Natural Ways to Get Some Zzzs

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“Dear Pharmacist,

I’ve had a couple of years of bad insomnia. I’ve tried medications, but I want something natural. Suggestions?”
–P.T., Denver, CO

Answer: There are many natural supplements that are known to help insomnia among them GABA, kava, valerian root, catnip, glycine, hops and melatonin. I’ll discuss the last three in today’s column. Let me start with the simple amino acid, glycine, which helps people suffering with Huntington’s, certain seizure disorders and memory loss. Like a blanket of calm, it helps you achieve deeper stages of sleep. Unlike most sleeping pills, glycine should not give you a groggy ‘morning hangover’ until noon, nor will it result in dry mouth (very common with diphenhydramine sleep aids).  Usually two to three grams taken an hour before bed time allows sleep to crawl into bed with you. As an interesting aside, research points to glycine’s use  as an antibiotic, specifically against H. pylori, an organism associated with ulcers and stomach cancer. Even though glycine is found in meat, you won’t get enough of its sleep-inducing effects unless you supplement. Capsules are available, but powders may be better if you want to titrate your dose.

For those of you who love beer, one of the bittering ingredients is Humulus lupulus. Say that three times fast! We call it “Hops” herb for short. Without hops, beer would be sweet. (Hey, maybe I would like it then?!) Anyway hops (as opposed to beer) helps people fall asleep faster, and is one of the best insomnia remedies I can think of. It’s been used for centuries. While Hops is safe for human consumption, it can be quite harmful for dogs, so keep away from Fido! The FDA gave hops GRAS status which means it is “generally recognized as safe.” There’s an ingredient in hops called 8-prenylnaringenin or 8-PN which reduces the incidence of hot flashes. Aside from helping with menopausal concerns and insomnia, hops is touted to ease anxiety, earaches and cramps. An ingredient in it works as a COX 2 inhibitor, similar to the drug Celebrex so if you are in pain, this may be useful.

For many night-time thrashers, it’s a question of how much melatonin you secrete from your pineal gland. Melatonin production can be augmented if you supplement, because the pills (or sublingual sprays) get absorbed into your bloodstream and trigger the same sleep reaction as if you had made the hormone yourself. For some, melatonin supplements are highly effective. For others, it must be combined with glycine, hops, valerian root or kava. I always suggest low dosages, about 0.2 to 0.3 mg per night, but you will find many supplements containing more. Be very careful with yourself, this is a hormone. That said, melatonin has a widespread (wonderful) effect on the immune system and specifically awesome for people with auto-immune disorders and chronic infections.  All of the supplements discussed today are sold at health food stores and some pharmacies, but always ask your doctor what’s right for you.