Let’s face it, no one feels good after endless nights of tossing, turning or staring at the ceiling. Poor sleep interferes with your blood sugar and insulin levels, hormonal balance, appetite control and fat loss, even when your dietary and exercise routines are right on track. It’s no coincidence that insufficient slumber causes you to crave high-calorie, high-sugar foods — a lack of sleep has been proven to spike the hormones that make you want to snack. Researchers at the Stanford School of Medicine found that subjects who had only five hours of sleep per night had less of the appetite-regulating hormone leptin and more hunger-stimulating ghrelin, and experienced an increase in their BMI, regardless of their diet and exercise quality.
If you’re having trouble sleeping, first have a look at your diet and exercise routine. If after doing that, you still need a bit of herbal help, you can try one or more of these natural sleep aids:
1. Relora: This is my favorite choice for chronic stress and sleep disruption. A mixture of the herbal extracts magnolia officinalis and phellodenron amurense, Relora is medically proven to reduce stress and anxiety. It’s often the best option for patients who tend to wake up throughout the night, for highly stressed individuals and for menopausal women with hot flashes that cause sleep disruption. It can significantly reduce cortisol and raises DHEA, a hormone related to depression and the production of sex hormones, within only two weeks of use.
Dosage: Take two before bed and one in the morning to ease the effects of stress and improve your rest.
2. Magnesium Glycinate: I once had a patient ask if I had given him a drug because this simple mineral worked so well for his sleep! Magnesium calms your nervous system, induces relaxation, reduces blood pressure, decreases cravings, aids PMS tension, increases energy during the day, and treats and prevents constipation and muscle cramps. As an added bonus — it also reduces sugar cravings and aids insulin sensitivity.
Dosage: Take 200 to 800 mg at night. Keep increasing the dosage until you reach bowel tolerance (aka the point at which you develop loose stools).
3. Ashwaganda: Ayurvedic practitioners use this dietary supplement to enhance mental and physical performance, improve learning ability and decrease stress and fatigue. Ashwaganda is a general tonic that can be used in stressful situations, especially for insomnia, restlessness or when you are feeling overworked. Studies have suggested that ashwaganda offers anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, anti-stress, antioxidant, immune-regulating and rejuvenating properties.
It’s also a great option if you tend to suffer from a sluggish thyroid. This supplement appears to work directly on the thyroid gland and other body tissues, which is good news because thyroid problems most often occur within that gland itself.
Dosage: The typical dosage is 500 to 1,000 mg, twice daily. When choosing a brand, ensure that the label indicates that it is standardized to 1.5 percent withanolides per dose.
4. GABA: Neurotransmitters are chemicals in the brain that allow communication from one nerve cell to another. GABA, an amino acid, is a calming neurotransmitter; people who struggle with anxiety often have low levels of serotonin (connected to feelings of well-being) and GABA. It’s well suited for individuals who experience anxiety, muscle tension or pain. In fact, many prescribed anxiety medications such as benzodiazepines target GABA receptor sites in order to induce relaxation.
Dosage: Take 500 to 1,000 mg before bed. Alternatively, take GABA 10 to 20 minutes before your evening meal. The standard dose of 200 mg three times daily can be increased to a maximum of 450 mg three times daily, if needed, but this dosage should not be exceeded.
5. 5 HTP: A derivative of tryptophan — the chemical in turkey that makes you sleepy — that also contributes to the creation of serotonin, 5-HTP has been found to be more effective than tryptophan in treating sleep loss related to depression, anxiety and fibromyalgia. 5-HTP appears to increase REM sleep and decrease the amount of time required to fall asleep, as well as the number of night-time awakenings. Some studies indicate that 5-HTP may be as effective as certain antidepressant drugs in treating individuals with mild-to-moderate depression.
Dosage: Take 50 to 400 mg a day, divided into doses throughout the day and before bed.
6. Melatonin: This hormone decreases as we age, as well as during times of stress and depression. Scientists at the MIT Clinical Research Center have shown that tiny oral doses of melatonin can put people to sleep — findings that suggest that melatonin may offer an alternative to hypnotic drugs, such as Valium, frequently used to relieve insomnia. In the study, melatonin was found to help people fall asleep more quickly, and to increase time spent in deep sleep when compared with the placebo group.
Dosage: I recommend dosages of 0.5 to 3 mg at bedtime. Try opening up the capsules and pouring them under your tongue. You can also purchase melatonin in sublingual form, taken under the tongue, for fast absorption. Supplements tend to be effective for insomnia only when melatonin levels are low, so if you find it doesn’t work for you, this could be the reason.
Natasha Turner, N.D. is a naturopathic doctor, Chatelaine magazine columnist, and author of the bestselling books The Hormone Diet and her newest release, The Supercharged Hormone Diet, now available across Canada. She is also the founder of the Toronto-based Clear Medicine Wellness Boutique.