Sleep Hygiene and Natural Sleep-Aide Supplements

by Max Wettstein, Copyright 2005 all rights reserved.  Opinion only!

    As a continuation in our discussion of sleep, I would like to discuss sleep hygiene by presenting you with some things you can do to better ensure a night of quality sleep.  Afterwards, I’ll discuss some natural and herbal sleep aids and minerals.  These supplements are all available at any vitamin or health food store, over-the-counter, non-synthetic, and will not get you in trouble with your AME or the FAA.  They are all non-toxic, non habit-forming, improve your sleep quality and duration in a natural way, in harmony with your normal sleep stages and patterns.  Granted these natural and herbal sleep aids have less dramatic results and may not seem as effective as other more popular pharmaceutical ‘sleeping pills’, but over time, say a 40-year flying career, they are much safer.

    Both prescription and over-the-counter sleeping pills can have numerous side effects including, altering your normal sleep stages and cycles by sedating you, losing their efficacy with prolonged use resulting in ‘rebound insomnia’ if you stop them, and leaving you feeling hung-over and sedated after waking.  Sleeping pills have a deleterious effect on your sleep cycle, increasing the time spent in light Stages 3 and 4 sleep and diminishing the time spent in deep sleep and REM sleep.  In a sense you are not experiencing reality because, as with any drug, how you perceive you are feeling is somewhat distorted and masked and you are sleeping in an altered and unnatural state.  You should also consider that sleeping pills are an additional drug that must be processed by your liver, which already may be over-tasked metabolizing alcohol, everyday toxins ingested from processed foods and treated water, not to mention any other drugs you may be taking.  Why even begin to go down this dead end road of drugging yourself to sleep?  As you will read here, there are plenty of natural and healthy supplements and herbal teas you can consume to help you sleep during your layover.  They may not ‘knock you out’ for 8 hours straight, but they can make a noticeable difference without any harmful side effects.  Besides, you can always take a nap later.  (As I write this the latest buzz on the street regarding sleeping pills centers on Ambien and Lunesta which allegedly has no hangover or after-effects - other then sleep-eating/walking, and short-term memory trouble.  Admittedly, I’ve read good things about Ambien, even in naturopathic and homeopathic literature.  However, Ambien is by prescription only and certainly not without negative side effects.) 

    Falling asleep is normally taken care of by Mother Nature and is a subconscious occurrence.  If we’re really that tired then falling asleep should be no problem, right?  In reality stress, anxiety, jetlag, among other things, can make it difficult to drift off to sleep, and even cause insomnia.  The following is a list of things you can do to get your mind and body into sleep mode, by unwinding from the day’s stress and reducing anxiety.  The goal is also to help you sleep more soundly, (Much of this list is borrowed from Dr. J. Tietelbaum’s The Basics: Good Sleep Hygiene, from his book about Chronic Fatigue Syndrome).  Unfortunately during a hotel layover many of these suggestions won’t always be possible, especially when jetlag is a necessary consequence of the trip pairing, but at least you’ll have a few ideas.  We use checklists and to-do lists all day and the last thing we want is to follow a checklist to get to sleep!  But please read on.


  1. Go to bed at the same time every night, in accordance with your own circadian rhythm and melatonin cycle.  Melatonin is the one and only hormone that allows you drift off to sleep at night and it is secreted by the pineal gland at the same time each night, so it pays to be regular.  Likewise, wake up at the same time each morning, even if you went to bed late.  Just take a nap later in the day.  Yeah I know – maintaining the same sleep schedule every day is almost impossible in our line of work.
  1. Avoid caffeine and all other ‘energy’ drinks, 5 hours prior to bed time.  It takes about 5 hours for caffeine to be completely metabolized by the body.  These days there are so many energy drinks and supplements on the market with ingredients such as caffeine, Tyrosine, Taurine, Guarana, Ma-Haung, Ginseng, B-vitamins, green-tea extract, and other precursors to adrenal hormones.  They can be thermogenic, supply our minds and bodies with raw materials for energy production, and can also stimulate our autonomic, sympathetic nervous system, activating the ‘fight-or-flight’ stress response.  None of this is good when you want to go to bed.  Some decongestant cold medicines contain Pseudoephedrine in them and are contraindicated for sleep.  Read labels if you’re unsure.
  1. Avoid intense physical activity or exercise two hours prior to bed time.  Intense physical activity fires up your metabolism for at least two hours afterwards, making it difficult to feel sleepy.  Exercise activates the sympathetic nervous system as well, (‘fight-or-flight’ stress response), in a normal way though, again making it less likely to feel sleepy.   However, when performed earlier in the day, regular exercise promotes improved sleep, especially when done outdoors in sunlight, and it is a great way to vent some stress.
  1. Use your bed only for relaxing and sleeping, intimate activity, or perhaps some easy-reading.  No work related material or studying.  This is place that should be not associated with any kind of stress.  Many of you won’t like this one, but move the television out of your bedroom, or watch it on special occasions only.  TV will stimulate your mind, and it is a big source of electromagnetic energy, which may affect your quality of sleep.  The jury is still out regarding EM energy and its effects on brain waves, but why not do all you can.
  1. Eliminate all light from your bedroom when sleeping.  This one is simple.  Light suppresses melatonin secretion.  Without proper melatonin levels your brain wakes up.  Sunlight completely blocks melatonin, but artificial light will negatively affect levels too.  Even a small night-light can have a negative impact.
  1. Cool your bedroom down.  Although your body temperature drops during the night, you have sheets you can cover yourself with.  However if you become hot at all, your sleep quality will suffer.
  1. Consider a background sound maker, or ‘white noise’ maker, if your bedroom is not a quiet setting.  Even a fan in the bedroom can do wonders in blocking out traffic noise, or a neighbor’s barking dog.
  1. Have a nightly ritual that helps you relax and de-stress, such as a warm bath, cup of herbal tea, some easy-reading, music, massage, yoga, meditation, a glass of wine – whatever it is that works for you and calms your nerves.  An alcoholic drink can go a long way towards taking the edge of the day’s stress, but more than two drinks can actually negatively affect sleep, disrupting the natural cycle.  The whole idea is to shift your autonomic nervous system out of sympathetic mode and into parasympathetic mode, in order to calm and relax you.  Stress and anxiety activate the ‘fight-or-flight’ response in a negative way, (unlike exercise), causing higher levels of Cortisol and adrenalin during times when your body really doesn’t require these hormones.  Higher than normal levels of these hormones during inappropriate times, such as the evening hours can cause insomnia, and chronic stress and anxiety can eventually lead to adrenal gland fatigue.  Cortisol does serve a normal physiological purpose and is responsible for waking us in the morning and helping us feel alert.  In normal levels it is also an anti-inflammatory hormone.  More on the autonomic nervous system, adrenal hormones, and stress response to come.
  1. Avoid large meals two hours prior to sleeping.  Digesting large meals requires a lot of energy, temporarily boosts your metabolism and laying down may make you more susceptible to heartburn or indigestion.  Potential blood-sugar fluctuations while digesting a large meal may cause stimulation, as glucose is the brain’s energy source.
  1. Don’t go to bed hungry either.  Hunger will wake you up.  A light complex carbohydrate-based snack before bed is all that may be needed – not ideal for fat loss, but you can keep it healthy.  Milk may help by increasing tryptophan levels and calcium, which supports melatonin production and helps muscles to relax, respectively.  Minerals in general help support muscle relaxation.
  1. Ideally it is preferable to go to bed early enough to wake up naturally.  If you need to wake up early, set a reliable alarm clock that you know will wake you up.  This way you won’t stare at the clock with building anxiety that you may oversleep.  Furthermore, some sleep experts even recommend facing the clock away from your bed or out of view to help prevent frustration and anxiety about how much sleep you’re not getting, (while staring at the clock), and how soon you have to wake up.
  1. If suddenly for whatever reason your mind has suddenly switched on in creative mode and is brainstorming, problem solving or reviewing tomorrow’s to-do list, and no matter how many relaxing thoughts you focus on or how much meditative breathing you do, you can not get back to sleep, then it may be time to turn on a low level bedside light and write down your ideas or important issues, so you can clear your mind.  Then perhaps try reading for a while until you feel you can drift of to sleep again.  Keep a pad and pencil beside your bed for this reason, or to write down your dreams if that is your thing.
  1. If your partner snores, wear some earplugs.  If your spouse has sleep disorders and wakes up in the night frequently, you can bet it is disrupting your sleep too.

 14. If you nap during the day, limit it to 20 minutes or less to avoid slipping into deep phase sleep, as this could adversely affect your sleep quality later that night.

 15. Get some sunlight exposure during the day.  The extra serotonin you will produce will convert into more melatonin later that night helping you sleep better.

    Some of us may be so driven and motivated in life that our motto is, “we can sleep when we die”.  Ironically, chronic sleep deprivation can be a factor in decreasing life expectancy.  We all have experienced severe fatigue, but at the same time been so wound up with stress or anxiety, or had so much on our minds, that falling asleep is nearly impossible, or going back to sleep after waking up at 4 AM is hopeless, even though you’ve only slept four hours.  This is when we need to start being proactive about getting ourselves to sleep and controlling stress.  You may even already have a nightly ritual you do before bed, time permitting.  Those of us with young kids know how well pre-bed time rituals can work when getting them to go to sleep.  Find out what works for you…a warm bottle of milk and a lullaby?!  Sleep time is by far the easiest thing to compromise when our schedules become hectic.  Most of us won’t go to bed until we’ve completed everything on our to-do list for that day, prepared for the next days events and had some down time to unwind after the kids have finally gone to bed.  Typically whatever time is leftover is all we allow ourselves for sleep, whether it is 8 or 4 hours.  We’re all guilty of this, but should still give our best effort to developing good night time habits so the minimal sleep we do manage is quality.

    Some effective natural and herbal sleep supplements, (Vitamins and herbal supplements are not regulated by the FDA.  To ensure the supplement you are buying contains the actual ingredients and dosages listed on the label, make sure the label has the United States Pharmacopeia’s (USP) verified mark, an independent, government sanctioned, scientific standards-setting organization):

  1. Melatonin: Dosage .3 mg to 1.5 mg.  Good for alleviating jetlag by re-establishing your circadian rhythm.  Naturally secreted by the pineal gland according to your own sleep-wake cycle, helping you drift off to sleep.  .3 mg to smooth out disrupted sleep.  Up to 1.5 mg to reset circadian rhythm.  Overdose could cause vivid dreams and grogginess the next morning.
  2. 5-HydroxyTrytophan, (5-HTP): Once ingested, metabolized naturally by the liver into the amino acid L-tryptophan which is a precursor to serotonin, a mood enhancing neurotransmitter.  At night, excess serotonin is converted by natural physiological processes into melatonin.
  3. St. John’s Wort: Supports serotonin levels by preventing re-uptake in the brain.  A mood enhancer and mild pain reliever.
  4. Valerian root, Passion Flower, Chamomile, Hops, Kava-kava: These herbs all work to calm and relax the autonomic nervous system, by shifting it out of the sympathetic, stress-response mode, and into the parasympathic calming mode.  Can be consumed in capsules or proprietary herbal tea blends.  ‘Yogi Teas’ makes a great ‘Bed Time’ tea blend containing many of these herbs and is pleasant tasting.
  5. Calcium, Phosphorous and Magnesium, (2:1:1 ratio for better absorption): These minerals are significant muscle relaxants.  Can help relieve spasms, trigger-points, and are important in treating Fibromyalgia.

Sources: From Fatigued to Fantastic, J. Tietelbaum, M.D.; Sleep Disorders, H. Ross, D.C.; Adrenal Fatigue, J.L. Wilson, N.D., D.C., Ph.D.; Candace Booth, N.D., Ph.D.;

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