WebMD -- In our 24/7 society, far too many Americans see sleep as a luxury rather than a necessity. We have no problem spending long hours at work and then adding other activities that can turn a busy day into a positively grinding experience. Something's got to give, so we delay our mental and physical recharge and skimp on sleep. When we finally do lie down, our busy minds aren't always so willing to rest.
"Insomnia is a complex condition often caused by a number of factors," says Qanta Ahmed, MD, a sleep specialist at the Winthrop-University Hospital Sleep Disorders Center in Mineola, N.Y. "Addressing those factors often requires lifestyle and environmental changes."
No matter what its cause, insomnia is the most common sleep complaint among Americans. According to the National Sleep Foundation, 30% to 40% of adults say they suffer from occasional insomnia. And 10% to 15% of Americans say they have trouble sleeping all the time.
When insomnia strikes, one option is to try prescription sleep aids. But there are a number of other effective natural sleep remedies available to you. Lifestyle changes, as well as foods, supplements, and herbal supplements may help you get restful sleep.
Here are a few to try when you've counted your last sheep:
Melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone that helps regulates the sleep/wake cycle, an internal pacemaker that regulates the timing and our drive for sleep in humans. It causes drowsiness, lowers body temperature, slows metabolic functions, and puts the body into sleep mode.
Research on melatonin in people with insomnia is mixed. One study showed that taking melatonin restored and improved sleep in people with insomnia. Other studies show that melatonin does not help people with insomnia stay asleep. Melatonin is not regulated by the FDA and can have problems with purity. It is only advised for people with circadian rhythm issues, and it should never be given to children or taken by someone on other medications. You should only use melatonin under close supervision by a doctor.
Warm milk. You can put a tasty spin on your grandmother's natural insomnia remedy by sipping warm milk before bed. Almond milk is an excellent source of calcium, which helps the brain produce melatonin. Plus, warm milk may spark pleasant and relaxing memories of your mother helping you fall asleep.
Sleepy-time snacks. Harris says the best sleep-inducing foods include a combination of protein and carbohydrates. She suggests a light snack of half a banana with a tablespoon of peanut butter or a whole wheat cracker with some cheese. Eat one of these snacks about 30 minutes before hitting the hay.
Magnesium. Magnesium apparently plays a key role in the regulation of sleep. Research has shown that even marginal magnesium deficiency can prevent the brain from settling down at night. One of the most absorbable forms of magnesium is magnesium citrate powder, available in health food stores. Try taking two doses, following label directions, a day, with the second dose right before bed. You can also get magnesium from food. Good sources include green leafy vegetables, wheat germ, pumpkin seeds, and almonds.
Lavender. Research has shown that lavender oil is calming and can help encourage sleep in some people with insomnia. "Try taking a hot bath with lavender oil before bed to relax your body and mind," Harris says.
Valerian root. The medicinal herb valerian root has been used to treat sleep problems since the time of ancient Rome and Greece. "Valerian can be sedating and may help you fall asleep," Marks says. Research on the effectiveness of valerian for insomnia are mixed, however. Marks says if you try valerian as a sleep remedy, be patient. It can take a few weeks for its sedating properties to take effect. Talk to your doctor before taking valerian and follow label directions.
L-theanine. An amino acid found in green tea leaves, L-theanine can help combat anxiety that interferes with sleep. A 2007 study showed that L-theanine reduced heart rate and immune responses to stress. L-theanine works by increasing production of the feel-good hormone serotonin. It also induces brain waves that correlate with relaxation. Before taking L-Theanine, talk to your doctor about possible drug interactions.
The following changes to your lifestyle and environment can also help combat sleep problems:
Turn off the TV.
In some people, night time light can inhibit melatonin and create "social jetlag," which mimics symptoms of having traveled several time zones. To keep your sleep surroundings as dark as possible, Ahmed recommends moving the TV out of your bedroom and using a DVR or TIVO to record favorite late night shows for later viewing.
Put other appliances to bed, too.
If you want a good, restful sleep, turn your appliances away from your bed. Or better yet, turn them off altogether. If you must use bedroom electronics, choose those illuminated with red light, which is less disturbing to melanin production than blue light.
Give it up.
If you don't fall asleep within 30 minutes, sleep specialists recommend you get up and leave your bedroom or read. Then return to your bed to sleep when you feel tired again.
It's no secret that exercise promotes restful sleep and good overall health. However, a study published in the journal Sleep showed that the amount of exercise and time of day it is done makes a difference. Researchers found that women who exercised at a moderate intensity for at least 30 minutes each morning, seven days a week, had less trouble sleeping than women who exercised less and/or later in the day. Morning exercise seems to affect body rhythms that affect sleep quality.
One of the reasons for this interplay between exercise and sleep may be body temperature. Your body temperature rises during exercise and takes up to 6 hours to drop back down to normal. Because cooler body temperatures are associated with better sleep, it's important to give your body time to cool off before bed.
Keep your slumber surroundings tranquil.
Your bedroom should feel like a sanctuary. Piles of clothes thrown on your bed, stacks of bills staring at you, or other random clutter will hamper you emotionally and lead to sleep problems. A tranquil and organized space will help you feel more relaxed. To create the perfect sleep environment, try the following:
Natural sleep remedies can do wonders for the occasional bout of poor sleep. However, they shouldn't be used for chronic sleep problems, Harris says. If you have insomnia that lasts for a few weeks or more, be sure to consult your doctor.