Natural Sleep Aids: What Is Sleep?
Sleep is more than just “down-time” from our daily routines. Rather than being unproductive, the time that we spend sleeping – roughly one third of our lives – is essential to our physical, mental and emotional health.
Although we look inactive and insensible as we sleep, our brain and bodies are actually very busy. The body is a heightened anabolic state as it sleeps – promoting tissue growth and the rejuvenation of organs, muscle, bones, the nervous system and the immune system. The blood supply to the muscles and the skin increases, to aid the healing of cuts and injuries. Several important hormones are released into the bloodstream when the body sleeps – such as growth hormone in children and young adults, and some hormones that regulate appetite. All land mammals need sleep, although many sleep during the day and wake at night. Birds and many reptiles, amphibians and fish are also known to sleep.
The human brain is also thought to organize the mind as we sleep, consolidating the day’s experiences into longer-term memories and creating new connections in the electro-chemical networks of the brain that represent what we have learned. Sleeping is also the only time that the brain can truly dream – and while the mechanisms and significance of dreaming are uncertain, many researchers think dreams are evidence of important psychological processes that take place as we sleep.
Natural Sleep Aids: Stages Of Sleep
Each period of sleep involves several stages. The earliest stages are termed “non-rapid eye movement” sleep, or NREM, which involves very little dreaming. Stage 1 NREM sleep, known as N1, is the time where we “drift off” and lose most sense of our surroundings. N2 is when we lose all awareness of our surroundings and the muscles relax – this stage accounts for about half of all our sleeping time. N3 sleep is “deep sleep,” when it can be hard to awaken a sleeper – and if they do wake up they feel groggy. It’s thought that the N3 stage is when most of the physiological changes that occur during sleep are taking place.
The fourth stage of sleep is called “rapid eye movement” sleep, or REM – named for the quick movements made by the eyes beneath the eyelids. This is the stage when most dreaming takes place, and accounts for about a quarter of sleep time in human adults – but up to 80 percent of the sleep of newborn babies. During this stage the body shuts down the muscles – a sort of temporary paralysis thought to prevent a sleeper from injuring themselves by physically acting out their dreams. REM sleep is thought to be an important stage for the psychological relief of stress and anxiety, the consolidation of memories acquired during waking hours, and for the development of the brain in children.
Throughout a night of sleeping, we usually cycle through the different stages of NREM and REM sleep several times. Normally there is more REM sleep in the hours before we wake up.
Natural Sleep Aids: How Much Sleep Is Enough?
Most adults seem to do best with seven or eight hours sleep a night, but children and young teenagers may need nine hours or more a night. But too much sleep is not always better. Studies have found that adults who sleep more than 10 hours a night are more likely to be overweight and suffer from heart problems. As people get older they tend to sleep less, and may suffer from insomnia more easily as their sleep patterns change. Elderly people are also more likely to suffer from medical conditions that can disturb their sleep, and are more likely to be using prescription medicines.
Natural Sleep Aids: What Is Insomnia ?
Insomnia, or sleeplessness, is characterized as having persistent difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep. “Poor quality” sleep is also a type of insomnia. Insomnia is often followed by impaired thinking and performance during waking hours – such as a feeling of having “no energy,” or becoming easily fatigued or distressed during the day. Insomnia can also badly affect your mood, cause anxiety, and can have a serious effect on your physical health. It is estimated that up to one in five adults suffer from some type of insomnia at some point during their lives. Often it is just a temporary condition lasting a few days. Physicians classify insomnia as “acute” if it lasts more than a week, and as “chronic” if it lasts more than a month.
Natural Sleep Aids: Causes Of Insomnia
Several medical conditions can cause insomnia directly, such as the disturbances in breathing during sleep known as “sleep apnea.” But many common types of insomnia are a symptom of other problems. The known causes of insomnia include: stress, anxiety, and depression; medical conditions such as hyperthyroidism and arthritis; several prescription medicines; hormone imbalances in the body; and a poor sleeping environment with too much noise or light. Aspects of lifestyle can also cause insomnia, such as: changes in your home environment or work schedule; eating too much or exercising before sleeping; or drinking too much caffeine in coffee and tea during the day.
Natural Sleep Aids: Health Risks From Insomnia
One of the most significant health risks from insomnia is the effect on the body’s immune system. Studies have shown that people who don’t get enough sleep are more likely to catch viral and bacterial infections, such as influenza and the common cold. Lack of sleep also affects how fast your body heals if you do get sick. Insomnia can reduce your ability to cope with daily stresses and anxiety, and people who suffer from chronic insomnia are more likely to suffer serious psychiatric problems, including depression and other major mood disorders. People who don’t get enough sleep are also more likely to be involved in car crashes and accidents in the home and workplace.
Natural Sleep Aids: Treatments for Insomnia
Sleeplessness can be a serious problem, and doctors may suggest a prescription sleep aid in serious cases of insomnia. These are usually taken in the form of “sleeping pills” but some are available as liquids. Because insomnia is often only a symptom of some underlying condition, most doctors will first try to diagnose and treat the causes of insomnia, rather than just treat the symptom itself. In many cases this may require no prescription sleep aid at all.
There are many different types of prescription sleep aids, and different sleep aids can have different side-effects. Modern sleeping pills have far fewer risks than the sleeping pills of the past, but still some risks remain, including the serious risks of dependency and overdose. Depending on the medication, the side effects can also include headaches and muscle aches, dry mouth, constipation, dizziness, drowsiness in the daytime, and difficulty concentrating. To reduce such risks doctors usually prescribe sleep medications for just a few days, and seldom for more than two weeks. Often just a short course of a prescription sleep aid can help restore normal sleeping patterns.
Natural Sleep Aids: Non Prescription Sleep Aids
Several brands of non-prescription sleep aid are available over-the-counter (OTC) from drugstores and pharmacies. Most contain antihistamines, which are usually taken to relieve allergic symptoms such as hay fever, but may also have a sedative effect. However, OTC sleep aids containing antihistamines can also cause significant side-effects, including dizziness, blurred vision, dry mouth, and severe drowsiness during the day. Non-prescription sleep aids are intended only to help in cases of short-term insomnia, and many sleep researchers question their effectiveness and their long-term safety. It is advisable to check with a doctor before taking any over-the-counter sleep aid, and especially if you are also taking any prescription medicines.
Natural sleep Aids: What Is The Best Natural Sleep Aid?
Because of the many different causes of insomnia and poor sleep there really can be no “best sleep aid” that will work best for everybody. The effective treatment of insomnia often depends on the relief of the underlying causes, not the symptom of sleeplessness – and so the best sleep aids will be those that relieve the causes of insomnia without exposing you to undue risk of side-effects. Fortunately most common sleep problems can be treated easily and without medication. Often only behavioral changes are enough, such as taking steps to reduce your levels of stress and anxiety, cutting your daily intake of caffeine, changing your sleeping environment, or establishing a regular sleeping schedule.
Natural Sleep Aids: All Natural Sleep Aids
All natural sleep aids use one or more of naturally-occurring substances that are thought to promote sleep directly, or to relieve some of the common causes of insomnia. Some are based on substances identified by scientific research, while others are herbal sleep aids based on ancient medical traditions. Depending on how they work, all natural sleep aids offer to improve the quality of sleep without any undue risk of serious side-effects. However, just because a product claims to be “natural” does not mean it is always safe – and many of the ingredients commonly used in natural sleep aids can have side effects in some people, especially if they are used at high doses or over a very long term. Before taking any all-natural sleep aid, it is important to check what substances it contains and what any potential side-effects may be.
Natural Sleep Aids: Herbal Sleep Aids
Herbal sleep aids contain plant extracts that are thought to aid sleep. Different herbal sleep aids can be expected to have a different effect on different people, depending on the underlying causes of their insomnia. Often it may be necessary to try several herbal sleep aids until you find one that helps. Some common plant extracts used in herbal sleep aids include:
Valerian Root: prepared from the roots of the small white-flowered Valerian plant, a native of Europe and Asia. Valerian root is probably the most well-attested herbal sleep aid. The ancient Greeks used a tea made from Valerian root to promote sleep, and today it is a common ingredient in many capsules sold as natural sleep aids. Scientific studies have established that Valerian root extract contains compounds thought to act on the parts of the brain that help regulate sleep. As with all substances that have an effect on the body, there may be some risks of side effects – while Valerian root is not thought to cause dependencies, some people who take Valerian root can suffer headaches, excitability and drowsiness in the mornings. Herbal sleep aids containing Valerian root can also interact with some prescribed medicines.
Passion Flower: these intricate purple flowers grow on a vine also known as maypop in in North America, a close relative of the South American passionfruit plant. Passion flower extract has been traditionally used to treat insomnia and nervousness, and scientific studies also show it may help improve the quality of sleep. Today, natural sleep aids containing passionflower extract are more common in Europe than in North America. It can be taken in the form of herbal tea, but capsules and even a type of chewing gum containing passion flower are available. In some herbal sleep aids passion flower is combined with other extracts, such as Valerian root
Chamomile: prepared from the flowers of several types of daisy-like plant, the herb Chamomile is a traditional remedy for poor sleep. Chamomile contains an anti-oxidant substance called chrysin which is thought to act as a minor sedative, and to help reduce stress and anxiety. Chrysin is also found in passion flowers and some other flowers. Chamomile tea as a herbal sleep aid is usually taken one to two hours before going to bed, with honey or lemon added to taste. Chamomile extract is also available in capsules, oils, and tinctures, and used as an anti-inflammatory in ointments and creams for use on the skin. However, some people can have an allergic reaction to chamomile. The symptoms can include skin rashes, dizziness and difficulty breathing.
Kava: a small leafy plant found in many Pacific Islands, where it is used to make a mildly-intoxicating drink that plays a traditional role in many social and spiritual ceremonies. Herbalists may use kava extract to treat anxiety, and so it may be helpful in relieving insomnia caused by anxiety or stress. However, authorities in the United States have issued a warning about the risk of severe liver injuries resulting from the use of herbal supplements that contain kava, and in some countries it is restricted or prohibited
Ashwagandha: a herb from the nightshade family commonly used in traditional Ayurvedic medicine. In India and Sri Lanka it is used in a variety of traditional medicines, and is thought to help the body deal with stress. Few clinical studies have been carried out to test its effectiveness, but tests on rodents suggest it may reduce stress associated with neurological disorders, which may help relieve stress-related insomnia. Some clinical trials have found that normal treatments with ashwagadha do not usually cause significant side effects However, ashwagadha is toxic in very large doses and can cause liver failure.
Hops: the bitter-tasting hops flowers used to flavor beer are also a traditional remedy to promote sleep. Hops as a herbal sleep aid can be taken as tea in the evenings,or as capsules and tablets. Hops extract is also a common ingredient of natural sleep aids that contain other substances, such as melatonin and 5HTP. Traditionally a sachet of hops flowers would be sewn inside a pillow to aid sleep, and this method is in use today.
Lemon Balm: a small plant related to mint, lemon balm was an important medicinal herb for the ancient Greeks, and in Middle Age Europe it was used as a remedy for everything from infections to baldness. Some studies indicate Lemon balm ingested as a tea or extract can act as a mild sedative, among its many other properties, and so may be effective at reducing stress. Lemon balm is thought to act on parts of the brain that help regulate sleep, in a manner similar to Valerian root.
Catnip: another member of the mint family, catnip acts as a stimulant for cats but has a calming effect on people. Like hops, a sachet of catnip can be sewn inside a pillow to promote sleep, or it can be taken as herbal tea shortly before going to bed. Catnip extract is a common ingredient in natural sleep aids containing other substances, such as Valerian root. It is also widely used in used in herbal remedies for treating colds, indigestion, toothaches and fevers.
Natural Sleep Aids: Non Herbal Natural Sleep Aids
Some common non-herbal ingredients used natural sleep aids include:
Melatonin: an important sleep-regulating compound produced by the pineal gland of the brain. It is also found in small amounts in some foods, and is available as a supplement. Melatonin is one of the most common natural sleep aids available in the United States, where it is often promoted as remedy for jet-lag, but several European countries prohibit the use of melatonin in over-the-counter sleep aids. Melatonin is thought to help regulate the cycle of sleeping and waking – melatonin levels in the body rise in the afternoons and evenings, stay high for most of the night, and drop in the early morning. The presence of light affects the body’s production of melatonin, and so supplements of melatonin as a natural sleep aid may be useful for people who work at night and have to sleep during the day. In general the short-term use melatonin has shown only minor side effects, such as reports by some people of headaches, nausea, and grogginess or irritability after waking.
Tryptophan: an amino acid found in many foods, and used by the body to produce melatonin. Tryptophan is required for the production of the hormone serotonin, which plays a critical role in many vital brain processes, including the regulation of moods and the onset of sleep. Damage to certain parts of the brain where serotonin is produced can cause total insomnia – a debilitating condition. Tryptophan is a popular ingredient in many natural sleep aids, and it is also plentiful in milk, sesame seeds, chocolate, red meat, eggs, fish and poultry such as turkey and chicken. However, several sleep researchers say the levels of tryptophan in the brain are unlikely to be much affected by tryptophan ingested as food.
5-hydroxytryptophan: known as 5-HTP, it is an intermediate stage in the synthesis of melatonin from tryptophan. It is the most common form of tryptophan used in natural sleep aids, and unlike melatonin it is widely as an available in OTC sleep aids in the UK and other parts of Europe. As well as being used by the body to make melatonin, 5-HTP is though to aid the production of serotonin directly and so its is also used in remedies for depression and anxiety. 5-HTP is sometimes used as an ingredient in herbal sleep aids, because the compound is found in the seeds of an African shrub, griffonia simplicifolia.
Magnesium and Calcium: several studies have linked deficiencies of these minerals to sleep disturbances. Calcium levels in the body are at their highest during the deepest levels of sleep, including the REM stage, and calcium is involved in the production of melatonin from tryptophan in the brain. Typically a calcium deficiency can cause you to wake up after only a few hours of sleep, and to not be able to get back to sleep. A magnesium deficiency is thought to cause agitated and disrupted sleep. Many natural sleep aids include both calcium and magnesium as ingredients.
Warm Milk: surely the world’s oldest natural sleep aid, the effectiveness of warm milk may result as much from its psychological value as from the many naturally occurring minerals and nutrients it contains. Milk is rich in tryptophan, and also the protein lactium which causes relaxation in infants. Some researchers believe the carbohydrates in milk encourage the production of insulin, which aids in the absorption of tryptophan in the brain.
Natural Sleep Aids: Homeopathic sleep aids
Homeopathic sleep aids claim to work by imitating the underlying symptoms of insomnia in order to induce a response by the body. Homeopathic practitioners may use homeopathic preparations from such herbs as wolfsbane, moonseed or ignatia to treat insomnia. Several over the counter sleep aids are marketed as “homeopathic” sleep aids but these usually have the same ingredients as many other natural and herbal sleep aids, such as melatonin and Valerian root.
Natural Sleep Aids: Sleep Therapies
Since insomnia and poor sleep is often the result of some lifestyle factors, simple changes in lifestyle can often be an effective treatment. Avoid eating a lot of food just before going to bed, and cut down on caffeine intake during the day. Since sleeping involves a natural cycle of sleeping and wakefulness, try as much as possible to sleep and wake according to a regular schedule, instead of staying up and then sleeping late. “Sleep hygiene” is also important – the sleeping area should be as comfortable as possible, and as free as possible from excessive light and noise. Exercise during the day can help induce sleep at night – but avoid doing strenuous exercise just before you sleep, which can be counter-productive
Some people find a warm bath before bedtime can help them sleep, possibly because the drop in their body temperature after they leave the water can trigger the onset of sleep. An aromatherapy bath may also be effective: aromatherapy oils such as lavender, chamomile and ylang ylang are said to promote sleep. Yoga practitioners say certain exercises benefit sleep by generally relaxing the body and stimulating the brain to produce sleep regulating hormones. Many people have found that relaxation techniques such as meditation and progressive muscle relaxation can also help ready the mind and the body for sleep.
Some people find that slow, gentle music can help them fall asleep – especially instrumental music, since the sound of even quiet voices can help keep many people awake. Some scientific studies have found that people reported sleeping for longer, and woke feeling more refreshed, after falling asleep to music. Recordings of gentle music and natural sounds like ocean waves, rainfall and even whale songs are available as specialized “soundtracks” for sleeping.