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Get Some Sleep!

A repeat because we all need sleep, especially around the holidays! Adam Stark

A good night’s sleep is absolutely foundational to good health. This isn’t just your grandma talking. The research is there, too. Yes, it’s hard to separate cause from effect, but it appears that insufficient sleep is linked to slower and fuzzier thinking, a weakened immune system, anxiety and depression, weight gain, heart attacks, and fatal car crashes. Not to mention wrinkles.


Yet so many of us sleep so poorly, or simply don’t sleep enough.

And how much sleep is “enough”? Obviously, people vary, and experts will argue and argue. For my part, I look back to 1910 – before light bulbs and radios in every home, before computers and television – when Americans reported sleeping over nine hours a night. Even today, people gravitate to those nine hours when removed from distractions. Scientists living above the Arctic Circle, for example, and lab subjects without windows and clocks, tend to average at least 8.5 hours, up to 10.5 hours, a night.

And today? Americans report sleeping about seven-and-a-half hours a night, often less. In other words, 500 hours a year less than we did a century ago. And it might be worse than we think. According to data published in 2006 in the American Journal of Epidemiology, Americans spend 7.6 hours a day thinking they’re asleep, but only 6.1 hours actually sleeping. That’s 1.5 hours trying to doze off, tossing and turning, sending one last text, running up to the bathroom, etc., none of which actually counts.

Even with the hours we get, we’re looking at what researchers call an 81% “sleep efficiency.”

So, what can we do? Let’s start with lifestyle changes and relaxation techniques, and then I’ll leave it at that. I’m not qualified to be anyone’s spiritual advisor. All that stuff works, and hopefully you can learn about it from somebody wiser…

So let’s talk herbs and nutrients.

This will be far from a comprehensive list. Hopefully, however, there’s a here that you can read through and find something that resonates. Even then, some trial-and-error may be in order until you find the remedy that really sticks.

While I’m mostly writing about single herbs and nutrients, most people do better with formulas that combine two or more of these.

Tryptophan/5-Hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP): Most of us have heard of the neurotransmitter, serotonin. We normally think of it as the “happy” neurotransmitter, be it might be more precise to call it the “contented” neurotransmitter. Sleeplessness that feels sort of discontented or agitated, then, often derives from a serotonin deficiency. Putting off bed to watch one more episode of lackluster teevee? Snacking late into the night because you “need a treat”? Consider serotonin.

Unfortunately, you can’t get serotonin in a pill. You can, however, get its precursors, tryptophan and 5-HTP. The brain converts tryptophan (which we get from food) to 5-HTP, which in turn creates serotonin.  Some traditionalists prefer straight tryptophan, which has been on the market longer. Having said that, most people find that the 5-HTP works more efficiently.

People may take 5-HTP during the day to feel happier and more content, and to curb restless overeating. A standard dose for sleep is between 50-300 mg about an hour before bed.

Taking tryptophan and 5-HTP while you’re on serotonin-sparing antidepressants can lead to a dangerous “1 + 1 = 5 effect.” So if you’re on Zoloft, Prozac, and any other drug in their classes, you should only approach tryptophan and 5-HTP very cautiously, if at all.

Melatonin: Melatonin is a hormone produced by the pineal gland at the base of the brain. We produce it from serotonin, using vitamin B12. We can also get it from pills.

Normally, we produce melatonin only when light doesn’t hit our eyes. It’s really the Great Synchronizer: it synchronizes external rhythm of light and dark with internal rhythm of sleep and wake.

Of course we can all stay awake in the dark if we try to, which tells us melatonin isn’t a strong sedative, simply a gentle nudge in the right direction. Sometimes that nudge is exactly what we need.

People at risk for melatonin deficiency include the elderly, people exposed to unnatural light cycles (hello, screen time!), and those who are vitamin B12-deficient (especially long-term vegetarians and people on acid-blocking drugs).

There are a lot of reasons to recommend melatonin. It’s not a sedative, a 1 mg dose comes in at 10¢ a night, and it makes sleep more restful physiologically level. There’s also reason to believe that melatonin is protective against heart disease, dementia, and cancer. There’s even evidence that a little melatonin at night helps irritable bowel syndrome, and some circumstantial evidence that it may help in autoimmune diseases and emotional disorders, too.

Melatonin is especially useful in dealing with jet lag, shift change issues, and sleeplessness without an obvious emotional component. There’s been some solid research using melatonin with teenagers on stimulant medications for ADHD. A standard dose is 1-3 mg a night.

Valerian Root: In Germany, where many herbs are counted and accounted for like drugs, preparations of this root are the country’s best-selling over-the-counter sleep medicine.

Valerian is a simple, uncomplicated sedative. It doesn’t focus on anxiety, tension, discontent, or any of the other emotional factors that at times feed into sleeplessness. It’s just a gentle knockout – if I can use those two words together. In about 10-15% of people, Valerian creates a paradoxical reaction where they get more wakeful. Hard to predict…

Passionflower: First, ignore the name of the plant. The name derives from the Spanish conquistadors who saw Christ-like symbology in the “crown of thorns,” etc. So, no, Passionflower will not assist with that other bedroom activity…

What Passionflower will do is help you relax. Allow me to quote the great herbalist Michael Moore, from Medicinal Plants of the Desert and Canyon West: “Passionflower is a simple, uncomplicated sedative… it has little of the ‘downer’ sensation of other herbs and drugs… It is virtually devoid of side effects in sensible doses and is more calming than narcotic. Some people like an ‘edge’ to their sedatives; Valerian would probably be their choice… There is no edge to Passionflower; it lets you down a couple of notches, and it’s then up to you to take it from there.” Going back to other of Mr. Moore’s writings (if I may paraphrase the master), Passionflower is especially useful for heavier folk who get all high-blood-pressure at work, and then hold on to that high blood pressure into the evening. Again, the key phrase for me is “take it down a notch.”

Kava Root: Whole dissertations can be written about this South Pacific herb. Let me just say this: for most people, Kava is simply the single best and most efficient herbal remedy for acute, pit-of-the-stomach anxiety – everything from stage fright to lonely late-night nameless dread.

Silk Tree Bark: Yet another remedy that isn’t exactly a sleep remedy… Silk Tree is sometimes called Mimosa. The Chinese call it He Huan, or “The Tree of Happiness.” Silk Tree is an ideal remedy for sleeplessness that derives from pangs of grief or the shock of loss.

Both the bark and flowers are used. But here, you’re going to want extracts of the bark.  Try about 120 drops of the standard tincture throughout the day for a few days. It combines well with the Chinese formula Xiao Yao (“Easy Wanderer”) for outrage and anxiety at loss.

GABA and PhenylGABA: Gaba (Gamma-Amino-Butyric Acid) is a neurotransmitter that normally occurs in the brain. It quiets the mind. Many herbs that are calming and/or relaxing work by modulating GABAergic activity in the brain. GABA is available in pill form, so you can raise GABA levels directly.

I like GABA for when the mind is racing, racing, racing, and won’t let up – day or night. It works quickly, usually within 30 minutes on an empty stomach. A standard dose is 500-1,000 mg at a time, up to 3 times a day. (For sleep, you can take it just once, in the evening).

Too much GABA can cause tingling nerve jitters in the body, as the excess GABA overwhelms the body’s ability to transport the GABA to the brain where it belongs. That shouldn’t be an issue at the doses suggested here, but if it is, just take less, or stop.

PhenylGABA is a form of GABA which many describe as better and stronger – I’ve heard 2 or 3 people call it “magically” effective (or some wording to that effect) when all else has failed.

Ashwagandha: Ashwagandha used to be called “Indian Ginseng,” until it became illegal in this country to call anything “ginseng” that isn’t actually ginseng. But to herbalists, it’s still very much a “ginseng-class” herb, which is to say, it’s a stress-response herb, or an adaptogen.

Adaptogens increase the body’s adaptive capacity in the face of stress (strengthening you), while at the same time reducing physiologic stress response (calming you). Adaptogens are a fascinating topic, but suffice it to say that David Winston’s book on the subject is the definitive text if you want to read more.

Ashwagandha is arguably the most relaxing of the adaptogens. (The Latin name is Withania somnifera. Withania the genus of shrubs to which it belongs; “somnifera” means “sleep-inducing.”) It will strengthen you, yes, gently and reliably; but also help ease you into sleep.

The research here shows that it not only helps people get to sleep faster, but also deepens sleep and makes it harder to disturb. As an adaptogen, Ashwagandha not only helps you sleep, but makes you feel better and more rested even when you haven’t gotten enough sleep.

And for those situations where you’re simply not going to have enough sleep no matter what you do, you might want to consider another adaptogen called Rhodiola. There’s been some tremendous research here showing very real benefit around sleep-deprived brain fog and low energy, and grumpiness

“Sleep-Through,” by Gaia Herbs: I normally don’t mention brand-name formulas. But this one deserves a shout-out. As the name implies, Sleep-Through is more about staying asleep than getting to sleep. Sleep-Through has been on the market for a year and a half now, and so far the feedback I’ve gotten has been tremendous.

“Tranquil Sleep,” by Natural Factors: Debra says, “Another brand name formula that we’ve gotten excellent feed-back on in our store. Because it contains L-Theanine with 5-HTP and melatonin, it seems to help people fall sleep, stay asleep, but sleep more soundly. And it’s a chewable lozenge.”

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