Natural Sleep Help

Gentle, soothing remedies put herbs to work for peaceful slumber.

| April/May 2006

My 15-year-old son’s high school administrators made a wise move and decided to start school at 9 a.m. rather than at 7:30. They wanted to help the teenagers show up better prepared for the day, physically and emotionally, instead of forcing them to march through the door before the winter sun had appeared over the horizon. This strategy was designed to allow the students to get more of what we all require — a good night sleep. Sleep is essential to optimal health, helping our bodies and minds recharge, re-energize and get on with the activities of the day. Individuals’ sleep needs vary, with eight hours being the average. It is said that Thomas Edison thrived on only four hours of sleep each night but that Albert Einstein required 12 hours for a good night’s rest.

If there’s one thing we all have in common, it’s that our bodies tell us when we’re tired. But with busy lifestyles, ever-changing schedules, travel, worries and sometimes even a late-night movie that keeps us up longer than our bodies would like, we all occasionally suffer from insufficient sleep.

Stress, excitement or insomnia?

Common sleep disturbances include difficulty falling asleep, poor-quality sleep (such as waking up repeatedly during the night), light sleep and not enough sleep. Statistically, sleep disturbances are known to increase with age. More women are affected by sleep disturbances than men. Left untreated or without adequate treatment, sleep disturbances can evolve into an increased risk of physical and mental disorders, including depression. A study published in the December 2004 issue of Annals of Internal Medicine reports that University of Chicago researchers found that losing sleep can raise levels of hormones linked with appetite and eating behavior, creating an increased sensation of hunger and a preference for high-calorie, high-carbohydrate foods.

Call it what you will — anxiety, stress or just plain excitement — but the ups and downs of daily life can lead to sleep troubles. Many people turn to prescription medications, potent drugs that may involve risks including tolerance, habit-forming behavior and even overdose. These drugs may react with alcohol, as is the case with barbiturates, or lead to clumsiness or drowsiness the next day. Over-the-counter drugs also are available, but they, too, may cause side effects, such as grogginess, dry mouth and constipation. Herbs may be very successful in helping consumers with relatively mild problems getting to sleep or staying asleep — without unwanted side effects. If insomnia lasts more than a week, consult a physician to rule out any physical or psychological problems that might require professional treatment.

Valerian: A well-reasearched sedative herb

From a scientific perspective, valerian is certainly the best-documented herbal sleep aid. Over the past 20 years, more than 200 studies on valerian have been published in the scientific literature, especially in Europe, including more than 10 controlled clinical studies. Experimental data indicates a scientific basis for valerian’s mild sedative qualities.

A recent randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study evaluated the effects of a valerian extract in 16 patients, when given a single dose of valerian and after a multiple-dose treatment for four weeks. According to the study’s authors, subjective parameters were assessed using questionnaires and included sleep quality, morning feeling, daytime performance, the time it took to fall asleep and the total sleep time. Objective parameters included sleep-stage analysis, arousal index and other procedures using established scientific protocols for studying sleep.

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