Women today are desperate for sleep! We race from one task to the next during the day only to find that when we settle in to bed at night, the race isn’t over. Now it’s our minds that are spinning along — worrying about what we left undone and need to do tomorrow, what we said or should have said, read on the internet, saw on TV, or talked about on our cell phones. It’s no secret that we are living in a faster-paced world than ever before — but our bodies haven’t adapted to this lifestyle.
Sound sleep is so crucial to our health and happiness! And if you can’t sleep, there could be many emotional and physical causes. One prevailing theme I see is the connection between insomnia and stress. Our stress hormones are intimately linked to our circadian rhythm. I’ve talked to so many women taking Tylenol PM, Lunesta, or Ambien, but these sleeping pills and other drugs don’t address the root cause of sleeplessness, and can often make us feel worse in the morning.
The good news is that you can reset your sleep-wake cycle. Nature has provided plenty of safe and effective ways to gently remind the body to rest. We can help you get to the root of your sleeping trouble, and offer some safe, natural sleep help in the meantime. Let’s take a closer look.
It’s been estimated that over a million cups of chamomile tea are consumed daily!
Choose the right herbs to help with sleep
For centuries wise women have treasured the following herbs for their calming influence, and phytochemists today are busy exploring and explaining the mechanics of how they support better sleep.
Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata). This species of passionflower has a long history of use for calming anxiety and treating insomnia. Neuroscientists believe it works by increasing the availability of a “relaxing” chemical called GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid). Its soothing effects on the nervous system may also be mediated by the same receptors in the brain sensitive to pharmaceutical-strength sedatives and anxiety drugs — but without the same risk profile. You can find passionflower in standardized powders, tinctures, infusions, and teas.
Chamomile (Roman or English chamomile: Matricaria recutita, Chamaemelum nobile). Widely regarded for its ability to treat insomnia, calm frayed nerves, and dissolve worry, chamomile’s sedative effects have been attributed to the flavonoid apigenin. Similar to the active constituents in passionflower and other botanical nerviness, apigenin appears to bind to GABA, benzodiazepine, or similar neurotransmitter systems in the brain.
Kava kava (Piper methysticum). The root of the kava plant has been used for generations to help relieve tension, restlessness, and insomnia. Though the FDA issued concerns in 2002 about kava and liver damage, these effects may have been due to inferior product quality or overuse. Herbal medicine researchers have attributed the relaxing, anti-anxiety actions of kava to the active principals known as kavalactones. These phytochemicals are believed to work through enhanced binding to GABA, dopamine, and opiate receptors in the brain.
Eat and drink for sleep. Connect the dots between what and when you eat and how well you sleep — sugar, caffeine, and alcohol may be factors to consider.
Adapt your routine. Set a reasonable bedtime, unplug before bed, and try exercising in the morning or at midday instead of in the evening.
Promote good sleep hygiene. Be sure your room is dark, quiet, and has comfortable bedding. Don’t allow electronics or digital clocks to “zap” you in the night.
Consider your stress and anxiety. The stress hormone cortisol is connected to our circadian rhythms. Supporting healthy cortisol balance and adrenal health may help to reset your sleep-wake cycle.
Valerian (Valeriana officinalis). Valerian has been used as a mild relaxant since as far back as the time of ancient Greece and Rome. In more recent times research on valerian has demonstrated anxiolytic, tranquilizing, and sleep-inducing effects in both animal studies and clinical trials. Like the other “botanical nervines,” research additionally suggests that valerenic acid, valerian’s active principal, works to relieve nervous tension through enhanced binding to the GABA receptors in the brain.
Natural molecules that reset your sleep cycle
Our bodies are naturally equipped with molecules that guide us to sleep every night. When women are struggling with sleep, depending on their unique situation, I use these molecules to help gently coax the body back into a healthy sleep-wake rhythm. Talk with your practitioner to see if you would benefit from supplementing with any of the following. Or, learn more about our Adrenal Health Program formulations, which combine natural herbs, minerals, and molecules to help your body naturally get a good night’s rest.
- Phosphatidylserine (PS). This molecule is a basic structural component of our brain and nerve cell membranes. The nervous system depends on healthy cell-to-cell communication and biochemical messaging, which can be enhanced by PS and similar molecules. Among its other benefits PS can modulate the interaction between the hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenal glands (known as the HPA axis), allowing for a more adaptive response to stress and thereby aiding in sleep.
- Melatonin. Naturally produced by the pineal gland in the brain whenever dusk approaches or you dim the ambient lighting, melatonin is actually a hormone. As melatonin levels in the blood increase, we become less alert and increasingly ready for sleep. Part of why we may have more difficulty falling asleep as we grow older is because our melatonin output begins to gradually wane after puberty, and especially after the age of 40. Supplemental melatonin has been found to be very safe and helpful for many people with insomnia, and may be an option for you to talk about with your healthcare practitioner.
- 5-HTP. 5-hydroxytryptophan is an intermediate amino acid formed naturally in the body from the precursor tryptophan during the production of melatonin and our “feel-good” neurotransmitter serotonin. This metabolic pathway, simplified, looks something like this:
Tryptophan ⇒ 5-HTP ⇒ Serotonin ⇒ Melatonin
Supplemental 5-HTP is extracted from the seeds of the Griffonia plant. 5-HTP supplements can be helpful for increasing the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin, which may allow for the release of melatonin without accessing your brain’s light-regulation system. Studies show it to be beneficial for insomnia and to improve sleep quality.
Calming minerals to support sleep
When should you take your B vitamins?
In general, it’s best to take your B-complex vitamins in the first half of your day. B vitamins help reduce nervousness and anxiety and for that reason certain B’s are sometimes included in natural sleep formulations. Taking B-complex vitamins later in the day can make some people feel less sleepy, however. Many women notice an excellent boost to their energy from the B-vitamin component of our Essential Nutrients, so it’s best to take them in the morning and after lunch or a mid-afternoon snack. This practice helps offset the afternoon slump many women with adrenal imbalance experience.
Women are often surprised to hear that certain vitamins and minerals can be helpful for sleep. Various studies have noted improvements in anxiety and perceived stress with vitamin and mineral supplementation. In one recent study of otherwise healthy women, the ratio of calcium to magnesium in the blood was significantly correlated with perceived levels of anxiety and stress. Low magnesium in particular has been well-studied in association with anxiety and poor sleep, and supplementing with these minerals can help resolve these symptoms.
A combination approach
We’ve always found that feeling good requires looking at the whole body. Sleep is integral to health, but it doesn’t stand alone. Our sleep-wake rhythms are affected by the environment we live in, the foods we eat, and our daily stress to name a few. I hope you’ll find an approach to sleep that encompasses your whole health picture, such as our Adrenal Health Program. It’s designed with natural herbs, supplements, and a healthy eating plan to facilitate a natural sleep-wake cycle.
In addition to our high-quality nutrient support, phytotherapeutic stress-support, and one-on-one phone support, we’ve put a lot of research into our new sleep product, Serinisol. Serinisol combines calcium, magnesium, phosphatidylserine, and passionflower to help level your cortisol output, calm your anxiety, and support your sleep naturally. Whether you chose our approach or not, take comfort in the fact that you don’t have to rely on the sleeping pills offered in your drug store or pharmacy – you can make choices that feel good for you.
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Further reading on chamomile
Srivastava, J., et al. 2010. Chamomile: A herbal medicine of the past with a bright future. Mol. Med. Report, 3 (6), 895–901. URL: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2995283/?tool=pubmed (accessed 02.17.2011).