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There is a perception that time spent asleep is time wasted, but it is widely recognized that inadequate sleep is associated with multiple acute and chronic conditions and results in the increased risk of death and disease. Force people to go one week with only six hours of sleep a night, and you can change expression of more than 700 genes. The most dire effect may be endothelial dysfunction. The endothelium is the thin layer of cells that covers the internal surface of blood vessels and is responsible for allowing our arteries to relax and dilate back open properly. Randomize people for about a week to get five rather than seven hours of sleep, and just that two-hour difference a night resulted in a significant impairment in artery function.

Okay, but what do these numbers mean. How bad is a week of 5-hour nights? Sleep deprivation is no joke. The magnitude of impairment is similar to that reported in people who smoke, have diabetes, or have coronary artery disease. No wonder people who sleep less than seven hours a night may experience a 12 percent to 35 percent increased risk of premature death, compared to those who get a full seven hours. Yet a significant portion of the population may routinely get less than that. Sufficiently long, restful sleep sessions each night are said to be an indisputable cornerstone of good health. Okay, so what can we do about it?

Those who have sleep apnea, a common consequence of obesity that interferes with sleep, benefit from the use of CPAP machines while they’re losing the weight to treat the underlying cause, hopefully. But what if apnea isn’t your problem? What if you just have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep? In my book How Not to Diet, I have a whole section on sleep enhancement, where I go through the Four Rules of Sleep Conditioning and the Four Rules of Sleep Hygiene. What if you follow those guidelines but still can’t get to sleep? Any natural dietary remedies?

I already have videos on using kiwifruit to fight insomnia and tart cherries, too. Are there any vegetables that might help? Lactuca sativa is a plant that has traditionally been used in the treatment of insomnia. What is this exotic-sounding leafy vegetable? Lettuce! Evidently, lettuce extracts have been used from the time of the Roman Empire as agents with sedative and sleep-inducing properties. Lettuce actually does have a hypnotic substance in it called lactucin, which is what makes lettuce taste a little bitter. But you don’t know if it actually works, until you put it to the test. And it works!…in toads. But it also works, in rodents. Sleep in both mice and rats is enhanced by romaine lettuce. They used romaine, since it has a higher lactucin content compared to other lettuces.

Okay, but does it actually work in people? About 10 years ago, a study was published in which insomnia sufferers were randomized to receive lettuce seed oil, oil extracted from lettuce seeds. Within a week, about 70 percent of those in the lettuce seed oil group said their insomnia very much or much improved, compared to just 20 percent in the placebo control group. The researchers conclude that lettuce seed oil was found to be a useful, safe sleeping aid in geriatric patients suffering from sleeping difficulties. They chose to study older individuals because insomnia affects surprisingly approximately 20 to 40 percent of older adults, at least a few nights a month.

You think that’s bad. Sleep disturbances can plague as many as nearly 8 out of 10 women during pregnancy. Of course, there are lots of different sleeping pills, but they may endanger the fetus or mother. For example, doctors frequently prescribe Ambien for pregnant women who have trouble sleeping, but Ambien use is associated with a wide range of adverse pregnancy outcomes, like low birthweight babies, premature birth, and Caesarean section. And the use of valium during pregnancy has been linked to birth defects, including limb deficiencies. There has to be a better way. What about trying lettuce?

The lettuce seed oil study had a number of limitations. For example, it was only single-blind––meaning the researchers knew who was on the lettuce supplements and who was on placebo, which could have introduced some bias. But the researchers essentially said, “Give us a break. Big pharma has billions to spend on research. No one wants to fund studies on lettuce.” Finally, we got a double-blind, placebo-controlled study, but this time on a whole food, not just some lettuce seed extract. Yeah, but how do you come up with a placebo lettuce? How are you going hide who gets lettuce and who doesn’t? Well you can’t fit a head of lettuce into a capsule, but you can fit whole lettuce seeds. And here we go, a double-blind randomized placebo-controlled trial on lettuce seeds for pregnancy-related insomnia. A hundred pregnant women with insomnia were randomized to receive capsules containing either a quarter teaspoon of ground lettuce seeds or a placebo for two weeks, and those on the lettuce seeds saw a significant improvement in a sleep quality index score compared to placebo, with no reported side effects.

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