Forum — From the August 2013 issue

Herbal Remedies

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As a holistic nutritionist, I often work with people who have trouble sleeping. Some wake throughout the night; others jolt up at two a.m. and are unable to return to sleep; others can’t fall asleep. These are people in decent shape, who exercise and eat healthful diets.

They’ve tried top-down solutions: eye masks and earplugs, herbs like hops and valerian, the “sleepy” amino acids GABA and tryptophan, and tablets of melatonin, the sleep hormone. I try to help clients resolve the underlying causes of sleeplessness. Which remedy works best depends on the individual, because the causes of insomnia vary, and different constitutions respond differently to different supplements.

Some people achieve better sleep by placing their cell phones ten feet from their beds at night, rather than by their heads as an alarm clock. Others turn off their wireless routers. No one knows exactly why, but it seems that electromagnetic fields can affect the human nervous system.

Deeper ways to address the roots of insomnia include following an individualized anti-inflammatory diet; cleansing the liver, kidney, and gallbladder; and supporting the adrenals, glands involved in hormone production that, when subjected to long-term stressors such as city living, competitive careers, noise and air pollution, and steady info influx from email and cell phones, can start producing either too much or too little cortisol, disturbing the sleep cycle.

There’s also the pineal gland, which is located in the center of the brain and is responsible for producing melatonin and, possibly, dreams. Because it contains the structures of a primitive human eye, it has photoreceptor cells, meaning it’s light sensitive; it produces melatonin in the dark. The pineal gland has long been associated with the ability to reach higher levels of consciousness, clairvoyance, and “enlightenment.” The founder of Falun Gong called it the Celestial Eye. Descartes called the pineal gland “the principal seat of the soul,” the link between the human body and the spirit. Our pineal gland calcifies with age, accumulating gritty deposits known as “brain sand.” Calcification of the pineal gland can decrease melatonin production, impairing sleep. Greater levels of calcification are associated with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. A few things clean calcium deposits from the gland, especially iodine. Almost all my clients who test well for replenishing iodine — by eliminating competing halogens such as fluoride from their drinking water, then taking appropriate iodine supplements (this should be done with practitioner oversight) — report that they have less constipation, better mental clarity, more energy, fewer white hairs, more vivid dreams, and better sleep.

As much as I want to help my clients, I don’t empathize with them. They cannot sleep; I can. They want to; I don’t. I hate to sleep, especially if I’m alone. The idea of turning off my life and opening up my subconscious, my dreams, and my self (soul?) is so abhorrent to me that I have slept with my bedroom light on for the past six years, ever since I left my last live-in boyfriend — this is not mentioned on my OkCupid profile — stopping only when my business associate, Mary Hart of Healing Heart Acupuncture, warned me that by doing so I was seriously depleting my “kidney jing.”

As a child — and perhaps this is a common complaint among ex-Catholics — I was made to kneel beside my bed each night, hold my hands together, and recite this poem:

Now I lay me down to sleep.
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.

I was given a picture book that contained this prayer. I can remember earnestly hoping that if I did die while sleeping the Lord would take my soul, since sleeping with some middle-aged guy in his velour bathrobe seemed preferable to burning in hellflames next to Satan, who was also middle-aged but naked, bright red, and extremely muscular.

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is a certified holistic nutritionist based in Brooklyn and the author of Twenty Grand and Other Tales of Love and Money (Harper Perennial).

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