It can improve your mood, fend off illness and help you perform better at work. Is it a magical potion? No, it's an old-fashioned, healthy night's sleep that many of us take for granted. Nevertheless, for the millions worldwide who suffer from chronic insomnia, sleep apnea and other sleep disorders, the daily pursuit of a healthy nightly shut-eye can become a frustrating, elusive dream.
'Sufficient sleep is vital for a healthy body and mind,' says Hong Kong sleep expert Graeme Bradshaw. 'Shakespeare called it 'the chief nourisher in life's feast''. Bradshaw is a Hong Kong naturopath and homeopath, and the founder of the Integrated Medicine Institute. 'Most people in Hong Kong find it very hard to relax and this substantially affects their ability to sleep,' he says. 'They can become hyperactive due to heavy workloads or too much activity and there is a hyper secretion of stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol.'
Although the direct link between vitamins and insomnia is unclear, studies show an association between vitamins and other sleep disorders. Studies have reported that B12 shortens the length of the sleep-wake rhythm and affects the circadian aspect of sleep propensity. Studies have also identified vitamin B complex as a helpful treatment of nocturnal leg cramps. Deficiencies in iron may be related to restless leg syndrome or periodic leg movement disorder, both of which may have an effect on sleep maintenance. Evidence points to the possibility that sleep may be affected by vitamin and mineral intake, or lack of these substances.
One night without sleep can throw off your health and wellness for up to three days. Chronic sleep conditions that affect the amount and the quality of your sleep put you at an increased risk of health problems, according to the American Heart, Lung and Blood Institute which, in its publication Your Guide To Healthy Sleep, points out that lack of sleep affects the immune system, hormone production and contributes to obesity. Luckily, thanks to natural treatments now available, sufferers are no longer doomed to lie in bed counting sheep, or forced to sedate themselves with sleeping pills.
Bradshaw's top three favoured 'go-to' natural sleep-enhancing treatments are melatonin supplements, the Indian hormone balancing herb - marketed under the brand name Sensoril - and a synergistic combination of magnesium and vitamin B6. Melatonin is a hormone which maintains the body's 24-hour clock and plays a critical role when we fall asleep and wake up. People older than 50 experience a drop-off in melatonin levels, so a supplement can help get body clocks back on track.
Sensoril is a patented proprietary extract of roots and leaves from withania somnifera, a plant known as ashwagandha obtained from northern India. It is used for the treatment of chronically hyperactive people by balancing the hormones.
'It begins to work over a period of about six weeks and I have found it to be very effective,' Bradshaw says. 'Each treatment depends on what kind of sleep problem a person has and the causes. Some of us may have trouble falling asleep, while others have issues with waking up at 3am.'
Magnesium combined with vitamin B6 helps relieve tension and anxiety, with the ideal daily dosage of magnesium being at least 300mg. Make sure to cut down on coffee, tea, alcohol and sugar as these deplete the body's magnesium levels. A good way to get all the Bs you need easily and quickly is through B complex supplements which usually supply your daily dose.
Often, people can be affected by multiple factors, notes massage therapist Kari Schroeder from Hong Kong's Balance Health clinic. Balance Health combines conventional and complementary medicine into treatment.
In addition, vitamin D deficiencies contribute to sleep irregularities. When you don't have enough, it affects your pineal gland's ability to regulate your circadian rhythms. These rhythms signal the cascade of sleep hormones involved in going to sleep and waking up.
Vitamin E can be an effective therapy for restless leg syndrome and when symptoms of the condition are under control, patients fall asleep faster and experience more restful sleep.
Schroeder highlights an avenue which many of us wallowing in sleeplessness may have never considered: wheat/gluten sensitivity. 'Many people who have problems sleeping are suffering anxiety, mood disorders and depression as well,' Schroeder says. 'A lot of people don't realise that all these can be related to wheat/gluten sensitivity.
'As with any food sensitivity/allergy, it can also interfere with the body's ability to absorb nutrients from the food you are eating, depriving your body of building blocks necessary for neurotransmitter and hormone production which are key in the sleep process. The cheapest and easiest way to correct this is to go on a strict gluten-free diet.'