Learn how much sleep you really need
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- Reap the relaxing benefits of natural and gentle sleep aids
- See why poor sleep can wreak havoc on your health
- Discover why the elderly have more sleep problems than the young
- Find out how to prevent jet lag
We've all had the experience of sleeping like a baby and waking up feeling like we could conquer the world. And we've all had the experience of tossing and turning while thoughts bombard our mind, only to wake up feeling like we've just lost a battle. Sure, everyone has a bad night once in a while, but a staggering seventy million Americans have some form of insomnia.1
Whether that translates into once or twice a week, or is a chronic condition, fortunately, there are natural and gentle nutritional supplements that can alleviate stress during the day, so you can stay calm and sleep through the night.
A nation of insomniacs
Although insomnia isn't considered a disease by itself, it may be the result of other illnesses, and it can lead to numerous health problems. Lack of sleep may result in reduced energy levels, lack of motivation, slower reflexes, irritability, disorientation, dark circles under the eyes, and fatigue, as most of us know. After a while, your immune system suffers, too. The number of natural cells that fight viruses and cancers decline, and the body's hormonal system can get out of balance.
On the other hand, a good night's sleep will provide you with the energy you need to think clearly, achieve your goals, and appreciate those around you. Basically, the difference between sleeping well and poorly is the difference between feeling your're on top of things, and feeling like you woke up on the wrong side of the bed. That "out of sorts" feeling can manifest into other health concerns if it becomes chronic, because disrupting the body's repair processes increases our chances of illness and even death.2
Sleeplessness is expensive
As many as 10% of Americans have a chronic sleep problem that interferes with their daily responsibilities.3 In fact, every year 98 million dollars are spent on over-the-counter sleeping aids, with 1 out of every 4 Americans relying on them. Another 50 million dollars are spent on caffeine tablets to stay awake during the day. Without enough sleep, the brain can't concentrate because it is concentrating on sleeping as soon as possible … which translates into lack of focus and productivity at work. The National Sleep Foundation estimates sleeplessness costs the U.S. economy $150 billion a year in higher levels of worker stress and reduced productivity. That adds up to a lot of money and a lot of miserable people.
The sleep cycle
|Stage 1||Stage 2||Stage 3||Stage 4||Stage 5|
Muscle activity slows down. Occasional muscle twitching.
|Breathing pattern and heart rate slows. Slight decrease in body temperature.||
Deep sleep begins.
Brain begins to generate slow delta waves.
Very Deep Sleep.
Rhythmic breathing. Limited muscle activity.
Brain produces delta waves.
Rapid eye movement.
Brainwaves speed up and dreaming occurs. Muscles relax and heart rate increases. Breathing is rapid and shallow.
Our sleep/wake cycle is governed by circadian rhythms, with two daily peak times for sleeping, night and midday. As the sun goes down in the late afternoon, the cells in the retina of the eye send a message to a cluster of nerve cells called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SNA or circadian clock), which is located in the hypothalamus deep in the center of the brain. The SNA then signals the pineal gland located in the hypothalamus to produce the hormone melatonin, which is manufactured from the amino acid tryptophan.
Nutritional supplements for healthy sleep and relaxation
Several herbs and nutrients are especially helpful for re-establishing a natural sleeping rhythm. And even if you don't have a sleeping problem but are anticipating jet lag from a trip that takes you to a different time zone, or are shifting your work schedule from daytime to a graveyard shift, you can also benefit from these nutrients. Also, a number of these nutrients pacify nervousness and alleviate stress, which add up and contribute to disrupted sleep rhythms
1) Melatonin is secreted by the pineal gland, which sits in the hypothalamus, in the center of the brain, and is a chemical derivative of serotonin, a brain neurotransmitter that has a calming effect. Melatonin sets biological clocks, stimulates the immune system, fights free radicals, inhibits tumor promoters such as estrogen, and even reduces high blood pressure. But it is best known as the master regulator hormone that sets the body's clock and induces sleep.
When the sun goes down and it gets dark, the pineal gland secretes melatonin, which makes us feel less alert. Body temperature starts to fall and ideally, when enough melatonin floods the bloodstream, we fall asleep and stay asleep all night. Melatonin levels drop quickly as the sun rises.
Melatonin levels peak at about 2 a.m. in normal, healthy young people and about 3 a.m. in elderly people. The maximum amount of melatonin released in the bloodstream of the elderly is only half of that in young adults.4 The delay in timing and decrease in intensity of the melatonin pulse is a natural result of the aging process, and in fact, low production of melatonin at night is associated with insomnia in patients aged 55 years or older. The good news is these patients have been identified as being more likely to respond to melatonin supplementation.5
The melatonin pulse regulates many neuroendocrine functions. It is itself regulated by exposure to daylight, which inhibits it, and darkness, which stimulates its secretion. Sleep and the immune system work hand in hand. During sleep, melatonin turns on the immune system to make antibodies and destroy cancer cells.6
When the timing or intensity of the melatonin peak is disrupted—as in aging, stress, jet lag, or artificial jet lag syndromes—many physiological and mental functions are adversely affected. The ability to think clearly, remember key facts, and make sound decisions can be profoundly hampered by these upsets in the biological clock.5
Melatonin for Jet Lag
Jet lag is a condition caused by de-synchronization of the biological clock. It is usually caused by drastically changing your sleep-wake cycle, as when crossing several time zones during east-west travel, or when performing shift work. Jet lag is characterized by fatigue, early awakening or insomnia, headache, fuzzy thinking, irritability, constipation, reduced immunity, and inability to concentrate. The symptoms are generally worse when flying in an easterly direction, and it may take as long as one day for each time zone crossed to fully recover. Older people have an even tougher time adjusting to these changes than younger people.5
Circadian disturbances can easily result from conditions other than jet travel. We call these "artificial jet lag syndromes" because jet lag is universally understood. Artificial jet lag can be induced by working night shifts, working rotating shifts (like physician-interns, management trainees for 24-hour businesses, and soldiers under battle-alert conditions), or by staying up all night to cram for an exam. Whatever its causes, jet lag and artificial jet lag syndromes are seriously debilitating to cognitive function.5
But if you take melatonin in the evening (in the new time zone!) it will rapidly reset your biological clock and almost totally alleviate—or prevent—the symptoms of jet lag. The ability of melatonin to alleviate jet lag was demonstrated in a study of 17 people flying from San Francisco to London, eight time zones away. Eight of the subjects took 5 mg of melatonin, while nine subjects took a placebo. Those who took melatonin had almost no symptoms of jet lag. Six out of nine placebo subjects scored above 50 on the jet lag scale, and all of the melatonin subjects scored below.7
Most people sleep well with melatonin, and wake up the next day refreshed with no symptoms of jet lag8 —although they may still have some fatigue from the wear and tear of traveling. A study in which melatonin was given to a man who had insufficient production of melatonin at night, clearly demonstrated that he reset his circadian rhythms so that he was able to get on a normal sleep cycle.9
Melatonin and electromagnetic fields
Every day we're exposed to electromagnetic fields (EMFs) from our computers, TVs, refrigerators, microwaves, and a million other electrical appliances. And studies show that melatonin production can be disturbed by EMFs. Exposure to electromagnetic fields from appliances and from powerlines may be even more significant than we think. There are reports of altered neural function from exposure to extremely low frequency fields (ELF), as found near high-voltage powerlines, including suppressed melatonin levels.10 Supplemental melatonin may help to overcome the negative health consequences of being exposed to these fields.
Supplementation with melatonin
People who use melatonin report that it helps them get to sleep and sleep more soundly. It also makes them more alert the next day and even lessens mid-afternoon tiredness and the need for naps. In all cases, melatonin should be taken at night, preferably before midnight, before going to bed. That's when your pineal gland naturally releases melatonin. Taking melatonin at night, or before your normal bedtime if you are a shift worker, helps restore and maintain normal circadian metabolic rhythms.
2) Magnolia Extract (Magnolia officinalis) from the Magnolia tree contains potent antioxidants, and is a powerful non-addictive antidepressant that alleviates stress and anxiety, without the tranquilizing side effects of drugs. When we suffer from stress, anxiety, or depression, it's common to have trouble falling asleep, and staying asleep. In fact, insomnia is strongly connected with clinical depression and may even be depression's first recognizable symptom. Magnolia extract takes the edge off, and improves quality of life … without the risk of side effects you might get from a pharmaceutical antidepressant. Dozens of animal studies have shown that it acts as a non-addictive, anxiolytic (anti-anxiety and anti-stress) agent at low doses.1112
3) Passion Flower Extract (Passiflora incarnata) was used by Native American Indians as a sedative and sleep aid. Today, it is revered by herbalists the world over for its sedative and tranquilizing abilities and is approved by the German Commission E in the treatment of insomnia and nervousness. In addition to passion flower's traditional use for depression and nervous disorders—including gastrointestinal complaints of nervous origin—it is also used to relieve tension headaches, muscle aches and spasms, pain, hyperactivity, insomnia, epilepsy, to alleviate anger, and help lower blood pressure. Although it is a central nervous system depressant, it does not leave people feeling groggy or drugged. Many herbalists recommend passion flower for treating Parkinson's disease because of its antispasmodic compounds.13 Passion flower can also be very effective in relieving nerve pain such as neuralgia and shingles (a viral infection of the nerve endings). It may be used in asthma where there is much spasmodic activity, especially when there is associated tension.13
4) GABA (Gamma Amino-Butyric Acid) an amino acid, is the main inhibitory (calming) neurotransmitter in the brain. Its function is to decrease neuron activity and inhibit nerve cells from over-firing. Too much activity can lead to restlessness and insomnia, but GABA inhibits the number of nerve cells that fire in the brain, and helps to induce sleep, uplift mood, and reduce anxiety.1415
Normally, our brain produces all the GABA we need. But our GABA levels may become depleted from poor diet, illness or exposure to environmental toxins, and a defiency can result in insomnia16, anxiety, irritability, and depression. GABA supplementation appears to promote sleep and relaxation, alleviate stress, and elevate mood.
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5) Taurine is an amino acid, and potent antioxidant. Found in the nervous system and muscles, taurine supports brain neurotransmitters, including melatonin and GABA, and helps regulate their release into the brain. It also regulates heartbeat; maintains the stability of cell membranes; regulates the transport of potassium, sodium, calcium, and magnesium in and out of cells; and regulates the activity of brain cells. Low amounts of taurine may cause anxiety, epilepsy, hyperactivity and poor brain function. On the other hand, sufficient taurine levels are believed to contribute to a feeling of calmness, essential to restful sleep.171819
6) Bacopa monniera—named Brahmi in the Ayurvedic texts, probably for Lord Brahma, the Hindu creator of the world and originator of Ayurveda—is recognized as a powerful brain enhancer.20 It is still considered to be the greatest herb in Ayurveda for treating age-related mental decline, as well as for improving cognitive processes, including comprehension, memory and recall. It also enhances the crucial coordination of these three aspects of mental functioning, and helps increase one's ability to solve problems.
For 4 weeks, 35 patients were treated for anxiety neurosis. After treatment they were assessed for clinical anxiety levels, maladjustment levels, mental fatigue rate, and immediate memory span. The patients who took bacopa had a 20% reduction in anxiety levels. Their maladjustment and mental fatigue were significantly lower than before treatment, and their immediate memory-span scores were significantly increased.
In other words, bacopa improved memory and productivity by reducing anxiety and related problems.21 A number of compounds have been identified in bacopa, including bacosides A and B, two chemicals that improve the transmission of impulses between nerve cells in the brain.22 These bacosides regenerate synapses and repair damaged neurons, making it easier to learn and remember new information. Bacopa also increases serotonin levels, a neurotransmitter that promotes sleep and relaxation.
How much sleep do you really need?
That answer varies from individual to individual. What we do know is sleep is as important as food and air, and both the quantity and quality we get are also extremely important. Six and one-half to seven hours of uninterrupted sleep seem to be the magic number for a lot of people. Interestingly, research shows that sleeping more than eight hours may have deleterious effects, although the reasons for this are less clear. According to data from the Cancer Prevention Study II, individuals who average seven hours of sleep each night have a lower mortality rate than do those who sleep eight hours or more.23
"The lowest [mortality] group actually slept between six and one-half to seven and one-half hours," said Daniel F. Kripke, MD, a Professor of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego. "The major mortality risk associated with habitual sleep duration is among long sleepers, by which I mean those sleeping eight hours or more. In-cidentally, calling them long sleepers is accurate, because from the new data we know that the average American on weekdays sleeps about six and one-half hours."
Specifically, he said, individuals who slept eight hours per night were 12% more likely to die within six years than were those who slept seven hours. The highest mortality rates occurred among men and women who slept more than eight and one-half hours. This group had at least a 15% increased risk of death, said Dr. Kripke. As for short sleep, men who slept less than four and one-half hours and women who slept less than three and one-half hours also had at least a 15% increased risk of death. Dr. Kripke presented his findings at the 16th Annual Meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies.24
Many of us are under constant pressure—at work, home, and even at play—and instead of dealing with periodic episodes of stress, we are now dealing with stress syndrome. But stress is much more than a modern-day inconvenience. It is a serious hazard that can lead to anxiety, depression, life-threatening diseases … and lack of sleep. The problem is, if you're not getting enough of it, sleeplessness can drain your energy, compromise your immunity, and—like stress—increase your risk of other diseases. The main thing is to try to be consistent. Get into a routine, and try to go to bed at the same time every night. Start to wind down a couple of hours before bedtime, and take a sleep formula with time-tested, scientifically proven herbs and nutrients to help you relax and sleep through the night. Before you know it, you'll be sleeping like a baby… and will feel revitalized and ready to face the challenges of your world.
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This article is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. Always consult with a physician before embarking on a dietary supplement program.
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