In a prior life, I was an occupational therapist and a Pilates instructor. Despite working forty plus hours per week, I never lost the athletic spirit of my youth. I weight trained five days a week, took Muay Thai kickboxing classes, did Pilates and yoga, and even took the occasional hip hop dance class at a nearby studio (I wasn’t very good at dancing).
Specifically, I enjoyed challenging my body physically, but even more so, I loved the feeling of rest after a hard workout. A long nap or a full night’s sleep was blissfully refreshing to me to continue with my hectic schedule; I’d fall asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow. With such an active lifestyle, I’m probably one of the last people my friends or family ever imagined would become ill.
However, sleep slowly began to elude me. At first, I wouldn’t be able to fall asleep for a few hours here and there. Then, a few hours became entire nights without sleep. By 2010, I became a full-fledged insomniac. Sadly, I was no longer able to even take a nap, and I ended up in the emergency room begging the doctors to knock me out. Lucky for me, they obliged my request, and when I emerged from my drug-induced snooze, I knew I had to make some serious changes in my life to heal from what I was told was a “severe case of chronic fatigue syndrome.” I read every book I could get my hands on, about how to eliminate insomnia and restore sleep.
In addition to insomnia, other symptoms began to pop up quickly. In my heart, I believed that a diagnosis of CFS no longer accounted for the continued severity of my symptoms, especially my unrelenting sleep disorder. I sought further answers, and in October 2013, a Lyme-literate nurse practitioner finally diagnosed me with chronic, neurological Lyme disease. Immediately, I began treatment, and one year into our protocol, I experienced my first nap after four, distressing years. That single moment–with drool on my pillow and all–felt as if a small part of heaven had touched my brain. I was elated.
Although I am still in the throes of treatment, I am passionate about helping people improve their sleep. After all, sleep truly is the most important occupation we will engage in throughout our lives. It’s vital a vital component of Lyme disease treatment.
Many factors influence sleep, including infections, illnesses, toxins, extreme stress, hormonal imbalances, and poor sleep hygiene. Insomnia is a common Lyme disease symptom. Most of us already know that a lack of sleep causes us to be grumpier, to aggravate pain, worsen fatigue, increase inflammation, and further suppress our immune systems. Nevertheless, achieving the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep each night is nearly impossible for some of us.
So, what’s a person to do when one of the most crucial healing activities is unattainable? Fortunately, there’s a whole host of natural and herbal therapies to help you catch some restorative zzz’s. The following is a list of supplements recommended by various integrative health practitioners that can support restful sleep. Since every person has an individualized set of needs, please consult with your physician regarding dosing, side effects, and drug interactions before incorporating any of these into your treatment protocol.
Natural and Herbal Therapies for Better Sleep
1. Curcumin- Curcumin is a beneficial compound extracted from the herb turmeric. While not technically a sleep aid, this herb helps reduce inflammatory cytokines–small proteins released by the immune system as a result of the ongoing battle with a multitude of infections. Cytokines are known to lessen the production of sleep-generating hormones in the brain. By taking curcumin throughout the day, you decrease inflammatory cytokines and lower inflammation in your body. As a result, curcumin may increase the sleep activating hormones you need to bring about a tranquil slumber.
2. Phosphatidyl-serine (PS)- PS is a phospholipid–a fatty substance that acts as a protector of brain cells and a messenger among the cells. If you have high cortisol at night, this supplement may be helpful to you. PS works to decrease the excess production of a particular hormone in the pituitary gland, called ACTH, resulting in an overall reduction of cortisol levels in your body. When used at night, this supplement helps diminish stress and induce relaxation. It works well in conjunction with other sleep supplements, but dosing recommendations depend on your bedtime cortisol levels.
3. L-theanine- This supplement is an amino acid that comes from green tea, which assists in the formation of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a calming, inhibitory neurotransmitter. L-theanine crosses the blood-brain barrier, which means it has a direct effect on your central nervous system to help dial down an over-stimulated mind a notch or two; GABA is a necessary neurotransmitter for sleep. Additionally, L-theanine has been shown to support sleep without the next-day hangover feeling of other supplements or sleep medications and is “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) by the Food and Drug Administration.
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4. 5-HTP- Your body uses this supplement to bolster the production of serotonin in the brain, a neurotransmitter that encourages relaxation and improves the quality of your sleep. It may take 6-12 weeks for the effects of 5-HTP to be fully realized, so you probably won’t notice an immediate change from supplementation. As a word of caution, don’t use 5-HTP if you are using other serotonin-boosting treatments like certain antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, and pain medications. Even though 5-HTP is natural, too much of a good thing is, actually, too much of a good thing; an overproduction of serotonin can keep you wide-awake.
5. Melatonin- A quick Google search on this supplement will likely yield mixed results. Some physicians caution against using it for fear that it will disrupt the body’s ability to manufacture melatonin while others use it in seemingly large doses. Well, what’s the real story? There seems to be some truth in everyone’s viewpoint.
Some experts believe that melatonin works best for those who have trouble falling asleep. Others believe that it does next to nothing for those who can’t stay asleep. Many doctors recommend an initial dose of 0.5 milligrams–an amount that more closely mimics your body’s natural production. However, some people seem to have trouble absorbing the supplement and benefit from higher doses–like the 1, 3, or even 5-milligram range. For some Lyme patients, melatonin has been an incredibly useful supplement in the sleep arsenal, and for this reason I have included it on my list. Since physicians have different opinions regarding the use of melatonin, it’s best to work with your LLMD (Lyme Literate Medical Doctor) or integrative health practitioner to determine the appropriate dosage for you.
6. Magnesium Glycinate- It is well known that most of us are deficient in magnesium, and magnesium glycinate, a favorite form of magnesium among Lyme patients, is one of the most absorbable forms of this mineral. I repeatedly hear my fellow Lyme friends say that they have trouble “winding down” at night. If this describes you, taking magnesium before bedtime promotes relaxation of your muscles and nervous system, and assists your body in achieving a better night’s rest.
No matter how intense your insomnia is, don’t lose hope! It’s a frustrating situation to endure, but from the experience of a six-year insomniac, it’s a situation in which improvement can, and often does, happen. It takes a lot of trial and error to find a sleep “cocktail” that is right for you, but it’s worth persevering until you have a combination that gets you some serious shuteye.
This article was first published on ProHealth.com on April 20, 2016 and was updated on June 29, 2019
Jenny Lelwica Buttaccio, OTR/L, is an occupational therapist and certified Pilates instructor whose life was transformed by Lyme disease, chronic fatigue syndrome and interstitial cystitis. She is creator of the DVD, New Dawn Pilates: pilates-inspired exercises adapted for people with pelvic pain. Jenny is a health and wellness advocate and blogger who writes about her journey on The Lyme Road as she continues to pursue her personal healing with the support of her husband and two rescue pups. You can find her on Instagram: @jenny_buttaccio or Twitter: @jennybuttaccio
Horowitz, R. (2013). Why Can’t I Get Better? : solving the mystery of lyme and chronic disease. New York, NY. St. Martin’s Press.
Teitelbaum, J. (2007). From Fatigued to Fantastic. New York, NY: The Penguin Group.