Sleep Better Without Drugs

Health Alert 72

You don’t have to suffer through sleepless nights and groggy days. I’ll show you how to get a better night sleep naturally.

Many patients come to me with trouble sleeping. The National Sleep Foundation estimates that half of all Americans have some degree of insomnia. It’s a familiar story.

“Doctor, I stare at the alarm clock all night. Hours go by. I think if I fall asleep now, I’ll still get 4 hours of sleep. But next thing I know it’s time to get up. Then I walk around like a zombie all day. I get irritable and feel stressed over the smallest things.”

This becomes a vicious cycle because one of the main causes of sleeplessness is stress. Thinking about events of the day and being anxious disturbs sleep. Environmental factors, medications, and certain foods will also upset sleep.

* Sleeping Pill Dangers *

Many Americans have turned to sleeping aids to combat sleeplessness. But both prescription and over-the-counter medications cause dependency and can pose serious health risks.

Over-the-counter sleep aids contain antihistamines. Antihistamines may “knock” you out, but they may compromise your immune system. Medications like Nytol, Unisom, Sleep-Eze, and Sominex all contain antihistamines.

Side effects of antihistamine containing sleep-aids:

• Day-time drowsiness

• Dizziness

• Irritability

• Weakness

• Nausea

• Stomach pain

• Dry mouth

• Headache

• Constipation

• Forgetfulness

Prescription drugs are even more dangerous. The most commonly used group of sleeping pills, benzodiazepines, are very addicting. These drugs include Valium, Restoril, Halcion and Prosom. Taking these drugs puts patients on a slippery slope. If you take one of these drugs regularly you will become addicted. Sleep will become near impossible without the drug.

* Sleeping With Herbs *

People have been using herbs to help with sleep for centuries. Two herbs stand out as excellent natural sleep aids. Valerian root and hops have relieved sleeplessness in clinical trials.

Valerian is a plant that is native to Europe, North America, and Asia. Valerian contains volatile oils that calm nerves. Alkaloids found in valerian root also calm the body. Valerian calms the body without causing grogginess like sleeping pills.

Hops relieve anxiety and tension. A double-blinded placebo controlled clinical trial proved the effectiveness of valerian and hops as sleep aids. Sleepless subjects either received the valerian-hops mixture or benzodiazepine for 2 weeks. Both therapies helped subjects sleep. But the benzodiazepine caused grogginess and withdrawal once they stopped the therapy.

Subjects reported no side effects from the valerian-hops mixture. The researchers concluded that valerian and hops are good alternatives to dangerous drugs.1

You can make a tea out of valerian and hops. You can get these herbs at your local health food store or on the Internet. As effective as this hops-valerian mix is, it’s not my first choice. I usually try a pure nutritional solution before resorting to herbs.

The best “sleeping pill” no longer on the open market

The amino acid tryptophan is quite safe and effective. Tryptophan is high in milk and turkey. It’s the reason these foods have the reputation for making us sleepy.

Some readers may remember buying tryptophan in health food stores in the 1980’s. Unfortunately, the FDA banned this natural supplement in the US. There had been a contaminated batch. The manufacturer quickly identified and removed the contaminant in the manufacturing process but the FDA continued to enforce the ban. Tryptophan continued to be popular around the world.

A couple of years ago, the FDA, under pressure, once again allowed the use of tryptophan in the US. But they made tryptophan available only by prescription. The problem is, most physicians who could write you that prescription, don’t. Since tryptophan occurs naturally there is no patent, little profit and no interest from drug companies.

You will probably have to ask your doctor for the prescription. Most pharmacies do carry it. I use a starting dose of 250 mg by mouth one half hour before bedtime. If that doesn’t produce good quality sleep, I increase the dose to 500 mg. You can enhance its effect by taking it with a glass of warm milk.

Here are a few more tips to help you sleep:

• Avoid stimulants close to bedtime (sugar, caffeine, tobacco)

• Stop eating a few hours before going to bed

• Exercise everyday

• Avoid skipping meals during the day

• Reduce stress (see Health Alert 39 for tips)

Al Sears, M.D.

1 Schmitz M., et al. Comparative study for assessing the quality of life for patients with exogenous sleep disorders treated with a hops-valerian preparation and a benzodiazepine drug. Wein Med Wochenschr 1998; 148(13): 291-8