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.

We say “fall” asleep, just as we say “fall” in love — to enter this state is to drop off a cliff backward, to enter a new world and make ourselves vulnerable. We “fall” asleep and hope something will catch us and bring us back to wakefulness, just as we “fall” in love hoping the emotional counterforce of the other will rescue us from free fall. This may change now that the phrase “banging on the regular” has become popular, but for centuries we have relied on the phrase “sleeping together” to denote sexual union, as if the act of sleeping in the same bed were more noteworthy than the act of having sex. And as much as I like having sex, I consider (perhaps more than anything else) how much I enjoy sleeping with a man when I contemplate how well I like him.

In this man’s bed, I think, which is enormous and king-size and has a pristine white comforter and sheets, plenty of room to kick, and a view of Lincoln Center, I feel like a princess, and wake only once, at four a.m., to pee in the gigantic guest bathroom. In this man’s bed, which is large, soft, and abuts windows with a view and scent of the Indian spice shops of Curry Hill — a man who, for whatever reason, likes to hold me all night long — I feel ensconced, and wake several times, perhaps for the pleasure of crawling back into his arms. Somehow even in sleep he senses my return, turns onto his back, and slides out his left arm for me. And in this man’s bed, large, covered in soft dark-green sheets that hide all stains, outfitted with several kinds of special sleep cushions — foam ones, elongated body pillows, ones filled with little hollow wicker balls — I fall asleep instantly and, perhaps because I like the man so much, or feel so safe in his presence, sleep right through that time, four a.m., when a strange fear might otherwise wake me. I prefer men with — forget about jobs, physical characteristics, or kinds of apartments — large, sturdy beds with firm wooden headboards.

If the bond formed by sleeping together is great, so is the level of trust required by it — anyone can do anything to you when you’re sleeping. I recently adopted a cat — one found abandoned during Hurricane Sandy — who loves to sleep with me and has the habit (whether there’s food in her bowl or not) of inserting one claw into my scalp each morning, then retracting it and sitting by my head as I wake.

One of my prides in life is that for years when I went to visit my older sister, my young nieces vied to sleep with me, Aunt Becky, on the lumpy pullout couch in the basement. Sometimes they both got to — and were happy, slept each holding a chunk of my hair, just as, when they slept in my sister’s bed, they slept holding my sister’s.

Ten years ago, my older sister did a single past-life-recovery session. She chose a well-regarded counselor with a master’s degree and remained awake throughout. My sister recalled one life in which she was my brother and in which, after being separated from me during childhood, she located and visited me in San Francisco in the Gold Rush days, where I was, she said, “a powerful witch doctor.” A what? I asked. “You boiled herbs in a pot,” she said. “You worked out of your home. Drying roots hung all over your walls.” I was, she said, a tall, regal African-American woman with scars along her arms where I’d cut myself because of anger and pain. That sounded, I said, like a stereotype of black women. She shrugged. It was simply, she replied, what she’d seen. It was 2003. I was a tenure-track creative-writing professor at the University of Kansas. I had a Camry, a live-in boyfriend, and a pretty big savings account. I had no interest in herbs or health.

Now I work as a professional nutritionist who uses kinesiology, or muscle testing, to ascertain which supplements will best correct an ailment. I have clients lie on a massage bed in my office and I drop an herbal tincture, bitterroot powder, or a glandular supplement on their tongue, place the bottle on their chest, and test the strength of the client’s raised arm by pushing on it, which is how I assess their body’s reaction to the supplement. I use more thyroid of cow and ovary of sheep than eye of newt. I’ve had successes, particularly with dissolving thyroid nodules and helping women in their forties who’ve had failed IVFs to conceive and bear healthy babies. This doesn’t mean I was a “witch doctor” in a past life. My sister, maybe, ten years ago saw potential in me that I hadn’t seen in myself.

Shortly before getting my degree in nutrition, I saw a counselor to get help in dealing with family problems. Serious disagreements had occurred between my parents and my sisters and me. The counselor advised me. Then she said, “Do you have a talisman from your childhood, something that comforted you when young, a stuffed animal or, perhaps, a favorite blanket?” I told the counselor that I possessed no stuffed animals as I was a university professor and an adult. But I had, as it happened, a favorite blanket. One I carried around from ages one to five.

“Good,” she said. “Sleep with it. Maybe it will help.”

So I retrieved the blanket — a tattered blue cotton four-by-four-foot quilt that my grandmother made for me — from my hope chest, and (this is also not on my OkCupid profile) I’ve slept with it ever since.

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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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