I Don't Sleep So Good -- An Experiment In Holistic Sleep Aids

So if I am not sleeping, what am I doing in bed? I am worrying.
Publish date:
February 8, 2013

I love sleep. If sleep were a person, I would go down on them even if they couldn't remember the last time they showered, I would always let them come first, and I would try really hard to impress all their friends with how many picklebacks I can handle without puking. Unfortunately for me, our love is unrequited.

Since my late teens, my quality of sleep has been treading a slippery slope. In college, this wasn't such an issue, as no one was sleeping very much. But now that I'm a Real Person with a Real Person Job, going to bed at 10 p.m. (don't you judge me!) and still waking up in the morning unrested and groggy and is frustrating as fuck.

So if I am not sleeping, what am I doing in bed? I am worrying. This might be less frustrating if I actually had pressing things to worry about, like running a country or hell, even a company. But I don't.

My job is overall very stress-free. I don't have a terminal illness. I am not in debt. Yet I roll around, my irrational neurosis battering the inside of my skull until my thoughts sound like a Woody Allen monologue. I lay awake at night worrying that my ass is become aggressively flatter since I switched from road running to the treadmill (it really is), or that my boyfriend's roommate doesn't like me because of my food politics (not gonna call her a bitch on the Internet).

Sometimes, I am not even worrying, but wondering what I will be eating for breakfast, despite the fact that the answer is always, always oatmeal.

If I happen to be in a state of emotional turmoil -- say a fight with a friend or that time my roommate tried to evict my cat -- then sleeping is not an option. Even if my mind is not lingering on what I am upset about, my body knows things aren't right, and it decides to pay homage to my unsettled psyche by allowing me to lay awake all night, marinating in my own unease.

If I do happen to fall asleep during a period of emotional distress, my body rewards me with terrifying nightmares about my nose falling off.

I am convinced my overall neurosis is hereditary. As I lay awake at 3:30 am, I know that 35 miles away my 63-year-old father is also up, having imaginary conversations with Rachel Maddow and worrying about what I might be writing about him on the Internet.

Since becoming a Real Person, I have been on a quest to settle my brain before bed. My first and most instinctive remedy was to smoke some weed. (Do people still call it weed? I am elderly.)

I used to smoke a little teeny bit before bed, and this helped a lot. I fell asleep in a haze and woke up feeling slightly groggy but overall rested. However, I didn't like that my weed-smoking became habitual. After several months, I felt sort of pathetic smoking in my room alone, and no one seemed interested in joining me. I decided I had to cut it out when my roommate stoner-shamed me and my only response was “But...I'm high functioning!”

I decided to look into alternative methods of lulling myself to sleep. Methods that are both decriminalized AND legalized -- come on, Connecticut!

This was a long and toilsome journey full of trial and error. Drinking caffeine after 3 pm is guaranteed to tweak me for 12 hours. Working out at night makes me too sprightly for slumber, but gentle yoga about two hours before turning in works wonders.

Talking to my short-distance boyfriend on the phone is very comforting and lowered my stress levels, which was surprising as I have never been a phone person. Eating something high in (healthy) fats an hour before bed makes falling asleep easier, which was great news for my peanut butter habit.

But none of these tricks worked as well as I would have liked, and I still woke up in the morning feeling like Xenia Onatopp was squeezing my head between her (heavenly, heavenly) thighs. I needed something better! Therapy probably would have maybe helped, but I prefer a magic pill, or something else I could swallow.

I tried several different things.. Here they are.

Kava Kava, a Miracle (For Those Who Like Drinking Dirt)

Years before I realized my mild insomnia was an actually problem, I encountered kava (or “kava kava”) at a kava bar while visiting my mother in Pahoa, Hawaii. It's a plant that contains the active ingredient Kavalactone, and when you grind and consume the roots, it has sedative properties and is thought to reduce anxiety and insomnia. Or at least this is why I was interested in kava. Others, however, are interested in it because it supposedly gives you a heady buzz, like booze, thus the kava bars popping up.

This kava bar was located at the base of an active volcano, but that's basically the only cool thing about it. It was more like a bootlegged lemonade stand than the swanky bar I had imagined when my brother suggested we go, and the kava they served me was less like alcohol and more like a mouthful of dirt. Dirt and maybe a little bit of cat pee. Pungent and earthy with mild fecal undertones. Actually I have never eaten feces but this is what I imagine fecal undertones would taste like.

I had half a glass at the encouragement of my older brother who loves to bully me into bizarre and foul-tasting edibles. I rejected, nostrils flared. But when I began looking for alternative sleep aids, I looked into it again.

There are several ways to drink kava. You can make your own brew by locating some kava root powder, mixing it with water, massaging it into a pulpy paste, steeping it for a few hours in water, and then then straining it through pantyhose. Unfortunately, I am really lazy, and that seemed like a ton of work for something that I remembered tastes like fertilizer. Instead I found kava in two other, more convenient forms -- pills and pre-made tea.

Er, before I go on, it's important to note that some (like the uppity FDA) aren't such kava fans, because apparently kava in large doses can be toxic. So don't go on a kava binge. OK thanks.

Kava pills, 120 mg per pill

How Much: I took 4 at a time. I read on the Internet that taking 8 would “give you a nice buzz.” But I don't know about all that. I just want to sleep. Crazy kids.

Verdict: Mehhhhh

I took the pills about 30 minutes before bed, 5 days in a row, and basically nothing happened. I read that kava pills tend to be less potent than the traditional shit brew, and this could be because they contain less kavalactones, or that the root inside the pill is old. I would pass on the kava pills. They were very unimpressive.

Kava tea, 78 mg per bag, 23.4 mg kavalactones. I don't know where the other 54.6 mg's go...

How Much: Two teabags

Verdict: A nice mellow maker

While I am much too lazy to concoct my own kava tea from powder, I am not too lazy to let Yogi tea do it for me! After my week of kava pill popping, I did another 5 day experiment using kava tea bags. I would steep two in my cup and sip it about an hour before bed. This was surprisingly more effective than the pills, despite having much less kavalactones. This made me think that maybe my pills were shitty.

While it still took me ages to fall asleep, I was much more relaxed and had less anxiety. Plus the tea tastes like yummy cinnamon and licorice. I plan to continue drinking it, but stopped for a while so that it didn't mess up the other methods I was researching in the name of science and the ever-elusive good night's sleep.

Melatonin, My Long Lost Lover

Melatonin pills, 3 mg

How much: 3 to 5 pills, depending on stress level, 30 minutes before bed

Verdict: Amazeballs

Oh, sweet, heavenly melatonin, the most beloved of all holistic sleep aids! Please get inside me and make yourself comfortable. Melatonin is a naturally occurring compound that we the people are supposed to produce all on our own, and it is supposed to regulate our circadian rhythm...plus it's an antioxidant. Unfortunately, natural melatonin production decreases as a person ages, which could be why children have such enviable sleep patterns.

Out of all the sleepy-time methods I tried, melatonin is my favorite. Again, I took it for 5 straight days to see what would happen. Within 15 minutes of taking the pills, I began to feel pleasantly sleepy, and a little bit dopey. It sort of reminded me of being stoned, in that my head felt nice and heavy and my thoughts just seemed to drift by without being too alarming. I fell asleep with ease, and 3 of the 5 nights, I was able to sleep through without waking.

On the 2 nights I have woke up, I popped another melatonin and was able to drift back to sleep. The only downside is that I do wake up mildly groggy. With a little research I learned melatonin is safe, although some people do report side effects like headaches, nauseous and vivid nightmares.

I was so smitten with melatonin that I could have called it quits right there, but I continued on my quest with one more product:

Valerian Root...I Don't Hate It

Valerian root pills, 250 mg

How much: 2 pills, 30 minutes before bed

Verdict: Second place

Valerian root extract is supposed to help cure anxiety, insomnia, and is often used to ease people off benzos. I was reluctant to let go of my melatonin habit, but I did it. For you! You're welcome.

The biggest downfall of valerian root is the stink! I opened the bottle, pulled out the cotton, and nearly gagged. The pills had an intense, pervasive odor...sort of a funky old-ball smell. Not quite BO, but definitely rank. I popped them into my mouth, and my fingers smelled after! Gross.

Stinky fingers aside, they had no flavor or after burp, so that's a plus.

Within 10 minutes of taking the pills, I began to feel hot, and my limbs were buzzy. I didn't exactly feel stoned like I do from melatonin, but my head felt a bit disconnected, as if I had a mild fever. While I really enjoy the warm, cozy cradle of a melatonin-induced slumber, the valerian experience was a bit more uncomfortable.

However, it did work! I fell asleep easy, stayed asleep, and awoke without feeling groggy! Win, win, win! Now if only I could get over the stinky fingers.

I slept better during my month of trial-and-error sleep aids than I had in a very long time, and I plan to continue alternating melatonin and valerian root. I may also sip some kava tea. The kava pills will collect dust along with an impulsive anal bead purchase and other things that just didn't work out the way I wanted them to.

Zoe is exercising her neurosis on the Internet at @SexyTofuBlog.