Before resorting to the sleeping pills, Jane Costello suggests you try something a little more natural to help you drift off.
But before taking any supplement, please consult your doctor or pharmacist about the benefits and risks. Some remedies such as chamomile are generally harmless, while others, like St John’s Wort (which is usually prescribed for depression) can interfere with HIV treatments.
It is also important to research the appropriate dosage as too little or too much of a particular herb can be dangerous.
In short, know what you are putting into your body and which natural remedies will enhance your health.
Calcium and magnesium
Research suggests that disturbances in sleep, particularly the rapid eye movement (REM) phase, one of the deepest levels of sleep, may be related to a calcium deficiency. Calcium promotes the brain’s use of the amino acid tryptophan to manufacture melatonin — a hormone found naturally in the body which can assist a disturbed sleep cycle.
Magnesium is associated with a deeper, less interrupted sleep.
You can increase your magnesium levels by eating dark, leafy green vegetables, legumes, seeds, nuts and whole grains.
If you choose to take them as supplements, aim for a 2-to-1 ratio (half as much as magnesium as calcium).
A traditional sleep remedy, chamomile can reduce anxiety, calm the digestive system and relieve muscle tension. It also has anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties. Chamomile is sold in many forms: tea, oil extracts and tinctures, but is probably best taken as a tea.
However, it can cause allergic reactions in those with plant or pollen allergies.
Hops are traditionally used for making beer but can also be used as a sleep remedy, usually combined with valerian.
Hops extracts contain a chemical called methylbutenol which acts as a mild sedative. Hops are often used in herbal sleep pillows and tinctures, as well as in teas.
Lavender has sedative qualities that can increase REM sleep and help lengthen sleep time. People tend to wake feeling refreshed (unlike with over-the-counter remedies). Put a few drops of lavender essential oil on your pillow at night or spritz the pillow with lavender spray. Alternatively you could invest in a lavender-filled pillow, or add a few drops of lavender oil to a bath at night.
The drop in body temperature after a warm bath also assists with sleep. Other aromatherapy oils believed to assist with sleeping are ylang ylang and chamomile.
Melatonin is a hormone found naturally in the body that maintains our circadian rhythm, the internal biological clock that plays a critical role in when we fall asleep and when we wake.
Studies suggest that melatonin supplements may assist in reducing the time it takes to fall asleep, increase the number of sleeping hours, boost daytime alertness and ease jetlag.
Melatonin has several contraindications. It has been known to aggravate depression symptoms, cause vivid dreams or nightmares, headaches, decreased libido, breast enlargement in men and fertility issues.
Like chamomile, passionflower is a safe sedative and is particularly effective for insomnia caused by anxiety, worry or an overactive mind. Research suggests it has a benzodiazepine-like calming action without the side effects. Take it as a tea infusion or a herbal supplement.
Passionflower is often combined in tea mixtures with other calming herbs such as lemon balm, chamomile, catnip and hops.
Traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine
In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) insomnia is often related to kidney energy weakness.
The definition of this is completely different to that used in western medicine although it does refer to internal organs located at the small of the back, and symptoms include lower back pain, tiredness and fatigue.
Practitioners often prescribe herbal preparations such as Eucommia which stimulates Qi in the kidney meridian.
In Ayurvedic medicine, insomnia is often associated with a vata imbalance — vata being that which regulates breathing and circulation.
Ayurvedic treatments for insomnia can include Ayurvedic herbs such as jadamamsi, vacha root and ashwagandha, or the use of therapies such as the application of oil on the head and feet.
Tryptophan is an amino acid that serves as a precursor to serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps the body regulate sleep patterns and mood, and has been studied as a possible treatment for insomnia.
However, more research is needed on its efficacy and safety, particularly for pregnant women or those on anti-depression medication.
Tryptophan is found in: red meat, dairy products, nuts, seeds, legumes, soybeans and soy products, tuna, shellfish and turkey.
In some parts of Australia tryptophan is also available on prescription; in others it is sold as 5-HTP and L-Tryptophan.
Valerian is a medicinal herb that has long been used as a remedy for insomnia. It can help you fall asleep, promote deeper REM time and improve the overall quality of your sleep.
While researchers are divided over how valerian works in the body, it does contain chemicals called valepotriates, which have strong muscle-relaxing and sedative properties. Valerian may also affect levels of the calming neurotransmitter GABA.
As with all herbal sleep remedies, valerian doesn’t work for everyone and it has been known to cause headaches and dizziness, and even to act as a stimulant in a small percentage of people. It can also interact with medications such as sedatives and antihistamines, and is not suitable for people with liver disease.
An old favourite is a glass of warm milk before bed. Add one teaspoon of honey for a relaxing pre-sleep drink. Or, alternatively, try an Ayurvedic remedy by adding two strands of saffron or some nutmeg to a cup of warm milk to help get a good night’s sleep.
Before taking any supplements, remember to check first with your health care provider.