Healing Insomnia Naturally: How to Get Your Sleep On for Seven Hours Straight

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SWEET DREAMS: My Top Ten Remedies for Insomnia

Magnesium helps reduce restless legs as well as insomnia – a deficiency is certainly a potential reason for feeling low or anxious

The following is an excerpt from “The 10 Secrets of Healthy Ageing” by Patrick Holford and Jerome Burne

Aging well is a matter of making the most of all the natural ‘repair and restore systems’ your body has access to. Exercise and diet are obviously major players, but so is sleep which can take a knock in our 24/7 culture. Not only do busy lifestyles tend to encroach on the territory of sleep – ‘I’ll stay up late/get up early to finish it’ – but the stress that many of us are under means that even when we get to bed, falling asleep can be a problem as we replay the day’s events or construct scenarios for tomorrow. Then, not being able to fall asleep becomes something else to worry about.

As well as making us feel lousy the next day, missing out on sleep directly impacts on our lifespan. One study of 21,000 twins followed for 22 years uncovered the optimum number of hours sleep we should be getting. Less than seven, or more than eight, increases our chances of dying sooner. In the study, men did worse than women, if they got too much or too little. But even more damaging than not getting the optimum seven and a half hours was the effect of the regular use of sleeping pills, which had a worse effect on women. Just the right amount of quality sleep also predicts life satisfaction.

Sleep is essential for regenerating our cells. Some of sleep’s life-enhancing effects come because the body releases growth hormone during the deep sleep phase, which stimulates the regeneration of cells. Most bone growth, for example, happens at night.

Growth hormone also burns fat and builds muscle, and it stimulates your immune system. Some people are so enamored with the anti-aging effects of growth hormone that they supplement it. We discuss the pros and cons of this in Secret 10 (see book). For now, the best way you can naturally promote your own growth hormone is to sleep well, reduce stress and also take resistance-type exercise, which builds muscle (see Part Three, Chapter 4). All these factors benefit younger people as much as older people.

Say No To Sleeping Pills

If you’re not getting enough sleep, you may have been tempted to try sleeping pills. Although insomnia can be very troubling, the good news is that there are many ways you can handle it. There are natural compounds that can make a big difference, and you can learn ways to deal with stress, so that you get the excitement out of life without the constantly racing heart and the anxiety. Also, a form of therapy called cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is proven to be effective for sleep problems, and food nutrients can help too. Yet the most medical common response to sleep problems is to be given a drug prescription.

Even though for years there have been worries about the benefits, safety, and risks of addiction with sleeping pills, doctors in the U.K. where I live still write prescriptions for over 10 million of them every year at a cost of over £30 million in the U.K. Studies regularly find their benefits are small and that they should be used sparingly on older people, as the risks of falls and cognitive impairment may well outweigh the benefits. However, GPs continue to believe, wrongly, that a relatively newer type, known as ‘the Zs’ are safer for older people and less likely to be addictive. Like many drugs, they can be useful in an emergency, but we don’t advise taking them on a regular basis without a good reason.

Calming Down with GABA

Whether you’re working or you’ve retired, you can experience stress hot spots. The physical effects of these stresses show up in the bloodstream as the hormones our bodies produce when we’re stressed: adrenaline and cortisol. When they are active, your energy reserves are channelled towards immediate survival, known as ‘fight or flight’. So your body stops repairing itself and regenerating in favour of dealing with the perceived threat.

If you go to bed worried, the natural antidote to the extra adrenaline that may still be pumping around your body is an amino acid and neurotransmitter called GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) that switches the adrenaline off. Sleeping pills boost the production of GABA. There’s an added bonus to bringing down adrenalin, because there is a strong connection between feeling emotionally het up, not sleeping well, and feeling down and depressed.

In the U.S. and Ireland you can buy GABA itself over the counter in health food stores and pharmacies, but in the U.K. it is classified as a medicine and is therefore available only on prescription. Whether that is an effective way of protecting consumers is a moot point. It is certainly a shame, because GABA is a natural antidote to anxiety and the inability to relax.

The trouble with sleeping pills is that they either interfere with your body’s own ability to make GABA or rapidly make you less responsive to it. The net result is that they are highly addictive, so when you try to stop taking them you are likely to develop extreme anxiety and insomnia. And there is another ironic drawback to sleeping pills: they reduce the availability of the sleep hormone melatonin!

The Other Keys to Good Sleep

One study in Italy gave people who suffer with insomnia 225 mg of magnesium, together with 11.5 mg zinc, and 5 mg of melatonin

While bringing down your adrenaline level is half the battle of getting you ready for sleep, there are two other brain chemicals linked with mood and sleep: serotonin and melatonin. Sleeping pills focus on GABA, but there is a lot more to sleep’s biochemistry; understanding it can help you get the right amount of good quality sleep. It can also help to reduce your stress levels and get you out of the vicious cycle whereby a lack of sleep keeps making you more stressed, tired, and low.

Biochemically speaking, mood and sleep have a lot in common. The amino acid tryptophan, which turns into 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP), is not only the raw material for the mood-boosting neurotransmitter serotonin, but also for melatonin, the hormone that helps you sleep, controlling the sleep–wake cycle. It’s the brain’s neurotransmitter that keeps you in sync with the earth’s day-and-night cycle.

Jet lag, for example, happens when the brain’s chemistry takes time to catch up with a sudden shift in time zone. What’s happening inside your brain is that melatonin, which should be released at night to make you sleep, gets released during the ‘old’ night time. Taking melatonin just before bed in the new time zone helps to reset your brain’s chemistry so that it can recover from jet lag. (Take 1 mg for every one hour of time zone difference.) And melatonin not only helps you to sleep but is also a powerful antioxidant. Low levels are linked to an increased risk of cancer.

As you start to wind down in the evening, serotonin levels rise and adrenaline levels fall. As it gets darker, melatonin kicks in. Melatonin is an almost identical molecule to serotonin (from which it is made), and both are made from 5-HTP (which you can buy as a supplement), itself derived from the amino acid tryptophan which is present in most protein foods.

As often happens with natural compounds, converting one to another needs the correct amounts of various minerals and vitamins for the process to work most efficiently. Turning tryptophan into melatonin requires folic acid, vitamins B6 and C, and zinc; tryptophan is found in chicken, turkey, cheese, tuna, tofu, eggs, nuts, seeds, and milk.

Other foods associated with inducing sleep are lettuce and oats. So, if you are having sleeping problems, it makes sense to eat those foods and to supplement with a high-potency multivitamin / mineral that contains at least 200 mcg of folic acid, 20 mg of vitamin B6, 10 mg of zinc, and 100 mg of vitamin C.

Editor’s Note: Choosing the right pillow can also have a positive impact on sleep quality and duration. Do your research to find a pillow that works well for your head and shoulders.

Magnesium and Herbs That Chill You Out

Other nutrients that help include magnesium (which calms the nervous system), and the herbs valerian, hops, and passionflower. Magnesium has been reported to help reduce restless legs as well as insomnia. A deficiency is certainly a potential reason for feeling low or anxious.

For this and other reasons we recommend supplementing 150 mg of magnesium every day, and twice this (300 mg) if you have difficulty sleeping. One study in Italy gave people who suffer with insomnia 225 mg of magnesium, together with 11.5 mg zinc, and 5 mg of melatonin. Compared to those on placebo, those on the food supplements got to sleep much more easily, slept better through the night, and woke feeling refreshed and alert. Combinations of these herbs, minerals, and amino acids are particularly effective.

Valerian is the most potent GABA-promoting herb and, as such, can also cause daytime drowsiness, so it’s best to take it only in the evening if you have anxiety or insomnia and an inability to ‘switch off’. Valerian is sometimes referred to as ‘nature’s valium’. As such, it can interact with alcohol and other sedative drugs and should therefore be taken in combination with them only under careful medical supervision. It seems to work in two ways: by promoting the body’s release of GABA, and by providing the amino acid glutamine, from which the brain can make GABA. Neither of these mechanisms makes it addictive.

One double-blind study in which participants took 60 mg of valerian, 30 minutes before bedtime, for 28 days found it to be as effective as oxazepam, a drug used to treat anxiety. Another found it to be highly effective in reducing insomnia compared with placebos. A review of studies to date cites six that show a significant benefit. Our experience is that it works exceptionally well for many people. To help you get a good night’s sleep, take 150–300 mg about 45 minutes before bedtime. (Editor’s note: Valerian doesn’t agree with everyone, so try a small test dose first.)

Reduce Your Stress

As well as these natural ways of dealing with the biochemical effects of stress to ensure a good night’s sleep, there is another approach that makes handling stress itself more effective. Dealing with stress poorly not only fills you up with negative emotions and makes you feel exhausted, but it also stops you from sleeping. What is more, it is another block to aging well because it increases your risk of the chronic killers, including cancer and heart disease.

Stress triggers a cascade of hormones that, over time, accelerate aging, encourage inflammation and increase disease risk. Indeed, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that too much stress can be as bad for your heart as smoking and high cholesterol. And just in case you need any more proof of the damaging effects stress can have, research now shows that those of us who are regularly stressed have:

• A five-fold increased risk of dying from heart-related problems;
• Double the risk of developing diabetes, in men;
• A 65 per cent increased risk of developing dementia;
• Double the chance of developing obesity;
• An increased risk of breast cancer.

In our 100% Health Survey, 68% of the 55,000-plus participants reported feeling that they have too much to do, 66% said they frequently felt anxious or tense, 82% often became impatient, and 55% get angry easily. Such stress symptoms are our body’s way of warning us that something is out of balance. Your in-built survival kit – the ‘fight or flight’ response – is designed to be an emergency coping reaction. When it’s activated many times a day by traffic jams, conflicts with colleagues or your family, or work overload, the results are unpleasant and can be overwhelming.

You can tell that you aren’t handling stress well if you experience these symptoms on a regular basis:

• Difficulty in thinking straight
• A negative attitude
• Feeling out of control; Anxiety
• Tension; Irritation
• Feeling overwhelmed; Frustration; Hostility
• Heightened worries and concerns

Notice that these are all negative emotions. So, not only are you feeling bad but you are also tired out and not performing as effectively as you could. In a negative emotional state your options all narrow down. It’s hard to think creatively or come up with fresh options. What you want is a way to change the way you respond to stress so that you get the benefits of positive emotions. (For more on the HeartMath program for reducing stress, along with the use of relaxing music for sleep, see “The 10 Secrets of Healthy Ageing.”)

Sleep Hygiene

A piece of essentially common-sense advice, rather quaintly known as ‘sleep hygiene’, forms part of most sleep regimes:

1) Keep the bedroom quiet, at a comfortable temperature.
2) Wear comfortable clothing, don’t have a big meal in the evening, and avoid coffee and alcohol at least three hours before bed.
3) Your room should be as dark as possible; even a faint light can reduce the amount of melatonin you produce.
4) Exercise regularly, but not within three hours of bedtime.
5) Be aware that certain prescription medications can cause insomnia such as steroids, bronchodilators, diuretics.
6) Keep your bedroom for sleeping – not working or TV


Patrick Holford, based in London, England, is a leading pioneer in new approaches to health and nutrition, and is widely respected as one of the world’s leading spokesmen on nutrition and mental health issues. He is also the author of more than 30 health books. For more information go to: www.patrickholford.com

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