Natural Home Remedies for Insomnia
Home Remedies From the Cupboard
Cookies. Yes, that comforting nighttime snack of milk and cookies may be just what the doctor ordered to get you back in bed. Sugary foods eaten about 30 minutes before bedtime can actually act as a sedative, and you can wake up without the morning fuzziness that accompanies synthetic sleeping pills. Be careful to eat only a few cookies, though; eating too much sugar can keep the sandman at bay.

Epsom salts. Naturopathic practitioners recommend this remedy for sleepless nights. Add 1 to 2 cups Epsom salts to a hot bath and soak for about 15 to 20 minutes before hitting the hay.

Honey. Folk remedies often advise people with sleeping difficulty to eat a little honey. It has the same sedative effect as sugar and may get you to bed more quickly. Try adding 1 tablespoon honey to some decaffeinated herbal tea or even to your warm milk for a relaxing pre-sleep drink.

Toast. High carbohydrate, low-protein bedtime snacks can make sleeping easier. Carbohydrate-rich foods tend to be easy on the tummy and can ease the brain into blissful slumber.

Milk. Drinking a glass of milk, especially a glass of warm milk, before bedtime is an age-old treatment for sleeping troubles. There is some debate, however, about what it is in milk -- if anything -- that helps cause slumber. Some scientists believe it's the presence of tryptophan, a chemical that helps the brain ease into sleep mode, that does the trick. Others believe it may be another ingredient, a soothing group of opiatelike chemicals called casomorphins. Whatever the reason, milk seems to help some people hit the sack more easily. And warm milk seems to be more effective at relaxing body and mind. However, if you wake frequently to urinate, avoid liquids for a few hours before bedtime. Other foods high on the tryptophan scale are cottage cheese, cashews, chicken, turkey, soybeans, and tuna.

Dill seed. Though scientists haven't proved its worth, this herb is often used as a folk cure for insomnia in China. Its essential oil has the most sedative-producing properties.

5-HTP. Some experts believe a tryptophan deficiency can cause problems with sleep. Made from tryptophan, 5-HTP helps the body make serotonin. Low levels of serotonin are a known factor in sleepless nights. Taking a 5-HTP supplement may be a benefit if your body has low levels of tryptophan. How do you know if you're low? Low levels of tryptophan are most common in people who are depressed. If your insomnia is associated with depression, it might be a good question to ask your doctor. In one study, 100 mg of the supplement was enough to make sleep longer and better.

Melatonin. Melatonin is the timekeeper of the body. It's a hormone that regulates your biological clock. As you get older you make less melatonin, which experts believe is probably why older folks have more trouble sleeping. Research is showing that taking a melatonin supplement can help you sleep. Ask your doctor about taking 1 to 3 mg of melatonin 11/2 to 2 hours before bedtime.

Using Valerian to Treat Insomnia
Valerian is a staple medicinal herb used throughout Europe. And, unlike benzodiazepines, using valerian to treat insomnia increases the amount of time spent in deep and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.

Valerian isn't a modern discovery; doctors of yesteryear were quite familiar with this pungent-smelling herb. In 1831, family physician Samuel Thomson wrote: "This powder is the best nervine known. I have made great use of it and have always found it to produce the most beneficial effects in all cases of nervous affection. In fact, it would be difficult to get along in my practice in many cases without this important article."

It's unlikely that many family doctors today would recommend valerian to their patients. More doctors, however, may consider valerian after reviewing the clinical evidence that supports the herb's use.

Clinical Evidence for Using Valerian to Treat Insomnia

In one double-blind study, 44 percent of insomniacs who took valerian described the quality of their sleep as "perfect," and 99 percent said their sleep had improved significantly. None of the patients reported any side effects.

In another experiment, 128 people with sleep problems were given either 400 milligrams of valerian root extract or a placebo (dummy pill). Those who were taking the herb reported significant improvement in sleep quality without morning grogginess.

Valerian also significantly improves sleep latency, which is how researchers describe the time it takes a person to fall asleep. One study found that valerian halved the time it normally took volunteers to fall asleep.

Another randomized double-blind study had patients with mild insomnia take either a placebo or an extract of valerian root. Subjective sleep ratings were assessed through a questionnaire, and the patients' movements were recorded throughout the night. The study found that those who took valerian experienced a significant decrease in the amount of time it took them to fall asleep. Higher doses of valerian, interestingly, helped subjects to fall asleep no faster than moderate doses, although clinically it has been observed that higher doses may increase duration of sleep.

At least two studies have assessed the effects of valerian in children. One small study of five children with learning disabilities found valerian significantly reduced the amount of time needed to fall asleep while lengthening time asleep and sleep quality, compared to placebo. A larger study of 918 children found valerian safe and effective, although it is important to note there was no control group in this study.

Valerian has even been shown in some studies to improve reaction times. And, unlike benzodiazepines, the herb may be taken with alcohol without causing depression or other adverse side effects. Even with prolonged use of valerian, there have been few reports of symptoms such as heartburn, upset stomach, diarrhea, or allergic reactions. Also, unlike sedatives, valerian does not impair one's ability to operate machinery, such as a car.

Valerian has even been shown to improve sleep quality and to decrease anxiety in people trying to wean off of benzodiazepines. Placebo was far less effective in this study.

How Exactly Does Valerian Work?

"According to the latest information available, we simply don't know," concededed the late pharmacognosist Varro E. Tyler, Ph.D, who served as a professor emeritus at the Purdue University School of Pharmacy in Indiana.

We do know that valerian contains volatile oils, alkaloids, and unstable chemicals known as esters. Esters are lost when valerian root is dried and kept for extended periods. For that reason, the herb's effectiveness may vary considerably, depending on the quality of the brand.

Valerian contains chemicals with strong muscle-relaxant and sedative properties called valepotriates. All parts of the plant contain these chemicals, but they are most concentrated in the roots. Ironically, even valerian preparations without valepotriates have helped some people to fall asleep, raising the possibility that some still unidentified chemical, or a reaction amongst various compounds in the root, may produce a calming effect.

Animal studies conducted in the 1960s demonstrated that valerian acts as a powerful tranquilizer, and subsequent studies with humans replicated those effects. Valerian appears to work by affecting the central nervous system.

Researchers monitored electroencephalograph (a device that measures brain-wave activity) changes in rats that had been given a valerian preparation. They found significant sedative activity, recorded as an increase in brain waves associated with relaxation.

In another study, a tincture of valerian root was given to 23 hypertensive men. The preparation had a distinct tranquilizing effect, as measured by subsequent brain-wave activity.

Using Melatonin to Treat Insomnia
Melatonin is another natural choice to treat insomnia that is also proving to be safe and effective, at least for short-term use.

Your body comes equipped with a biological clock that regulates sleeping and waking activities. Melatonin, a hormone naturally produced in the body, is believed to help keep the clock ticking by regulating what's known as our circadian rhythm cycle.

Traveling across several time zones disrupts that rhythm, and the result is jet lag -- that feeling of exhaustion and disorientation you get when you wake up the next day in a strange hotel room. What may help in those cases is using melatonin to treat insomnia the night before.

Our bodies produce melatonin in the bean-size pineal gland nestled deep inside our brains; it is also produced in the retinas of our eyes. Melatonin production is stimulated by darkness and shuts down in the presence of bright light (especially sunlight). Normally, the pineal gland starts increasing its melatonin production around 9 P.M. Hormone levels peak between 2 A.M. and 4 A.M. and then return to their normal daytime levels.

Exactly how melatonin works is unclear. At a worldwide scientific gathering in Switzerland in 1997, Dr. Peretz Lavie reported that electroencephalograms taken during secretion of melatonin are similar to those induced by ben­­zodiazepine drugs such as Klonopin. But melatonin in no other way resembles benzodiazepines, according to a study that appeared two years earlier in the journal Psychopharmacology.

Infants produce a great deal of melatonin. But after we reach puberty, our melatonin levels begin to decrease. As we grow older, the pineal gland calcifies, resulting in a further loss of melatonin.

By the time we're elderly, melatonin levels are quite low, perhaps accounting for the fact that so many older people suffer from insomnia. Several clinical trials have demonstrated that melatonin-replacement therapy may be beneficial for those people.
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