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Nature provides everyone with natural, safe and effective antidotes to disturbed slumber. Herbs, vitamins, minerals and various other sleep-promoting supplements are effective in feeding your brain nutrients that can help you relax and induce better sleep.

  Here are some nutrients your body needs for restful sleep. Be sure to discuss them with your health professional before you start, because the wrong extra nutrients can do more harm than good. Herbs and vitamins can be made into tablets, capsules, liquids, oils, creams and ointments; injections need the supervision of a health practitioner.

  Herbs that have been used for centuries throughout the world for sweeter, sounder sleep include anise, bergamot, California poppy, catnip, chamomile, fennel, gentian root, guta kola, hawthorne berries, hops, kava kava, lavender, lemon balm, marjoram, melissa, mullein, oat, orange, passion flower, primrose, rosemary, skullcap, valerian root, verbena and vervain.

  Vitamins and minerals also are vital in helping you maintain healthy sleep. The best source of nutrients is fresh food, but depleted soil, pesticides, processed foods and poor eating habits — especially eating food too quickly — can make it difficult to assimilate the proper amounts of nutrients directly from what you eat. A multiple vitamin and mineral tablet or capsule is the best start. Then determine if you need "boosters" in any of the following areas, taking into account the total amounts of each nutrient

  Calcium and magnesium deficiencies are major culprits in disturbed sleep among women. Calcium is one of the most abundant minerals in the body and yet most women still need more. All women need extra calcium (1,200 mg pre-menopause and 1,500 mg post-menopause), particularly as they age.

  Calcium has a calming effect on the nervous system, helps promote restful, high-quality sleep and is good to take at bedtime. It's also important for strong bones and protecting against osteoporosis. Calcium citrate and calcium carbonate have the edge for best absorption. Some good sources for calcium are dairy products, soy milk, nuts (especially almonds), onions, tangerines and lemons.

  Magnesium also has a calming effect on the brain and nervous system. It's a natural sedative and helps the body absorb calcium. It is often combined with calcium in tablet form, and the suggested daily intake is 300 mg to 500 mg (higher doses can cause loose stools, so taper down the amount you take if you experience this side effect). Magnesium is found in dark green vegetables, seafood, whole grains, nuts, seeds, dairy foods, legumes and fruits.

  Insufficient iron levels and unbalanced copper levels also can cause poor sleep. Copper helps make norepinephrine, a chemical responsible for the brain's general arousal and crucially involved in sleep. Iron is essential for making dopamine, also involved in sleep. Too much copper and iron can cause serious side effects, so take these supplements only under the guidance of a nutritionist or health professional and after you've had blood tests to determine your mineral levels. Good sources are eggs, nuts, seafood and molasses.

  B-vitamins regulate the body's use of tryptophan and other amino acids and are depleted by stress, birth control pills, smoking and alcohol. Most B-vitamins help maintain good sleep and general well-being. Start with a complete B-complex vitamin, then experiment with some of the following single Bs as boosters: niacin (B3), pantothenic acid (B5), pyridoxine (B6), folic acid (B9), choline and inositol. All are important for sleep (check with a professional for dosage). Vitamin B12 also can help with sleep, particularly if you're a vegetarian.

  Make sure you are taking enough vitamins A, D (important for sunlight synthesis and calcium absorption), C (important for stressed adrenals) and E (as an antioxidant).

  Valerian, GABA, L-tryptophan, melatonin and 5-HTP are all supplements that can enhance sleep. GABA, or gamma-Aminobutyric acid, is the chief inhibitory neurotransmitter in the central nervous system, helps relax the brain and is said to help induce sleep. The naturally occurring amino acid 5-HTP, or 5-Hydroxytryptophan is a precursor to serotonin (a calming nuerotransmitter) and an intermediate in tryptophan metabolism. Among its purported benefits is insomnia relief.

  L-tryptophan is an amino acid that increases brain levels of serotonin and/or melatonin (a sleep-inducing hormone secreted by the pineal gland in response to darkness or low-light levels).

  Melatonin as a hormone supplement is a popular, though controversial, sleep aid. Valerian, an herb, also is a popular and safe sleep aid. Each must be tailored to meet invidivual needs.

  It may take some adjustments to determine which supplements and in what dosage will give you the most sleep benefit. A nutitionist or health practioner may be able to guide you to the perfect balance.

Janet Kinosian is an award-winning journalist who has written for the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and W, among other publications.


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