Are the worries of life keeping you up at night? Do you have trouble unwinding at the end of the day, and end up staring at the television or ceiling for hours trying to fall asleep?
According ABC health and wellbeing . . . it is estimated that around one third of Australian adults report having at least one insomnia symptom (such as difficulty initiating or maintaining sleep or feeling the quality of sleep was inadequate) each month.
About 5 per cent of Australian adults report chronic problems with insomnia and those with depression or ongoing anxiety issues are the highest risk group.
Women report symptoms of insomnia nearly twice as often as men and almost 50 per cent of adults over 65 describe some symptoms at least a couple of nights per week. Older women in particular seem prone to more prolonged insomnia (1).
There is a lot you can do to help get a restful nightís sleep without reaching for prescription medicines.
Here are some natural alternatives that are helpful for overcoming insomnia.
Calcium has a lovely sedative effect and works by helping muscles to relax. Calcium also helps the brain use the amino acid tryptophan to manufacture the sleep-inducing substance melatonin. This explains why dairy products, which contain both tryptophan and calcium, are one of the top sleep-inducing foods. A deficiency of calcium often leads to restlessness and wakefulness.
Recommended dosage: 800-1200mg of calcium daily in divided doses, after meals and before bed.
Magnesium is well known as a muscle relaxant. Magnesium can act directly on cell membranes by closing calcium channels. This reduces electrical conduction in nerves and muscles. It is this ability to calm neuronal activity is responsible for its muscle-relaxant and sedative properties.
Did you know as little as 250mg of magnesium can help to induce sleep? Signs that you may be low in magnesium include; muscle spasms and twitches, tiredness, involuntary eye twitches and nervousness that prevents sleep (2).
Recommended dosage: 250mg of magnesium an hour before bed for a restful nightís sleep. If your magnesium supplement also contains vitamin B6 try taking it mid to late afternoon as the B6 can be a little stimulating for some people.
Some B vitamins are needed for the syntheses and release of certain neurotransmitters and neuro hormones that are involved in the regulation of sleep and the circadian cycle. The B vitamins involved in sleep regulation include B1, B6 and B12.
Vitamin B1 is involved in the production of GABA, which helps the body relax by blocking the effects of excitatory neurotransmitters. Increasing GABA may help improve sleep.
Vitamin B6 is involved in the synthesis of melatonin (through serotonin). Therefore, it may affect sleep by improving the quality of sleep and preserving the circadian cycle.
Vitamin B12 has a positive effect on our sleep wake cycles; it helps to regulate our circadian rhythm. A deficiency of Vitamin B12 can cause insomnia and other sleep-wake disorders.
Recommended dosage: I recommend taking a B complex daily. Look for a B complex with at least 50mg of Vitamin B6, 100mg of Vitamin B5 and 25mcg of Vitamin B12.
L Tryptophan plays a key role in sleep and anxiety management. In the brain, tryptophan is converted to serotonin, a sleep enhancing neurotransmitter. Tryptophan also enhances the brains ability to produce melatonin, which regulated sleep cycles.
Interestingly L-tryptophan is found in milk and turkey so the old wives tale of having a glass on warm milk before bed to help with sleep does have some scientific backing (3).
Recommended dosage: 25-200mg per day
Anxiolytic and hypnotic herbs are the main way of treating insomnia herbally. Herbs are generally taken through the day to help prevent a build up of tension. An additional dose an hour before bed is usually recommended. If the insomnia is mild, herbs can be taken as a single dose before bed.
ValerianValerians primary use is as a sedative for the relief of insomnia, anxiety and pain. Specifically it can be used for migraine, insomnia, fatigue and nervous conditions. Valerian is a great choice for both onset (getting to sleep) and maintenance (staying asleep) insomnia (4).
Be aware that a very small percentage of people find valerian has the opposite effect on them and it stimulates instead of sedating them. The mechanism for this is unclear and I would suggest you try Mexican valerian if this happens to you.
Works similarly to regular valerian but has less adverse reactions. Mexican Valerian has a mild sedative action for temporary relief of insomnia, nervous tension and mild anxiety.
Zizyphus is used for its sedative and hypnotic qualities and it is particularly good for menopausal women suffering from night sweats and those with high blood pressure. Zizyphus helps to calm the nervous system and in doing so reduces irritability and anxiety. Using zizyphus for insomnia is fantastic for those who have been under long term stress and who may be suffering with adrenal fatigue.
Magnolia bark helps to relax the mind and body by lowering cortisol levels. This, in turn, can help prevent obesity and type II diabetes. Try taking this herb before bed or when you wake in the night only. Magnolia bark can promote rapid drowsiness.
PassionflowerPassion flower is wonderful for those who tend to wake frequently throughout the night. This is safe for children and those with compromised health. It can be taken in large doses (I usually keep taking it until I feel calm and tired) and for long periods of time.
This is a great herb for insomnia due to restlessness and anxiety and itís safe and gentle enough for children. This herb not only helps you to fall asleep, it improves the quality of your sleep as well. You can couple this with Valerian, if you find you need a stronger sedative.
As you can see there are many alternatives available to help you get a good night sleep. We are lucky that here in Australia there are many sleep formulations available for you to choose from. Look for products that contain some of the above ingredients and look forward to a fabulous nightís sleep!
Note - Do be aware it is not recommended to mix prescription medicines with herbal medicines without professional advice.
Written by Lea McIntyre - Naturopath - ND BHSc
Lea has had many years of professional experience as a naturopath working with her patients and clients both in her clinic and as a senior retail naturopathic adviser. When Lea is not helping people stay well and enjoy a healthy lifestyle, she is busy caring for and nurturing her two young children.
2. The effect of melatonin, magnesium, and zinc on primary insomnia in long-term care facility residents in Italy: a double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial. Rondanelli M, Opizzi A, Monteferrario F, Antoniello N, Manni R, Klersy C.J Am Geriatr Soc. 2011 Jan;59(1):82-90
3. Protein source tryptophan versus pharmaceutical grade tryptophan as an efficacious treatment for chronic insomnia. Hudson C, Hudson SP, Hecht T, MacKenzie J. Nutr Neurosci. 2005 Apr;8 (2):121
4. Treating primary insomnia - the efficacy of valerian and hops. Salter S, Brownie S. Aust Fam Physician. 2010 Jun;39(6):433-7. Review
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