You know that getting a good night’s sleep is theoretically important, but managing a solid eight hours still might not be your first priority.
According to research, skimping on sleep is pretty bad for your health. Chronic sleep deprivation can lead to all kinds of trouble, from memory issues to heart disease. Chronic sleep deprivation also increases the risk of obesity by messing with the hormones that regulate hunger while also increasing appetite.
Steps to a Good Night’s Sleep
Developing good sleep habits is the first thing to work on before starting a sleep aid or supplement. Learning about and practicing good sleep hygiene can often solve many sleep problems without the need for sleeping aids or supplements.
Good sleep habits include:
- Getting up at the same time each day
- Keeping the bedroom temperature between 65 and 68 degrees F.
- Getting exposure to sunlight early in the day (outdoor exercise in the morning is ideal)
- Maintaining a clean bedroom, and only using your bed for sleep or sex
- Avoid using electronics at least 30 minutes before going to sleep
- Avoid eating a large or heavy meal two or three hours before bed
Natural Sleep Supplements
If good sleep hygiene is not sufficient for getting quality, restful sleep, and your doctor has ruled out any medical conditions that might be disturbing your sleep, you should consider a sleep aid or supplement. Sleep supplements produced from organic, high quality ingredients have been shown to be beneficial for many people. It is a good idea to consult with your health care provider before starting a sleep supplement.
Kava Kava: Nature’s Valium
Kava kava is a root native to the South Pacific islands and has been used as a sleep aid—as well as for general de-stressing and relaxation—for thousands of years. Kava kava has been shown to reduce anxiety, stress, and insomnia while boosting the immune system.
How Kava Kava Works
Kava is known as “nature’s Valium” because of its ability to produce feelings of mental and physical relaxation without impairing mental clarity. It is also a mood enhancer—again without impairment of mental clarity. This combination of stress and anxiety reduction along with a sensation of physical and emotional relaxation is most likely the reason why people find it helpful as a sleep supplement.
The key to kava’s effectiveness lies in the kavalactones concentrated in the root of the plant. These phytochemicals—18 in all—each have a slightly different physiological effect on the body but work synergistically to produce the calming, uplifting effects of the final product. Kavalactones are released into water as the root pulp or powder is squeezed and manipulated during the extraction process.
How to Use Kava Kava
Traditionally, the tough kava kava root was chewed and spat out by female virgins before the pulp was soaked in water and the resulting tea was strained to create a beverage used in religious, medical, and social settings. Today, the kava root is usually mechanically ground, steeped in water, and a juice press aids in extracting the resulting liquid. Kava root can also be ground, dried, and powdered before being mixed with water and drunk.
Most people equate the taste of kava beverage to mud. If you don’t fancy the idea of drinking something that tastes like mud, kava kava concentrate in capsule form is the perfect way to get all the benefits with none of the inconvenience.
The recommended dosage of kava kava beverage as a sleeping aid is about six to eight ounces 30 minutes before bedtime. If you are taking a kava kava supplement, follow the recommended dosage amounts on the package. Kavalactones act slightly differently on each person’s physiology, so experiment a little with it as you become accustomed to how you react.
Do not consume kava kava with prescription anti-depressants or alcohol. Toxicity can result from mixing kava use with other drugs or alcohol, from supplements that use parts of the kava kava plant other than the root, or supplements that add inferior ingredients to the final product; so be sure that the supplement you are using is of the highest, purest quality.
While the people of the South Pacific used kava kava for thousands of years, the people of Europe used valerian root.
Valerian is often grown in gardens throughout Europe and North America for its sweetly scented pink or white flowers on tall stalks, but it is the root that is prized for its natural sedative effects.
How Valerian Root Works
Phytochemicals in the root stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is often referred to as the “rest and digest system,” one of three divisions of the autonomic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system is in charge of slowing your heart rate, increasing intestinal and gland activity, and relaxing sphincter muscles in the gastrointestinal tract to aid in digestion.
While scientists can’t yet tell us exactly how valerian root aids in better sleep and relaxation, they believe it is because the phytochemicals in the root help to increase the amount of gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain. GABA regulates nerve cells and has a calming effect on the body. Many anti-anxiety prescription drugs like Xanax (alprazolam) or Valium (diazepam) are designed to increase GABA, and while valerian root has a weaker effect than these prescription drugs, it is thought to have far fewer side effects.
Valerian root calms anxiety and helps you fall asleep faster while improving the quality of your sleep. Valerian root is not known to cause morning grogginess, and it is non-addictive.
How to Use Valerian Root
Talk to your doctor first before beginning to use valerian root. Valerian root can interact with prescription medications, supplements, and other herbs, so it is best to use valerian root alone until you understand the ways it can interact with other medications and herbs.
It may take a couple weeks of using valerian root before you gain the full benefits, so be patient. Once your sleep improves, continue the valerian root for two to six weeks.
You can take valerian root up to three times a day, or one to two hours before bedtime to treat insomnia.
As a tea: Pour one cup of hot water (not boiling, as this can damage the root’s phytochemicals) over one teaspoon of dried valerian root; let steep five to ten minutes.
Melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone made by your pineal gland. Melatonin plays a part in your body’s circadian rhythm (your body’s daily physiological cycle), with levels rising in the late afternoon and evening to encourage calmness and sleepiness as the sun sets.
How Melatonin Works
Melatonin is at its lowest levels during the morning and early afternoon—especially if you are exposing yourself to adequate sunlight during the early part of the day. Melatonin acts in conjunction with cortisol, a hormone that promotes alertness during the morning and early afternoon. As the day progresses, melatonin levels rise while cortisol levels fall, helping you to feel naturally more drowsy as the sun goes down and the sky gets dark.
At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work.
With the advent of electric lighting allowing us to stay up late into the night, swift travel to different time zones, and shift work schedules, it’s very easy for the body’s circadian rhythm to get thrown off. Light—especially sunlight—decreases the amount of melatonin the body creates, but being exposed to artificial light and the light from electronic screens also suppresses melatonin production, and, therefore, confuses the body as to when it should be sleepy and when it should be awake.
As you age, your body produces less melatonin, which may be one of the reasons older people often have trouble falling asleep and staying asleep for more than a few hours at a time.
How to Use Melatonin
While taking melatonin as a supplement will help induce sleep, it isn’t going to knock you out for hours at a time. This is both a good and a bad thing: good because it can break the cycle of insomnia for many people; and bad because people expect more from it than they should.
Think of melatonin as a way to jump-start getting over jet lag or to calm the mind and body before bedtime and break the cycle of insomnia—but not as a way to necessarily stay asleep. If you have problems waking in the night, kava kava or valerian root might be better options.
Use melatonin in conjunction with good sleep hygiene (see tips, above) for the most effective outcomes, and don’t use it during the day when you need to be alert. Take between ½ mg and 3 mg about 30 minutes before bedtime, and then avoid bright lights and electronics. While some people experience a “melatonin hangover,” when feelings of drowsiness persist after waking in the morning, there are no known negative side effects of taking quality melatonin supplements over the long term. If you experience drowsiness after waking, decrease the amount of melatonin you take before bedtime.
Gentle, natural sleep aids and supplements are best for the body, though they should be used under the care and supervision of a doctor or certified herbalist. Kava kava, valerian root, and melatonin can all be effective ways to combat stress, insomnia, and night-time waking.
Supplement quality varies greatly between brands. Be sure that you are taking sleep supplements and aids from a trusted source, such as Nature’s Sunshine, so that you know you are getting exactly what is advertised.