After a recent Europe trip away from home to catch the elusive Northern lights, I dreaded the inevitable tossing and turning and counting the hours until morning. Like many times before, I knew that jet lag, fatigue and disruption to my routine were more than enough to create a night of insomnia, not to mention the less-than-stellar skin. I also knew that regaining my regular healthy habits over the following week would alleviate the problem.
According to statistics collected by the Health Promotion Board, over a third of Singaporeans suffer from sleepless nights at some point in time. These insomniacs — who include many physicians, according to a separate survey — are tempted to grab the sleeping pill bottle. While undoubtedly effective, these drugs eventually disrupt slumber and create daytime drowsiness. Continued use can lead to addiction and a decline in effectiveness.
Most cases of insomnia are best handled with lifestyle and behavioural changes, experts say, because they are safe and remain helpful over time. A rigorous program of sleep hygiene education and behavioural therapy contribute to the quantity and quality of sleep, both important if you expect to feel rested the next day. This program works best without the addition of sleeping pills or herbs. Researchers at the Sleep Disorder Centre concluded, however, that occasional use of sleep aids at the onset of such program is still effective.
So, the next time you need a little extra help with sleep but do not want to risk the harmful side effects, investigate the following supplements. The trick is to pick your sleep remedy according to need. Better yet, consult with your physician or healthcare provider for assistance, especially if you are plagued by chronic insomnia. Never mix sleeping pills with supplements unless under the supervision of a physician.
Many people choose valerian, or scientifically known as Valeriana officinalis. In favour of sleeping pills for a first-line defence against insomnia. Because of its sedative and muscle-relaxant qualities, it works well for sleeplessness due to stress and anxiety. Volatile oils, found in the root of plants, are responsible for these properties.
Unlike tranquilisers, valerian induces enough grogginess to sleep without the morning hangover many people experience with sleeping pills. One German trial found that valerian improved sleep quality, decrease the time it took to fall asleep and decrease nighttime awakenings — all with few, if any, side effects.
Valerian is often paired with other sedative herbs, such as hops (Humulus lupulus) or passionflower (Passiflora incarnata), in sleep products. Scientists have taken a particular interest in the valerian-hops blend. In one study, researchers gave volunteers either a valerian-hops combination tablet or a benzodiazepine drug. Half of those using the sleeping pill reported mild side effects compared with only 10% of those in the herb group. While both groups felt they had a good night’s sleep, the subjects taking herbs did not experience morning hangover felt by those who used the sleeping pill. Withdrawal can also be a problem with sleeping pills and not usually the case with herbs.
Secreted by the pineal gland, melatonin is promoted for insomnia in general. Numerous studies indicate that this hormone is most appropriate for sleep disturbances due to jet lag or irregular shift work. A biological clock, or circadian rhythm, dictates the smooth running of your body on a daily basis. When this mechanism falls out of sync, poor sleeping is one result. Melatonin is one way your body makes sure that it is running on time.
Individuals with low melatonin levels may also benefit from supplementation as the hormone reduces the time it takes to fall asleep and nighttime awakenings. As a result, many people report feeling more alert the next day. Melatonin tends to decline with age, thus many middle-aged and elderly insomniacs turn to it. Recent evidence also suggests that melatonin levels are lower in chronic insomniacs and obese postmenopausal women.
Melatonin may help not only those wanting to avoid sleeping pills but also individuals yearning to kick the sleeping pill habit. A group of Israeli researchers discovered that melatonin helped people trying to wean themselves off benzodiazepine sleeping pills.
As is true with most minerals and vitamins, low magnesium levels exhibit an assortment of symptoms, including those that interfere with sleep. Researchers at the University of North Carolina found that emotional stress, such as anxiety, increases one’s need for magnesium. Periodic limb movements during sleep (PLMS) and restless legs syndrome (RLS) can also disrupt sleep. In a German study, 10 men and women suffering from insomnia due to mild to moderate PLMS or RLS were given magnesium. After four to six weeks on this mineral, awakenings due to these conditions were found to have diminished rather significantly.
The B-complex vitamin group has a reputation for calming nerves and encouraging sleep. According to preliminary research, the is a link between B12 and insomnia. In Japan, two adolescents suffering from persistent sleep-wake rhythm disorder improved immensely after receiving high amounts of vitamin B12. Each teen fell asleep closer to a reasonable bedtime and slept for a shorter period (7 hours instead of 10). Folate deficiency may also contribute to restless legs syndrome and insomnia.