Sleep Well, Sleep Better


Michael Jackson’s premature death from a cocktail of sedatives for insomnia and anxiety underlines the tragic consequences of overdoing prescription sleeping medications.

Being able to operate successfully on very little sleep a night is apparently a genetic trick. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously got by on four hours a night, Australian PM Kevin Rudd can operate on three while former US President George W. Bush wanted at least eight.

Although the National Sleep Foundation recommends getting seven to nine hours of sleep a night, the average American logs only six hours and 40 minutes.

And in Australia a 2004 study showed 20 per cent of adults reported being disturbed between three and five times every night, while close to two-thirds reported difficulty going to sleep.

Two-in-five say they do not wake up feeling refreshed and close to two-thirds feel sleepy during the day more often than once a week.

Natural Alternatives ‘Safer’

Obviously around the world there are millions of adults who share Jacko’s difficulties with sleeping, so what’s to do?

Before you reach for the sleeping pills, it’s worth considering other alternatives – natural herbs, nutritional supplements, aromatherapy and life style changes.

“These are safer and have fewer side effects than OTC medications,” Jacob Teitelbaum, MD, author of From Fatigued to Fantastic and medical director of the national Fibromyalgia and Fatigue Centers. He told Karen Asp at many of these safer alternatives “can not only help you fall asleep and stay asleep, but they may also promote muscle relaxation.”

Making Good Choices

If you haven’t slept well in days but aren’t ready to see a doctor, here are a few options:

Ways to change your daily patterns

  • Avoid caffeine after lunchtime. A caffeine buzz not only affects the amount of sleep you get, but also the quality. “If coffee is still in your system when you go to bed, your sleep is going to be lighter, more fragmented, and less restorative,” says Ralph Downey III, PhD, director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Loma Linda University Medical Center in California.
    • Avoid alcohol in the evening.  While it may help you fall asleep quickly, it disrupts sleep in the second half of the night. (Symptoms include shallow sleep, sweating, nightmares or vivid dreams, and general restlessness and an overall reduction in sleep time, resulting in daytime weariness)
    • Explore books or audio recordings for relaxation, meditation, and stress relief techniques
    • Do physical exercise during the day to ‘work out’ your muscles and induce a pleasant feeling of physical tiredness
    • Keep a ‘worry journal’
    • Investigate acupuncture – recent Chinese research shows it can help sleeplessness

Set up a regular bedtime routine

  • Limit bedroom activities: If you have insomnia, your bedroom should be used for two things only: sleep and sex. That means moving the TV, computer, knitting, unopened mail, exercise equipment, and anything else distracting out of the room. (If sex leaves you revved up instead of relaxed, you’ll have to move that too.)
  • As much as possible, go to sleep at a regular time each night. That way your internal clock keeps to a schedule.
  • Eat a light snack before bed; Certain foods, such as turkey and dairy products, contain tryptophan, an amino acid that your body turns into sleep-promoting melatonin and serotonin. While eating a big meal before bedtime can make it harder to sleep, a light snack of cheese and crackers or yogurt may actually help.

Herbal blends and supplements

  • Natural sleep treatments often contain valerian, melatonin (not available in NZ or Australia) lemon balm, hops, coenzyme Q10, and chamomile, St. John’s wort, passionflower, kava, and hops. They’re available as pills, tablets, liquid formulas, and even incorporated into mainstream tea products.
  • Dietary supplements include magnesium and calcium, L-theanine (from green tea).


  • Essential oils of chamomile, juniper, lavender, marjoram, neroli, rose and sandalwood and mandarin are all relaxing and gently sleep inducing. Put a few drops on your pillow drop a few drops in a warm bath before bed, or add to a natural oil like almond oil and smooth on arms and legs before bed.

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