Sleep is still a scientific frontier waiting to be fully explored. Even today, after centuries of study, sleep remains mysterious, and we have only begun to unlock its secrets. We know that sleep is crucial for the conversion of memories into long-term storage. We know sleep is needed for the regulation of certain hormones and body weight. And we know sleep is needed to repair damage, restore energy, and grow muscle.
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Healthy sleep must include all of the sleep stages.
It may surprise you to learn that when we sleep, we go on a journey. We travel through five separate stages (Stages 1 through 4 and then rapid eye movement, or REM sleep) and our bodies react differently to each stage. The deepest stages of sleep are crucially important because that is when tissue repair and rejuvenation take place. In this stage energy is restored and hormones are released, including human growth hormone (HGH), which plays a role in healing and longevity.
Therefore, healthy sleep must include the full journey through all the stages. Unfortunately, many prescription medications interfere with this cycle, including—ironically—sleep medication. Prescription drugs in the class of benzodiazepines (anti-anxiety medications) and antidepressants can help induce sleep but also interfere with the sleep stages, which can be quite problematic long term. However, the most common drugs used to induce sleep are sold over-the-counter (OTC) and do not require a prescription.
The downside of OTC sleep medicine
OTC sleep aids most commonly contain an allergy medicine called diphenhydramine, which has a powerful side effect: It makes you sleepy. Whenever you see a medication with "P.M." on the label, the agent that induces sleep is diphenhydramine. Millions of doses of these products are taken in the United States, yet most people know little about the long-term consequences of diphenhydramine, which can occur when they are abused or taken more often than recommended.
Drugs that reduce choline in the body are called anticholinergic drugs, and diphenhydramine is in this group. The brain needs choline to make an important neurotransmitter called acetylcholine, which is necessary for learning and memory, and loss of choline is thought to put people at a greater risk for certain illnesses. Recent research in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Internal Medicine found that using an anticholinergic drug daily for a year increased Alzheimer's risk by 19 percent, use for two to three years raised risk 23 percent, and from three to seven years (or longer) the increased risk was 54 percent. And while this doesn't mean that you should never take these drugs, it's important to be aware of their risks and be mindful of just how often you're needing them.
Effective natural remedies for better sleep
If you have trouble sleeping regularly, this might be a reason to try out some more natural sleep aids that don't have the same risks as prescription or OTC sleep aids. And there are a lot to choose from! Here are just a few to consider adding to your bedtime routine:
Melatonin is a natural hormone that helps reset our internal clock and signals the body that it is time for sleep. Melatonin is especially helpful with jet lag and can also be used an hour before bedtime to induce sleep. You might need to experiment to find the best dose for you, most generally between 0.5 milligrams and 5 milligrams. One caveat—melatonin can actually expand REM sleep (a very good thing) so you may have some very vivid dreams when first you start using it.
Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) is an herb that is useful for sleep, generally dosed between 400 and 900 milligrams each night. Valerian is highly effective for many people and has not been shown to interfere with healthy sleep cycles. However, it is important to note that about 10 to 15 percent of the population paradoxically responds to valerian use with increased energy and sleeplessness. Unfortunately, there is no way to know whether you will be among this minority until you try valerian for a few nights and see if it works for you.
3. Essential oils
Some new areas of natural sleep support involve the use of lavender, mandarin, and ravensara essential oils for relaxation and restful sleep. Make sure the oils you use are encapsulated and approved for internal use. Dosages of these blends range from 125 to 250 milligrams before bedtime.
4. Lemon balm
Last—but certainly not least—is lemon balm (Melissa officinalis). In a human clinical trial of patients with anxiety disorder and insomnia, use of lemon balm lowered insomnia by 42 percent. In this study, participants used 300 milligrams twice daily. Significant benefits for anxiety were also noted.
Trouble sleeping can be a pretty miserable experience, but you don't have to choose between sleep deprivation and the undesirable side effects of prescription and OTC sleep aids. With these natural remedies, you'll be snoozing in no time.