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Navigating the sleep-stress continuum

Americans fill more than 53 million prescriptions for sleep aids annually, and sleep and stress supplement sales rose to $116 million this year. But the pharmaceuticals and natural remedies we seek out may be just the ones our bodies don’t need. Supplement experts Roy Upton and Adam Stark explained why at this month's Natural Products Expo East.

Insomnia and stress. Stress and insomnia. Which came first? For me, the question often boils down to: Is it work, or just parenthood? Considering how much I and other Americans increasingly spend on drugs and supplements to fix sleep and decrease stress, a better question might be: How are we missing the mark? In fact, Americans fill more than 53 million prescriptions for sleep aids annually; and according to SPINS data, sleep and stress supplement sales rose to $116 million this year.

At this month’s Natural Products Expo East, I moderated Navigating Sleep and Stress Supplements, an education session for retailers whose customers stumble through their doors daily, looking for a magic pill to halt the downward spiral. What I learned is that aside from the obvious—addiction to electronics, light pollution, economy woes, etc, etc—the types of remedies we seek out may be just the ones our bodies don’t need.

For example, it makes sense that if you’re wound up or have chronic insomnia you need a chill pill—a relaxing herb such as passionflower or valerian, or supplemental magnesium. But according to herbalist Roy Upton, this often misses the deeper issue. “From a TCM [traditional Chinese medicine] perspective, if a person has deficiencies underlying insomnia, then that person might need a tonic—even one associated with increased energy—to help them sleep.” The body won’t turn off until it knows it’s safe to do so, he explained.

Upton recommends shen tonics such as rishi mushroom (also good for immunity), mugwort, and albizia (aka “flower of happiness”) for those situations. That’s not to say that some people don’t need to just relax, period, in which case bupleurum and peony combo, valerian, kava, or hops (yes, even occasionally in the form of Guinness, he says) are a few go-to remedies.

And how to survive if you simply can’t get the recommended eight hours of shut-eye? “Adaptogens,” says retailer and supplement expert Adam Stark. My personal favorite is rhodiola; Stark also recommends ginseng, eleuthero, and ashwagandha. There are a number of excellent adaptogen combo remedies out there, marketed for energy or adrenal support.

So is my energy crisis caused by lack of sleep, or is my sleep crisis caused by a deeper lack of energy? Good question. I might have to sleep on that one.

Discuss this Blog Entry 3

on Nov 1, 2010

Radha, would I find some of these recommendations in any retail store that sells supplements and herbs? I've battled insomnia my whole life; actually I gave up the battle years ago and I don't really do anything to treat it anymore. But I'm willing to try something new!

on Nov 2, 2010

Jody, yes, all of these herbs and supplements are widely available in natural products stores. If you haven't done so already, I also encourage you to find a holistic practitioner, such as an ND or a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine, who can recommend an herb or formula for your specific symptoms. Good luck, and let us know how it goes!

on Nov 26, 2014

Jody, I used valerian for a year to put me to sleep but realized I had to dig deeper because after chronic insomnia my body was depleted. I have used rhodiola and would recommend it. Ginseng and elutheuro were too intense for me. I want to try ashwaganda as mentioned here.

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