When you’re really wrestling with insomnia, it’s tempting to go to your doctor and ask for one of the sleep medications we see advertised on TV—Ambien or Lunesta—or an older tranquilizing drug such as Valium. While short-term use of one of these drugs might make sense for a person who feels his/her overall health is being threatened by insomnia, I generally advise against this approach. Sure, these drugs may temporarily allow you to sleep, but they don’t cure insomnia. My advice…

• Do some detective work. Thinking about your own sleep issues and making some written notes can be a big help. When do you typically go to bed? How often do you have insomnia? Do you have trouble falling asleep or wake in the middle of the night? Also, look at when your problem started to determine whether it coincided with any health issues, use of new medications or habits, such as working late hours, that could lead to insomnia.

• Get your doctor involved. Discuss your notes with your doctor. Chronic pain, hormonal changes (including those related to hyperthyroidism and menopause) and serious illness, such as cancer and heart or lung disease, can cause insomnia. If any of these conditions is to blame, getting proper treatment may well take care of the insomnia, too.

After you’ve consulted your doctor, try these gentle methods…*

• Avoid high-protein dinners. Protein is often hard to digest. Eating a lot at dinner can lead to gastrointestinal distress that may result in insomnia. Instead, eat foods that are easy to digest (such as soup and salad) for dinner, and have larger, protein-rich meals midday. Also helpful: Take a 2,000-mg omega-3 supplement with your evening meal. When taken before bedtime, these healthful fats can have a calming effect on the brain, promoting sleep.

• Try Calms Forté. This homeopathic preparation is effective and extremely safe. Typical dose: One tablet under the tongue at bedtime and whenever you wake up in the middle of the night (up to six tablets per 24-hour period). Calms Forté, made by Hylands, is available at natural groceries and pharmacies.

• Add skullcap. If the steps above don’t give you relief, you may want to also try this potent herb to relax the “busy brain” experience that often keeps people awake. I recommend using skullcap in tincture form—30 to 60 drops (one-sixteenth to one-eighth teaspoon) in a cup of chamomile or spearmint tea at bedtime. Note: Skullcap can make some people too sleepy. If you are sensitive to medication, try just 10 drops of skullcap at bedtime—or simply drink chamomile or mint tea as a sedative.

• Use melatonin with care. If you’d rather try this popular sleep aid, do so thoughtfully. Melatonin is a hormone. Taking too much can trigger irritability. Melatonin supplements may also raise women’s estrogen levels, increasing overall inflammation in the body. I recommend taking no more than 3 mg of melatonin in a 24-hour period and often start my patients on a daily dose of only 1 mg. Take melatonin 30 minutes before bedtime.

*Check with your doctor before trying supplements, especially if you take medication and/or have a chronic medical condition.