If the title of this post pulled you in, you’re likely part of the almost 50 percent of women aged 40 to 64 who have sleep problems. I’m sorry you’re a part of this club, but welcome! Sleep has been in the news a lot since—well, for as long as I can remember. It affects everything from mood and willpower to productivity and relationships. We all know how hard it is to gin up enthusiasm for romance when we’re sleep deprived.
Sleep also has implications for long-term health. Research shows that not getting enough sleep can lead to serious issues like diabetes and cardiovascular disease and a weakened immune system.
The evidence that we should make sleep a priority is pretty compelling. Perhaps you took the advice of our recent post on good sleep hygiene, and you have been going to bed at the same time every night, avoiding food, exercise, and alcohol several hours before bed, and keeping your bedroom cool and dark. Well done!
But if you’re still reading, those good habits may not be paying off for you. There are few things more frustrating to my patients than knowing all the reasons good sleep is important, following all the advice—and still not getting good sleep.
If you’ve tried all the normal ways to fix your sleep problems, and you don’t want to try medication, you might want to experiment with natural remedies.
As I’ve said before, herbal supplements are generally considered foodstuffs in the U.S., so manufacturers don’t have to conduct clinical studies about their efficacy or side effects. I can’t necessarily vouch for them, but few are known to be harmful. Some patients report one supplement or another has worked for them, and maybe one of them will work for you, too.
If you do want to try one, first consult with your doctor to make sure it’s safe for you, given your health and the medications you’re taking. I also recommend that you keep a sleep journal for a week before you begin and for 12 weeks after. Make a note of sleep hygiene factors, too, like when you ate and exercised and put away screens for the night.
Melatonin is a hormone that regulates when we sleep. When melatonin levels rise at night, body temperature falls and we feel sleepy. Melatonin seems to be most effective at helping people fall asleep rather than stay asleep. Calcium aids in the production of melatonin, which may be why some people find that drinking a glass of warm milk before bed makes them sleepy.
L-theanine is an amino acid that increases brain chemicals that are calming and reduces brain chemicals linked to stress and anxiety. Rather than acting as a sedative, L-theanine can improve the quality of sleep by lowering anxiety. It’s most often found in tea but can be bought in the form of supplements.
Valerian is an herb. Valerian root is thought to reduce anxiety by acting as a sedative, but research results on that have been mixed. It may help you fall asleep more quickly and improve the quality of your sleep, but you might need to use it every day for up to four weeks before it starts to help.
Magnesium is a mineral. Most adults get enough of it through their diets (leafy green vegetables, nuts, and whole grains are good sources), but it might affect the sleep of those who don’t; magnesium deficiency has been linked to higher levels of anxiety, which interferes with sleep. If you suspect you are low on magnesium, eat more of the above. Magnesium supplements often don’t play nicely with medications.
Lavender is a popular natural sleep remedy. Many people say just the smell of it relaxes them and makes it easier to sleep. There is some research that shows that taking lavender oil by mouth for 6 to 10 weeks reduces anxiety and improves sleep.
Lavender—or any of the natural remedies above—may really work for some people. Or perhaps it’s just the placebo effect. If something is safe and it helps a patient get better sleep, I don’t care much about whether it’s “real” or placebo. And I suspect that you don’t, either.
Have you tried any of these or another that we haven’t included? I’d love to hear what’s working for you!
Dr. Barb DePree, M.D., has been a gynecologist and women’s health provider for almost 30 years and a menopause care specialist for the past ten.