If you long for more shut-eye, you’re not alone. The National Sleep Foundation reports that 64 percent of adults frequently experience sleep problems; nearly half wake up during the night. Americans filled almost 59 million sleep-aid prescriptions in 2009, but according to Sheila Kingsbury, ND, chair of botanical medicine at Bastyr University near Seattle, such drugs can compound the problem, causing brain fog, addiction, and side effects like dry mouth and constipation. Moreover, they often fail to get at the root of the problem, be it anxiety, a disrupted sleep cycle, or a nutritional deficiency. “Different causes call for different treatments,” says Jenny Tufenkian, ND, clinical instructor at the National College of Natural Medicine in Portland, Oregon. Here’s a guide to determining which natural remedies may be right for you.
For those who lie awake replaying the day’s events, this mild traditionally popular herb can bring calm. “It acts on some of the same receptors in the brain that drugs like Valium act on,” Kingsbury says, “but unlike pharmaceuticals, it doesn’t bind to those receptors and stay there, leaving you groggy.” One trial of anxiety sufferers found passionflower worked as well as the drug oxazepam in relieving symptoms and led to less fatigue the next day. Dose: 150–400 mg one hour before bedtime, says Kingsbury.
For more severe anxiety—the kind that sets your jaw grinding, leaves your shoulders in knots, or keeps you up for days—these potent, well-researched herbs can offer relief, with some caveats. Valerian is believed to act on multiple brain pathways, calming the mind and muscles and reducing the time it takes to fall asleep, research shows. “But for some people, it works fine for a day or two and then it begins to have an opposite, stimulating effect,” says Tufenkian.
Kava (Piper methysticum)—perhaps the best-researched anti-anxiety herb—doesn’t necessarily put you to sleep. Rather it is a general central-nervous-system depressant, muscle relaxant, and pain reliever that quells tension so you can fall asleep on your own, says Michael Breus, PhD, author of Beauty Sleep (Penguin, 2006). In 2002, the FDA issued a warning about potential liver-toxicity risk associated with kava. Although still widely used, kava is not recommended for people with liver problems and shouldn’t be used for more than three months, Kingsbury says. If you’re taking other medications, check with your health care provider to rule out any negative interactions. Dose: For valerian, 500 mg in capsule or tincture form 30 to 60 minutes before bed, says Tufenkian. For kava, 100–300 mg one hour before bed.
Waking up in the wee hours may be a sign your body isn’t getting enough minerals, says Tufenkian. (Other possible culprits: low blood sugar, adrenal fatigue, or a disrupted circadian rhythm.) Try keeping the homeopathic remedy Kali phosphoricum by the bed and take it when you awake, she says. “It’s food for the cells of the nervous system.” Magnesium, a muscle-relaxing mineral believed to enhance secretion of the sleep hormone melatonin, can also help put you back to sleep. Dose: For Kali phosphoricum, place four 6X pellets under the tongue upon waking. Start with 100–200 mg magnesium (along with 200–400 mg calcium) before bedtime or upon waking, suggests Delicious Living’s medical editor, Bob Rountree, MD. If desired, increase magnesium gradually (up to 500 mg), but reduce dose if loose stools result.
If you’re wide awake at bedtime and drowsy during the day, try melatonin. This natural hormone helps regulate sleep and wake cycles by surging in the evening to make you sleepy, and then diminishing in the morning. But because light exposure regulates melatonin, travel or night work can throw off its production. Studies show supplemental melatonin can restore a normal sleep cycle within a few days. Dose: 0.5–1 mg of melatonin two hours before bedtime for up to two weeks, says Breus. Because melatonin impacts production of many hormones, including those that influence reproductive development, he generally does not recommend it for children, teens, or women who are pregnant or trying to get pregnant.
A surprising 69 percent of children under 10 regularly suffer from sleep problems, according to the National Sleep Foundation. But when it comes to sleep remedies for kids, the milder the better, says Sheila Kingsbury, ND, chair of botanical medicine at Bastyr University in Kenmore, Washington.
Not to be confused with Roman chamomile (which is used more for digestive and skin problems) the flower head in German chamomile (Matricaria recutita) contains compounds believed to have mild sedative effects. Dose: Drink one cup of chamomile tea 30 minutes before bed. Caution: Kids who are allergic to ragweed or daisies should not take chamomile.
A mild, calming member of the mint family, lemon balm is often found in teas and tinctures. Dose: Take 40–60 drops of tincture (choose an extract made without alcohol) one hour before bed.
If growing pains are keeping Junior awake, consider giving calcium and magnesium before bed. “Kids may have growing pains because their calcium needs are skyrocketing,” Kingsbury says. Dose: 200 mg calcium, with 100–200 mg magnesium daily
For teens caught in the habit of staying up until midnight and sleeping in, consider a milder, safer melatonin source than synthetic supplements: cherry juice. One recent study found that when adults drank tart cherry juice twice a day for two weeks, they went to bed 17 minutes faster than when they didn’t. Choose a low-sugar brand of concentrated cherry juice from the natural grocery aisle. Dose: Drink 8 ounces in the morning and evening.