5 natural ways to get a good night's sleep

Insomnia, difficulty falling asleep, waking repeatedly during the night, restlessness and other sleep disturbances keep many of us from getting the rest we need —problems compounded by the fact that Americans in general are sleeping less than they used to (see sidebar p. 41).

Conventional medicine relies mainly on pharmacological treatments, such as prescriptions of benzodiazepines, for serious sleep disturbances. But the drawbacks to this approach are many, including sedation hangover, impaired responses, decreased respiration and, possibly, drug dependency. Herbal sleep aids, on the other hand, can provide low-risk, widely accepted and proven alternatives for many common sleep disorders that aren't caused by serious physical or psychological problems.
Tried and True

The best-known and best-researched herbal sleep aid is valerian (Valeriana officinalis), which has been used for more than 500 years to help induce a good night's sleep. While the herb's restful properties have long been understood, modern consumers have only recently begun to discover ways to optimize valerian's effects. Often, people take valerian products much the same way they do conventional sleep aids—just before going to bed. Herbal treatments, however, work much differently than conventional ones.

When you take a strong prescription sedative you feel the effects relatively quickly, usually within the hour. Herbs, generally speaking, work over a longer period of time—much longer. Clinical studies performed in the past decade indicate that valerian works best to promote natural sleep after at least two weeks of daily use. Optimum results are expected after four weeks when you take 600 milligrams (mg) two hours each night before bedtime. You can also sip a tea made from dried valerian roots, but the flavor may take some getting used to.

Generally, valerian isn't known to produce adverse side effects, although there have been some exceptions. In one study, two cases of headache were reported, in addition to one complaint of morning grogginess. In another case, a woman reported an unexpected reaction of restlessness. The good news is that no valerian dependency has been reported in all the centuries that the root has been used as a sleep aid.
Wholesome Hops

Traditional herbalists sometimes offer insomniacs a pillow stuffed with the dried fruits of hops to help them fall to sleep. These herbalists have known for years that in addition to their bitter flavor—which can help stimulate digestion—and diuretic effects, hops can help induce a good night's sleep. The mild, sedative effects of hops have been observed in people who collect them, a condition dubbed “hops pickers' fatigue.”

Hops are widely used in European herbal medicine to treat restlessness, anxiety and sleep disturbances. The most common dosage is equivalent to one-half gram of dried fruits taken as tea, one to three times a day. Use about one heaping teaspoonful (about one-half gram) of whole hops to make tea. Steep in a cup of hot water for 10 to 15 minutes. Although hops ingestion at recommended dosages is not associated with toxicity, the fruits generally are contraindicated in cases of depression. Rare allergic reactions have been reported.
Peaceful Passion

Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) consists of the dried, above-ground parts of the passionflower vine common in much of the southeastern United States. Although there are upwards of 500 species of passionflower, most from the American tropics, only Passiflora incarnata from temperate North America is widely used in herbal medicine.

The reputation of passionflower as a sleep aid is summed up by Harvey Wickes Felter and John Uri Lloyd in the 1898 classic King's American Dispensatory: “Its force is exerted chiefly upon the nervous system, the remedy finding a wide application in spasmodic disorders and as a rest-producing agent. It proves useful in the insomnia of infants and old people. It gives sleep to those who tire laboring under the effects of mental worry or from mental overwork.”

Widely used by naturopathic physicians and in European phytomedicine, passionflower is indicated for states of nervous unrest accompanied by sleep loss. The average daily dose is equivalent to four to eight grams of the dried herb (one to two teaspoons), divided into three doses. About one-half teaspoonful of the dried, cut-and-sifted herb is used to make a cup of tea. Tinctures are taken in dosages of 20 to 40 drops, up to four times a day for nervous unrest.
Lemon & Lavender

Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) consists of the freshly dried leaves of the lemon balm plant, a member of the mint family. A popular herbal tea ingredient for its flavor, lemon balm is recognized by European herbalists for its ability to help induce sleep. In Germany, lemon balm preparations have been approved for treatment of nervous insomnia.

Lemon balm also is widely recommended by herbalists as a sleep aid, especially in cases where sleep disturbances are accompanied by a nervous stomach. Lemon balm tea is quite tasty. It's generally taken as a single dose, ranging from 1.5 to 4.5 grants of the dried cut-and-sifted herb. An average dose for tea is achieved by infusing one to two grams of dried leaves in a cup of hot water for five to 10 minutes. A teaspoonful of the cut and sifted herb equals about one gram. It is not associated with any toxicity or side effects.

The relaxing effects of lavender flowers and their essential oil have more scientific evidence to back them than any other herb except valerian.

In Germany, lavender preparations are approved for use in some cases of sleep disorders and nervous unrest. Common dosages include one to two teaspoons of the dried flowers, made into tea (consider using a sweetener to make the tea more palatable), or one to four drops of the oil, taken with a sugar cube. Lavender also is used in aromatherapy. One small study concluded that geriatric patients slept better after undergoing lavender-based aromatherapy than they did after taking synthetic drugs.

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