Finding Dreamland

The right nutrients can help you get to sleep—and stay that way.

By Lisa James

April 2009


It’s a bedtime story with a cruel twist: While sleep may indeed “knit up the ravell’d sleeve of care,” in Shakespeare’s words, an excess of cares and worries can make restorative sleep maddingly elusive. Poor sleep, in turn, can magnify problems by hindering your ability to think, learn and remember.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote a book about sleeplessness in 350 BC, which gives you an idea of how long insomnia—the medical term for an inability to fall or stay asleep—has been a problem. Today we know that poor sleep does more than just make the daily grind difficult. Insomnia has been linked to mood problems (including depression) as well as increased risks for road accidents and for disorders such as high blood pressure.

Zombie Nation

How sleep-starved are we? According to the National Sleep Foundation’s 2009 Sleep in America poll, 27% of those surveyed have had their sleep disturbed at least a few nights a week. Economic turmoil plays a big role: Financial concerns cause sleeplessness for 16% of the respondents, the US economy overall for 15% and employment worries for 10%. What’s more, significant numbers of the

people whose sleep has been broken report not only reduced productivity but also trouble in exercising and eating properly.

Insomnia is harmful because there’s more to sleep than meets the eye. When the body’s internal clock says it’s beddy-bye time, a night-long pattern of sleep stages, known as the sleep cycle, begins. Drowsiness is followed by light sleep. These lead to two stages of deep sleep and a fifth stage, REM sleep, in which most dreaming takes place. Stages three through five are especially crucial; disturb any of them and some vital function, such as immune support or memory retention, suffers.

Sleep Support in Triplicate

The first step in overcoming insomnia is to establish healthy sleep habits: Go to bed the same time every night, don’t exercise in the evenings and avoid caffeine. If you’ve done these things and are still sleeping poorly, there are nutrients that can help. The idea is to support your body’s ability to fall asleep quickly and then stay asleep until morning.

Melatonin, a hormone that regulates the body’s sleep/wake cycle, can promote drowsiness. It has been used successfully to improve sleep quality in older people with insomnia and help night shift workers adapt to a different sleep schedule (Journal of Sleep Research 12/07, Sleep Medicine Reviews 10/02). Because it is the hormone the body uses to initiate sleep, melatonin is particularly helpful for people who have a hard time drifting off in the first place.

The supplement lactium, a milk-based protein, promotes healthy sleep by taking the tension out of the body’s stress response. In one study of women who exhibited stress symptoms, lactium helped those participants who showed the highest stress levels (European Journal of Clinical Nutrition 4/07). It helps promote night-long slumber.

5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) is an amino acid the body uses to create serotonin, which regulates mood. 5-HTP has been used both as an antidepressant and a sleep aid, and may help reduce hot flashes, which can cause early-morning wakefulness in meno­pausal women (Alternative Medicine Review 9/05). This makes 5-HTP helpful if you keep waking up at 4:30 a.m., only to nod off again five minutes before the alarm goes off.

Are your worries keeping you up at night? Good bedtime habits—and natural sleep-promoting agents—can help you get the sleep you need to face whatever life throws at you.

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