One insomniac’s quest for the perfect sleep aid
It was a multiple-night bout of insomnia, and the zombie-like state of ineptitude that followed each of them, that prompted my recent quest for sleep-inducing remedies. As it turns out, I’m far from alone in my deficiency of the sweet, elusive vitamin S, with its restorative and immune-system-balancing effects: 40 percent of American adults and 70 percent of adolescents are sleep deprived, according to Sleepless in America, a science program set to air on the National Geographic channel in November.
It’s a worsening modern problem many experts believe goes back to the invention of the light bulb—which, with the flick of a switch, eliminated our body’s natural response to nightfall. Add to that the glow of computer and smartphone screens—believed to disrupt the release of the sleep-inviting hormone melatonin from the brain’s pineal gland—and it’s a miracle anyone sleeps these days.
But sleep we must. It’s now common knowledge that sleep deprivation is linked to hypertension, obesity, depression, heart attack, stroke, and diabetes. But even if we can schedule a substantial chunk of time for sleep, new research shows it’s the quality—not quantity—of sleep that contributes most to well-being. Poor sleep may cause cancer to grow twice as fast, according to research published earlier this year by Dr. David Gozal of the University of Chicago. Lack of it could also lead to an increased risk for Alzheimer’s, according to Dr. Jeffrey Iliff of Oregon Health and Science University.
These are not exactly comforting thoughts to be running through one’s wide-awake brain at 3 a.m., so I consulted Dr. Randy Baker of Soquel.
“I believe one of the reasons insomnia is so common is exposure to electromagnetic fields from smart-meters and wi-fi. Turning off wi-fi routers at night often helps,” says Dr. Baker. But chances are, the chronic insomniac has tried all that already, and in that case, the first thing Dr. Baker suggests is a magnesium supplement.
“Magnesium deficiency is extremely common and insomnia is one of the main symptoms,” says Dr. Baker, who recommends magnesium taurate or magnesium glycinate.
Another one of Dr. Baker’s highest recommended natural sleep aids is the amino acid 5-hydroxytyptophan, or 5-HTP—the precursor to the neurotransmitter serotonin, which plays a crucial role in sleep and mood. “5-HTP is nice because it not only improves quantity of sleep but quality of sleep, with more deep sleep—stage 3 and 4, and less light sleep—stage 1 and 2,” he says. 5-HTP is safe and non habit-forming, but should be used with caution by those on antidepressant drugs, says Dr. Baker.
But no two insomniacs are alike; what works for some may not work for another. Melatonin supplements, for instance, help many but are also known to cause nightmares and feelings of depression in some people the next day, says Dr. Baker.
On the pharmaceutical side of things, the popularity of “Z meds” like zolpidem (Ambien) have exploded in popularity in recent years, replacing the old-school benzodiazepine sleep meds—cousins of Valium-like temazepam (Restoril), which are not only addictive, but produce altered sleep consisting of more light sleep and less deep sleep. While Ambien does not disrupt stages 3 and 4 of the sleep cycle, it has its downsides, too.
“If you take them more than a few days in a row, you get withdrawal symptoms on stopping so you can’t sleep without them,” says Dr. Baker. “And they occasionally cause bizarre side effects like eating or even driving in one’s sleep.” A friend who takes Ambien occasionally says it’s a dissociative. “The ego just goes out the window. I can stay awake on it and cook an entire meal, or text an ex-girlfriend I haven’t seen for three years and have no memory of it in the morning,” he says.
Not wanting to go down that road, or even down the road of over-the-counter sleep meds which contain diphenhydramine, an antihistamine that makes people drowsy, I’ve taken my quest into the herbal world, finding some success with Calea Zacatechichi, commonly known as Mexican Dream Herb. While it’s not one of the commonly prescribed herbs for sleep—valerian, passionflower, skullcap, magnolia bark, hops, and California poppy extract—drinking calea tea before bed induces a warm relaxation and mildly psychedelic falling-to-sleep visions—and possibly lucid dreams: the other night I not only slept, but rode my bike through the night, among the undulating arms of neon sea anemones, and I can only hope that next time my bike tires lift off the pavement.