Sweet Dreams: Seven Natural Ways to Sleep Better

Whether the reason is anxiety, depression, pain, or some other factor, about 50 to 70 million Americans experience some form of insomnia, according to the National Institutes of Health. Even something as simple as changing the clocks for daylight-saving time can interfere with sleep patterns. It can make you fall short of the eight hours necessary to be creative and energetic-and to keep your immune system functioning properly.

Why do you need at least seven to eight hours of sleep? REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, which takes place throughout the night, occurs for the longest periods at the end of the sleep cycle. According to Hyla Cass, MD, that's when "the brain replenishes its supply of neurotransmitters, such as noradrenaline and serotonin, which are crucial for new learning and retention as well as for mood." If you're sleep deprived, try these simple steps for snoozing:

Before Bedtime
It's important to establish a sleep routine and stick to it. Choose a regular bedtime and preface it with a warm bath, adding a few drops of lavender oil to the water. Avoid stressful stimulation from the evening news or violent movies, and listen to soothing music instead. If you have to get up during the night, don't turn on the lights. Doing so throws off your internal clock. And never try to sleep with cold feet.

Avoid Stimulants
Stay away from caffeine, alcohol, and sugar, as well as foods that are spicy or high in fat or salt, particularly in the afternoon and evening. Cold medications and tobacco should also be eliminated. Stick with foods rich in nutrients, but don't eat anything for at least two hours before bedtime unless you need a protein snack to deal with a low blood-sugar problem.

Sleepy Time Snacks
There's a reason everyone wants to take a nap after that big Thanksgiving meal. Turkey is loaded with the amino acid tryptophan that manufactures serotonin, which is crucial for sleep. Tryptophan is also abundant in fish, dairy, eggs, bananas, figs, pineapples, nut butter, tuna, and whole-grain crackers-all good foods to eat in the evening.

Consider Vitamins
In addition to consuming foods that contain tryptophan, increase your intake of edibles high in vitamin B complex (nutritional yeast, egg yolks, fish, wheat germ, legumes, and whole grains) and vitamin C (dark, leafy greens and tart fruits). These vitamins help in the conversion of tryptophan to serotonin, so a good B complex supplement along with at least 200 mg of vitamin C is sleep insurance. A calcium/magnesium supplement can also be effective for relaxing tense muscles.

Helpful Herbs
A cup of German chamomile tea is a soothing way to end the day. Used for more than 1,000 years, valerian (Valeriana officinalis) has a tranquilizing effect, induces sleep, and improves sleep quality.

Hops (Humulus lupulus) has a calming, sedating effect, and St. John's wort enhances both serotonin and melatonin, helping you stay in deep sleep longer. Passionflower is also mildly sedating.

Kava (Piper methysticum) relieves underlying causes of insomnia: anxiety, restlessness, and stress. Don't take kava for more than three months, however. Kava should not be used by anyone who has a liver problem, takes medication that has an adverse effect on the liver, or consumes alcohol regularly.

Expend Energy
Besides toning your body, exercise is good for your mind. A walk, a run, a workout at the gym-they all produce endorphins, which help ease depression and improve sleep. But observe the two-hour rule by stopping physical activity at least two hours before bedtime.

Stress Busters
Take time to smell the flowers. Go for a stroll, meditate, read a poem, fly a kite, listen to music. Relax-you've earned it. You'll be just a nod away from sweet dreams.

Shift Work
If you're one of the 22 million people in America who don't work a typical 9-to-5 business day, you're most likely fighting your natural sleep-wake pattern. Shift workers in hospitals, on police forces, and in manufacturing and transportation jobs are working all night while the rest of the world is sleeping. Then they try to sleep during daylight hours when everyone else is awake.

The human body works on a 24-hour cycle of waking and sleeping, regulated by an internal circadian clock. This built-in clock takes its cues from nature's cycle of light and darkness. Since sleepiness hits most of us between midnight and 6 a.m., people who are working during those hours are disrupting their normal sleep cycle and may have difficulty falling asleep once they do get home.

The following tips may help prepare you for sleep:

  • Wear wraparound sunglasses if you drive home in daylight.
  • Ask others not to perform noisy household chores like vacuuming or running the dishwasher.
  • Unplug the telephone.
  • Darken the bedroom with curtains or shades and install carpeting to absorb sound.
  • Wear earplugs.
  • Turn on a fan or some other white noise to block sound.

Stick to your sleep schedule, even on weekends.

selected sources Healing with the Herbs of Life by Lesley Tierra, LAc ($24.95, Crossing Press, 2003) } The National Sleep Foundation, www.sleepfoundation.org } Natural Highs by Hyla Cass, MD, and Patrick Holford ($24.95, Penguin Group/Avery, 2002) } Prescription for Herbal Healing by Phyllis A. Balch, CNC ($23.95, Penguin Group/Avery, 2002)

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