Good night's sleep

Sleep disorders are either becoming more common than ever, or people are becoming more aware of them. Either way, the quest for a good night’s sleep has made the pharmacy industry a bundle. Over 43 million prescriptions for sleep drugs were filled in 2005, representing an increase of very close to 50 percent over the figures for 2001. And that doesn’t include the over-the-counter stuff! Getting a good night’s sleep is a multi-billion dollar business.

The reasons for getting a good night’s sleep are more numerous than you might think. Important neurotransmitters and hormones (like melatonin and human growth hormone) are released during deep sleep, known as REM or stage 4. These hormones are essential to well being, and some have significant metabolic and immunological effects. Human growth hormone, for example, helps us to build muscle and lose fat, and melatonin may have anti-cancer properties. And it’s well known that accident rates are highest on the day after daylight savings time, when most of the country has lost an hour of sleep.

While the manufacturers of sleep medications continue to claim that they’re safe, many people would prefer to try more natural approaches to getting a good night’s sleep. Some supplements -- like melatonin, for example -- have been known to help many people and are generally considered safe particularly in the dosages (between .3 and 3 mg) in which they’re sold over the counter. But a better night’s sleep might be as close as your kitchen. Here are some foods that might increase your zz’s and make you feel a whole lot better in the morning:

1) Chamomile tea: This tea has been used as a soothing relaxer and sleep aid for centuries. It also has anti-inflammatory action.

2) Decaffeinated green tea: Green tea contains theanine, an amino acid which actually increases the levels of GABA, a relaxing neurotransmitter. It’s widely believed that it’s theanine that’s responsible for the fact that drinkers of caffeinated green tea don’t get terribly wired.

3) Sweet potatoes: In her terrific book, “Potatoes Not Prozac,” Dr. Kathryn Des Masiones argued that a small quantity of a high-quality slow burning carbohydrate eaten at night could help assist tryptophan (see below) into the brain where it could be made into relaxing serotonin. Many people find this kind of snack very helpful for sleep.

4) Warm milk: File this under the heading “Mother was right.” Milk contains tryptophan, the very amino acid that’s needed for the synthesis of relaxing serotonin. For reasons not fully understood, warm milk has a relaxing effect on many people.

5) Remember, the amino acid that’s most important in making relaxing serotonin is tryptophan, found in many good protein sources like turkey and milk.