If you're reading this at 2:30 a.m., you've got tomorrow off or you're an insomniac. Either way, you'll end up sleep-deprived, which is bad news. Proper rest is as essential as diet or exercise to maintain energy, mood, immune function, and overall health.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, one out of two people suffers at some point from sleep problems. Insomnia is the most common sleep disorder, says Neil B. Kavey, M.D., director of the Sleep Disorder Center at Columbia University Medical Center in New York. About 10 percent of Americans--more women than men--have regular bouts of insomnia, which is defined according to its source and recurrence. Insomnia can be primary (not directly associated with other health conditions), secondary (caused by illnesses such as depression or arthritis), chronic (lingering for months or years), or temporary (lasting days or weeks, though it can reappear).
There are numerous practical steps you can take to put yourself to sleep. Start by assessing your lifestyle risk factors. Consuming too much caffeine or alcohol, eating dinner too close to bedtime, or sleeping on a lumpy mattress can contribute to insomnia; these habits can be altered. Some people exacerbate their problems by worrying about their sleeplessness; this, too, can be addressed.
Or maybe you're just programmed to stay awake, says Michael Sateia, M.D., president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and a professor of psychiatry at Dartmouth Medical School in Hanover, N.H. "There's new evidence that some individuals with chronic insomnia are physiologically hyper-aroused," he says. "They simply have higher metabolic rates and faster brain-wave activity. Some people are cognitively hyper as well, so when it's time to sleep, they have difficulty shutting off their minds."
Many insomniacs turn to prescription drugs, such as Ambien, Sonata, Valium, Xanax, and Restoril, or to over-the-counter options, especially antihistamines like Benadryl. But doing so can be habit-forming.
"Sleeping medications do work," Sateia says. "But for people with chronic sleep disturbances, a short-term course of sleeping pills combined with behavioral treatment in which you unlearn negative sleep habits works best in the long run, because there's a smaller chance of adding chemical dependency to the problem."
That's also why turning to one or more of the following natural remedies--after first discussing them with your physician--can be the smarter, safer solution: melatonin According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, the most commonly used supplement for insomnia is melatonin, a naturally occurring hormone that regulates the sleep-wake system in the brain. Taking 1 milligram of a time-release melatonin supplement 30 minutes before bed can decrease the time it takes to fall asleep, prolong sleep duration, and boost daytime energy levels. Melatonin is a short-term solution that should be pursued in two-week cycles, advises naturopath Cathy Wong, N.D., the alternative-medicine consultant for About.com.
Tryptophan A naturally occurring amino acid that promotes relaxation and sleep, tryptophan converts to melatonin. Supplements were banned in the United States in 1990, but tryptophan-rich foods such as turkey, milk, and cheese can promote sleep. (Vitamin B6 enhances your body's conversion of tryptophan; you can get it in a B-complex supplement or from food sources like wheat germ, beef liver, bananas, and sunflower seeds.)
Magnesium This mineral, found in wheat bran, brewer's yeast, seaweed, almonds, and cashews, is a natural sedative. Unless you have a history of kidney problems, you can take a 400 mg of magnesium about an hour before turning in, Sateia says.