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According to the National Sleep Foundation, nearly seven out of 10 Americans experience frequent sleep problems, although most have not been diagnosed. The fact of the matter is that the stress of our escalating pace of life, work pressures and aging are the primary reasons many health professionals now believe that sleep disorders are the number one health problem in America.

However, reaching for that bottle of prescription sleep medications may not be your best choice. They are typically “knock out” products such as sleeping pills, tranquilizers, etc., that not only shut down the brain but also prevent the mind from relaxing and recuperating. This is why we often feel groggy or “out of it” upon waking. Another concern is that these medications all have side effects and can be addictive. Fortunately, there are natural solutions that cannot only help you get your quota of 40 winks but reduce sleep-robbing stress as well.

Presently, more than one in three people admit to sleeping six hours or less. Few people realize that this sleep deficit is a serious threat to their health and well-being.

We were born to sleep. Plants sleep, animals sleep, and, of course, humans sleep. Have you ever wondered why getting some good shut eye each night is an essential part of your daily rhythms? As it turns out, the ultimate rejuvenation elixir of life is sleep. It is vital for the maintenance and repair of our body and mind.

Sleep is actually a dynamic process with three distinct stages ranging from light sleep to deep sleep and, finally, to rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. A complete sleep cycle takes 90 to 110 minutes on average. While sleeping, our brains are using important neuronal connections that might otherwise deteriorate from lack of activity. During deep sleep, brain activity that controls emotions, decision-making processes and social interaction shuts down, allowing us to maintain optimal emotional and social functioning when we are awake. This is also the stage when cell growth and cell repair takes place to combat the effects of stress.

Sleeping deeply and waking up refreshed is a prerequisite for good health. A good night’s sleep plays a critical role in strengthening the body’s immune defenses. One of the body’s most powerful cancer fighters, called tumor necrosis factor, increases tenfold during a good night’s sleep. However, without that slumber, natural killer cells, another important part of the immune system’s cancer defenses, are noticeably weakened.

Studies have also found a relationship between the quantity and quality of sleep and many health problems. For example, insufficient sleep affects growth hormone secretion that is linked to obesity. Blood pressure usually falls during the sleep cycle; however, interrupted sleep can adversely affect this normal decline, leading to hypertension and cardiovascular problems. In addition, insufficient sleep impairs the body’s ability to use insulin, which can contribute to the onset of diabetes.

Difficulty sleeping is also associated with insomnia. Insomnia most commonly consists of difficulty falling asleep. It affects 20 to 40 percent of American adults at some point in their lives. In fact, 50 percent of senior citizens have difficulty falling asleep on any given night. Insomniacs also have increased production of the stress hormone cortisol, which not only prevents them from sleeping but also leads to depression, high blood pressure, obesity, osteoporosis, and hormonal imbalances such as PMS, infertility and menopausal symptoms.

A natural path to combating sleep disorders

I am often asked what safe, not-addictive, natural supplement I might recommend to individuals suffering from sleep deficiencies caused by stress, emotional problems, travel schedules, or other non-medical circumstances. As mentioned above, a complete sleep cycle happens in stages, beginning with sleep initiation, then sleep maintenance, dreaming (REM sleep) and waking up. All stages are important if you are to feel that you have had adequate sleep. Traditionally, the following ingredients have been recognized to interact synergistically in providing restful sleep.

Vitamin B complex—to help induce sleep and support important biochemical reactions in the body, and for restless leg syndrome

Valerian root extract—a relaxant herb known to have calming effects on the nervous system

Magnesium—to assist in cellular activity and offer relaxation for sleep maintenance

Melatonin for sweet dreams—Circadian rhythms dictate your sleep and wake schedule, and that can be disrupted when you travel. Melatonin has been found to help your body acclimate to a globe-trotting sleep schedule and to reestablish normal sleep patterns. Melatonin is naturally released by the body’s pineal gland to promote deep, calm sleep and to keep the circadian cycles in tune

Vitamin E—to make melatonin more effective

Suntheanine L-theanine

Recently, L-theanine, an amino acid derivative of one of the brain’s neurotransmitters best recognized for creating a sense of relaxation by reducing stress and anxiety, has been discovered to play an important role in a deep and restful night’s sleep naturally. Although extensively used in Japan, L-theanine and its many stress and anxiety alleviating benefits have only recently been available as a dietary supplement in the U.S.

A recent clinical trial conducted at the National Institute of Mental Health in Japan has proven L-theanine’s ability to promote quality sleep. When L-theanine was taken before bedtime, it enhanced the quality of actual sleep of all the test subjects. In fact, all the participants reported a significant absence of “feeling exhausted” and a reduced need for sleep when using Suntheanine. In addition, the study showed that L-theanine produced a notable improvement in what is known as sleep efficiency, an index of actual sleep time enjoyed between the time of falling asleep and the final morning awakening. To add icing to the cake, test subjects using Suntheanine reported a superior mental state prior to falling asleep and a decreased occurrence of nightmares. The study confirmed that Suntheanine does not promote sleep or increase the duration of sleep, but rather improves the quality of sleep by allowing the mind, while in a sleep state, to fully relax and recuperate. This is why the subjects did not report feeling groggy but instead felt refreshed and alert upon wakening. L-theanine is a much needed solution to the two major problems currently compromising so many American’s health and overall well-being—stress and sleep deprivation.

Antioxidants Aid Sleep

“Oxidation” could be another word for “aging.” Think of iron rusting, or sliced apples turning brown, or the “sun spots” on your skin. Even the body’s normal metabolism and the immune system’s attempts to fight off infection can produce destructive free radicals and inflammation. Antioxidants help support the immune function and mellow out small irritations and restlessness at bedtime. An effective antioxidant could help to restore the body’s internal equilibrium during sleep and promote the calm that helps to initiate deep, restful sleep.

Laboratories and clinical studies have begun to identify possible benefits from antioxidants in falling asleep and staying asleep. Improved liver function and other cellular functions have been identified as benefits. Obstructive sleep apnea and its effect on antioxidant capacity were researched in a study by Christou, et. al. of the University of Thessaly. This Greek study confirmed the hypothesis that a relationship between oxidative stress and obstructive sleep apnea does exist. While we may be on the way to something that will aid the weary, fatigued insomniacs of the world, more research is needed.

With one in four Americans reporting problems in being able to get up to go to work (needing an alarm clock to wake up every single morning) and sleepiness while driving causing over 100,000 car accidents a year, we do need to take another look at our plan for better sleep habits. Perhaps that plan includes supplements. Dietary supplements are exactly that—supplementing the body with nutrients and ingredients it needs.

Taking natural antioxidant supplements as a sleep aid is promising, according to recent research. Scientists have discovered that healthy sleep is one of the extra benefits from eating fruit or taking concentrated fruit extract supplements. Antioxidants have already been proven to help with those pesky free radicals that age you and weaken your immune system.

Color is most likely key to the potency of certain antioxidants. The most protective foods include those that are most colorful: grapes, pomegranates, berries and other darkly colored fruits. (These are high phenolic, anthocyanin and proanthocyanidin (“PAC”) enriched antioxidants). The rich colors can signify potent capabilities, but color is not always necessary for strength.

Fruit extracts are being studied by researchers for their ability to strengthen the immune system and ward off the degenerative processes related with oxidation. Ingesting the extracts in a supplement form is more convenient, more bio-available and less caloric than drinking large quantities of juice, and might help promote healthy sleep.

Recently, a new natural sleep supplement, Nytex™, created by physician Dr. Nikos Linardakis has become available to the public. This supplement contains Suntheanine L-theanine, Procidin™, a patent-protected antioxidant powder that Tharos Laboratories (Dr. Linardakis’s company) has developed in conjunction with professionals and researchers in nutrition, science, and medicine, along with other proven sleep promoting ingredients. According to Dr. Linardakis, Nytex has the right combination and dosage of ingredients to address all phases of sleep: falling asleep, sleeping peacefully and awakening refreshed.

I am pleased to see that the company philosophy of Tharos Laboratories, Inc. emphasizes “Strength from Nature, Endorsed by Science.” Tharos focuses on evidence–based research, and formulates its products accordingly. I had a chance to use Nytex in my practice and was pleased to hear the very positive reports from my patients with insomnia.

Alexander Golbin, MD, PhD

Dr. Golbin is Board Certified in Sleep Medicine, Forensic Examiners, Forensic Medicine, Medical Hypnosis. He is Medical Director for the Sleep and Behavior Medicine Institute and specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of sleep disorders and psychiatric disorders. He is Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at University of Illinois at Chicago, clinical Associate Professor at Rosalind Franklin Chicago Medical School, and visiting Professor at the Russian Academy of Medical Science, St. Petersburg Division.