Stress Management, Well-being and Self-Care

woman in bed awake

Sleep, Sleep Medicine and Stress. Part 4

by James Porter March 05, 2021

This is the fourth of a seven-part series on stress and sleep. If you’ve had difficulty sleeping during the pandemic, you are not alone. Insomnia was already reaching epidemic proportions BEFORE Covid. Now it’s gotten worse. According to a survey published in Consumer Reports 28% of Americans reported having trouble falling or staying asleep since the Pandemic hit.

What about Melatonin and other natural alternatives?

In our last installment we pointed out the fact that if you are taking a prescription sleeping aid for insomnia caused by stress, you are not addressing the root of the problem. Yes, you are taking away the symptom, which is sleeplessness, but if your bad marriage, your financial situation or your toxic boss is keeping you awake at night, the medication you have been prescribed may help you get a few extra minutes (about 30) of sleep, but it’s not going to address the real reasons you are having trouble sleeping.

As we’ve pointed out in the previous installments prescription sleep medications can have some scary side effects. They can cause memory loss in the morning, grogginess all day, increase the risk of hostile behavior in some people and suicidal thoughts in others. These are just a few of a long list of side effects associated with sleeping pills. Most doctors will try to limit your prescription to a month or two because they don’t want you to become dependent on the medication. Here’s an excerpt from an article I found online by Claire Goodall, who was dealing with this exact same problem:

“If there is one condition that has plagued me every night-for years, it’s sleep. I was prescribed sleeping medication long-term and suffered greatly for it. If I was having trouble sleeping before, it was now impossible to achieve, unless I took my medication.”

That’s what happens when patients get dependent on sleeping pills: They believe they can’t fall asleep without them. When that happens, these folks plead with their doctor to renew a prescription that may doom them to a lifetime of daytime grogginess, and dependency on that prescription sleeping medication.

Given what we know about these insomnia medications and their side effects, it’s appropriate to consider some alternatives: Here consuming foods with high quality carbs, tryptophan, drinking chamomile tea, or taking supplements that contain Valerian root, St. John’s Wort or Melatonin have all been proven to increase the amount of time you spend each night sleeping. Even though these supplements, are generally considered safe, they are not totally without their own, (mostly minor) side effects and they may also have some downside interactions with drugs you may be already taking. For example, if you are taking high blood pressure medication or are taking medications for an autoimmune disorder, melatonin supplements could interfere with those medications. So, talk to your doctor even before taking supplements, especially if you are on any other prescriptions that might be affected by them.

Since melatonin has become so popular lately let’s take a closer look. Here’s what the Mayo Clinic says about taking Melatonin supplements:

Melatonin is generally safe for short-term use. Unlike many [prescription] sleep medications, with melatonin you are NOT likely to become dependent, have a diminished response after repeated use (habituation), or experience a hangover effect.

Here the Mayo Clinic is pointing out the important differences between Melatonin and most other prescription medications for insomnia: You won’t become dependent on melatonin; You won’t need to take more and more melatonin in order for it to work, and most importantly, you won’t feel like a zombie the next morning.

Melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone, the levels of which, fluctuate in your body throughout the day. As you might have guessed they are highest in the evening just before going to bed, and lowest in the morning when you awaken, suggesting that Melatonin regulates your natural urge to fall asleep and wake up in the morning. (Melatonin levels diminish as we age, which may explain why seniors seem to need a lot less sleep than youngsters.)

Your body converts tryptophan into serotonin which it then converts into Melatonin which is released in an inverse relationship to the amount of light you are exposed to throughout the day. As the sun goes down, melatonin levels go up. As the sun comes up in the morning your Melatonin levels decrease. So electric lights and screen time can disrupt your body’s production of melatonin. (In the first installment I wrote about how people slept much more (perhaps as much as 10 hours a night) before the invention of the electric light bulb. 

So, melatonin is definitely worth trying if you are having mild to moderate issues with insomnia, and just want a quick fix, without risking the advent of a whole lot of side effects or drug dependency that a prescription medication might involve. Still, always check with your doctor before starting or changing any medications or supplements you might already be taking.

In our next installment we will look at something psychologists call a secondary stress reaction which may be the REAL reason you are unable to fall back asleep at night.

James Porter
James Porter