Home Remedies For Insomnia and Jet Lag

We are a chronically sleep-deprived nation. Stress, hormones, poor sleep “hygiene,” and technological overstimulation are some of the factors that contribute to this problem. It’s getting harder to turn off at the end of the day, so people are turning to prescription and over-the-counter drugs. 

The issue is that while these medications do cause drowsiness, they don’t necessarily promote deep sleep or improve the quality of sleep. They can also decrease cognitive skills and balance and cause dry eyes and mouth, weakness, headache, blurred vision, and urinary problems. Now for even worse news: Prescription sleep aids are the third leading cause of unintentional drug overdose resulting in death (pain killers and antianxiety meds are first and second on the list, in case you’re wondering). 

Plus, they are insanely expensive—at least $5 to $10 per pill! Steps need to be taken now to reduce the dependency on these medications, to reduce the dosage (look up FDA and Lunesta), or to at least better educate the public and health care professionals about some of the safer effective dietary supplements.

What are Insomnia and Jet Lag?

Insomnia just means you have a hard time falling or staying asleep. It leaves you feeling tired and can lead to all sorts of sleep deprivation–related problems, including depression, anxiety, irritability, immune suppression (increased risk of infections), stress, weight gain, memory problems, and an increased risk of accidents. 

It’s natural to occasionally have trouble sleeping, but if it’s becoming a nightly issue, you should talk with your doctor (see “Dissect Your Sleep Habits,” opposite). 

Insomnia can be a complex problem; there are many potential causes, including aging (hormonal changes), prostate and bladder conditions, pain medications, stress, anxiety, depression, weight gain, diet, exercise, and the list goes on.

Humans have five different stages of sleep. The first two are where light sleep occurs, and the third and fourth are where deep sleep happens (this is also when the body and brain go to work repairing tissues). 

These four stages make up non- REM sleep. Dreaming occurs in the final stage, called REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, which you experience several times a night. 

Most deep sleep occurs in the early part of the night, and most REM sleep (dreaming) occurs in the early hours of the morning. Knowing these stages and when they happen can help you better evaluate sleep supplements and prescriptions. Some help you fall asleep and increase your chances of getting more light sleep, while others help you stay in deep sleep longer.

Jet lag, a type of insomnia, occurs during travel when your body clock hasn’t yet adjusted to the new time zone. It’s considered a circadian rhythm sleep disorder because it stems from a sudden change in your internal body clock. 

Flying east is usually worse because you lose time: Going from Michigan to Europe or the Middle East, you lose 5 to 8 hours, which means bowel habits, meals, sleep, and other daily rituals get thrown off. 

Flying west you gain time, so it is usually easier to adjust because there’s still time during the day for your body to take care of its normal rituals. The farther you go in either direction, the worse the jet lag.

Home Remedies For Insomnia and Jet Lag

1. Melatonin 0.5 to 3 milligrams maximum 15 to 30 minutes before bedtime or when waking in the middle of the night (not both); for jet lag, 0.5 to 5 milligrams before bedtime until you adapt to the new time zone

Produced by the small pineal gland deep in the middle of the brain, melatonin helps regulate your circadian rhythms. Many factors, including stress and aging, can throw off production of this important hormone. 

The supplement can induce sleep, meaning it helps you fall asleep, but it won’t necessarily help you stay asleep. Many conventional and alternative medicine “experts” recommend taking 3 to 5 milligrams daily, but that’s way too high. I recommend taking just 0.5 to 1 milligram on average (3 milligrams maximum!) 15 to 30 minutes before bed. 

The brain produces less than 30 micrograms of melatonin per day to help with sleep and other functions (it may also work as an anti-inflammatory and immune-enhancing hormone), so this is another reason not to overdose on it. 

As with prescription sleep aids, taking too much melatonin can make you tired the next day and may interfere with your memory, so find the lowest dose of melatonin that works for you and take it for only as long as is needed (the shorter the better).

Melatonin has a great safety record, but it’s still possible to develop a dependence on it; over time it can lose its effect (this is called tolerance or tachyphylaxis), prompting some people to turn to stronger sleep aids, which they develop a tolerance to as well! Melatonin can potentially (but rarely) be combined with certain prescription sleep aids; always talk to your doctor first, though.

When you’re shopping for melatonin supplements, don’t be lured by pricey combination products. The vast majority of human studies used plain, inexpensive melatonin.

Today, so many companies combine it with two or more ingredients and claim that it works better than melatonin by itself, or they charge more for a different form of melatonin, claiming it’s released more effectively in the body. Don’t fall for it! If you believe these claims, then I have some swampland chock-full of oil and gold reserves to sell you.

That said, there is a type of prolonged-release melatonin (2 milligrams) available, which you’re supposed to take 1 or 2 hours before bed, and there is some research to suggest that if you don’t respond to regular melatonin, this extended version may be worth a try. It appears to work well for older adults (age 55 or older) who produce less melatonin.

Keep in mind that melatonin can mildly impact blood pressure, and the controlled-release version may reduce blood pressure slightly more than regular melatonin. If you’re taking antihypertensive medication (such as calcium channel blockers or beta-blockers), talk to your doctor about adding melatonin. Also ask your doctor about melatonin if you’re on warfarin or have epilepsy.

Melatonin doses for jet lag are a little higher—0.5 to 5 milligrams. In studies, participants taking the higher dose tended to fall asleep faster, but doses above 5 milligrams were not any more effective. (Controlled-release melatonin didn’t work any better than regular melatonin either.) The more time zones that were crossed, especially flying eastward, the better the benefits were.

Timing is critical here; if you take it too early, you’ll fall asleep too early and delay your adjustment to local time. Take it at bedtime every night until you adjust to the new time zone. You could also do this on the day you leave for your trip by taking it at your projected bedtime in the new time zone. For example, if I were flying from Detroit to Rome (oh man, this sounds awesome already), I would take my dose of melatonin ideally somewhere between 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Detroit time (which is 9 p.m. to midnight Rome time) and get some rest on the plane. Then when I got to Rome, I would get a ton of exercise by walking all over the place and take my melatonin again when I went to bed between 9 p.m. and midnight.

2. Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) 200 to 600 milligrams 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime

Valerian affects the availability and transport of GABA, or gamma-aminobutyric acid, which has a calming effect on the brain. Some studies have shown that vale-rian can help people fall asleep and stay in a deeper, more refreshing sleep. 

Always look for valerian as a root extract with at least 0.8 percent valerenic acids, which are the active ingredient. There really isn’t a commonly studied dosage, but the safest, most effective range is from 200 to 600 milligrams. Take it 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime, but realize that it can take 2 to 4 weeks to kick in, unlike melatonin, which generally works immediately (that’s why valerian’s not a good solution for jet lag). Personally, I would not mix it with other herbs because it has only been studied by itself, and the more ingredients you add, the more you potentially dilute the active ingredient.

Never combine this supplement with other sleeping pills or central nervous system depressants, such as strong pain medications, because it can cause serious breathing or other respiratory problems. And always ask your health care professional if there are any potential drug interactions with this supplement that you need to be concerned about. Side effects in clinical studies have been rare but include morning grogginess, headache, and vivid dreams (almost like nightmares).

Many experts say that the research just hasn’t shown profound effects with this herbal, but my research analysis criteria— along with my experience—lead me to disagree. For example, in a large study at the Mayo Clinic, researchers gave cancer patients 450 milligrams of valerian a day or a placebo for 8 weeks. The herbal did not appear to work better than placebo based on a sleep quality index score, but the valerian group did report less fatigue, drowsiness, and trouble sleeping. 

And it was as safe as a placebo. Studies with menopausal women have also showed a clinical benefit for improving sleep over a 4-week period. In other words, benefit is greater than risk here for many individuals, so it may be worth a try. Finally, nobody has studied valerian long term in humans, so, like with any sleeping pill, take the lowest dose that works and only for the shortest time needed. In my experience, patients really like valerian; if they stick with it for a few weeks, they really see an improvement. It’s the people who want to believe it will magically work right away who are usually disappointed.

3. (tie) 5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan) 50 to 100 milligrams 10 to 15 minutes before bedtime

The amino acid 5-HTP is an intermediate step in the conversion of L-tryptophan to serotonin in the body. It gets transformed into serotonin, a neurotransmitter in the brain that helps initiate sleep and reduces the time it takes to fall asleep; it may also help improve the amount of time spent in REM sleep. 

The supplement 5-HTP is similar in structure to the supplement L-tryptophan. In 1989, a particular brand of L-tryptophan caused an outbreak of a potentially fatal neurological condition; close to 40 people died and more than a thousand others were left with permanent disabilities. 

At the time, I was one of the student investigators at the University of South Florida who interviewed people affected by the tainted supplement. It was pretty clear, based on the research available then, that L-tryptophan worked as a sleep aid, but it ended up with a black eye, even though the problem was caused by the manufacturer, not the supplement itself.

Regardless, 5-HTP is a far better alternative for sleep—whether for insomnia or jet lag—because it easily crosses the blood-brain barrier and is rapidly converted to serotonin. Based on the research, take 50 to 100 milligrams before bed. Researchers have used higher doses (200 to 300 milligrams) in clinical trials, but in my experience with patients, these amounts are very potent. Only consider them if you’ve had no success with lower doses, which rarely occurs. Higher doses can cause nightmares or vivid dreams, and 5-HTP should not be combined with any other medications that also impact serotonin levels, such as antidepressants.

3. (tie) L-theanine 100 to 200 milligrams a day 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime

This is a fascinating amino acid because it’s found in green tea and may offset the stimulatory effects of caffeine (it’s amazing the way nature balances itself, isn’t it?). Researchers believe L-theanine (also known as N-ethyl-L-glutamine) has the potential to reduce stress because it increases multiple compounds in the brain, such as GABA, serotonin, and dopamine, all of which promote relaxation. 

As a result, it can improve sleep, especially if stress is keeping you awake (see the Stress and Anxiety section). In some areas of the world, parents add it to milk as a way to calm babies and young children (this does not mean I’m encouraging parents to do this). The standard dose is 100 to 200 milligrams daily 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime. I like it because it’s safe and fairly inexpensive, plus I always like to see how antistress supplements can impact sleep. 

For example, GABA is a supplement used to reduce stress and anxiety that also helps some people fall asleep. I believe future clinical trials will find a benefit with GABA at a low dose (50 to 100 milligrams).

What Supplements Are Useless For Insomnia and Jet Lag?

Kava or kava-kava. This antianxiety supplement, an extract from the roots of a Polynesian plant, is commonly used in the South Pacific to calm, relax, and promote well-being. It is even used as an aphrodisiac. 

It contains several active ingredients—including kawain, dihydrokawain, and methysticin—but the most interesting ones in terms of their potential benefits are the kava pyrones (better known as kavalactones); as many as 15 of them exist. In the United States, many people take kava as a substitute for Xanax or Valium. Not surprisingly then, some alternative medicine experts recommend using it as a sleep aid before bed (150 to 210 milligrams). 

In studies, kava has shown preliminary evidence that it can be effective for insomnia, and side effects overall have been low (1 to 5 percent in most). That said, you may be wondering why it’s on this list then. Well, the problem is that it’s getting the reputation as a liver killer (yes, candid is my middle name). 

Regulators in the UK pulled it off shelves after several reports of users needing liver transplants and complaints of other liver problems. More than a decade ago, the FDA issued a warning about an increased risk of liver toxicity with kava, but it’s still legal in the United States (so they can’t be that concerned, right?).

It’s possible that the kava toxicity is due to some contaminant or a gene metabolism deficiency seen in a small percentage of the population. 

But every time I’m ready to recommend kava again something makes me nervous. For example, the National Toxicology Program is a well-known laboratory study group that tests supplements, especially if they’re popular. They usually conduct 2-week, 3- month, and 2-year toxicity and carcinogenic studies in rats and mice. When they examined kava, there was some hint of liver problems when combining this supplement with other drugs or supplements. In other words, the risk exceeds the benefit for now.

Miscellaneous

These supposed sleep supplements are not worth your money: passionflower, hops, wild lettuce, Jamaican dogwood, California poppy, chamo- mile, lemon balm, skullcap, and Patrinia root. I can count the number of good studies that have been done with these supplements on one hand. Passionflower extract helps promote sleep in mice, so if you’re a mouse, you might sleep well after taking it. 

The studies in humans have been weak, though. As for hops, there used to be a condition known as hop-picker fatigue, which may have been caused by inhalation of the volatile oils of the hop plant or transfer of the hop resin from hand to mouth, but this condition isn’t seen anymore thanks to the advent of harvesting machines. 

Yet, using it in a supplement for sleep has no evidence. In some studies, hops combined with valerian demonstrated a benefit for sleep, but on closer examination, it’s probably due to the vale-rian itself. 

As far as wild lettuce and Jamaican dogwood are concerned, I’ll just say they have serious side effects and no good research. The California poppy should not be confused with the Oriental poppy, which is the source of opium and drugs such as morphine, heroine, or codeine. 

Regardless, there haven’t been any clinical trials on the California poppy. Chamomile tea is supposed to be relaxing and sedating, but the studies on this are weak, too. Lemon balm has had a few small studies showing decreased alertness, but nothing related specifically to sleep, so it gets a Moyad rejection letter. I have always had concerns about toxicity with skullcap, including increased liver problems and seizures. Patrinia root has shown some benefit but also a lot of side effects, like nausea.

What Supplements Are Suitable For Kids to Treat Insomnia and Jet Lag?

Researchers have studied melatonin in kids (ages 6 to 14) with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and sleep problems. In general, 3 to 6 milligrams before bed seemed to improve sleep, but other kids might not require as much. In children with autism spectrum disorders, for example, 1 to 3 milligrams of melatonin per day was effective. There have also been a few clinical studies of 5-HTP in children, but the most interesting one helped kids (ages 3 to 11) with a history of sleep terrors. They were given 2 milligrams of 5-HTP per kilogram of body weight before bed.

What Lifestyle Changes Can Help With Insomnia and Jet Lag?

Work out more

Regular daytime exercise can make you tired by the end of the day, especially if it’s moderate to intense. Yet clinical studies have shown that all sorts of exercise, even less vigorous work-outs like tai chi and restorative yoga, can help. Just avoid working out within an hour or two of bedtime as that can make it harder to fall asleep.

Stop smoking

Besides all the other health problems it can cause, tobacco products are stimulants.

Limit alcohol

It might make you drowsy, but alcohol reduces deep and refreshing sleep and even the REM (dream) stage. It causes fragmented sleep, which means you wake up many times throughout the night (even though you may not notice it) and you’re still tired in the morning. It can also make you get up at night to use the bathroom, which is another way it interrupts deep slumber.

Ease up on caffeine later in the day

Caffeine stays in the body (in large amounts) for about 5 to 6 hours, so if you’re reaching for a java jolt between 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. or later, you may still be feeling the effects at midnight. Caffeine also blocks adenosine receptors in the brain, which makes it harder to fall asleep.

Keep your cool

A drop in body temperature at night is one of the physiological triggers for sleep (as the sleep center in the brain cools down, it’s easier to fall asleep). So the temperature in your bedroom at night should be slightly cooler than normal. Some people find that taking a warm bath helps (as they get out, the heat dissipates and they feel cold).

Unplug in the bedroom

Bright lights, alarm clocks, computer screens, and televisions can make it hard to fall asleep.

Calm down. Anything that promotes relaxation, such as acupressure or meditation, helps with sleep. I believe that massage helps with relaxation and sleep, and if science never proves it, who cares! I massage my wife’s back every single night and she sleeps like a baby on large doses of melatonin, and I always toss and turn.

Stick to a sleep schedule

Taking naps in the afternoon can disrupt slumber at night. And sleeping in an extra hour or two on weekends can make it harder to get back to your normal schedule once Monday rolls around.

Check your meds

Many drugs—such as diuretics, decongestants, and even anti-psychotics—can disturb sleep, so check with your doctor to see if you can alter your schedule to minimize the impact on your z’s.

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