There is nothing worse than not being able to sleep as it affects the way you function throughout the day and can also have a far-reaching impact on your health. There are, however, simple and natural ways to help you catch some valuable shut-eye.
Diet, hormones, stress and a lack of minerals can all play a significant role in coming between you and a good night’s sleep. Try out some of the suggestions below to see what works best for you.
1. STAY AWAY FROM STIMULANTS
Avoid well-known stimulants such as caffeine, but also be aware that sugar can raise the activity of the two adrenal hormones, which will stop you sleeping.
A sensible starting place for a good night’s sleep is to eat a Low-GL diet. The diet focuses on:
- cutting back on sugar
- choosing Low-GL foods (the foods that keep blood sugar levels even, such as wholegrain pasta or brown rice, instead of white)
- eating protein with carbohydrates to further slow the release of sugars in those carbohydrates.
These are immediate ways to lower the GL of your diet.
Caffeine helps keep you awake because not only is it a stimulant but it also depresses melatonin for up to 10 hours.
Although tea contains caffeine, it also contains L-theanine. This amino acid seems to encourage a relaxed state, inducing calming alpha waves in the brain. You can supplement L-theanine, thus avoiding the caffeine in tea, and some sleep formulas contain it.
The main neurotransmitter that switches off adrenalin is called GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid). When your levels of GABA are low, you will feel anxious and have trouble sleeping. GABA is a natural antidote to anxiety.
Although alcohol is classified as a relaxant precisely because it promotes GABA, it actually promotes anxiety. The net consequence of regular alcohol consumption is GABA depletion, which leads to more adrenalin and that causes less good quality sleep. To bring your brain chemistry back into balance, it’s better to avoid alcohol.
2. INCREASE MELATONIN
Melatonin’s main role in the brain is to regulate the sleep/wake cycle. Without this sleep hormone it’s difficult to get to sleep and stay asleep. It’s an almost identical molecule to serotonin, from which it is made. One way to increase melatonin is to provide more of the building blocks used to make serotonin: (5-hydroxytryptophan), which is made from various nutrients, including folic acid; vitamins B3 (niacin), B6 and C; zinc and tryptophan.
You could also supplement melatonin directly by taking between 3 mg and 5 mg. Another option is to take 5-HTP or try tryptophan. Ideally, both need to be taken one hour before you go to bed and with a small amount of carbohydrate (such as an oatcake), because this causes a release of insulin which carries tryptophan into the brain.
The highest natural source of melatonin is a supplement called asphalia, which comes from a grass called Festuca arundinacea, also available as a supplement. Other good sources include oats and sour cherries.
3. CONSIDER BEHAVIOURAL TECHNIQUES
Therapy, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can help insomnia by encouraging patients to acknowledge the stress that is preventing them from sleeping and helping them to develop ways of dealing with it.
One method is to identify negative or unhelpful thoughts, such as ‘I just can’t sleep without my pills’ and changing them.
‘Sleep hygiene’ forms part of most sleep regimes. The idea is to create regular sleep- promoting habits, such as keeping the bedroom quiet, dark and at a temperature that’s good for you. Don’t have a large meal in the evening and avoid coffee and alcohol at least three hours before bedtime. Exercise regularly, but not within three hours of bedtime.
‘Stimulus control therapy’ (SCT) involves ensuring the bed is associated only with sleeping and sex. People are advised against having naps during the day, and to go to bed when feeling sleepy, but to get up again after 20 minutes if they haven’t fallen asleep. They are then advised to do something relaxing until they feel drowsy again and to try again – but to get up again if it fails; this breaks the cycle of ‘trying’ to get to sleep.
You could also try specialist sleep-music recordings, which have a calming effect similar to that generated by yoga or meditation. My favourite CD is called Silence of Peace by John Levine.
4. TAKE MINERALS THAT CALM
If you’re not getting sufficient calcium and, more particularly, magnesium, this can trigger or exacerbate sleep difficulties.
If you’re much stressed, or you consume too much sugar, your magnesium levels may well be low. Your diet is more likely to be lower in magnesium than calcium – so make sure you’re eating plenty of magnesium-rich foods such as seeds, nuts, green vegetables, whole grains and seafood. Milk products, green vegetables, nuts and seeds are particularly good sources of calcium. Some people also find it helpful to supplement up to 500 mg of calcium and 300 mg of magnesium at bedtime. Magnesium is the more important of the two for a relaxing effect.
5. TRY HELP FROM HERBS
Many herbs are said to have sleep-inducing properties. The best known of these is valerian, which is sometimes referred to as ‘nature’s Valium’. It seems to work by promoting the body’s release of GABA, and by providing the amino acid glutamine, from which the brain can make GABA. Valerian is a good alternative to GABA.
Other herbs include chamomile, passion flower, lavender, hops, Californian poppy, lemon balm and bitter orange. These can also be used as essential oils in a relaxing bath before going to bed.
BEST SUPPLEMENTS INCLUDE
- 2 X high-potency multivitamin-minerals providing at least 50 mg of niacin (B3), 20 mg of vitamin B3, 200 mcg of folic acid, plus 100 mg of vitamin C and 10 mg of zinc
- 1 X 5-HTP 100 mg or 3 to 6 mg melatonin or 2g of tryptophan an hour before bed
- 1 X GABA 1 000 mg (if you can’t get GABA, find a combination formula pro- viding L-theanine as well as taurine and glutamine, which are precursors of GABA)
- 1 X magnesium 300 mg, possibly with calcium
- 1 X valerian 150 to 300 mg
If you are on SSRI antidepressants and also take large amounts of 5-HTP, this could theoretically make too much serotonin. I don’t recommend combining the two.
Valerian can promote daytime drowsiness, so it’s best to take it in the evening. It can interact with sedative drugs and should therefore be taken in combination only under medical supervision. Don’t combine GABA with drugs that target GABA, such as most sleeping pills.
Too much melatonin can have undesirable effects, such as diarrhoea, constipation, nausea, dizziness, reduced libido, headaches, depression and nightmares.
There is nothing worse than getting hooked on a conventional sleeping pill. Kick the habit easily by following these five friendly, natural ways to dreamland.