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While the rest of the world runs full speed, we still live in a very primitive body, within which resides a biological clock that influences the activity of every single cell. Blood sugar, hormone levels, metabolic rates, body temperature, sodium/potassium levels, and immune function are just a few of the things directly linked to the body's internal clock. Altering your biological clock can have a drastic impact on your health.

Poor sleeping habits can have a direct influence, not only on the quality, but also on the length of your life. There is a direct link between sleep and problems like heart disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, viral infections, ulcers, indigestion, muscular pain, strokes, asthma, headaches, and even fatal car crashes. Our own National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that over 100,000 automobile crashes each year are related to drowsy driving. Even more shocking are their latest figures showing that traffic accidents caused by drowsy driving now kill more young people than alcohol-related accidents.

The Hazards of Low Melatonin

Most people know that melatonin levels begin to rise a couple of hours before bedtime, helping to bring on sleep. They continue to rise until they peak, usually between 2 and 4 a.m. Then they gradually fall as we get closer to awakening.

But most people don't know that adequate levels of melatonin are not just related to healthful sleep patterns. They have also been associated with a decreased risk of certain forms of cancer, particularly breast cancer. Lower levels of melatonin have also been linked to bulimia, depression, fibromyalgia, nerve pain (neuralgia), and possibly prostate cancer, insulin resistance, and glucose tolerance. (Current Top Med Chem 02;2(2):113-32) (Maturitas 02;4 I Suppl 1:85-104)

The Latest News About Coffee

Researchers at the Sapir Medical Center in Tel Aviv have been studying the effects of melatonin and sleep patterns. In one study, researchers found that the caffeine in coffee blocks the production of the enzyme N-acetyltransferase, which is needed for the production of melatonin.

Most coffee-drinkers know that drinking coffee too close to bedtime can make getting to sleep more difficult. But the fact that the caffeine lowers melatonin levels sheds a whole new light on the subject. Especially when coffee isn't the only drink that contains caffeine.

Dr. Shilo had one group drink a cup of regular coffee and another group drink a cup of decaf. Those who drank regular coffee slept an average of 336 minutes compared to 415 minutes in the decaf group. Also, when compared to the decaf drinkers, those drinking regular coffee took twice as long to fall asleep and were twice as restless when sleeping. Based on urine samples taken every three hours, the researchers discovered that melatonin levels in the regular coffee drinkers were only half those of the decaf drinkers. (New Sci 4/20,02;18)

As a stimulant, caffeine speeds up the action of not only the nervous system, but of other major body systems as well. Within 15 minutes of drinking a cup of coffee, the level of adrenaline in your blood rises, which triggers an increase in heart rate, breathing rate, urinary output, and production of stomach acids. Basically, caffeine's effects are the reverse of what you want to happen as you go to sleep.

Typically, regularly brewed coffee contains about 135 mg of caffeine per cup, decaf about 5 mg. Below are listed some other common drinks and their caffeine content. I have not listed the prescription and over-the-counter medications containing caffeine. Caffeine is a fairly common ingredient, especially in pain medications. Two tablets of Excedrin, for example, contain 130 mg of caffeine, almost the same amount as a cup of coffee. (If you have trouble sleeping, you might want to check the label of any medications you're taking -- even non-prescription ones.)







Coffee-flavored ice creams

1 cup

40 to 85 mg

Bigelow Raspberry Royale Tea

8 oz

83 mg

Dannon Coffee Yogurt

8 oz

45 mg

Lipton Tea

8 oz

35 to 40 mg

Various flavored coffees

8 oz

25 to 100 mg

Lipton Iced Tea

8 oz

15 to 35 mg

Instant Tea

8 oz

15 mg

Celestial Seasonings Herb Tea

8 oz

0 mg

Mountain Dew

12 oz

55.5 mg

Diet Coke

12 oz

46.5 mg

Dr. Pepper

12 oz

42 mg

Sunkist Orange Soda

12 oz

42 mg


12 oz

37.5 mg

Coca-Cola Classic

12 oz

34.5 mg

Hershey's Special Dark Chocolate Bar

1.5 oz

31 mg

Hershey Bar

1.5 oz

10 mg

7-UP or Sprite

12 oz

0 mg



Melatonin in Clinical Use


These same researchers found that patients admitted to intensive care units (ICU) routinely suffer from sleep deprivation. Apparently the trauma and/or stress interferes with the production of melatonin. This results in a lack of sleep, which in turn prolongs healing time.

Dr. Lotan Shilo and his colleagues found that when ICU patients were given 3 mg of melatonin at 10 p.m. each evening, both the duration and quality of their sleep improved dramatically compared to patients given a placebo. (Chronobiol Int 00;17(1):71-6)

Studies such as this one demonstrate how simple techniques can help relieve suffering and speed up healing. Will melatonin use became routine in ICU units? After comparing its enormous benefits to its low cost, Israel and other countries are quickly making the use of this non-toxic therapy standard operating procedure. However, it could be decades before melatonin sees routine use in the U.S. Especially if it means shorter healing times and therefore shorter hospital stays.

Can Melatonin Levels be Increased Naturally

Since melatonin is a hormone, one must be very careful with its use. Using it for an extended period of time (more than a week) could interfere with your bodies own ability to produce it. I routinely use some very simple natural techniques. Unless I have imbibed a stimulant of some sort, which for me is usually ice tea, the following works every time.

Lie on your side and rest your hand on the bed in front of your face. Using a very light touch, place your fingers on two, three or even four acupressure points around the eyes. There are many points on the face that stimulate the production of melatonin. The corners of the eyes, especially the inside corners along the nose, and the spot about a half inch above the bridge between the eyes are very strong. There are also spots on the temples and forehead. Simply rest your fingers wherever they feel the most comfortable and wait 20 minutes. Chances are you will fall asleep long before that but if you don't, change the pressure points.

The scent of lavender also increases the production of melatonin but only if you are either smelling the flower or an oil that captures the biological essence of the flower. Be careful when buying scented oils. Many are produced incorrectly and as a result do not work. In my opinion, the pressure points work better but you could use both.

There are, of course, exceptions to every rule. If you can't stop thinking about something that's bothering you, or if you travel to a different time zone that disrupts your internal clock, no matter what you do to fall asleep it probably won't work. That's where melatonin comes in. It usually works between one and four days to regulate your internal clock.

Another substance that induces sleep is calcium. So drinking a half cup of milk or eating ice cream an hour or so before bedtime can have a calming effect on the brain.

Tryptophan is the amino acid that the body uses to make serotonin, the neurotransmitter that slows down nerve traffic so your brain isn't so busy. Calcium helps the brain use the tryptophan to manufacture melatonin. This explains why dairy products, which contain both tryptophan and calcium, are the top sleep-inducing foods.

Making more tryptophan available, either by eating foods that contain this substance or by seeing to it that more tryptophan gets to the brain, will help to make you sleepy. On the other hand, nutrients that make tryptophan less available can disturb sleep.

A dinner high in complex carbohydrates, with a small amount of protein that contains just enough tryptophan to relax the brain is perfect for a good nights sleep. An all-protein or all-carbohydrate snack, especially one high in junk sugars, is less likely to help you sleep. You'll miss out on the sleep-inducing effects of tryptophan, and you may set off the roller-coaster effect of plummeting blood sugar followed by the release of stress hormones that will keep you awake.

If you don't want your digestive tract to keep you awake while it works hard to digest a late dinner, heed the sleep wisdom: "Don't dine after nine."

Damage Your Health While You Sleep

Insomnia has become one of the most common problems of our time. The insomnia problem in the U.S. stems from several factors in addition to the push to become a 24-hour society. Two of the most common factors are snoring and sleep apnea.

If you or someone in your household consistently snores, keep in mind that this problem can be just as much of a health threat as smoking or a poor diet. A high percentage of Americans have this problem. Estimates of snorers run as high as nearly 90 million men and women, roughly half of them on a consistent basis. Perhaps 10% to 15% of these individuals may even suffer from sleep apnea, where they completely stop breathing for short periods of time during their sleep. The problem becomes even more prevalent as we get older. Estimates are that 85% of those over the age of 40 snore.

Unfortunately, most people don't realize that snoring affects both their quality of life and their overall health. One of the most common health complaints today is that of constant fatigue, which is often a direct result of snoring, sleep apnea, and poor sleep patterns. In fact, the problem with drowsy drivers mentioned earlier is directly related to snoring.

A study in Denmark found that 22% of snorers experienced memory problems and 57% had difficulty with concentration (Eur Neurol 94,34(4):204-8). Other studies have found that individuals with the worst snoring problems also scored the worst on IQ and memory tests, and had poorer recall, coordination, and reaction times.

Rarely do snorers ever relate these problems to snoring. They usually believe that they sleep fine, and frequently know that they snore only because someone has complained to them about it. They have experienced fatigue and the other problems I've described for so long that they simply think they're normal.

However, snoring interrupts and disturbs normal sleep patterns. Numerous studies have shown that it even impairs your ability to learn repetitive tasks such as golf or tennis techniques, or more complex feats like piano playing. The reason is that your learning is actually reinforced by mental activity during periods of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep (REM describes a deep-sleep portion of your nightly sleep pattern when your eyes look about rapidly beneath your closed eyelids). Snoring and sleep apnea disrupt this stage of sleep so that snorers simply don't get enough deep sleep.

Chronic snoring has also been related to increased blood pressure problems and possibly heart attack and strokes. The risk becomes greater with sleep apnea problems. There may even be a connection between severe snoring or sleep apnea combined with heart medication that results in the many instances where someone "dies peacefully in their sleep."

Snoring occurs when the soft tissue in the throat collapses and the tongue relaxes. The incoming or exiting air then causes the tissues to vibrate. It happens at night because the muscles holding the tongue and soft tissue relax. Alcohol and drugs also relax the muscles in the throat area and increase the tendency to snore. Ironically, sleeping pills and tranquilizers are often prescribed to help someone get a restful night of sleep, but they often complicate matters by increasing muscle relaxation and snoring.

Fat deposits in the throat, enlarged tonsils or adenoids, a receding chin, a malformed jaw structure, and bad dentures can all cause snoring. But the most common cause of snoring is probably obesity. The problem of snoring becomes more prevalent as we get older. But more children now seem to be experiencing the problem, most likely because of obesity.

Another cause of snoring in children would be the widespread use of medications like Ritalin, used to treat Attention Deficit Disorder. Altering sleep patterns and contributing to daytime fatigue in our school children certainly affects school performance and behavior.

Put a Sock In It

Correcting a snoring problem can be as simple as learning to sleep on your side with your mouth shut or it can be as complex as surgery or anywhere in-between. If you have a snoring problem, you might first want to try the following suggestions. If you're still not successful, discuss the problem with your doctor or contact a sleep disorder center. Most major cities have sleep disorder centers now, and you can get a list of those in your area from the American Sleep Disorders Association, 1610 Fourteenth Street NW, Rochester, MN 55901.

Many other things can affect snoring. If you have this problem, here are a few suggestions:

1) Avoid the use of alcohol and tobacco products. Alcohol relaxes the muscles of the throat, which block the airways during sleep. Tobacco use inflames and irritates the entire lining of your airways, from the mouth and nose to the lungs. This inflammation narrows the air passages, which leads to snoring problems.

2) Check your medications. Muscle relaxants, tranquilizers, sleeping pills, and many heart medications cause snoring. As mentioned earlier, these medications could lead to someone with sleep apnea "peacefully dying in their sleep."

3) If you're overweight, losing a few pounds could be all you need to do to stop the snoring. It might not be easy, but it will be well worth the new-found energy you get each day from a good night's sleep.

4) Check your thyroid using the basal temperature method. An underactive thyroid has been associated with sleep apnea. You can find this test in the Health Library at Dr. David Williams web site.

5) Sleeping on your side with your mouth shut will help prevent snoring. To help keep your mouth shut you can try one of two techniques. Either gently place your fist under your chin as you sleep or prop a second pillow under your chin. Breathing through your nose while sleeping will not only help stop snoring, but will also help prevent sore throats and infections.

6) Sleeping on your back makes snoring worse as your tongue and throat tissues shift toward the throat and further narrow your airways. If you need help sleeping on your side, you can always use the trick of putting a tennis ball or two in a sock and sewing it to the back of your nightshirt. The best homemade device of this type that I've seen was made by a snorer's wife who had been repeatedly accused of nagging her husband about his snoring. She presented her husband with a new pajama top that had a stuffed monkey sewn to its back.

7) In less severe cases of snoring, some people have been successful using Breathe Right nasal strips. You've probably seen these being used by many professional football players during the last few years. One of these strips consists of an adhesive strip attached to a flexible piece of plastic that helps flare the nostrils when attached. It was originally developed by a gentleman to improve his own breathing, which was impaired due to a deviated septum. A somewhat similar device that can also be found in pharmacies is called BreatheWith-EEZ. It consists of small stainless steel coils that are inserted into the nostrils before going to bed.

8) If the throat is chronically irritated, then a humidifier or air purifier might be needed. Temporary throat and/or nasal congestion and irritation can be quickly relieved by gargling with warm salt water, using saline nasal sprays, or taking herbal throat lozenges. Whatever you do, don't use any of the corticosteroid or decongestant drops or sprays now being sold by prescription or over-the-counter. These can permanently damage nasal tissue and make problems worse.

More serious snoring problems, and especially sleep apnea, will need medical attention. Excess throat tissue, nasal obstructions, and chronically enlarged tonsils or adenoids may need to be removed surgically. A deviated septum may need to be repaired. Medications may have to be changed or eliminated.

One of the most effective treatments for sleep apnea and severe snoring is called Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP). It basically consists of a small air pump attached to a mask that fits over the nose and mouth. It provides a steady flow of air into the throat throughout the night. It is practically 100% effective at stopping snoring, and probably the best current treatment for sleep apnea. It will require a prescription from your doctor, but most insurance companies and Medicare will cover the cost.

Stopping your snoring can improve your energy levels, memory, and concentration; lower high blood pressure; create less burden on your heart; possibly eliminate the need for some medication; and maybe even save your marriage.  

Keep in mind, we are still living in a somewhat primitive, yet complex, body that lives, breathes, and dies on a 24-hour internal clock. We may be smart enough to manipulate it, reset it, and fool it, but in the long run we do so at our own peril.


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