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A toothpaste to stop you from tossing and turning?

By Jasmin Aline Persch, contributing writer

What it is: PearlyDreams Sleep Enhancing Toothpaste; $19.95, plus shipping;  www.pearlydreams.net

What it claims to do: Help you sleep and maintain your teeth. PearlyDreams toothpaste, created and patented by a New York dentist, purportedly works by absorbing through the "thousands of tiny blood vessels in your mouth." The toothpaste has the natural supplements melatonin, valerian, balm mint and passionflower "known to relax, calm, and help the body drift off to sleep," according to the manufacturer.

My experience: Few things are more frustrating than a night wrestling with wakefulness.

My sleepless saga began after I moved from Seattle to Santa Monica, Calif., to live with my boyfriend. The excitement of this huge step combined with the heat trapped in our 12th floor apartment and the light from the Santa Monica Pier penetrating the blinds at night turned me into an insomniac.

As misery likes company, I was relieved to learn that "almost everybody" has bouts of insomnia – and some of us struggle with more severe chronic insomnia, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, part of the National Institutes of Health. At any time, about 40 percent of women and 30 percent of men have trouble sleeping. Anything from stress to jet leg, diet, light, noise, temperature and illness can rob you of sweet sleep.

In Seattle, I used to wrap myself up in a three-layered burrito of bedding to keep out the cold. In Los Angeles, by habit, I tucked our single sheet and comforter in on one side and my boyfriend flanked the other side. This created a kind of human oven, where I would bake to a certain temperature - and then pop up like a hot bun during the night. While my new environment was what initially stirred my sleep, eventually just the fear of facing another restless night fueled my insomnia.

After three weeks of shoddy slumber, I was sick and tired of languishing as a zombie -- and psyched to try PearlyDreams Sleep Enhancing Toothpaste by Dr. Z Technologies. Upon brushing, I discovered that the "refreshing wintergreen flavor" was quite delightful – invoking my old obsession with mint Life Savers. But would this tasty toothpaste finally allow me to achieve solid sleep?

Fortunately, I did not buff my incisors, canines and molars "before or while operating any heavy machinery or driving," because drowsiness sunk in approximately 15 minutes after I stowed my toothbrush.

Hopeful, I climbed into our loft bed – and conked out. But I woke when my boyfriend joined me and was faced with my usual sleeplessness as the hours wore on. The following night began similarly with a swift lights-out, but my lack of shut eye – and my frustration – were more pronounced.

I wonder, though, if the dental sleep aid would have worked better had I followed the manufacturer's recommendation, "if tolerable, swallowing is encouraged." But the idea of ingesting the foam that carried the plaque I had just scraped off my enamel was not tolerable.

I initially tried to follow the rest of the four-part instructions – but when I did not achieve "more restful sleep," I became lazy. Rinse mouth "thoroughly" with water before handling the toothbrush was slashed from 10 seconds to 0 seconds; spread "liberal amount" of PearlyDreams across the toothbrush became just a normal swath; brush tongue, sides of my mouth and gums "for a minimum of 2-3 minutes" was cut back to 20 seconds; but "do not rinse" was adhered to because I still hoped to "achieve maximum effect." Most of us are accustomed to rinsing toothpaste; I, myself, have been doing so for more than two decades. Retaining the foam in my mouth felt less clean than washing it out.

Several days into using the toothpaste, I received my first night of gratifying, uninterrupted sleep. The nightmare, though, wasn't over yet; my insomnia recurred some nights. But my restlessness seemed to subside - and my sleeping patterns finally began to return to normal. To find out whether I had the toothpaste to thank, I decided to consult a sleep expert.

What the expert says: Dr. Vishesh Kapur, an associate professor and the director of the Sleep Disorders Center at the University of Washington, says if you keep PearlyDreams toothpaste in your mouth or dare to swallow it, the "active ingredients" could enter your blood stream.

"I could imagine if you absorb a reasonable amount, you could feel more drowsy," Kapur says. You would have to absorb an amount analogous to ingesting tablets containing 400 mg to 900 mg valerian or 0.5 mg of melatonin to induce sleepiness, he further explains. (That's a lot of toothpaste.)

Of the toothpaste's natural ingredients, melatonin and valerian are the ones most likely to influence sleep.

Melatonin supplements have become somewhat popular with insomniacs and many of Kapur's patients have tried them – although few say they work, he reports. Melatonin is a hormone that's produced naturally in our bodies and it controls our circadian rhythm, or sleep-and-wake cycle. Produced in our brain's pea-sized pineal gland in response to darkness, it makes us sleepy but production stops when it gets lighter. Scientifically, melatonin hasn't proven itself as a good sleeping pill, Kapur says. The doc generally prescribes melatonin to people who wish to re-set their circadian rhythm – usually desiring to get to sleep earlier.

Valerian is a sedative derived from the root of a flowering plant and research is limited on its helpfulness in inducing slumber. But sleep experts generally believe, Kapur says, that valerian doesn't work too well. He also cautions that "natural" isn't synonymous with "safe".

"Bottom line, I wouldn't be recommending this [toothpaste] for my patients," Kapur says.

What the doc does recommend to insomniacs: sticking to a consistent sleep schedule, avoiding naps and possibly taking a prescribed sleeping pill. Sleeplessness can make functioning during the day difficult and cause stress and frustration that can perpetuate a vicious cycle of insomnia. Kapur says research has shown that going to bed later and waking at the same time for a few weeks can also help. By accumulating a "sleep debt," you become especially tired at bedtime, but may also be drowsier during the day. Kapur stresses leaving your bed if you can't sleep – to avoid having bad associations with your bed – and keeping busy until you feel ready for some shut-eye.

"Sleep is best done when not concentrating on it," Kapur says.

Bottom line: PearlyDreams's minty flavor is especially palatable – but the idea of consuming toothpaste (carrying your plaque) is hard to swallow. As promised, the toothpaste's natural supplements can make you drowsy and help get you to sleep. But the dream of most insomniacs is sleeping soundly the whole night through, which PearlyDreams didn't fulfill.