Sleep Your Way to Better Health

Sleep Your Way to Better Health
Insomnia—from the Latin word for “sleepless”—is the most common sleep disorder, characterized by diffi- culty falling asleep, waking up in the middle of the night and not being able to fall back asleep, or waking up too early in the morning. For a clinical diagnosis, the lack of sleep must impair your daytime functioning, says Gregg D. Jacobs, Ph.D., sleep specialist at UMass Memorial Medical Center and founder of “Almost half of all adults have insomnia once a week,” he adds. But only a fraction of sufferers seek treatment, in large part, Jacobs says, “because they’re afraid their doctor will prescribe sleeping pills, and there is a growing belief that pills are not a good choice.” Try these drug-free solutions instead:

Retrain your brain for sleep. Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) is a common psychological technique used to help people change the way they think and act and thereby break certain self-destructive habits. In two major studies in the Journal of the American Medical Association and one study in the Archives of Internal Medicine, cognitive behavior therapy proved to be more effective than sleeping pills, says Jacobs. “And unlike pills, CBT has no side effects and works long term.” The CBT insomnia treatment program that Jacobs developed and tested at Harvard Medical School and UMass Medical Center (now online at involves five sessions over five weeks. It teaches insomniacs many techniques—like waking up at the same time every morning, including weekends; and when sleep doesn’t come within 30 minutes, getting up and doing something quiet and relaxing—that help people reform their sleep habits.

Take valerian to relax. Nearly 6 percent of people in the U.S. took the herbal extract valerian at least once in 2006, according to a 2007 study in Sleep. “Valerian appears to increase the body’s available supply of the neurotransmitter gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA),” says Cathy Wong, N.D., a naturopath in Boston. “One of GABA’s effects is to regulate nerve cells so they don’t activate too often.”

  • Dosage: Take 400 mg per day an hour before bedtime. “It may take three weeks to work,” says Wong.
  • Caveat: Valerian shouldn’t be used for more than three months at a time, says Wong. “You may have heart palpitations, headaches, blurred vision, and nausea if it’s used over a long period of time,” she says.

Try melatonin. The same hormone that your body produces to induce drowsiness, melatonin, can be purchased over-the-counter in a pill form. Unlike valerian, “melatonin usually has an immediate effect,” says Wong.

  • Dosage: Take 0.3 mg per day about 30 minutes to an hour before bedtime. “The recommendation on product bottles, 1 to 3 mg, is higher than many practitioners believe it should be,” says Wong. “There’s concern that too large a dosage could cause the body to reduce its own production of melatonin.”

Sniff lavender before bed. When 31 “healthy sleepers” aged 18 to 30 years in a Wesleyan University peer-reviewed study (published in 2005 in the journal Chronobiology International) sniffed lavender essential oil over the course of one half hour before bed, it increased the amount of time they spent in the most productive stages of sleep, and they reported feeling more rested the next day.

  • Directions: “Put a few drops of lavender oil in a warm bath about an hour before bed,” suggests Wong. “A warm bath raises body temperature. When it falls after you get out, that drop causes you to feel drowsy.