatr Med. 2008;24:121-138, viii. Review.

Insomnia. EBSCO Natural and Alternative Treatments website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/healthLibrary/. Updated July 2012. Accessed September 4, 2012.

Insomnia. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated July 9, 2012. Accessed September 4, 2012.

Melatonin. EBSCO Natural and Alternative Treatments website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/healthLibrary/. Updated July 2012. Accessed September 4, 2012.

Relaxation Therapies. EBSCO Natural and Alternative Treatments website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/healthLibrary/. Updated July 2012. Accessed September 4, 2012.

Valerian. EBSCO Natural and Alternative Treatments website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/healthLibrary/. Updated May 2008. Accessed July 29, 2008.

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