When sleep seems an impossible dream, it’s tempting to reach for the pill bottle–and an instant fix. But sleeping drugs are not the answer to insomnia. In fact, they can be the stuff of nightmares. But here’s some good news: Some key dietary changes and supplements can give you the rest you’re dreaming of.

WHAT IS INSOMNIA?

If you have difficulty achieving or maintaining normal sleep, you have insomnia. Trouble falling asleep at bedtime is referred to as sleep-onset insomnia. If your trouble is with waking frequently or very early, you have sleep-maintenance insomnia. Insomnia usually has a psychological cause–depression, anxiety, or tension. But it can also be triggered by various foods, drinks, and medications. Numerous compounds in our diets (most notably caffeine)–as well as more than 300 drugs–can stand in the way of a good night’s sleep.

DIETARY FIXES

The first step in improving slumber is to look for–and eliminate–triggers. Here are some dietary tips for promoting healthy sleep.

CUT OUT CAFFEINE.

Stimulants are a no-no for people with insomnia. Eliminate coffee, as well as less obvious caffeine sources such as soft drinks, chocolate, coffee-flavored ice cream, hot cocoa, and tea. Even small amounts of caffeine (as in decaf coffee or chocolate) may be enough to trigger insomnia in some people. But caffeine isn’t the only culprit. Some food colorings can act as stimulants. Food sensitivities and allergies can also cause insomnia. And while they’re not technically stimulants, sugar and refined carbohydrates can interfere with sleep. Eating a diet high in sugar and refined carbohydrates and eating irregularly can cause a reaction in the body that triggers the “fight or flight” part of the nervous system, causing the mind to be alert– and therefore wakeful.

ELIMINATE ALCOHOL.

Even though it’s a depressant, alcohol can interfere with healthy sleep. It causes adrenaline to be released and disrupts the production of serotonin (an important brain chemical that initiates sleep).

AVOID LOW BLOOD SUGAR.

A rapid drop in blood sugar during the night is an important cause of sleep-maintenance insomnia because it causes the release of hormones that regulate glucose levels, such as adrenaline, glucagon, cortisol, and growth hormone. These compounds stimulate the brain. They are a natural signal that it is time to eat. Eating to control blood sugar levels throughout the day is the first step in stabilizing the blood sugar levels throughout the night. A good bedtime snack that can keep blood sugar levels steady throughout the night is a small bowl of oatmeal. Or try the Thanksgiving meal trick: tryptophan. Foods high in this amino acid, such as turkey, milk, cottage cheese, chicken, eggs, and nuts (especially almonds), may help promote sleep. In the brain, tryptophan is converted to serotonin and melatonin, natural sleep-inducing compounds.

NATURAL HELPERS

There is a long list of natural sleep aids. Check with your doctor before adding supplements or making significant changes to your regimen. The four that I like the best (either alone or in combination) are:

1. MELATONIN is an important hormone secreted by the pineal gland, a small gland in the center of the brain. Melatonin is one of the best aids for sleep. Melatonin supplementation has been found helpful in inducing and maintaining sleep in both children and adults. It appears that the sleep-promoting effects of melatonin are most apparent when a person’s melatonin levels are low. So it’s not like sleeping pills or even 5-HTP–it will only produce a sedative effect when melatonin levels are low. A dosage of 3 mg at bedtime is more than enough. I prefer under-the-tongue (sublingual) tablets.

2. 5-HYDROXYTRYPTOPHAN (5-HTP) is converted in the brain to serotonin–an important initiator of sleep. 5-HTP has also been reported to decrease the time required to get to sleep and to reduce awakenings. Boost 5-HTP’s effects by taking it near bedtime at the recommended dosage of 50 to 100 mg.

3. L-THEANINE, a relaxing amino acid found in green tea, is available as a supplement. L-theanine induces a sense of calm in people with anxiety. At typical dosages (100-200 mg) L-theanine does not act as a sedative, but it does significantly improve sleep quality. That makes it a good supporter of melatonin and 5-HTP. At higher single dosages (400 mg) L-theanine does act as a sedative. I like L-theanine the best for children.

4. GAMMA-AMINOBUTYRIC ACID (GABA) is a natural calming and antiepileptic agent in the brain. In fact, it is one of the brain’s most important regulators of proper function. It appears that many people with anxiety, insomnia, epilepsy, and other brain disorders do not manufacture sufficient levels of GABA. PharmaGABA is a special form of GABA naturally manufactured with the help of a probiotic (Lactobacillus hilgardii) that has been shown to improve sleep quality.

There are a lot of reasons to try to get a good night sleep without resorting to prescription sleeping pills. These pills are habit forming, have significant side effects, and are associated with increasing the risk of dementia and earlier death. For more information, sign up for my newsletter and receive a free PDF copy of my book, Stress, Anxiety, and Insomnia – What the Drug Companies Won’t Tell You and Your Doctor Doesn’t Know

Dr. Michael Murray
2/26/15

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