Nothing is more exasperating than a sleepless night. Yet it’s all too common for millions of Americans. The inability to fall asleep or stay asleep can leave you groggy and out of sorts. But when insomnia becomes chronic, it can pose a serious health risk. In fact, a string of sleepless nights can put you at greater risk of a car accident. It can also set you up for obesity and diabetes because a lack of shut-eye affects hormones like cortisol and melatonin that depend on regular circadian rhythms.
Eating a heavy meal shortly before bedtime can cause indigestion that can keep you awake. On the other hand, eating too little in the evening can cause you to wake up hungry in the middle of the night. Your best strategy is to eat a small, protein-rich snack an hour before retiring. A cup of Greek yogurt or a sliced apple with peanut butter fit the bill perfectly. If stress is keeping you awake, don’t rely on a nightcap to help you nod off. Alcohol disrupts the production of serotonin and norephinephrine, two neurotransmitters that regulate sleep stages, especially later in the night. Opt for a cup of chamomile tea instead.
It’s important to set the stage for restful sleep. Reserve your bedroom for sleep and sex only. If you are used to watching TV or doing work in bed, you may find it harder to relax and to think of the bed as a place to sleep. It’s also important to create a dark environment. Even a small amount of light interferes with your body’s production of melatonin. And try to set a regular bedtime each night. If you frequently have trouble sleeping, getting at least 30 minutes of exercise daily may help. Findings from a Stanford University Medical School study show that older and middle-age people sleep better when they added regular exercise to their routine. After 16 weeks in a moderate intensity exercise program, subjects were able to fall asleep about 15 minutes earlier and sleep about 45 minutes longer at night. But don't exercise too close to bedtime or it may keep you awake.
Melatonin: regulates our internal clock but, as we age, we’re less able to produce this important hormone. Studies show that taking supplemental melatonin can help you fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer. Typical dosage: If you are over 40, the standard recommendation is 1 to 3 mg of melatonin 30 minutes before bedtime. But, because melatonin is a powerful hormone, the National Nutritional Food Association recommends checking with your doctor if you are pregnant, have an autoimmune disorder, suffer from depression, or have diabetes. As an alternative, try L-tryptophan. Medical research indicates that taking 1,000 mg of this amino acid before bedtime can induce sleepiness and delay wake times.
Passionflower: Drinking a cup of passionflower tea is a wonderful way to settle edgy nerves. And apparently its benefits don’t stop there. A double-blind randomized trial of 36 patients found that supplemental passionflower also soothes tense muscles and restlessness. Typical dosage: One cup of passionflower tea or 90 mg of a standardized extract one hour before bedtime.
Montmorency Tart Cherry Juice a natural source of melatonin, is a tasty way to help you fall asleep. One placebo-controlled study in the Journal of Medicinal Foods found that a tart cherry beverage was just as effective as valerian and, in some cases, even rivaled melatonin to helping users fall asleep. Typical dosage: Look for a concentrate designed to be mixed with water. Follow label directions.
Valerian alleviates insomnia without leading to addiction or causing a morning hangover. In one placebo-controlled study of 128 people, valerian enhanced sleep quality and significantly reduced the time it took to fall asleep. In another trial with 27 insomniacs, 89 percent reported that a valerian-based preparation improved their sleep and 44 percent even boasted that they got “perfect sleep.” Typical dosage: 400 mg. 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime.