Dr. Mercola Articles
Why Seasonal Allergies Cause 'Brain Fog' — Here's What the Science Says
Thu, 19 Apr 2018 05:00:00 GMT

By Dr. Mercola

Allergic rhinitis, or seasonal allergies, often referred to as hay fever, affect 20 million U.S. adults and more than 6 million children.1 The most common symptoms include sneezing, stuffy or runny nose, watery and itchy eyes and itching in your nose, mouth or throat, but a sizable number of allergy sufferers also experience noticeable brain fog as well.

What causes the fuzzy-headed feeling is up for debate, but many theories are out there. One of the simplest is that allergy symptoms can make it difficult to get a good night’s sleep, which in turn makes you fatigued and takes a toll on your ability to think clearly and be productive. Others, however, believe there may be more to it than that, and the inflammation triggered by allergies may be directly or indirectly affecting the brain.

How do Allergies Affect Your Brain?

Allergies are your body's reaction to particles that it considers foreign (allergens). The first time your body encounters an allergen, your plasma cells release immunoglobulin E (IgE), an antibody specific to that allergen. IgE attaches to the surface of your mast cells, which are found in great numbers in your surface tissues, such as your skin and nasal mucous membranes, where they help mediate inflammatory responses. Mast cells release a number of important chemical mediators, one of which is histamine.

The second time your body encounters a particular allergen, within a few minutes your mast cells become activated and release a powerful cocktail of histamine, leukotrienes and prostaglandins, which trigger the entire cascade of symptoms you associate with allergies. As part of the immune response, proteins called cytokines are also released, all of which add up to serious inflammation in your body.

This inflammation, in turn, could affect your brain in a number of ways, from interfering with sleep, as mentioned, to affecting your ears. If your middle ear is unable to drain properly due to inflammation, for instance, it could cause feelings of brain fog or dizziness.2 Yet, research also suggests that allergies have a very real effect on cognitive function:

  • Allergies may impede learning in school-age children, and uncontrolled allergy symptoms can diminish cognitive function and learning3
  • People with seasonal allergies have disturbed cognitive function in areas such as sustained attention, short- and long-term memory and speed of information processing4
  • In mice, exposure to a grass allergen triggered the growth of new neurons in the hippocampus, a brain region linked to memory, while immune cells called microglia were reduced5
  • Allergic reactions to ragweed pollen have been found to cause significant fatigue and mood changes in some people, with researchers noting, “Psychoneuroimmunology and medical genetics research suggests that allergic reactions engender biochemical changes that directly affect the central nervous system”6

Brain Fog During Allergy Season Is not All in Your Head

It’s very common for allergy patients to complain of memory problems and slowed thinking during allergy season, and it’s important to understand that these problems are very real — not “all in your head,” as some medical providers may claim. In research published in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, for instance, cognitive testing revealed that people allergic to ragweed “experience subtle slowed speed of cognitive processing” and, in some cases, “difficulties in working memory” during ragweed season.7

A similar study used neuropsychological tests to demonstrate changes in cognitive function among people with seasonal allergies when they were exposed to ragweed pollen. Allergies “adversely affected a broad range of cognitive functions,” according to the researchers, including longer response times and decreased efficiency on measures of working memory, psychomotor speed, reasoning/computation and divided attention.8

In fact, there’s even a condition known as “allergic mood,” used to describe symptoms of depression and anxiety that seem to often occur in people with seasonal allergies. In one study, researchers found that seasonal allergy patients experienced an increase in depressive symptoms while experiencing an acute allergic inflammation episode, with findings supporting a close relationship between allergic processes, inflammatory cytokines, sleep and age at manifestation as potential mechanisms.9

Reducing Your Exposure to Allergens Is the First Step to Relief

Many allergy sufferers turn to over-the-counter antihistamines and decongestants to try and tame allergy symptoms, but these Band-Aids come with side effects that can rival the allergy symptoms themselves, including dry mouth, drowsiness and dizziness. Another more natural avenue to reduce your symptoms is to reduce your exposure to allergens as much as possible. The American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI) suggests reducing your exposure to by:10

  • Avoiding clothing made of synthetic fabrics, as they can produce an electric charge when rubbed that attracts and makes pollen stick to you. Better options include natural fibers like cotton.
  • Exercising outdoors before dawn, in the late afternoon, and/or early evening, as pollen counts are at the lowest at these times. Intense exercise may be best done indoors, as your increased breathing rate could make you inhale more pollen.
  • Wearing gloves and a mask when gardening. To filter pollen, wear a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)-rated 95 filter mask. Also avoid touching your eyes and when done be sure to take a shower and wash your clothes.
  • To reduce your exposure to indoor allergens, regularly vacuum your home, including furniture, using a HEPA filter vacuum cleaner, leave shoes by the door to avoid trekking dirt through the house and use a dehumidifier and/or a HEPA filter air purifier.

Using a neti pot (a small, teapot-like pot) is another simple technique to safely cleanse your sinuses of irritants, including allergens. It involves pouring water (distilled or sterilized only) into one nostril and allowing it to flow out the other. You can find detailed instructions for nasal irrigation here. You can perform this nasal irrigation up to four times a day until your symptoms improve

Lifestyle Changes Are the Next Route to Allergy Relief

Even in the case of seasonal allergies, what you eat and how you sleep may affect your symptoms and how you feel. Getting enough sleep each night is especially important in order to avoid worsening any brain fog you’re already feeling, however your gut is also intricately linked to your brain and mood, which is why what you eat is also important.

"Healing and sealing" your gut has been shown to help alleviate allergy symptoms, and the key to this is eliminating inflammatory foods like grains and processed foods and introducing healthier foods, including fermented foods, that will support a proper balance of bacteria in your gut. In fact, people with seasonal allergies who took a probiotic supplement during allergy season had decreased symptoms and improved quality of life.11

Eating a wholesome diet based on unprocessed, ideally organic and/or locally grown foods, along with optimizing your vitamin D levels and correcting your omega-3 to omega-6 ratio by increasing your intake of animal-based omega-3s and decreasing your intake of processed vegetable oil will form the foundation upon which your immune system can function in an optimal manner.

Natural Treatment Options for Seasonal Allergy Sufferers

There are a number of natural strategies that may provide some relief without the side effects common to allergy medications. Homeopathy is one such option. Homeopathic solutions contain minuscule doses of plants, minerals, animal products or other compounds that cause symptoms similar to what you are already experiencing. The remedies have been diluted many times over, and the idea is that the substance will stimulate your body’s own healing process.

In patients with allergies, those using homeopathy reported improvements in nasal airflow compared with a placebo group. With homeopathic treatment, the researchers described a “clear, significant and clinically relevant improvement in nasal inspiratory peak flow, similar to that found with topical steroids.”12 Provocation neutralization (PN), which is taught by the American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM), can also be very effective for allergy relief.

During provocation neutralization, a small amount of allergen is injected under your skin to produce a small bump called a "wheal" on the top layers of your skin, and then it is monitored for a reaction. If you have a positive reaction, such as fatigue, headache or a growth in the size of the wheal, then the allergen is neutralized with diluted injections or with drops of the same allergen that go in your mouth.

Sublingual (oral) immunotherapy is a similar option in which you receive small doses of allergen under your tongue to help improve tolerance and reduce symptoms. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, “[Sublingual immunotherapy] … is fairly safe and effective for the treatment of nasal allergies and asthma. SLIT tablets are currently available for dust mites, grass and ragweed.”13

If brain fog is your primary concern, you may also want to consider ashwagandha, an herb that’s useful for improving memory and cognitive function, along with brain fog, specifically.14 For allergies, additional natural remedies and supplements may also be useful, including the following:

Hot peppers

Hot chili peppers, horseradish and hot mustards work as natural decongestants. In fact, a nasal spray containing capsaicin (derived from hot peppers) significantly reduced nasal allergy symptoms in a 2009 study.15

Quercetin

Quercetin is an antioxidant that belongs to a class of water-soluble plant substances called flavonoids. Quercetin-rich foods (such as apples, berries, red grapes, red onions, capers and black tea) prevent histamine release — so they are "natural antihistamines."

Quercetin is also available in supplement form — a typical dose for hay fever is between 200 and 400 milligrams (mg) per day.

Butterbur (Petasites hybridus)

Another natural antihistamine, butterbur was used to treat coughs and asthma as far back as the 17th century. A word of cautionis needed, however. Butterbur is a member of the ragweed family, so if you are allergic to ragweed, marigold, daisy or chrysanthemum, you should not use butterbur.   

Also, the raw herb should not be used because it contains substances called pyrrolizidine alkaloids that can be toxic to your liver and kidneys and may cause cancer. Commercial butterbur products have had a lot of these alkaloids removed.

Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis)

Goldenseal may be helpful for seasonal allergies. Laboratory studies suggest that berberine, the active ingredient in goldenseal, has antibacterial and immune-enhancing properties.

Eucalyptus oil

This pure essential oil can be healing to mucus membranes. You can apply a drop on a cotton ball and sniff it several times a day, add a few drops to water (or to a nebulizer, if you own one) for a steam treatment or use a few drops in your bathwater.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C is another natural antihistamine. Naturopathic doctor Doni Wilson told the Huffington Post, “ … you need to take 500-1000 mg three times a day to reduce symptoms.”16

Green Tea:

If you have cedar pollen allergies, you should know about a type of slightly fermented, organic Japanese green tea called “Benifuuki.” The tea has been shown to strongly inhibit mast cell activation and histamine release, as well as relieve symptoms of runny nose and eye itching in people with cedar pollen allergy.17

The Many Benefits of Sage, the 'Savior' Herb
Thu, 19 Apr 2018 05:00:00 GMT

A member of the mint family, sage (Salvia officinalis) originated from the northern Mediterranean coast, where it was traditionally used for cooking. Italians are known to add flavor to veal with sage, while the French use it for sausages, stuffing and cured meats. The herb’s warm and musky essence also probably reminds you of homemade turkey dressing — a Thanksgiving staple loved by many Americans.1

However, sage isn’t just for cooking. In medieval times, it was called “Salvia Salvatrix,” which means “sage, the savior.” This is because it was one of the primary ingredients of the “Four Thieves Vinegar,” a concoction that was used by thieves to ward off the bubonic plague while plundering for treasures.2 Today, sage is known for its high antioxidant capacity and many health benefits.3 Learn about how you can use sage to take your health to new heights. 

What Makes Sage Healthy?

Sage has an extensive history as a medicinal herb. It was used by the ancient Egyptians to improve fertility, and in the first century CE, Dioscorides, a Greek physician, pharmacologist and botanist (now known as the father of pharmacology4), reported that sage can help stop wounds from bleeding, help disinfect sores and promote healing of ulcers. He also used sage juice to treat coughs and hoarseness.5

Since then, herbalists have used sage for treating different conditions, such as swelling, sprains, asthma and excessive menstrual bleeding.6

The health benefits of sage are attributed to flavonoids, such as apigenin, luteolin and diosmetin,7 which are known for their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.8 Sage can also provide your body with rosmarinic acid, a polyphenolic compound with unlimited health potential. Due to the popularity of “sage the savior” as a home remedy, it has been extensively studied and shown to offer the following benefits:9

Helps relieve Alzheimer’s disease symptoms:  A 2017 review published in the journal Drugs noted sage’s potential to “enhance cognitive activity and protect against neurodegenerative disease,” including Alzheimer’s and dementia.10 Some studies also show that sage can help boost memory in young and healthy adults.11

Assists in lowering cholesterol and blood glucose: A 2013 study published in Complementary Therapies in Medicine showed that participants given sage leaf extract had lower fasting glucose, HbA1c, total cholesterol, triglyceride and LDL ("bad" cholesterol) levels, but higher HDL (good cholesterol) after three months of treatment.12

Alleviates menopausal symptoms: In a 2011 study, researchers S. Bommer, P. Klein and A. Suter reported that taking fresh sage leaf tablets significantly decreased hot flush symptoms among menopausal women by 50 percent after just four weeks. After eight weeks, the hot flushes were reduced by 64 percent.13

You can also use sage to relieve ailments including sore throat, cough and the common cold. Simply steep a teaspoon of sage leaves in half a cup of water for 30 minutes and then use it as a gargle.14 A 2009 study even concluded that using a sage and echinacea spray is almost as effective as a chlorhexidine/lidocaine spray in relieving acute sore throat.15

Other Uses of Sage

Aside from its medicinal and healing benefits, sage is also commonly used for “smudging,” a purification ritual of Native American and other indigenous cultures wherein dried herbs are tied into a bundle and lighted.16 Burning sage is practiced today in many parts of the world to clear stagnant or negative energy, but it is also believed to enhance healing.17,18 If you want to try smudging with sage, here’s a step-by-step guide from The Spruce:19

Materials Needed:

Sage smudge stick (bundled up sage tied with a string)

Candle

Matches

A fireproof container

Bowl with sand

Procedure:

1. Place the smudge stick, candle and fireproof container (preferably a bowl) on a table or any appropriate surface.

2. Light the candle and then focus your energy (on your purpose) or say a prayer before lighting the tip of the sage smudge stick.

3. Gently wave the stick in the air until the tip starts to smolder.

4. Position the smudge stick over the fireproof container so no lit herbs will fall to the floor. Use your other hand to disperse the smoke from the smoldering stick. Make sure to concentrate on your breathing during the entire process.

5. Move around your house, waving the smoke in the air, in a clockwise direction, starting at your front door. Don’t forget to smudge the room corners and closets, which can accumulate stagnant energy. Open closet doors and smudge the inside as well.

6. After smudging all areas of your home, return to where you started and carefully extinguish your smudge stick in the bowl of sand. To continue purifying the energy, you can leave the candle lighted.

There are many other uses for sage, such as in gardening. The herb can be used as an insect repellent if you have a cabbage moth problem.20 For cosmetic purposes, Stylecraze says that sage (particularly its essential oil) can be used to help give your skin and hair health a boost.21 It can even be used to make a soothing aftershave lotion.22

How to Grow Sage

If you want to use sage for health or any other reasons, you can cultivate it at home using indoor containers or grow it in your backyard. Take note that the best time to plant sage is in spring. Here is a step-by-step guide from oneHowto if you want to try growing sage:23

1. Purchase sage seeds or seedlings, which are available at garden stores.

2. Find a container or area in your garden, but remember that the plant will need adequate sunshine.

3. Use rich organic soil that is well-drained since water accumulation can cause the roots to rot, killing the plant.

4. Make small holes in the soil of your container or garden and put the seeds or seedlings in.

5. While the plant is still small, make sure to keep the soil moist. Once it grows, you should only water it when the soil becomes dry.

6. Remember to collect sage before it blooms. Cut the branches then hang them upside down in a cool, well-ventilated area where they can’t be reached by sunlight. This will dry up the leaves, which you can store in a glass jar.

Sage Recipes You Can Try

You have boundless options if you want to use sage to add flavor to your dishes. As mentioned earlier, the herb has a crisp aromatic potency, similar to its cousins, basil, rosemary and thyme. The Kitchn describes sage to be sweet but a little bitter, and comes with a pine-like aroma and flavor. It’s usually described as having citrus and eucalyptus notes.24

Sage can be used fresh or dried and ground, but just like most herbs, the fresh leaves are more flavorful. It’s usually paired with chicken and other poultry, but can also add flavor to sausages and other meats. Sage is a common ingredient in pasta sauces, and can be added to pumpkin dishes and meat stuffings as well.26 Here is a delicious recipe adapted from EatingWell if you want to try cooking with sage:27

Brussels Sprouts With Chestnuts and Sage

Ingredients:

2 pounds Brussels sprouts, trimmed and cut in half

3/4 cup coarsely chopped chestnuts

2 teaspoons chopped fresh sage

2 tablespoons organic extra-virgin coconut oil

3 tablespoons homemade chicken broth

1/2 teaspoon Himalayan salt

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

Procedure:

1. Bring a large saucepan of water to a boil and add Brussels sprouts. Cook until they turn bright green (six to eight minutes) then drain well.

2. Heat the organic extra-virgin coconut oil and chicken broth in a large ceramic skillet over medium heat and add the Brussels sprouts, chestnuts and sage. Stir often, until it is heated through (two to four minutes).

3. Season with Himalayan salt and black pepper then serve warm or at room temperature.

This recipe makes 12 servings.

You Should Also Try Sage Essential Oil and Clary Sage Oil

Sage essential oil is extracted via steam distillation of leaves from the sage plant, and is known to offer health benefits due to its antimicrobial and antioxidant properties.28 A study published in the Brazilian Journal of Microbiology found that among 11 essential oils tested, sage essential oil was one of the most effective against Vancomycin-resistant Enterococci and E. coli strains.29

While it’s safe to consume the herb itself during pregnancy, using sage essential oil during this delicate period is not advised, as this oil has estrogenic properties and may cause uterine contractions. Breastfeeding moms should also take caution when using sage oil and/or drinking sage tea, as these substances may reduce milk production.30

In addition, do not mistake sage essential oil for clary sage oil, which is derived from the flowering tops of the clary sage plant (Salvia sclarea).31 This essential oil offers its own set of benefits, as it has antidepressant, anti-inflammatory and antispasmodic properties. It may also promote deeper sleep, relieve anxiety, and boost skin and hair health.32

Remember, when it comes to using these essential oils either orally or topically, there are necessary precautions you should take. Test for sensitization by applying the oil on a small area of your skin, then observe for adverse reactions for at least 24 hours. I strongly advise against ingesting or applying undiluted essential oils on your skin, unless you are closely supervised by a qualified aromatherapist.

Many Insomniacs Remain Conscious During Sleep, Which Makes Them Think They’ve Not Slept a Wink
Thu, 19 Apr 2018 05:00:00 GMT

By Dr. Mercola

According to the American Sleep Association,1 up to 70 million Americans have a sleep disorder, nearly 40 percent unintentionally fall asleep during the day at least once a month and nearly 5 percent have nodded off while driving at least once. Insomnia is the most common sleep disorder, with 10 percent of American adults struggling with chronic insomnia and 30 percent reporting occasional or short-term insomnia.

Interestingly, insomniacs will often insist they’ve not slept a wink all night, even though they’ve actually been sleeping. Researchers have now discovered there’s a reason for this discrepancy in experience, and it has to do with consciousness. In a nutshell, even though the brain is sleeping, insomniacs remain consciously aware, and therefore believe they’ve not slept at all.

Many Insomniacs Remain Conscious Even When Asleep, Study Finds

Daniel Kay, a psychology professor at Brigham Young University in Utah who led the study,2 told Medical News Today,3 “… [Y]ou can be consciously aware and your brain [can] be in a sleep pattern. The question is: What role does conscious awareness have in our definition of sleep?" Traditionally, it’s been believed that sleeping involves the absence of conscious awareness, but Kay’s team was able to conclude that this is not categorically true.

To investigate the role of consciousness during sleep, the team analyzed the sleep patterns and subjective experience of 32 people with insomnia and 30 who reported sleeping well.

Once the participants were deemed to be asleep, based on their brain patterns, a radioactive tracer was injected into their arms. Using brain imaging, the researchers were able to examine neurons that remained active during sleep, and their exact locations. The following morning, the participants were asked about their subjective experience of their sleep. Medical News Today explains the results:

“The study found that people with insomnia who reported that they had been awake, even when the polysomnography showed otherwise, had increased activity in brain areas associated with conscious awareness during the dreamless phase of sleep — that is, nonrapid eye movement sleep …

[I]t is normal during the process of falling asleep for the brain to send inhibitory neurons that make people less and less consciously aware until they've reached a state of deep sleep. However, what the findings of the new study suggest is that people with insomnia may not feel as though they're asleep until their brain experiences a greater inhibitory activity in areas that are linked to conscious awareness.”

Normal Sleepers May Not Get as Much Sleep as They Think

As noted by the authors,4 “Brain activity in the right anterior insula, left anterior cingulate cortex, and middle/posterior cingulate cortex may be involved in the perception” of insomnia. People who reported sleeping well turned out to have increased activity in the same areas of the brain as insomniacs. The reason for this is because your brain goes through “an inhibition process” when you fall asleep, gradually lowering your conscious awareness.

While insomniacs require a greater level of inhibition before their consciousness recedes, many good sleepers report falling asleep long before their brainwaves indicate that they’re actually sleeping. This is basically the reverse situation of insomnia: Good sleepers lose conscious awareness at a very low level of inhibition, making them believe they fell asleep much faster than they actually did, based on their brain patterns.

Mindfulness Meditation Recommended for Insomniacs

So, if you struggle with insomnia, frequently feeling you haven’t slept a wink, what can you do? Kay says, “In patients with insomnia, processes involved in reducing conscious awareness during sleep may be impaired. One of the strategies for targeting these processes may be mindfulness meditation. It may help the patients inhibit cognitive processes that are preventing them from experiencing sleep."

Practicing "mindfulness" means you're actively paying attention to the moment you're in right now. Rather than letting your mind wander, when you're mindful, you're living in the moment and letting distracting thoughts pass through your mind without getting caught up in their emotional implications.

You can add mindfulness to virtually any aspect of your day — even while you're eating, working or doing household chores like washing dishes — simply by paying attention to the sensations you are experiencing in the present moment. Mindfulness meditation, on the other hand, is a more formal practice in which you consciously focus your attention on specific thoughts or sensations, and then observe them in a nonjudgmental manner.

This is just one type of meditation; there are many forms available. Transcendental meditation, for instance, is one of the most popular forms of meditation, practiced by millions of people around the world. It's simple to perform. Simply choose a mantra that has meaning for you, sit quietly with your eyes closed and repeat your mantra for a period of about 20 minutes, twice a day.

The idea is to reach a place of "restful" or "concentrated" alertness, which enables you to let negative thoughts and distractions pass by you without upsetting your calm and balance. Some aspects of mindfulness, mindfulness meditation, and other forms of meditation overlap.

For instance, focusing your mind on your breath is one of the most basic, and most rewarding, relaxation and meditation/mindfulness strategies there is. To learn more about meditation and the different forms of practice available, see “Meditation Connects Your Mind and Body.”

Common Factors That Keep You Awake

Aside from the possibility that you’re simply misperceiving your inability to sleep, certain environmental factors can make it more difficult to fall asleep. This includes such things as:5

  • Your pillow being too hot. A cool pillow, and more importantly the room temperature overall, will decrease your core body temperature, which induces drowsiness. In one study, insomniacs equipped with a cooling cap fell asleep within 13 minutes — three minutes faster than normal sleepers — and remained asleep 89 percent of the night. Reader’s Digest6 suggests placing your pillow in the freezer for a few minutes before bed to cool it down.
  • Starting a new medication. A number of different drugs can cause insomnia, including blood pressure medications, antidepressants and steroids. Oftentimes, this side effect can be ameliorated by changing the time at which you take the drug. Beta-blockers, prescribed for high blood pressure and/or arrhythmia, for example, are typically best taken in the morning instead of at night.
  • Pets. As much as you love your fur-babies, if they’re hogging your bed or filling it with hair, consider keeping your pets out of your bed. According to one Mayo Clinic study,7 while some find their pets help them sleep better, approximately 20 percent of pet owners admitted the animal disrupted their sleep in one way or another.
  • Cold feet. While cooling your head induces sleep, cold feet can keep you tossing and turning. The solution: Wear socks to bed.
  • Exhaustion. While exhaustion is frequently confused with tiredness, the two are not the same. When exhausted from stress or overwork, your brain tends to be on high alert. This “cognitive popcorn” can make it difficult to fall asleep, no matter how exhausted your body is. Rather than falling into bed right away after a long day, try winding down, allowing your mind to settle before trying to fall asleep.

When Anxiety or an Overactive Mind Keeps You Awake

One of my favorite tools for resolving anxiety that contributes to insomnia is the Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT), which combines tapping on certain points of your body with verbal statements that help pinpoint the underlying issues. In the video above, EFT therapist Julie Schiffman demonstrates how to tap for sleep.

EFT helps to release worries, fears and even physical symptoms that stand between you and a good night’s sleep by reprogramming your body's reactions to many of the unavoidable stressors of everyday life, making it easier to take them in stride.

When stress triggers are reduced, you will naturally sleep better. In 2012, a triple blind study8 found that EFT reduced cortisol levels and symptoms of psychological distress by 24 percent — more than any other intervention tested. This is enormously significant, as there are few things that will destroy your health faster than stress.

Researchers at the American Academy of Sleep Medicine discovered that how you cope with stress might have an even greater impact on your sleep than the number of stressors you encounter. They also found that mindfulness therapies worked best for suppressing the "mental chatter" that inhibits the onset of sleep. Lead author Vivek Pillai, Ph.D., wrote,9 “While a stressful event can lead to a bad night of sleep, it's what you do in response to stress that can be the difference between a few bad nights and chronic insomnia.”

Avoid Sleeping Pills for Insomnia

To learn more about the ins and outs of sleep, and lots more tips and strategies to improve your quality and quantity of your rest, please see “Sleep — Why You Need It and 50 Ways to Improve It.” Whatever you do, avoid sleeping pills. Not only do they have extremely limited benefits, the side effects can be quite severe. Take Belsomra, for example, a next-gen type sleeping pill that acts on a neurotransmitter called orexin “to turn down the brain’s ‘wake messages.’”

The company’s own clinical trials showed the drug allowed people to fall asleep an average of six minutes sooner than those taking a placebo, and stay asleep 16 minutes longer. More than 1,000 consumer complaints against Belsomra have been filed with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, with complaints ranging from lack of effectiveness and next-day drowsiness to sleep paralysis, heart problems and suicidal ideation. One in 5 reports claim the drug made them the opposite of sleepy.10

Other research has found sleeping pills like Ambien, Lunesta and Sonata reduce the average time it takes to fall asleep by about 13 minutes compared to placebo, while increasing total sleep time by about 11 minutes.11 Interestingly, participants believed they had slept longer, by up to one hour, when taking the pills. This is thought to be due to anterograde amnesia, which causes trouble with forming memories.

When people wake up after taking sleeping pills, they may, in fact, simply forget they’d been unable to sleep. Sonata is also associated with addiction.12 Studies have also shown that use of sleeping pills increase your risk of death and cancer.13 To learn more about the hazards of sleeping pills, see Dr. Daniel Kripke’s e-book, “The Dark Side of Sleeping Pills.”14

Natural Sleep Remedies

Fortunately, there are far safer options. While you work on addressing the root causes of your sleep problems, temporarily using a natural sleep aid may help you get to sleep easier. Following are a handful of alternatives:

  • Melatonin. In scientific studies, melatonin has been shown to increase sleepiness, help you fall asleep more quickly and stay asleep, decrease restlessness and reverse daytime fatigue. Melatonin is a completely natural substance, made by your body, and has many health benefits in addition to sleep. Start with as little as 0.25 milligrams (mg) and work your way up in quarter-gram increments until you get the desired effect.
  • 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP). One of my favorite sleep aids is 5-HTP. 5-HTP is the hydroxylated form of tryptophan. It easily passes your blood brain barrier when it is converted to serotonin (thereby giving mood a boost) and then to melatonin (enhancing sleep). I believe this is a superior approach to using melatonin. In one study, an amino acid preparation containing both GABA (a calming neurotransmitter) and 5-HTP reduced time to fall asleep, increased the duration of sleep and improved sleep quality.15
  • Valerian root. Studies have found valerian root helps improve the speed at which you fall asleep, depth of sleep (achieving deep sleep 36 percent faster16) and overall quality of sleep.17 Start with a minimal dose and use the lowest dose needed to achieve the desired effect, as higher dosages can have an energizing effect in some people. Typical dosages used in studies range between 400 mg and 900 mg, taken anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours before bed.
  • Chamomile tea. This herb is typically used in the form of infusions, teas, liquid extracts or essential oils made from the plant's fresh or dried flower heads. It has sedative effects that may help with sleep, which is why chamomile tea is often sipped before bed.
  • Cannabidiol (CBD) oil. Another alternative is to take CBD oil. By bringing tissues back into balance, CBD oil helps reduce pain, nerve stimulation and muscle spasm. It also promotes relaxation and has been shown to improve sleep.

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