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," 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. "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:
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., author of The Inside Out Diet: 4 Weeks to Natural Weight Loss, Total Body Health, and Radiance.
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.
Chromium This is an effective solution for blood-sugar imbalances, which often cause middle-of-the-night wakefulness, notes Sateia. There's no danger of toxicity with doses less than 300 micrograms; a daily dose of 200 mcg in capsule form with a vitamin C chaser to increase absorption is recommended.
Chamomile To calm the digestive system, reduce muscle tension, and trigger other sleep-inducing activity in the brain, sip a cup of chamomile tea. (Or take 1 teaspoon of tincture with water up to three times a night.) If chamomile doesn't help, lavender or passionflower tea may have a stronger sedative effect.
Valerian This herb works by stimulating the brain to release a neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid, which inhibits nerve impulses and helps the brain and body relax. Valerian can take up to a month to be effective, but it rarely produces side effects, doesn't lead to dependency (as prescription and OTC drugs can), and won't cause morning drowsiness, says Wong. She recommends taking 400 mg in capsule form within an hour of bedtime. Herbal sleeping formulas often contain valerian combined with passionflower and other ingredients.
Coffea Cruda This homeopathic remedy for sleeplessness is actually made from a dilution of coffee. It works well to beat insomnia caused by overexcitement or by drinking too much caffeine, says Dana Ullman, M.P.H., co-author of Everybody's Guide to Homeopathic Medicines. Take one dose of 30C-strength remedy a half-hour before bedtime, or follow label instructions.
Arsenicum Album If you feel too exhausted to sleep, Ullman recommends this homeopathic option. It's also good for people who have difficulty staying asleep, especially those who wake up between midnight and 2 a.m., worrying about work, health, or family matters. Take one dose of 30C-strength remedy as soon as you wake up, and repeat every 30 minutes until you fall back asleep, or follow label instructions.
Whatever remedies you choose, you need to create a well-organized sleep-wake schedule, says Neil B. Kavey, M.D., director of the Sleep Disorder Center at Columbia University Medical Center in New York. And taking sleep medications or supplements before you normally feel tired will provide the best results.
"Our brains have naturally occurring circadian rhythms, and it's important to learn what your particular rhythm is and respect it," he explains. "Maybe you're naturally a night owl. You want to set the stage for [natural or pharmaceutical] treatments to be their most effective, and you don't want to take something for sleep when your brain is cycling into its awake phase."
Live to sleep
Lifestyle changes are often the most powerful natural sleep therapies. Here are some areas to focus on: