Nature’s sleeping aids — a dream come true
by Marcelle Pick, OB/GYN NP
Here are the topics covered in this article:
One thing I know from my practice and from talking with our Personal Program Member
Advisors is that women today are desperate for sleep! We race from one task to the
next during the day only to find that when we settle in to bed at night, the race
isn’t over. Now it’s our minds that are spinning along — worrying about what we
left undone and need to do tomorrow, what we said or should have said, read on the
internet, saw on TV, or talked about on our cell phones. It’s no secret that we
are living in a faster-paced world than ever before — but our bodies haven’t adapted
to this lifestyle.
Sound sleep is so crucial to our health and happiness! And if you can’t sleep, there
could be many emotional and physical causes. One prevailing theme I see is the connection
between insomnia and stress. Our stress hormones are intimately linked to our circadian
rhythm. I’ve talked to so many women taking Tylenol PM, Lunesta, or Ambien, but
these sleeping pills and other drugs don’t address the root cause of sleeplessness,
and can often make us feel worse in the morning.
The good news is that you can reset your sleep-wake cycle. Nature has provided plenty
of safe and effective ways to gently remind the body to rest. We can help you get
to the root of your sleeping trouble, and offer some safe, natural sleep help in
the meantime. Let’s take a closer look.
Herbs for sleep
I’ve been using herbs in my practice for decades with wonderful results, and I’m
thrilled that more and more practitioners are offering them to their patients as
well. For centuries wise women have treasured the following herbs for their calming
influence, and phytochemists today are busy exploring and explaining the mechanics
of how they support better sleep.
Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata).
This species of passionflower has a long history of use for calming anxiety and
treating insomnia. Neuroscientists believe it works by increasing the availability
of a “relaxing” chemical called GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid). Its soothing
effects on the nervous system may also be mediated by the same receptors in the
brain sensitive to pharmaceutical-strength sedatives and anxiety drugs — but without
the same risk profile. You can find passionflower in standardized powders, tinctures,
infusions, and teas.
Chamomile (Roman or English chamomile: Matricaria recutita, Chamaemelum
nobile). Widely regarded for its ability to treat insomnia, calm
frayed nerves, and dissolve worry, chamomile’s sedative effects have been attributed
to the flavonoid apigenin. Similar to the active constituents in passionflower
and other botanical nerviness, apigenin appears to bind to GABA, benzodiazepine,
or similar neurotransmitter systems in the brain.
kava (Piper methysticum). The root of the kava plant has been
used for generations to help relieve tension, restlessness, and insomnia. Though
the FDA issued concerns in 2002 about kava and liver damage, these effects may have
been due to inferior product quality or overuse. Herbal medicine researchers have
attributed the relaxing, anti-anxiety actions of kava to the active principals known
as kavalactones. These phytochemicals are believed to work through enhanced
binding to GABA, dopamine, and opiate receptors in the brain.
Sleep tips for every day
Eat and drink for sleep. Connect the dots between what
and when you eat and how well you sleep — sugar, caffeine, and alcohol may be factors
Adapt your routine. Set a reasonable bedtime, unplug before
bed, and try exercising in the morning or at midday instead of in the evening.
Promote good sleep hygiene. Be sure your room is dark,
quiet, and has comfortable bedding. Don’t allow electronics or digital clocks to
“zap” you in the night.
Consider your stress and anxiety. The stress hormone cortisol
is connected to our circadian rhythms. Supporting healthy cortisol balance and adrenal
health may help to reset your sleep-wake cycle.
To learn more, read our article on
adrenal imbalance and sleep
Valerian (Valeriana officinalis).
Valerian has been used as a mild relaxant since as far back as the time of ancient
Greece and Rome. In more recent times research on valerian has demonstrated anxiolytic,
tranquilizing, and sleep-inducing effects in both animal studies and clinical trials.
Like the other “botanical nervines,” research additionally suggests that valerenic
acid, valerian’s active principal, works to relieve nervous tension through
enhanced binding to the GABA receptors in the brain.
Sleep-supporting molecules — more of what your body already knows
Our bodies are naturally equipped with molecules that guide us to sleep every night.
When women are struggling with sleep, depending on their unique situation, I use
these molecules to help gently coax the body back into a healthy sleep-wake rhythm.
Talk with your practitioner to see if you would benefit from supplementing with
any of the following. Or, learn more about our
Personal Program for Adrenal Health formulations, which combine natural
herbs, minerals, and molecules to help your body naturally get a good night’s rest.
Note: If you’re on prescription medication for sleep or a mood
disorder, including antidepressants, be sure to consult with a licensed, qualified
healthcare provider before discontinuing or trying the supplements discussed in
- Phosphatidylserine (PS). This molecule is a basic structural
component of our brain and nerve cell membranes. The nervous system depends on healthy
cell-to-cell communication and biochemical messaging, which can be enhanced by PS
and similar molecules. Among its other benefits PS can modulate the interaction
between the hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenal glands (known as the HPA
axis), allowing for a more adaptive response to stress and thereby aiding
- Melatonin. Naturally produced by the pineal gland in the
brain whenever dusk approaches or you dim the ambient lighting, melatonin is actually
a hormone. As melatonin levels in the blood increase, we become less alert and increasingly
ready for sleep. Part of why we may have more difficulty falling asleep as we grow
older is because our melatonin output begins to gradually wane after puberty, and
especially after the age of 40. Supplemental melatonin has been found to be very
safe and helpful for many people with insomnia, and may be an option for you to
talk about with your healthcare practitioner.
- 5-HTP. 5-hydroxytryptophan is an intermediate amino acid
formed naturally in the body from the precursor tryptophan during the production
of melatonin and our “feel-good” neurotransmitter serotonin. This metabolic
pathway, simplified, looks something like this:
Tryptophan ⇒ 5-HTP ⇒ Serotonin ⇒ Melatonin
Supplemental 5-HTP is extracted from the seeds of the Griffonia plant.
5-HTP supplements can be helpful for increasing the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin,
which may allow for the release of melatonin without accessing your brain’s light-regulation
system. Studies show it to be beneficial for insomnia and to improve sleep quality.
Calming minerals to support sleep
When should you take your B vitamins?
In general, it’s best to take your B-complex vitamins in the first half of your
day. B vitamins help reduce nervousness and anxiety and for that reason certain
B’s are sometimes included in natural sleep formulations. Taking B-complex vitamins
later in the day can make some people feel less sleepy, however. Many women notice
an excellent boost to their energy from the B-vitamin component of our Essential
Nutrients, so it’s best to take them in the morning and after lunch or a mid-afternoon
snack. This practice helps offset the afternoon slump many women with adrenal imbalance
My patients are often surprised when I tell them that certain vitamins and minerals
can be helpful for sleep. Various studies have noted improvements in anxiety and
perceived stress with vitamin and mineral supplementation. In one recent study of
otherwise healthy women, the ratio of calcium to magnesium in the blood
was significantly correlated with perceived levels of anxiety and stress. Low magnesium
in particular has been well-studied in association with anxiety and poor sleep,
and supplementing with these minerals can help resolve these symptoms.
A combination approach
I've always found that feeling good requires looking at the whole body. Sleep is
integral to health, but it doesn't stand alone. Our sleep-wake rhythms are affected
by the environment we live in, the foods we eat, and our daily stress to name a
few. I hope you'll find an approach to sleep that encompasses your whole health
picture, such as our Personal Program for Adrenal Health. It's designed with natural
herbs, supplements, and a healthy eating plan to facilitate a natural sleep-wake
In addition to our high-quality nutrient support, phytotherapeutic stress-support,
and one-on-one phone support, we've put a lot of research into our new sleep product,
Serinisol. Serinisol combines calcium, magnesium, phosphatidylserine, and passionflower
to help level your cortisol output, calm your anxiety, and support your sleep naturally.
Whether you chose our approach or not, take comfort in the fact that you don't have
to rely on the sleeping pills offered in your drug store or pharmacy - you can make
choices that feel good for you.
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References and further reading
on safe, natural sleep help
Last Modified Date: 05/13/2011
Principal Authors: Marcelle Pick, OB/GYN NP