More and more of my patients are complaining about their sleep. Falling asleep, staying asleep and length of sleep are all common complaints. Some patients have been offered sleeping medication by their physicians without any consideration for what they can do help themselves.
Although there are many sleep myths, there are two myths related to sleeping medication that I want to discuss.
Myth: Sleeping pills have many benefits despite their side effects (one of which is a good chance of dying.)
Fact: They are really not that effective, and they have a lot of negative side effects.
Sleeping pills generally only increase the amount of time you sleep by a matter of minutes. If you have ever taken one, you know that far from waking up refreshed, sleeping pills can impair your functioning the next day, making you even less alert and more disoriented than you would have been from just being tired.
Sleeping pills have also been shown to have strange side effects that include waking hallucinations, sleepwalking, sleep driving, sleep eating, amnesia, and depression. Perhaps it is the body’s way of reproducing the lost REM sleep? The most important thing when it comes to sleeping pills is that they do not address the underlying problem.
Myth: Unless I want to take a prescribed sleeping pill, there is nothing I can do to improve my sleep.
Fact: There are many natural things that can help you get to sleep, enhance REM sleep, and stay asleep.
- 5-Hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) has been shown to extend the REM phase significantly. It also increases the deep sleep stages of non-REM sleep. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Stanford University conducted a clinical study on REM sleep. They found those people who took 5-HTP increased the amount of REM sleep they enjoyed at night by as much as 53%.
- The sleep hormone melatonin, which is made from serotonin, the neurotransmitter known as the happy hormone enhances sleep. Serotonin comes from the amino acid tryptophan. You can only get tryptophan from foods like cottage cheese, brown rice, avocados, bananas, walnuts, tomatoes, meat, turkey (highest tryptophan food) and starchy carbohydrates (bread, pasta, carrots and potatoes). But you can supplement with Melatonin or you can drink tart cherry juice, which is naturally loaded with it. Studies have shown, that people who drink two glasses of tart cherry juice per day see as much as a 90 minute increase in their daily sleep.
- In addition to tryptophan, we also need Vitamin B6 to produce serotonin. B6 can raise serotonin production even more when you take 5-HTP and vitamin B6 together. In fact, laboratory research shows taking vitamin B6 can increase serotonin production by as much as 60%.12 Many older adults suffer unknowingly from a deficiency of this crucial vitamin.
- Gamma-aminobutryric Acid (GABA) GABA has a calming and relaxing effect and helps you get to sleep because it suppresses excessive brain activity. It puts the brain into neutral gear and helps put a stop to racing thoughts and anxiety that makes it impossible to fall asleep. When you’re short on GABA, your thoughts and worries run amok like a hamster in a wheel. Other research shows a GABA deficiency interferes with the deep “delta” sleep that usually begins within 45 minutes after bedtime. Finally GABA promotes alpha waves in the brain, which occur when you’re feeling relaxed.
- As is often the case, we have to get these supplements across the blood brain barrier and the best way to do that is with an amino acid. In this case taurine, which increases your body’s GABA levels and is an excellent stress buster on its own, works well. A recent study in the Journal of Neuroscience found taurine increases the number of GABA receptors in the brain. They also found taurine calms neurons, or brain cells,15 helping you feel more relaxed.
- To stay asleep, especially if you’re feeling stressed or anxious, you’ll want to take L-theanine, Niacinamide and Passion flower extract. L-theanine has an amazing power to soothe and quiet your brain because it raises levels of serotonin and GABA. Niacinamide, better known as vitamin B3, can also help you relax, sleep better, and lower the anxiety caused by stress. Passion flower extract is particularly helpful for coping with the hormonal changes that can keep you awake, in particular rising cortisol levels. Cortisol is the stress hormone, or the flight or fight hormone.
- Magnesium is absolutely essential for a good nights sleep as it can stop body aches or wayward leg
syndrome from waking you up at night. I recommend Magnesium L Threonate.
This combination of nutrients, can help you fall asleep more quickly, wake up less often during the night, and sleep more deeply. The product I use is Advanced Sleep Formula by Advanced Bionutritionals as it combines all of these in a way that maximizes sleep.
Sleep Soundly and Feel Sensational!
Good sleep hygiene is absolutely essential for good health, and there are many things you can do to insure a good night’s sleep. If you have trouble falling asleep in general try these approaches:
- Sleep in a completely dark room. Use black out curtains or an eye mask if necessary to create complete darkness.
- Keep the room cool and the bed warm. You can always take the blankets off if you get too warm, but a warm room is more difficult change without waking up. Try to get fresh air in your bedroom at night.
- Keep your bedroom free of clutter, you will sleep better in an organized room
- Cover electronic sources of light.
- Use a noise machine or a fan to create white noise which is soothing and which blocks out other noises
If you can’t sleep because you are anxious:
- Make a list of the things that you are worrying about getting done. This helps you organize the next day and you can let it go
- Journal using pen and paper not a laptop. Journaling also helps you to let go by clarifying your thoughts and feelings about your day. Once you have it sorted out emotionally you can put it to rest when you close your journal.
- Turn off the TV and read a book an hour or so before you want to fall asleep unless you are reading something that you cannot put down. Most people get sleepy when they read but not everyone does. If you are one of those people that can read a good book all night, then don’t start.
- Count your blessings or say a prayer.
- Use tension/relaxation to relax muscle groups. Tense the muscle, hold for 10 seconds and then relax. Do it ten times for each muscle group to really relieve muscle tension
- Use melatonin, vitamin B or magnesium L threonate.
- Use homeopathic remedies that are relaxing or make you sleepy like poppy seed and ashwaganda
- Take an Epsom salts bath before bed
- Get into the habit of taking tart cherry juice concentrate from the Montmorency cherries every night.
Dr. J. Renae Norton is a clinical psychologist, specializing in the outpatient treatment of eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, bulimarexia, and binge eating disorder (BED), as well as obesity. She is also the author of The Sun Plus Diet, due out in summer 2016.
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Medical Advice Disclaimer: The information included on this site is for educational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. The reader should always consult his or her healthcare provider to determine the appropriateness of the information for their own situation or if they have any questions regarding a medical condition or treatment plan. Reading the information on this website does not create a physician-patient relationship. This information is not necessarily the position of Dr. J. Renae Norton or The Norton Center for Eating Disorders and Obesity.
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