Sleep – it’s something that all humans need but one thing that many people don’t seem to get enough of. This can be for a variety of reasons – including poor sleep hygiene, party-hard lifestyles, or even mental and physical conditions – but the bottom line is the same: a lack of sleep is no good and should be remedied as soon as possible.
But what happens when you’ve tried all the tricks and nothing seems to be working for you? You may suffer from a condition called insomnia, which is essentially an inability to sleep or stay asleep for long periods of time. This can wreak havoc on your life.
In this post, we’ll introduce the causes of insomnia as well as the negative effects that poor sleep can have on your health. We’ll then share seven natural supplements to consider adding to your daily routine, and we’ll even delve into a few lifestyle changes. Let’s get started!
What Causes Insomnia?
Insomnia is a condition characterized by an inability to sleep. It has an array of causes, including medical and psychiatric.
Insomnia can be acute (short term) or chronic (long term) and, as such, the causes vary.
The most common cause of acute insomnia is life circumstances that may lead to anxiety, apprehension, or stress. For example, after receiving bad news. This kind of insomnia will often resolve on its own.
Chronic insomnia is most often caused by poor sleep habits, untreated or uncontrolled medical conditions, and medications. These occur when the sleep-wake cycle is disrupted on a regular basis which then results in incomplete REM cycles or difficulty falling asleep altogether.
In short, insomnia is caused by disturbances – whether physical or mental – that interfere with your ability to get high-quality, restful sleep on a nightly basis.
What are the Health Risks of Poor Sleep?
Aside from the obvious grogginess and irritability associated with insomnia, poor sleep can have negative effects on your health.
In the short term, poor sleep can contribute to slowed reflexes and cognitive abilities. This can increase the risk of accidents. In fact, moderate sleep deprivation has been shown to cause motor and cognitive impairments similar to that of alcohol intoxication.
For longer-term cases of insomnia, you may also be dealing with an increased susceptibility to many conditions including diabetes, obesity, hypertension, anxiety, and depression.
All in all, a lack of sleep can wreak havoc on your mind and body and leave you in a poor mental and physical state.
7 Natural Sleep Supplements to Battle Insomnia
There are plenty of drugs on the market that can be used to treat insomnia. However, you may prefer to try the natural recommendations first. Here are seven natural sleep supplements to consider adding to your routine.
Melatonin is often recommended by physicians and pharmacists to patients who complain of insomnia. But did you know that melatonin is actually a natural sleep supplement and not a medication?
Melatonin is a naturally-occurring hormone that is produced by the body. It plays a role in the sleep-wake cycle and, as such, melatonin levels rise in the evenings and fall in the morning.
As melatonin is already present in the body, this supplement is best used when the sleep-wake cycle is disrupted such as by jet lag or a change over to night shift. It can help you to fall asleep more easily and stay asleep longer.
Best of all, the side effects of melatonin use are few when taken over a short period of time. For longer-term use, it’s best to speak with your physician.
Valerian root, native to Asia and Europe, is one of the most commonly used sleep supplements in the United States and Europe.
In a review of studies on Valerian for sleep, it was shown that 80% of patients reported improved sleep quality when compared to the placebo.
Unfortunately, the research studies that have been performed on Valerian have been fraught with methodological errors. This makes it difficult to say for sure whether Valerian root will work to treat short-term insomnia, or even what dosage is safe and effective.
If you are interested in trying Valerian yourself, it’s recommended that you consult with your physician. They can help you to determine the safest dose, or steer you towards another more appropriate supplement for your needs.
Chamomile is an herb that has been enjoyed for centuries as a tea and herbal infusion. Its popularity – especially in the evening – is likely linked to its natural abilities as a sleep supplement.
Chamomile has been used over the years to treat a variety of ailments including inflammation, hay fever, and muscle spasms. However, its ability to ‘treat’ sleep disorders has also been noted.
Its tranquilizing effects haven’t been the subject of many studies, though one cardiovascular study did find that ten out of the twelve patients fell into a deep sleep after drinking the tea. Another study found it to induce hypnotic activities (similar to those induced by benzodiazepine) in sleep-disturbed rats which further indicates its tranquilizing abilities.
Best of all, chamomile has minimal side effects and it can be easily obtained either as a tea from the grocery store or as an herbal supplement from the pharmacy.
However, gingko biloba doesn’t treat restlessness in the usual manner. Instead, it works to reduce symptoms of anxiety.
Anxiety is a common condition, and it can be acute or chronic. Anxious individuals can experience an array of symptoms, including:
- Lack of concentration
- Racing thoughts
Another symptom of anxiety is restlessness, or the inability to fall asleep or stay asleep. Unfortunately, lack of sleep can even make the above symptoms worsen over time.
When taken 30 - 60 minutes before bed, gingko biloba supplements have been shown to reduce stress and enhance relaxation.
This will help you to relax after a long day and it may even contribute to improved sleep quality.
Have you ever wondered why you’re ready to take a long nap after Thanksgiving dinner? That’s thanks to tryptophan!
Tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin which itself is necessary for the production of melatonin. With all of this said, it’s no surprise that this amino acid has some sleep-inducing effects on the body.
A study published in 2010 indicates that as little as one gram of tryptophan may improve sleep quality and help you to fall asleep sooner. It’s also been shown to stabilize short-term sleep disorders caused by drug dependence.
Due to the lack of research on the topic, it’s not possible at this time to obtain a tryptophan supplement. However, it’s present in quite a few foods that you can easily incorporate into your day. These include:
Carbohydrates which don’t contain tryptophan can also promote serotonin production and may also be helpful in inducing sleepiness.
Aromatherapy is an alternative practice that has been used for centuries in the treatment of anxiety, depression, restlessness, and more.
More recent studies have even shown that aromatherapy can increase sleep quality. One such study performed on cardiac patients showed that aromatherapy containing lavender also reduced anxiety and blood pressure levels in patients undergoing stent placement.
However, that’s not the only study that has shown lavender’s effects on the sleep-wake cycle.
Another study showed that topical application of lavender oil to mice helped them to fall asleep more quickly and to stay asleep longer. This has even been shown beneficial to women in midlife who tend to have an increase in sleep disturbances.
Kava, also known as kava-kava, is a plant of the Pacific Islands. This crop has been used for hundreds, if not thousands, of years by the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Ocean. One reason for this is its use as a hypnotic.
Research shows that kava has anxiolytic (i.e. anti-anxiety) effects which indicates its use in the reduction of anxiety symptoms. However, these effects may extend beyond the treatment of anxiety and into the realm of sleep-wake disturbances.
In 2005, researchers tested the effects of kava extract on the sleep-wake cycle in sleep-disturbed rats. The results showed that kava-kava reduced the amount of time it took rats to transition from wakefulness to sleep.
While the extract did not seem to have an effect on total waking and non-REM sleep time, this herb may still be beneficial for people who have trouble falling asleep.
This shows that the extract has hypnotic effects, but also those that enhance sleep quality.
What Else Can You Do for Improved Sleep?
Turn Off the Screens
Televisions, laptops, tablets, and smartphones – all of these devices have made their way into the bedroom, but did you know that this can negatively impact your sleep-wake cycle?
Technology gives off artificial light, which itself plays a role in disrupting the natural sleep cycle. However, it’s also easy to become engrossed in what you’re doing – whether watching a movie or reading an email – and this can cut into your much needed sleep time.
This is why it’s best to turn off all electronics prior to bed, though preferably even up to a few hours before sleep. This will help to get your body into the right state for sleep to come quickly and easily.
Lower the Temperature
The temperature of your sleep environment can play a big role in how quickly you fall asleep, and how easy it it for you to remain sleeping.
Why is this?
As you fall asleep, your body’s core temperature decreases. This means warmer temperatures will be more perceptible to your body which can make it more difficult to sleep soundly.
By setting your thermostat lower – between 60 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit – you can help to regulate your cardiac autonomic response during sleep and keep you asleep for longer.
Use Daylight to Your Advantage
As mentioned above, melatonin levels tend to decrease in the morning while they naturally increase in the evening hours. This isn’t a coincidence. The factor that plays into this rise and fall of melatonin levels: daylight.
Irregular exposure to light – such as lack of sunlight in the daylight and artificial lights at night – can disrupt the body’s circadian rhythm. This makes it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep.
This is why you should be sure to expose yourself to sunlight throughout the day as it helps you to stay alert. When evening rolls around, it’s time to lower the lights so as to help your body produce melatonin. You can even use total darkness to stay asleep longer throughout the night.
Follow a Schedule
The body isn’t anything if it’s not punctual. That’s why a schedule – one that allows you to unwind and prepare for a quality night’s sleep – is so crucial for your evenings.
It helps to think of your body’s circadian rhythm as an internal clock. This clock will give cues that either help you to stay alert, or prepare you for sleep.
By creating a schedule where you go to bed and wake up at the same time, you give your internal clock a chance to give cues at a regular time. This will encourage you to fall asleep more quickly, and it’s also great for those people who struggle to get their recommended seven to nine hours of sleep per night.
Practice Deep Breathing
If you have trouble unwinding after a long day, there may be no surprise as to what is interfering with you falling asleep. However, deep breathing techniques can help your mind and your body to wind down and prepare for a quality night of sleep.
Deep breathing doesn’t need to be intricate or complicated. You just need to find a pattern that works for you, and then incorporate it into your nightly bedtime routine.
One such pattern is the 4-7-8 method. As the name suggests, the pattern is split into three stages. To perform the technique, all you need to do is:
- Take a deep breath and then exhale audibly (making a ‘wooshing’ sound) through your mouth.
- Inhale deeply for a count of four seconds.
- Hold your breath while mentally counting to seven.
- Open your mouth and exhale as you did before, but this time counting to eight.
You can repeat this technique for as long as you need to relax and reduce tension, though you may find yourself falling asleep within just a few minutes.
General Warnings and Precautions
When you’re looking to add supplements to your daily routine, there are a few general warnings and precautions to consider.
Foremost, it’s important to speak with your medical doctor before you begin to take any supplements. This is especially true if you have pre-existing medical conditions, such as diabetes or high blood pressure, as many herbs and extracts can interfere with medications and blood sugar/pressure levels.
You also want to be sure to consider the source of the supplement.
While many grocery stores and online vendors do sell supplements over-the-counter, they may not have the highest quality ingredients. It’s best to consider health stores and pharmacies first, as they tend to stock supplements with more naturally-derived ingredients.
Finally, it’s best not to mix supplements unless otherwise directed by your doctor. The supplements above may negatively interact with each other, or with any medications you are currently taking. This is why it’s best to speak with your doctor or a pharmacist before you begin treatment.
When to See a Doctor
There’s nothing wrong with using natural supplements and techniques to treat your own symptoms. However, there’s sometimes a point where you need professional help.
If your insomnia has become chronic, it’s best to make an appointment with your physician. There may be an underlying cause that can be easily treated, or you may require further intervention.
It’s also important to speak with your physician if your insomnia is accompanied by anxiety, depression, feelings of self harm, or suicidal ideation. While it can be difficult to reach out, it’s one of the best things you can do for your physical and mental health.
Insomnia is a condition that affects 50 to 70 million Americans and countless more millions of people around the globe. It’s one of the most common chronic conditions experienced by adults, and it’s one that can cause serious damage to your short-term and long-term health.
While the causes of insomnia vary, there is hope for sufferers.
Treatments, including natural supplements and lifestyle changes, make it possible to increase your sleep length and quality while also making it easier for you to fall asleep at night.
That’s not to say that medical intervention isn’t always necessary, as many insomniacs do need the help of a physician to properly treat their condition. However, there are many methods you can try – either alone or alongside the recommendations of your doctor – that can help to make a world of difference in your sleep quality and your overall health and well-being.
If you are suffering from any sleep disorder, including Insomnia, call our board-certified sleep specialists today at Alaska Sleep Clinic. Also, click the link below to download our FREE e-book about Insomnia.