Most people experience less than satisfying sleep at least occasionally, but some sufferers go for years without relief. Not being able to fall asleep at the normal hour in a reasonable length of time is known as “sleep onset insomnia.” Older people especially may suffer from waking too soon or not getting enough deep sleep. Sleep is a complex neurochemical phenomenon, and a wide variety of different causes for poor sleep make it hard to diagnose and relieve.
What’s often called sleep hygiene is a collection of good practices and habits that tend to lead to better sleep. Harvard Medical School’s Division of Sleep Medicine has a good list.
If you’re getting exercise and avoiding caffeine or alcohol late in the evening, you might still have problems. Chemical sleep inducers in the form of drugs and supplements can help get you to sleep or keep you asleep, but prescription medications like Ambien and Lunesta can have side-effects, cost a lot, and can be addictive. Many people have been hooked on them (and the drugs of past eras like tranquilizers and sedatives) for years, unable to stop without going through far worse withdrawal symptoms.
If your problem is getting to sleep, your body and mind may be revved up and out of synch with your natural sleep hours. Not engaging in eating, drinking, or stimulating activities for a few hours before normal bedtime can help. Some natural supplements — chemicals already found in your body or food that promote sleep — work for many people. A list:
Melatonin, one of the body’s primary sleep signalling chemicals, is continuously produced by the pineal gland, but destroyed by light hitting the eyes, so it is a driver of the sleep-wake cycle that lags exposure to light; it’s partly because exposure to light synchronizes your sleep cycle that staying up late with bright lighting can disturb it. Taking natural melatonin a few hours before normal bedtime reinforces the natural cycle somewhat, although there’s little evidence of it crossing the blood-brain barrier after absorption by the digestive system. Try sprinkling a bit of melatonin in powdered form under your tongue, perhaps by opening a commercial capsule like these. Melatonin, like some other drugs and vitamins, can be absorbed somewhat by the blood-vessel-rich skin under the tongue — this is called sublingual administration. Melatonin successfully reduces time-to-sleep and insomnia for most people, though it is less effective at keeping you asleep. If you’re already getting up to go to the bathroom at 3 AM, though, you can do another sublingual dose of melatonin and sleep a few more hours successfully.
5-HTP or its precursor L-Tryptophan. Tryptophan is an amino acid component of the proteins in many meats, eggs, and dairy products, and is commonly believed to create the sleepiness after a big Thanksgiving turkey dinner — though turkey meat has no more L-Tryptophan than most other meats. It is also usually credited for the “glass of milk at bedtime” method for assisting sleep. After a Japanese manufacturer of L-Tryptophan produced contaminated batches in 1989, injuring thousands and killing as many as 37 people, L-Tryptophan was banned by the FDA in the US. These restrictions were loosened and finally lifted completely in 2005. As a result of that incident, though, more people still take 5-HTP, which is a metabolite of L-Tryptophan and his similar effects. A few hundred mg of either does tend to produce faster and deeper sleep in most people, and like melatonin thet are both safe and not habit-forming.
Valerian Root is somewhat less harmless. An old herbal standby, this herb in capsule form is used by millions as a sleep aid. While it does work, it can’t be recommended for any but the shortest-term use because it is a mild liver poison — long-term use damages liver function. Other herbal teas like chamomile also have some sedative effects without any obvious toxicities.
GABA is another amino acid and neurotransmitter which doesn’t seem to cross the blood-brain barrier, yet has some obvious effects, producing calm and deeper sleep and perhaps aiding production of growth hormone in older body builders who take it. I take a gram every night before bed and it seems to deepen sleep. It also has some side-effects reminiscent of the niacin flush for some, so be careful and experiment with small doses before trying more. A reliable low-cost provider of GABA powder which can be mixed into any drink is here. Capsules tend to provide less effective dosages.
Doxylamine succinate is an old standby which works fairly well and is cheap and safe as a sleep aid: as an antihistamine, it is obsolete because its side-effect of drowsiness is intolerable during the day. But while it’s unwise to take any drug regularly unless you really need to, it’s at least not addictive and is easy to buy OTC: as this Kirkland-label product from Costco, for example.
Everyone’s sleep problem is different, and with age staying asleep becomes the most common problem. Natural substances can help but good sleep hygiene should be tried first.
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