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Understanding Melatonin and Other Natural Sleep Aids

There are few things more frustrating than not being able to sleep when you’re physically exhausted or have to get up early in the morning. Sleep problems are caused by many different things, including stress, poor nutrition, exercising too close to bedtime, and medications you’re taking. But as more studies reveal the risks and side effects of sleeping pills, more people are turning to natural sleep aids for help. This is often because prescription and-over-the counter sleeping pills are closely tied to drug dependence, daytime grogginess, withdrawal symptoms, and drug interactions.

One of the most popular natural sleep aids used today is melatonin, so we’re going to take a closer look at how this supplement works and other treatments to consider as well.

Photo credit: Kirill Kondratyev via Flickr

How Melatonin Works

Although melatonin is well-known these days as a supplement, it has always been a hormone that occurs naturally in the body. It is produced by the pineal gland in the brain and helps regulate the body’s internal clock. This hormone sends signals to the brain that reach the sleep center of the brain. It’s important to understand that melatonin doesn’t cause sleep, but instead affects a person’s biological clock and natural sleep-wake cycles. Melatonin is also affected by sunlight, so it may be ineffective if taken at the wrong time of day.

Melatonin is best used by people with circadian rhythm disorders, shift work sleep disorders, and occasional early morning awakenings. Basically, it may help with situations that affect the time of day when you need to sleep. However, melatonin is not a cure for insomnia and has not shown to be effective in perpetual sleep issues for the same hours each night.

Risks and Precautions for Melatonin

As with nearly any type of treatment, there is a mild risk of side effects while taking melatonin. When taken at the appropriate dosage and as recommended by a doctor, side effects are very unlikely. However, high dosages of the hormone can cause headaches, grogginess that lasts through the next day, nausea, vivid dreams, and fluctuating hormones.

You can have your melatonin levels checked by a doctor with a blood, urine, or saliva test to determine whether your natural levels are low. As a supplement, melatonin is typically most effective when taken about 90 minutes before you go to bed and for no longer than three months at a time.

Photo credit: Michael Reuter via Flickr

Other Natural and Herbal Solutions

Melatonin is the natural sleep aid that many people are familiar with, but there are other natural ways to promote a good night’s sleep as well.

Foods that contain tryptophan, such as turkey, and food that contain serotonin, like brown rice and quinoa, can help promote sleep. Some people swear by a glass a warm goat’s milk before bed because it contains calcium and magnesium, which aid relaxation when consumed together. Other magnesium-rich foods you can try eating before bed include crackers with almond butter, a banana, and tea.

A few of the best essential oils for a restful sleep are lavender oil, bergamot oil, and sandalwood. Valerian root is an herbal remedy that is used for its relaxation and sedative properties because it helps to calm nerves in the brain. Lifestyle changes, such as breathing exercises, getting at least 45 minutes of physical activity each day, and eliminating caffeine from your diet, can dramatically improve your ability to fall asleep and stay asleep as well.

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