There can be a time and place for prescription sleep medications. For instance, they may be able to prevent a sudden, new sleep problem from turning into chronic insomnia. But no prescription sleep medication has been approved for long-term use even though they are often prescribed in this manner. Many people have found that prescription sleep medications have undesirable side effects or that they lose effectiveness over time. And some people simply don’t want to be dependent upon a prescription. This article is intended to provide just a brief overview of many potentially helpful sleep remedies that don’t require a prescription. If some of them interest you, you can dig a little deeper into the topic.
5-HTP is sometimes used to help with sleep problems. It is not supported by research for treating insomnia but it does play a role in boosting serotonin. See serotonin, below.
Just like any other habit, creating a bedtime ritual (or routine) can smooth the way for you. Your brain will begin to associate that routine with going to sleep and initiating that ritual can help. The ritual can be as simply as changing into pajamas, brushing your teeth, setting your alarm, and getting into bed. It doesn’t have to be long or elaborate, just consistent.
The Natural Medicines Comprehensive Data Base says there is not enough proof to say that it is effective in treating insomnia but some studies show that it appears to work as a mild sedative, filling receptors affected by benzodiazepine medications. Traditionally, chamomile is consumed as a tea.
This is a topic you don’t often see mentioned when it comes to sleep, but clutter can contribute to poor quality sleep. Clutter is stressful to mammals. And stress activates the fight or flight system which is the exact opposite of what you want when you are wanting to go to sleep.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I)
As a therapist who specializes in CBT-I, it won’t surprise you to know that I’m strongly in favor of CBT-I to help people with sleep problems but it might matter that the National Institutes of Health and the American Academy of Sleep Medicine support this treatment as the “gold standard” for insomnia treatments. Someone with a mild sleep problem may get enough benefit from some of these other possible treatments on the list that they don’t need CBT-I. But CBT-I is very effective for even long-term and ingrained insomnia. I’ve had clients who have struggled with insomnia for 50 years finally getting the sleep they’ve always wanted after treating with CBT-I. This is a talk therapy that uses a combination of behavioral treatment and cognitive treatments (such as education on sleep and looking at how some beliefs and thoughts can interfere with sleep). Thousands of studies over 40 years support the effectiveness of this treatment. In fact, on average, CBT-I has been shown to help 70-80% of people who try it. My people have a higher success rate than this. And it only takes about 5-8 sessions!
As little as 30 minutes 3 to 4 times a week has been shown to lead to the exercisers sleeping an hour longer than the sedentary people and waking up fewer times at night. However, be careful with the timing. To be safe, don’t exercise closer than 2 hours before bedtime. One immediate way exercise may help with sleep is in the elevated body temperature it creates. Once you quit exercising, your body temperature begins to drop. Body temperature also begins to drop several hours before the onset of sleep and is a cue for sleep. Exercise (or a hot shower) a couple of hours before bed can mimic this effect. See this blog post for another reason exercise can help with sleep.
Some studies indicate that 250 mg of this herb about 30-60 minutes before bed may promote sleep through relaxation and stress reduction.
Glycine is an amino acid found in eggs, poultry, spinach, and bananas (among other foods). Studies have had people take 3 mg immediately prior to bed. Participants in these studies reported waking up feeling clear-headed and alert. One study which examined the participants in a sleep study found that they fell asleep quicker and showed signs of better sleep quality.
See Exercise above. There is some support for hot foot baths also helping with sleep.
I mention Kava root because it is often mentioned as a sleep aid. However, it has also been found to be harmful, including liver damage, and with so many other choices, I recommend avoiding it.
Smelling lavender oil for 30 minutes may improve sleep, particularly for those with mild insomnia. You can use a diffuser or you could add a couple of drops of the oil to a bath or foot bath. I’ve been known to place essential oil directly on my pillowcase (use a pillow case you don’t mind being stained by the oil in case there is an issue).
Light is important for setting the body’s internal clock each day. The goal is to get 30 minutes of early morning sun exposure. Or, if this isn’t possible (such as in the winter when you are driving to work in the dark), consider the use of a light box. This exposure sets the body’s internal clock and helps the body to know when it is time to release melatonin so you fall asleep at night. On the other end of the day, be careful of screen time within two to three hours of bed. The blue light of screens suppresses the release of melatonin, which can leave you alert and not ready to sleep when you need to. For more information on this, see this blog post.
Magnesium is a very important element in the human body and more than 300 enzymes require magnesium in order to work. Magnesium is also required for melatonin production. Additionally, magnesium is involved in the production of GABA, a neurotransmitter that calms the brain.
Melatonin is often treated rather casually by people, but I’d like to remind you that it is actually a hormone and it’s one we don’t understand completely yet. In fact, we don’t even know exactly how much melatonin is helpful. Some studies use .1 mg to .3 mg and others use 3 mg to 10 mg. That’s an enormous difference in quantity! We know from sleep studies which have looked at blood work, that humans tend to release melatonin 2 to 3 hours before going to sleep. Each person appears to be different, so you might be a 3 hour person or you might be 2 hours or somewhere in between. My recommendation is that if you decide to try melatonin, you take tiny doses of melatonin to see if they help and increase those slowly if they don’t. Personally, I would also want to take it 2 to 3 hours prior to when I want to go to sleep in order to mimic the natural process.
According to WebMD, “A few studies indicate a benzodiazepine-like calming action with passionflower.” Some studies indicate it may be more effective as a tea than taken as a supplement.
The neurotransmitter serotonin is involved in sleep cycle, although it’s role is not completely understood at this time. We do know that the pineal gland uses serotonin to make melatonin. You can support serotonin levels by eating carb-rich foods. Milk is rich in tryptophan, an amino acid needed to make serotonin, which is why a warm glass of milk is often recommended.
There is inconsistent support for valerian’s effectiveness. Some research indicates it works best when used nightly for several weeks. Some studies show it may have a negative effect on ability to think.
Whether it’s sleep or some other issue, I invite you to reach out to me by phone or text at (816) 226-4678 to set up a free 30-minute consultation where we can talk about how I can help you.