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Three’s Good Company
When sleep is problematic, help is available from three natural remedies: L-theanine, melatonin, and 5-HTP. Together, they make a synergistic combination.
- L-THEANINE: An amino acid found in green tea, L-theanine has a calming effect because it reduces levels of the stress hormones cortisol and epinephrine. When taken before bedtime, L-theanine helps you to stay asleep. If you wake up during the night, taking L-theanine can help you get back to sleep.
- MELATONIN: Widely used in the United States for more than 15 years, melatonin is a hormone produced by the pineal gland in the brain. Melatonin initiates sleep, rather than prolonging it as L-theanine does. Darkness triggers melatonin production, and levels of the hormone naturally peak shortly before bedtime. Melatonin also has antioxidant properties. It’s estimated that a healthy person’s body naturally produces about 0.5 milligram of the hormone per day.
- 5-HTP: Our bodies use the amino acid 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) as a building block to make melatonin and the neurotransmitter serotonin. We need adequate levels of 5-HTP to repair muscles from daily wear and tear while we sleep and to avoid aches and pains. In addition to promoting restful sleep and improving mood, 5-HTP has been shown to reduce tension, migraine headaches, panic attacks, and hot flashes. It also helps to keep hormones in balance and acts as an antioxidant. The amino acid should not be combined with serotonin-altering drugs.
If you have trouble sleeping, you have plenty of company. More than one-third of adults in the United States experience occasional sleep problems, and 1 in 10 suffer from chronic insomnia.
Making sure you get enough sleep is essential for optimal health and well-being. While you’re sleeping, your body performs many restorative functions, including detoxifying, repairing cellular damage, and searching out and destroying foreign invaders. A lack of restful sleep causes mood disturbances, impairs mental and physical performance, wears down the immune system, and even speeds up aging.
Try some of the following strategies and lifestyle changes to retrain your body and mind for a good night’s sleep.
1. Curtail Caffeine
This undoubtedly comes as no surprise, but cutting back on or eliminating caffeine is necessary for restful sleep. Caffeine is a common culprit in insomnia. The stimulant delays falling asleep; it can also cause waking in the middle of the night. People vary in their response to caffeine: some can easily metabolize a cup or two of coffee daily, while others are unable to tolerate even the trace amounts in decaffeinated coffee or tea. Many people also find that they become less tolerant of caffeine as they get older. If you drink coffee or tea, limit your intake to one or two cups in the morning to prevent sleep problems. If you’re relying on caffeine for an energy boost, consider drinking green tea. One cup of green tea contains approximately 20 milligrams of caffeine (coffee weighs in at an average of 125 milligrams per cup; black tea at 60). But green tea is unique in that it also contains L-theanine, a compound that promotes feelings of relaxed alertness. It’s also rich in phytochemicals that have numerous health-protective benefits.
2. Establish a Regular Bedtime
A regular sleep schedule isn’t just for kids-creating a set time for going to bed and getting up in the morning helps your body establish a healthful sleep-wake cycle. Although it’s tempting to try to make up for lost sleep by sleeping in, it’s more important to train your body to wake at a consistent time.
This practice helps to reset your biological clock and trains your body to sleep at night. Ideally, go to bed early enough so that you’ll wake naturally in the morning, but if necessary, set an alarm to help you wake up. Turn the clock face to the wall, though, so that you won’t be aware of time during the night. Fretting over time engages the mind and will only make getting to sleep more difficult.
3. Create a Tranquil Sleep Environment
Make your bedroom a tranquil haven by surrounding yourself with soothing colors. Blues, greens, and purples are traditionally thought to be the most calming shades, but recent thinking indicates that any color can be soothing if it’s a soft hue. If you love the color orange, for example, select a peach tint for your bedroom. Decorate with artwork and fabrics that you find restful, and ban televisions and computers from the bedroom.
Make your bed especially inviting with high-quality natural fiber bedding. Finally, clear away all clutter, including stacks of magazines and books. Be sure to clean under your bed too. According to the principles of feng shui, anything stored beneath the bed interferes with the regenerative energy that circulates around your body during the night.
4. Exercise Outdoors Daily
Studies show that exercise is as beneficial as prescription drugs for promoting restful sleep. Consistent, daily exercise is crucial for keeping stress, anxiety, and depression at bay-all of which are prime contributors to sleep problems. Plan for at least 30 minutes of exercise daily, but avoid vigorous exercise within three hours of bedtime or you may find that you’re too energized to sleep. If you exercise outdoors, you’ll benefit from the sun’s effect on harmonizing your body clock. Spending a half hour in the sun every day (particularly in the morning) modulates your body’s production of the hormone melatonin, which regulates sleep cycles.
5. Eat and Drink for Restful Sleep
What you eat and when you eat it has a profound effect on sleep quality. Plan to eat dinner at least three hours prior to bedtime to give your body plenty of time to complete digestion before sleep. You’ll sleep better if your stomach isn’t overly full, and you’ll also prevent nighttime heartburn. A light snack before bed, however, can ward off nocturnal dips in blood sugar that can trigger middle-of-the-night awakenings. Stay away from high-sugar foods, and choose instead a protein-rich snack that includes healthful carbohydrates and fats. For example, a piece of cheese or a handful of almonds with fresh fruit is a perfect bedtime snack.
A glass of wine with dinner is a relaxing ritual, but avoid much more than that. Although alcohol has an initial sedative effect, excessive alcohol stimulates the release of cortisol, which can cause restless sleep and awakening during the night.
6. Create a Relaxing Bedtime Ritual
To prepare your body and mind for restful sleep, engage in a bedtime routine. A nightly ritual signals your body and mind that it’s time to unwind from the day’s activities. Avoid stimulating activities in the hour before bedtime: this includes watching television or working on the computer. One hour before bed, begin preparing for sleep by taking care of nightly tasks: feed the dog, make tomorrow’s lunch, brush your teeth-do whatever you need to do to wind up the day. In the final 20 to 30 minutes before sleep, engage in a calming activity, such as listening to soothing music or reading an enjoyable book. Before long, you’ll find that you look forward to this nurturing ritual.
7. Enhance Sleep with Aromatherapy
Essential oils are a fragrant way to calm the mind and body-research shows that certain essential oils (such as jasmine, lavender, and rose) elicit alpha and theta brain waves, which indicate relaxation. In fact, lavender essential oil has been proven to enhance sleep: a study in the British medical journal The Lancet reported that participants found that the aroma of lavender helped them to fall asleep more quickly and enabled them to sleep longer than when they used prescription sedatives.
To use essential oils for relaxation, make a simple body and room spray by combining 20 drops of essential oil with water in a 4-ounce spray bottle; or soak in a warm bath with 5 to 10 drops of essential oil 1 hour before bedtime.
8. Practice Relaxation Exercises
Deep relaxation exercises-including deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and visualization-can be extremely beneficial for stubborn sleep problems. These simple exercises aid sleep by alleviating muscle tension, lowering stress hormones, calming mental chatter, and relieving anxiety. The easiest way to learn relaxation exercises is with a tape or CD. Practice the exercises when you get into bed at night, and commit to using them daily to retrain your body and mind for restful sleep.
9. Herbal Help for Sleep
Herbs can be helpful for times when sleep is elusive. Unlike prescription or over-the-counter sleep aids, herbal sleep remedies don’t have negative side effects such as addiction, rebound insomnia, or next-day grogginess. Chamomile, lemon balm, valerian, and passionflower are all natural sedatives that can be safely used for encouraging sleep.
For a gentle sleep aid, try a cup of chamomile or lemon balm tea a half hour before bed. If you require a more potent sleep aid, try 1 teaspoon of passionflower or valerian extract diluted in ¼ cup of water 15 minutes before bed.
10. Rx for Difficult Nights
Everyone, at some point, has difficulty sleeping. When all else fails, if you’re having trouble sleeping 15 or 20 minutes after going to bed, don’t lie there and fret. Instead, get up, go into another room, and read or listen to soothing music or a relaxation CD while lying on a comfortable sofa or recliner with a pillow and blanket. The key is to keep the lights dim. Bright light triggers melatonin levels to decrease in your body, signaling that it’s time to wake up. You’ll most likely fall asleep before too long. If not, and you end up having a sleepless night, avoid napping the next day to prevent establishing a cycle of insomnia.
Product Examples (from left)
Irwin Naturals Power to Sleep PM with valerian, melatonin, and GABA, encourages relaxation and replenishes nutrients that help the body cope with stress and sleeplessness
Natural Factors Tranquil Sleep combats insomnia with 5-HTP, melatonin, and L-theanine (the relaxant found in green tea).
Bach Original Flower Essences Rescue Sleep is a fast-acting, non-narcotic homeopathic solution for insomnia.
Natrol 5-HTP TR helps balance serotonin levels to help you cope with stress and promotes restful sleep.