Now we will continue our discussion of natural sleep aids. A good way of framing it is to say that we are only interested in substances that may help sleep indirectly rather than directly. Anything that helps directly- to put you out, or knock you out- is, undoubtedly, a drug and therefore a harmful influence. We're not looking for some drug-induced "altered state." Don’t settle for anything less than real sleep.
2 Tryptophan- This essential amino acid was off the market as a supplement in the USA for about 15 years but came back in 2008. A bad batch out of Japan resulted in several dozen cases of eosinophilia myalgia, and there were several deaths. It was not due to the tryptophan; it was due to a contaminant derived from the manufacturing process. It was an awful tragedy, but now, the problem is completely understood and rectified, and so long as you source it reliably, that is, from a reputable, first-rate company, there is no outstanding risk from taking tryptophan.
However, I do not take tryptophan, and I am not that enthused about it. For one thing, presumably, the purpose of taking tryptophan for sleep is because it is a precursor to serotonin and melatonin. But, since I am taking melatonin, I really don’t need tryptophan. Another factor is that tryptophan usually involves heavy dosing to get the desired effect- as much as 3 grams a night. That’s a lot of bulk, especially if you are going to take it every night. It’s cumbersome.
Tryptophan is a normal dietary component, and presumably, if you are getting enough protein, as most people do, including most vegetarians, there should be no need to take supplemental tryptophan. However, some individuals, particularly those who follow low-protein, vegan diets, may have marginal tryptophan status. Also, there are some people who just do not want to take hormones, including melatonin. They’re afraid of it, and they are unwilling to do it, and for such people, taking tryptophan is an alternative. There is also 5htp which is an intermediate metabolite between tryptophan and serotonin. It has the advantage of lower dosing. Typically, people take only 50 to 100 mgs of 5htp. However, there is some concern that 5htp may produce elevated serotonin levels where you don’t want it. The advantage of tryptophan is that it only raises serotonin levels in the brain where you do want it. So, I would have to say that taking tryptophan is more natural and safer than taking 5htp, although some people swear by 5htp, and in low doses, I am not opposed to it. But, for myself, I don’t bother with 5htp or tryptophan.
3 Taurine- This is an amino acid that I am much enthused about taking than tryptophan. Taurine is not considered an essential amino acid because it can be made from cysteine, which can be made from methionine. However, there is no taurine at all in plant foods (which presumably comprise a large part of every healthseeker’s diet), and all of these biochemical conversions- such as methionine to cysteine to taurine- tend to slow down with age.
A relative deficiency of taurine is extremely common. Vegans, of course, get none, but even milk and eggs are low in taurine. And, muscle meats aren’t swimming in it either. The only way to get a substantial amount of taurine from food is to load up on organ meats and seafood. How many people do that? Therefore, taurine is a marginal nutrient for a great many people, and not just vegetarians.
Taurine has great importance to the heart, but in the brain, taurine acts as a calming, inhibitory neurotransmitter. Taurine increases GABA levels in the brain- GABA being the most abundant inhibitory neurotransmitter. The irony is that taurine is often added to energy drinks, such as 5 Hour Energy and Red Bull. I don’t know why they include it, but it may be to counteract the jittery effect of all the caffeine they include. Research studies on the cerebral effects of taurine are ongoing. I have mentioned before on this blog that taurine is the most abundant free amino acid in the heart. Well, the same is true in the brain, and that speaks volumes for its importance.
Taking taurine may benefit your sleep- and I mean that in two ways. It may help in the immediate sense of helping you relax and fall asleep on the night that you take it. But, it may also help in the cumulative sense, meaning that over time, if you start taking taurine regularly, that it may help you gravitate to a more wholesome sleep pattern. A good dose would be 500 mgs a night.
4 Theanine is an amino acid from green tea. It may occur in other plants, but it is not widely distributed in other plants. It’s just one of those rare and unique things about tea. But, that’s no reason to reject it. Theanine is an excellent way to encourage relaxation. Theanine fosters alpha brain waves, which are not sleep waves, but they are conducive to transitioning to sleep because they are associated with feeling calm and relaxed. Second, theanine, like taurine, increases GABA levels in the brain. Gamma amino butyric acid is the most abundant inhibitory neurotransmitter. GABA supplements are available, but there is concern that GABA does not pass through the blood-brain barrier very readily or at all. It has been shown that theanine increases GABA levels in the brain better than GABA itself. Theanine also increases dopamine, which has been described as your brain’s “feel-good” neurotransmitter, associated with feelings of well-being. And feeling well is certainly conducive to sleep, is it not? For example, by raising dopamine levels in the brain, having sex is conducive to sleep. Does that mean that if you are having trouble sleeping that you should try having sex? Well, sure; why not? You have my permission.
Theanine does not make a person drowsy. You could take it during the day and function just fine. In Japan, theanine is added to children’s soft drinks instead of caffeine- and presumably, they are not trying to put the kids to sleep. And, theanine has been shown to increase attention, concentration and learning in both children and adults. However, if you are lying in the dark with your eyes closed, theanine may indeed foster a smooth transition to sleep- and I mean good, natural, wholesome, restorative sleep with plenty of deep sleep and without the slightest morning hangover. For these reasons, I consider theanine to be one of the best sleep aids out there- even though it only helps indirectly, and precisely because it only helps indirectly. I take it myself- not every night, but whenever I feel that I need help relaxing. And I have never had the slightest negative after-effect from theanine, and I have been using it for years. The only caveat is that you should make sure to take SunTheanine, which is from a Japanese company called Taiyo International. Sun Theanine is the purest and most stable form of theanine. Many American companies distribute SunTheanine, including VRP, which I offer on this website. So, you will definitely get Sun Theanine if you order theanine here.
5 Magnesium –This white mineral has a relaxing effect on nerves and muscles, and that, obviously, is conducive to sleep. Of course, people take magnesium during the day, and they get it from foods, particularly unrefined plant foods, and it doesn’t put them to sleep. But again, if you’re lying in the dark with your eyes closed, a little extra magnesium in your system may help you get to sleep, and it certainly can’t hurt. The same is true of calcium, but I’m a little reluctant to recommend more calcium in light of recent perturbing reports that calcium may be a renegade factor in heart disease. There is definitely a huge problem with calcium being deposited in the wrong places, that is, soft tissues, and that includes arteries. When they speak of “hardening of the arteries” it’s calcium that makes them hard- not cholesterol. However, it’s hard to know what role calcium supplements play in this patholotical process, per se. Even people who go their whole lives without ever taking calcium supplements can and do wind up with pathological calcinosis, and, to some degree, it is considered universal. But, could calcium supplements be feeding the process? A little, perhaps? Who can say no? So, when it comes to supplemental calcium, I think it should be kept low, and I would not want to increase it just for the sake of sleep. But, magnesium is a different story. People do not build up magnesium in their arteries. And, it does not wind up in any wrong places that I know of. If you took too much magnesium, you might get some loose stools, as in “Milk of Magnesia” but that’s about it. And magnesium does so much good for the body. Magnesium lowers your blood pressure, and it should be a prime consideration for anyone with hypertension. Magnesium helps your body utilize sugar, and it helps lower blood sugar and prevent diabetes. Magnesium acts as a co-factor in over 300 enzymes. So taking a little extra magnesium before bed is not a bad idea. We offer an excellent magnesium supplement called Opti-Mag which contains several highly available forms of magnesium. Opti-Mag is one of our oldest and most popular products. Two small capsules provide 240 mgs of magnesium.
We’ll stop now, but next time, I am going to delve into the whole area of herbal sleep aids. Some I like, and some I don’t, and I’ll tell you why. And then, I’ll share some final thoughts with you about sleep. So, please tune in next Sunday, and we’ll put this sleep series to bed, which is exactly where I’m going. Good night.
Now, we will begin discussing the various natural sleep aids, but first I want to point out that I am not opposed to working with a doctor. Just be sure to find one who is not going to lace you with drugs. And, a good rule of thumb is that you should only consider taking things that you would feel safe and comfortable taking indefinitely- even for the rest of your life. Most prescription sleeping pills come with the precaution that they are for temporary use, such as 7 to 10 days. But, it’s a joke. Pharmaceutical companies spend millions to acquire new customers- buttering up doctors with trips, seminars, samples, etc. and then advertising directly to consumers in the mainstream media. It is very expensive and if every new customer were to quit after 7 to 10 days, they would never turn a profit. They know full well that people are going to take the drugs for longer- much longer. But, from your standpoint, what is the point of taking the drug for 7 to 10 days? And, what is going to happen when you quit? You are certainly not going to be cured. You are going to revert back to whatever sleeping difficulty you had before- and that’s if you are lucky. That is the best case scenario. It is far more likely that your natural ability to sleep will be worse off for having taken the drug. You will have dug yourself into a deeper hole. So, that is why there is no point in starting with it. There is no good that comes from it.
So, we are going to talk about natural sleep aids, none of which interfere with the natural sleep mechanism. Remember: we are not trying to supplant natural sleep; rather, we are trying to support it. And I feel very good about the following substances for long-term use.
1 Melatonin: This hormone has been available over-the-counter since 1984, and it is still very popular. I am sure there are many millions of people around the world who take melatonin regularly. However, they do not all have sleep problems. Some people take melatonin as an anti-aging hormone to obtain other health benefits. These include cardiovascular protection as melatonin helps to prevent heart disease, cancer protection as melatonin acts like a “smart bomb” against cancer cells, and immune enhancement as melatonin invigorates the immune system. But as regards sleep, melatonin is most definitely not a knockout pill. Melatonin is simply a darkness signaler. It is the chemical signal that darkness is at hand, which tells the body that it is time to turn on the sleep inducing mechanism. But, you still have to fall asleep yourself the natural way.
Sleep architecture under the influence of supplemental melatonin is practically indistinguishable from natural sleep, and it may be closer to the ideal than the sleep you are presently getting. That’s because sleep architecture tends to deteriorate with age and certainly among those who report difficulty with sleep. And the great blessing is that melatonin, unlike sleep drugs, does not interfere with deep sleep- which is the most restorative phase of sleep. You get good deep sleep on melatonin.
The proof that melatonin is not a knock-out pill is that some people complain that they don’t observe much from it. And it’s no doubt true that the “drowsy” effect of melatonin is small and weak and subtle compared to drugs. And if the person is miles away from the “sleep gate,” melatonin alone is unlikely to work. And, the magnitude of the induced drowsiness may vary a lot even in one person. Some nights it may seem to work very well and other nights not much or at all. But, I think it would be a real mistake to judge the effectiveness of melatonin over too short a period. You shouldn’t try it once and quit immediately if it doesn’t seem to have a pronounced effect. Give it a chance. You may find that, over time, and in the aggregate, it does help to improve your sleep, even if not every single night.
There is a lot of controversy about the proper dosage of melatonin. The most popular dosages are 2 to 3 milligrams. But, you can also find 1 milligram, and even fractions of a milligram. The smallest dose we offer is 3/4 milligram. But, there are a lot of critics who say that a fraction of a milligram is all that one should take because it’s enough to reach the normal nightly peak of melatonin. That may be true, but it is also true that melatonin has a very short half-life which has been measured to be as short as 20 minutes! And, it’s because your body breaks it down so fast that multi-milligram doses became popular.
I can’t resolve that controversy for you about dose, but I will point out that some leading complementary doctors, whom I respect, do take and recommend multi-milligram doses of melatonin. And they include our own Dr. Ward Dean, whom I met through VRP. Then there is Dr. Donald Miller, the cardiac surgeon and professor of surgery from Seattle, Washington whom I have written about before on this blog. Then there is Dr. Walter Pierpaoli, and I want to expound about him.
Dr. Walter Pierpaoli, of Italy and Switzerland, is probably the most accomplished melatonin researcher in the world. And more than that, he has probably been taking melatonin for longer than any other person- living or dead. He is the author of the blockbuster book, The Melatonin Miracle, which put melatonin on the map. Before that, most people had never heard of melatonin, and most doctors had never given it any thought. Today, Dr. Pierpaoli is 77 years old, and he is still very active in research. And I must say that he looks fantastic. He looks broad and dense through the shoulders and tapered in the torso. He has the proportions of a much younger man. I watched a 12 minute video of him speaking, in English, which is not his native language, but through the heavy Italian accent, you can understand him.
And what he said was that he is more enthused about melatonin than ever, and he thinks that every adult should take melatonin nightly for health and longevity. But, he thinks it is very important to duplicate the nightly pattern of melatonin secretion which is for melatonin to peak during deep sleep between the hours of 1 and 3 AM. For that reason, he is opposed to sublingual melatonin because it peaks too soon- before you have even fallen asleep. And he is opposed to time-released melatonin because it’s designed to maintain a plateau of melatonin all through the night. He wants it to peak during deep sleep between 1 and 3 AM because that is the only way that melatonin can synchronize the endocrine system properly. And what he said has a great bearing on those unfortunate individuals who work the night shift. Some of them will take melatonin before they sleep in the morning to compensate. But according to Dr. Pierpaoli, there is no way it can possibly approximate the ideal. Humans are not meant to be nocturnal. Period. And that is something I have believed for a long time.
So, Dr. Pierpaoli does not recommend sublingual or time-released melatonin. But what he has done is to put out his own proprietary melatonin, in tablet form, which has just enough excipient in it to delay the release of the melatonin so that if taken before bed in the evening, it produces a nighttime peak between 1 and 3 AM, and then it tapers off rapidly after that, duplicating the natural pattern of melatonin secretion.
And, there are two other things he has added to it. The first is zinc, and the reason for that is that he believes that failure of zinc nutriture is a cardinal feature of aging. And he says, “it doesn’t matter how much you eat.” We just do not absorb and utilize our zinc as well as we get older, and it has vast effects, none of them good. Melatonin enhances zinc utilization. Dr. Pierpaoli says that melatonin opens the door for zinc to get into the cells- just as insulin opens the door for glucose and potassium to enter the cells. And that’s why he wants to have plenty of zinc around when melatonin is peaking. And he adds some selenium, presumably because melatonin is also known to increase the antioxidant enzyme known as glutathione peroxidase, which contains selenium. So, he calls his product MZS for melatonin-zinc-selenium. The dosage of melatonin is 3 mgs, and the cost is only $20 for a two-month supply.
I have decided to try Dr. Pierpaoli’s MZS, and I ordered it from anti-aging systems.com. I’ll give you the link:
And if you go to that link, you’ll be able to watch the 12 minute interview of Dr. Pierpaoli discussing melatonin. See if you are as impressed with him as I am.
That will do it for this entry, but next time, we will move on to the next contender in our sleep aid series. Thanks for staying with me.
Some folks within the vegan community got wind of my remark about occasionally consuming an organic, free-range egg. I have been asked about it, so I am going to address it here. It’s something that I do sporadically to semi-regularly, but not on any scheduled basis. And I buy humanely raised eggs, which is important to me. And such a thing is possible. I know a woman who operates, at her own expense, an animal sanctuary in New Mexico. And it includes birds, including chickens. And she gives them a wonderful life. And the chickens produce eggs, as chickens do, and they are invariably unfertilized eggs because she has no roosters. And once laid, the eggs hold no interest to the chickens. So, she started gathering them, and at first she just gave them away. But eventually, she decided to eat a few, herself, apparently because there were so many. Anyway, the point is that she’s an animal lover to the max, but even she eats eggs to some extent, stemming from the special circumstances that she is in. As she says, the eggs have no chance of becoming chickens, and it makes no difference whatsoever to the mothers.
But, as to why I do it, it’s partly just a matter of indulgence, although again, I do take care about how I source them. But, there are also some specific nutritional considerations that also prompt me to do it. For one thing, eggs are very high in choline- probably the highest source available. The RDA for choline for men is 550 mgs/day, but some studies have shown benefit from getting more than that, such as 800 mgs/day. A single egg yolk has around 250 mgs, depending on size. You do get choline from plants, but it’s hard to get your choline number up on a vegan diet. Very hard.
Then, there is taurine. Taurine is an amino acid, but it’s a functional amino acid, not a structural one. Taurine is the most abundant free amino acid in the heart. Half of the content of free amino acids in the heart consists of taurine. Another way to put it is that there is as much taurine in the heart as all the other free amino acids combined. So, it must have great importance. Yet, there is no taurine in any plant food. Vegans are entirely dependent on the conversion of methionine or cysteine (which, like taruine, contain sulfur) into taurine. But how efficient is the process? Well, we humans are better at it than cats, who can’t do it at all. And when they don’t get taurine, they go blind. Taurine is very crucial to the eyes as well. But, some researchers have classified the human capacity for taurine synthesis as “marginal” or “limited.” Without taurine supplements, vegans tend to have much lower blood levels of taurine. And the longer you stay on it, the lower it goes. Is it a problem? I really don’t know, but if vegans wind up with sub-optimal taurine in their hearts, which seems possible, it’s worrisome. Taurine is involved in helping to regulate cardiac excitability and impulse transmission. The concern is that dangerous arrhythmias could develop, and keep in mind that arterial blockages are not the only way that people die from heart problems. Arrhythmias can kill too. There is also concern that sub-optimal taurine status in vegans may encourage platelet “hyperaggreability.” Among researchers, the taurine status of vegans is a major concern, but I have never heard any vegan doctor address it. Dr. John McDougall, for instance, advocates a taurine-free vegan diet, and he brags about the fact that his particular diet is also lower in methionine. And if you look at the charts that he provides of food comparisons, you can see that it's quite a lot lower. So you not only don’t get taurine, but you get less of the primary substrate from which taurine is made. Is it unsafe to do it? Well, I really don’t know, but I don’t think he knows either. And where are you going to err in a case like this? Are you just going to be a stalwart, a zealot, and ignore something that could develop into a serious problem? I say you err on the side of caution, and it’s clear what side that is in this case.
Now, keep in mind that there is some taurine in eggs, but definitely not as much as is present in other animal foods, such as seafood and organ meats. But, there is a lot of methionine in eggs, so at least you’re getting the thing from which taurine can be made. I should also mention that there is also the option of taking taurine supplements- but Dr. McDougall doesn’t recommend that either.
Moving on, there is the issue of Vitamin K2, menaquinone. There is none in plants. There is a ton of K1 in plants, but no K2. Vegans are entirely dependent on gut bacteria to make K2 for them. How efficient and reliable is that? I really don’t know, but I’m not going to rely on it. K2 is too important. It is what drives calcium into bone and keeps it out of arteries. Egg yolk is a rich source of K2. Again, I should point out that there are K2 supplements. I should also point out that you can get K2 from Natto, which is a fermented soybean product, but I can't eat that stuff.
Moving on, there is Vitamin D in egg yolk. I realize that sun exposure is the normal way to get Vitamin D, but it’s not guaranteed. As we age, we lose the ability to make Vitamin D from cholesterol in the skin. One study found that among adults living in Honolulu and getting an average of 11 hours of sun exposure per week, half were still found to be sub-optimal in their Vitamin D status. Where does that leave the poor schmoe living in Detroit? Of course, I realize there are Vitamin D supplements. But, if you’re going to take one, make it Vitamin D3, even though it’s not vegetarian. Vitamin D2 is a drug. It was developed as a prescription drug, but then it went off-patent. But don’t take it. Virtually all of the toxicity from Vitamin D reported in the medical literature has resulted from taking D2 and not D3. Hey, don’t listen to me. Listen to Dr. John Cannell at the Vitamin D Council. Read what he has to say about Vitamin D2. What I will tell you is that if you take that toxic stuff, you are being an idiot!
Moving on, there are the long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (EPA and DHA) which you can get from egg yolk but which you cannot get from plants. And the free range eggs from pastured chickens that I eat contain more of these essential fatty acids. Vegans are entirely dependent on the conversion of the shorter chain ALA into EPA and DHA, but how efficient is the process? Not very, according to the experts. Check with The Omega Institute at http://www.dhaomega3.org/Overview/Conversion-Efficiency-of-ALA-to-DHA-in-Humans . And, it has been found that older men (of which I am one) have appallingly poor ability to make that conversion. So, I definitely want to get some pre-formed EPA and DHA in my diet. Of course, there are algae supplements that you can take that have DHA. But, they’re expensive, and typically they provide only 100 mgs DHA per capsule and no EPA. That isn’t much. Frankly, I think a high-quality fish oil supplement makes much more sense. And the one I prefer is ProOmega from Nordic Naturals which we offer here. It’s so purified it doesn’t even smell or taste fishy. Hey, you can do what you want, but I wouldn’t turn a blind eye to this. It’s a very important issue, so don’t blow it off just because some pundit or zealot says that all’s well in the world of veganism.
Then, there are other “carnonutrients” such as carnitine and carnosine, which you can’t get from plants, and which you may not synthesize adequately. They are found in animal foods, including eggs. And, I suppose the granddaddy of all the carnonutrients would have to be Vitamin B12. Of course, you don’t have to eat egg yolks to get Vitamin B12, although it has it. You can just take a Vitamin B12 supplement, and fortunately, most vegan doctors, including Dr. McDougall, advise doing that. Some years ago, the International Association of Hygienic Physicians released a position statement on Vitamin B-12, urging vegans to take it, and I am the one who spearheaded it and brought it to fruition. Vitamin B12 is absent from plant foods, and bacterial synthesis in the gut most definitely does not suffice for humans. That has been proven repeatedly. And it should give us pause because what it means is that there were no successful long-term vegans prior to the latter half of the 20th century. So, pure, absolute veganism isn’t old; it’s new. That doesn’t mean that it’s bad. But if it’s new, it means that if you’re going to do it, you’ve got to do it right and make sure you take care of all the loose ends. Yes, there have been people and cultures who have eaten plant-based diets for generations, meaning diets predominated by plants. But they have not been exclusively vegan. The number of natural geographic populations of human beings who have been long-term pure, uncompromised vegans, reproducing themselves generation after generation down the line on pure vegan diets, is and has been exactly and precisely zero. So, if you are a vegan enthusiast, that’s fine, but, for your own sake, don’t get too darn cocky about it. There is a world of difference between a diet that is mostly and predominantly plant-based and one that is rigidly and exclusively vegan.
I decided to write an article on sleep because I get a lot of letters from people about their sleep problems- and that’s people young and old. It is widely recognized that sleep disorders have reached epidemic proportions, and the sale of sleeping pills has become a multi-billion dollar industry.
The first thing a doctor does when presented with a patient’s sleep problem is to try to figure out if it’s a manifestation of another larger problem. For example, does the patient have clinical depression? or generalized anxiety? or both? There are many more conditions that can interfere with sleep, but those two are very common. And naturally, if there is a larger, overriding health problem- whether physical or mental- the doctor will want to address that problem- as the primary approach to solving the sleep problem.
But, let’s assume, for the sake of our discussion, that there is no other problem- because a lot of people fall into that category. Sure, the patient is depressed about not sleeping well, but he or she is not depressed otherwise- at least, they’re no more bummed out about life in general than the rest of us. (small attempt at humor there) And likewise, he or she may be anxious about what kind of night it’s going to be, but they’re not a textbook case of anxiety.
So, we’re talking about chronic insomnia as an entity in itself- and it applies to a lot of people.
Realize that insomnia can happen at any age- including childhood. But, in childhood, you would always look for an underlying cause- there has got to be one in that case. However, insomnia is, more often, age-related, and it gets more common as people get older. And, the plain truth is that the sleep mechanism becomes faulty with age. Think of it like a switch that goes back and forth between wakefulness and sleep, and it just doesn’t work as well as you get older.
Of course, people do a lot of things that make it worse. They consume drugs, alcohol, and caffeine that interfere with sleep. Faulty diets interfere with sleep. Lack of exercise sabotages sleep. And mental stress is a major sleep wrecker- and there seems to be plenty of that going around these days.
But, the truth is that there are people who follow health programs and try to avoid all those things as much as possible, but they still suffer with sleep problems; they just don’t sleep as well as they used to. So, the first thing to realize is that sleep becomes more delicate, more sensitive, and more problematic with age- and it’s pretty much universal. It is just a fact of life. If you are an older adult, I wish I could tell you that there are things that you can do that will make you sleep like a baby again- or even like a child. But, it’s probably not going to happen. However, that doesn’t mean that you can’t improve your sleep. And it doesn’t mean that you can’t get to where you are getting enough sleep to function well and enjoy your life. A good practical result is all anybody needs, and it is within reach.
The most important thing to realize is that sleep cannot be faked. The worst mistake you can make is to start taking sleeping pills. There are no good ones. There are no prescription sleep medicines that I would use or recommend. You will be falling down a rabbit hole if you do that. Realize that sleep is a physiological process, and it’s vastly different from a drug-induced coma. Your goal is to sleep- not just to render yourself unconscious. So forget about taking any knockout pills. That is not the solution. It just makes the problem worse.
You have to realize that if you start taking a knockout pill, your body will very quickly adapt to it. The normal, physiological mechanism of sleep induction, which can be summed up by the word drowsiness will readily be supplanted by the blunt effect of the drug. I don’t know of any knockout pills that aren’t toxic, but it’s not just that they’re toxic. They also do not deliver healthy, restorative sleep.
There are still a lot of mysteries about sleep, but we do know that the brain goes through certain cycles of activity which can be traced during sleep. And these patterns are known as sleep architecture. It rather looks like a city skyline- with buildings and then open spaces and then more buildings- hence the term architecture. Your sleep architecture is never right when you take a knockout pill. It is always distorted. And most sleeping pills prevent entry into deep sleep, which refers to Stages 3 and 4 slow-wave, non-rapid eye movement sleep- which is the most restorative kind of sleep.
After taking a knockout pill, you don’t feel rested, and you don’t feel right. You might feel relieved to some extent. You might have the psychological sense that you have finally slept- because you know you were unconscious for a while. But, it is not going to last, and it will do no good things for your mind or your mood. And the longer you keep taking the drug, the worse it is going to get. Today, we hear about the “Ambien defense” where in court, defendants justify bizarre and criminal behaviors based on being under the influence of Ambien. And, that defense has actually worked! Ambien is currently the most widely prescribed sleeping pill in the world.
The newer sleeping pills include Ambien, Sonata, and Lunesta, but they all have problems, and many doctors still prefer and prescribe the older benzodiazepines, such as Valium, Ativan, and Xanax. Many doctors lean toward the benzo known as Klonopin because it’s long-acting, which they consider safer. And there are also heavy-duty tranquilizers such as Halcion and Restoril. A few doctors even revert to the more sedating old tricyclics, such as Elavil. Ugh! Nasty drug.
Listen to me: don’t get started on any of that stuff. If you have to wrestle with your sleep, then wrestle with it! But, don’t go down that path. It leads to nothing but ruin. And if you are already taking one of them, then find a doctor to help you wean off of it safely.
I don’t feel any better about the OTC sleeping pills either, most of which are based on anti-histamines.
Fortunately, there is lots you can do to improve your sleep, and it should start with the hygienic factors, that is, your lifestyle. Getting early morning sunlight in your eyes helps to restore your biological clock, so do it. Vigorous physical exercise helps to synchronize the wake/sleep cycle, so get out there and work it. Avoid sleep saboteurs like alcohol and caffeine. Optimize your diet because even subtle nutritional deficiencies can negatively impact sleep. I won’t go into all of them, but I will name a few: deficiencies of taurine, EPA/DHA, magnesium, Vitamin D, and obviously, tryptophan. But, what I have also noticed is that when people eat very low protein diets-as some vegans do, particularly raw-fooders- that sleep suffers. I can only speculate as to why. It’s possibly that it relates to specific amino acid deficiencies, such as tryptophan. However, it’s also possible that eating, digesting, and processing proteins acts like some kind of signal of diurnal passage: telling the brain that another day has gone by. Be sure to know that most people get enough protein, including most vegetarians, so I’m not saying that it’s a common factor with insomnia. But, I have seen it, particularly with extreme raw-food vegans, and extreme caloric-restrictors.
So, without going further into it here, make sure your diet is optimal. Your sleep depends on it.
As always, the hygienic factors come first- before you even think about taking anything for sleep. But, there are things, other than knockout pills, that you may want to consider taking. And, I am not talking about anything toxic, nor anything that is particularly sedating. I don’t believe you can help your sleep directly by taking something. Sleep has to happen naturally by itself. But, you may be able to help your sleep indirectly by taking things that support the process and facilitate a favorable pre-condition for sleep. I am going to discuss a few, and these are based on my own experience, with myself and others. Admittedly, I have wrestled with sleep. I won’t deny it. And fortunately, my sleep is better now than it has been in the past. Most mornings I wake up feeling very refreshed, and my transition to wakefulness is swift. Never do I even think about needing or wanting coffee or any kind of stimulant. And, I don’t have to eat in the morning to feel good either. If I’m not hungry, I wait. And if I do skip breakfast, it has no effect on my performance, physically or mentally. I go about my morning as usual, self-sustained, which is how it should be.
But, in the next blog, I will discuss some of the supplements that I consider useful to aid sleep. I don’t claim that it’s exhaustive. I’m sure there are other safe supplements that have worked for some people. But, I think it will be a good starting point for those who are looking for constructive help with sleep. But, remember the first rule: no knockout pills! There is no help there. And any doctor who wants to give you one, run away from him or her at full speed.
I am a huge fan of Big Band/Swing music, and no one sang it better than Frank Sinatra. He had a long career because he started in the late '30s and was big throughout the '40s, lost favor in the early '50s, came roaring back in the late '50s, and then even in the '60s and beyond, he continued to soar, despite the dominance of Rock N Roll. He succeeded professionally like no other vocalist of his generation. How did he do it?
I think it was due to the unique timbre of his voice, which was very clear and crisp, and also very manly and arresting. There are a lot of songs that are indelibly linked to Frank Sinatra because he sang them better than anyone else. Take, for instance, I've Got You Under My Skin by Cole Porter. Who wants to hear anyone but Sinatra sing it? And take It Had To Be You by Isham Jones and Gus Kahn. It’s a great old standard. Johnny Mercer called it his favorite song, and everybody recorded it. But, listen to this version by Frank Sinatra and see if you don’t agree that he captured the essence of the song better than anyone else. And it was recorded in 1979 when he was already 64 years old!
I read Sinatra: The Life by Robbyn Swan. I am not going to try to sketch Frank Sinatra’s biography here, as I have done with others, because too much happened to him in his life for me to be able to cover it and do it justice. I am just going to talk about one thing: his health. I think it’s truly amazing that Frank Sinatra lived to 82. First, he started out in life so feebly. He was a huge baby: 13 ½ pounds. He was literally torn from the birth canal, bleeding at the head and neck. He seemed dead, and they almost gave him up for dead. His left earlobe, cheek, and part of his neck were torn by the doctor’s forceps, and he remained scarred for the rest of his life.
But, even though he was born so large, he became very skinny as a child. By the time he was 4, it was clear that he was going to be pencil-thin. His parents tried to get him to eat more. There was never an issue about them being too poor to feed him adequately. His mother, Dolly, was a gourmet Italian cook, and she loved to eat. Meals consisting of several meat entrees, multiple cheeses, pasta, and rich desserts were served often. And his father, Marty, had been a semi-professional boxer and then became a fireman; so he was no string bean either; and he liked to eat. And there were no reports of Frankie ever having anorexia. He liked his mother’s Italian cooking, and, over the years, he often brought friends- and lovers- to eat at her house. But, for some reason, he never could gain weight.
I want to stress that it was not just that he was thin; he was truly underdeveloped. His musculature just never developed normally as a young man. He reached his teenage years and got his surge of testosterone, and apparently, it all went to his penis. (He was famous for being very well-endowed. His lovers said so, including Ava Gardner. And his valet, George Jacobs, reported that he had to order special underwear to hide his huge endowment to avoid embarrassment.) And, as sexed up as he was, he must have had plenty of testosterone. He was a voracious womanizer, starting in his teens and continuing strongly through middle life until finally, at 60, he settled down to a stable monogamous life with his fourth wife, Barbara. But, if as a youth his genitals grew in response to testosterone, why didn’t his muscles? He really had no form to his muscles at all.
Did he engage in sports? No, he wasn’t interested. He liked to follow boxing because that was the favorite sport of his father and uncles. And, after he dropped out of high school, he worked at a newspaper, and he tried to become a sports writer, but that didn’t work out either. Late in life he took up golf- half-heartedly- but that was about it as far as exercise went. But note that even without lifting weights per se, the ordinary activities of life should have caused some muscle development. Don’t most young men at some point have to carry heavy things, move furniture, spade the ground, etc.? My father never lifted weights, but his father was a grocer in New York City, and they stored inventory in the basement, and he (my dad) had to carry 100 pound sacks of potatoes up the stairs. He got plenty strong. Apparently, Frank Sinatra didn’t do anything like that. Still, it’s a mystery why he remained as puny as he did. When he began to make movies, he started wearing a butt cushion to fill out his rear-end, which reportedly, was not just flat, but “concave.” It’s one thing for that to occur in old age, but he was only in his 20s.
If I had to guess, I would bet that he was probably a poor digester. Maybe he had a short gut. Maybe he had a weak stomach. For some reason, he just didn’t assimilate his food very well. And that, more than anything, is probably what accounted for his scrawniness.
It’s interesting that late in life he did put on some weight and started looking fuller, although I’m sure it wasn’t muscle. However, I learned that a doctor had put him on Elavil, which is a tricyclic antidepressant that is rarely prescribed any more. It’s a very nasty drug, and one of the side effects of Elavil is weight gain- substantial weight gain. Note that his face got very round. That's a common side effect of Elavil.
So, he probably had a weak digestive system- from birth. But in addition, he took up smoking at an early age- in his early teens. And, he smoked unfiltered Camel cigarettes: the strongest American cigarette. And, he smoked heavily. He was rarely seen without a cigarette in his hand. If he wasn’t singing or eating, he was smoking. And smoking impairs digestion and assimilation- quite a lot.
And, he also drank alcohol heavily. Ava Gardner, his second wife and reportedly the love of his life, said: “Every single night, we would have three or four martinis, big ones in champagne glasses, then wine with dinner, and then go to a nightclub and start drinking Scotch or Bourbon. I don’t know how we did it.”
And alcohol impairs digestion and assimilation too. Although not everyone who smokes and drinks gets rail-thin, if you start with a weak digestive system, as Frank apparently did, it is going to take a toll.
But, despite a very abusive lifestyle, Frank Sinatra’s physical health remained remarkably stable until late in life. What was unstable from the start of his career and throughout his career was his mental health. I have no doubt that in today’s medical lexicon, Frank Sinatra would have been diagnosed as bipolar. His mood swings were severe. He was explosive, and the severity and frequency of his rages and violent outbursts were frightening. It was beyond irrational; he would become crazed. Swan's book covered much of it, but even more was reported in His Way by Kitty Kelly- the book that Frank Sinatra tried desperately to stop from being published.
There is no need for me to detail any of the things he said and did, to which I am referring. Let’s just say that, at his worst, it involved an inordinate amount of inexplicable cruelty. But, at his best, generosity flowed from him like a fountain, and not just to people he knew and loved, and not just to causes that he supported, of which there were many, but even to complete strangers who were in need and whom he heard about. He often made his donations anonymously. He gave away millions and millions of dollars. I think if you had to describe his behavior in one word, it would be extreme: extremely good and extremely bad. And wide swings of the pendulum are, of course the hallmark of bipolar disorder. When his dark side manifested, he just could not control it. There were so many times that he apologized for outrageous behavior with tears in his eyes but then went on to repeat it. No doubt the heavy drinking was a factor. Alcohol brings out the worst in everyone.
I mentioned his taking Elavil late in life. That was something his wife Barbara insisted on. Earlier in his life, he briefly tried psychoanalysis. In fact, he saw the same therapist that Marilyn Monroe used: the preeminent Dr. Ralph Greenson. But Frank swore off psychotherapy and never returned to it. And, until the medical end, he wasn’t much of a pill popper either. Alcohol was definitely his drug of choice. Although it was reported that President Kennedy and Peter Lawford snorted cocaine at his house, Frank was never reported to be a cokehead. And he may have tried marijuana a few times, especially when he was married to Mia Farrow, since that was her drug of choice, but he was no reefer addict either.
But, in his final years, as commonly happens, he got thoroughly immersed in prescription drugs: for his heart, his blood pressure, his sleep, his moods, etc. etc. (If it's not my place to criticize his doctors, let me just say that I am not going to finish up that way.) But, he was able to do a phenomenal amount of touring and performing right up until his 80th year, and that was despite numerous physical problems and rather severe dementia. He continued to draw large crowds, even though his voice- and his mind- were largely gone. It seems that the fans knew he wasn’t long for this world, and they merely wanted to get a glimpse of him and get a memory of his voice so that they could say they heard Sinatra. And it wasn’t all bad: his phrasing, his timing, his great ability to individualize each performance and keep it fresh and new- he could still do that His final performance was on February 25, 1995 before 1200 people at a charity event in Palm Springs. Esquire magazine would report of the show that Sinatra was "clear, tough, and on the money." He was "in absolute control."
Frank Sinatra died a little more than two years later on May 14, 1998. He had had a heart attack- not his first- and efforts to resuscitate him failed.
But, let’s get back to our original question: how did Frank Sinatra manage to live to 82? After all, he smoked heavily; he drank heavily; he ate a conventional diet with no awareness of the importance of fruits and vegetables; he had tremendous stress, including personal, marital, professional, legal, and at times, financial. He was arrested several times. He got beaten up several times. He very nearly drowned once. He suffered from insomnia and kept very strange hours. He wasn’t as nocturnal as Elvis- but almost. He suffered severe emotional pain and anguish repeatedly. The compounding effect of all that stress had to be staggering.
So, if I had to say how he managed to stay alive for so long, I would say that it was mainly a matter of luck. He did have heart disease, but he didn’t have a fatal heart attack until 82. It could have come sooner- but it didn’t. He was known to have cancer of the ureter, which is common among heavy smokers, but it was manageable. He could have contracted a more deadly cancer- but he didn't, that we know of. It's as though he went through life wantonly heaping on abuses and excesses -but he didn't succomb in a deadly way until rather late. I have to think that his tendency to stay thin for most of his life worked in his favor. Thinness definitely supports longevity. Were good genes a factor? I have no basis for thinking that.
When Frank Sinatra turned 80, I joined thousands of others in sending him a personal greeting online, and it involved getting a very nice acknowledgment from his daughter, Tina. To me, Frank Sinatra will always be the greatest male vocalist. He may not have been technically the greatest, but he sang the music I like the most, and he sang it better than anyone else. There were so many great songs that he simply came to own. Nobody could touch him.