12 natural insomnia cures
Everyone has difficulty getting off to sleep or staying asleep from time to time, but if you suffer from insomnia, ongoing lack of sleep and poor-quality sleep it can have serious effects on your health and wellbeing. In this special, in-depth report we look at the natural ways you can improve your sleep and boost your quality of life.
Unfortunately, most of us do not get enough good-quality sleep. Research by the Sleep Health Foundation revealed that 60 per cent of Australians regularly experience sleep symptoms like having trouble falling and staying asleep, or waking too early and not being able to get back to sleep, and nearly 15 per cent have clinical insomnia.
Sleep has a direct effect on both your physical and your mental health and is essential for proper functioning of all systems in your body. It is during sleep that your body restores and regenerates, and your immune system is replenished and strengthened. While you sleep you form new memories and your cells produce and release proteins that are essential for growth and tissue repair.
How do you know if you have insomnia?
Insomnia is a sleep disorder where you have difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, or both. Acute insomnia lasts for only a few days or weeks, but if you’re having issues with your sleep that last for more than three nights a week for three or more months, you are suffering from chronic insomnia.
People with insomnia commonly find it difficult to go to sleep and can wake several times during the night. They often complain of lying awake at night for long periods, or they wake up early and have difficulty getting back to sleep. Insomnia sufferers often wake feeling tired and have difficulty concentrating and feel sleepy during the day. Lack of sleep often increases feelings of anxiety and irritability.
Common causes of insomnia
Insomnia can be caused by a variety of factors including emotional stress, depression, trauma, noise (partner snoring, noisy neighbours), newborn baby waking, jet lag, shift work, too much mental stimulation before bed (being on computers or phones) and certain chronic medical conditions such as arthritis, sleep apnoea, restless leg syndrome or chronic pain syndromes. Some prescription drugs like decongestants, bronchodilators and beta blockers are also associated with sleeping issues. Consuming excessive amounts of alcohol or caffeine before bed, smoking and recreational drugs can all disrupt your body’s natural sleep–wake cycle.
Fluctuations in hormones can also cause sleep issues. Insomnia is a common complaint among menopausal and postmenopausal women due to decreased oestrogen and progesterone levels and a drop in melatonin. As we age melatonin production naturally drops. Melatonin is a vital hormone for sleep. Menopausal symptoms including hot flushes, night sweats, anxiety and depression all contribute to disrupted and poor-quality sleep. Oestrogen plays a role in making serotonin, which is a neurotransmitter that affects our sleep–wake cycle and mood.
How does insomnia affect your health?
Sleep is vitally important for maintaining a healthy body and mind. Chronic insomnia can have a direct and damaging effect on your physical and mental health.
Reduced restoration and revitalisation
It is during sleep that your body rests, restores and revitalises, and your immune system is replenished and strengthened. This is when cells produce and release proteins essential for growth and tissues repair. Research shows that poor sleeping habits can negatively affect your human growth hormone (HGH) levels. Optimal levels of HGH are crucial for healing and recovery as HGH helps regulate cell repair. HGH levels are at their highest while you are sleeping, and they’re affected by your sleep cycle. Insomnia can lower HGH secretion.
Lack of sleep is associated with increases in inflammatory markers such as C-reactive proteins and interleukin-6. Studies have shown that sleep loss increases systemic inflammation. Chronic inflammation is associated with an increased risk of the development of depression and chronic disease such as type-2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Impaired memory boost
Sleep is also vital for improving your brain’s ability to learn and remember things. While you sleep your brain processes all the information from your day and forms new memories. If you’re not getting adequate sleep your memory will be impaired and you will find it difficult to retain and recall new information.
Faulty weight management
Not getting enough sleep can affect your body’s regulation of ghrelin and leptin, two hormones important for controlling appetite. Ghrelin promotes hunger and leptin makes you feel full and satisfied. The body naturally increases and decreases levels of these hormones throughout the day. Lack of sleep triggers an increase in ghrelin and a drop in leptin, leading to increased appetite and diminished feeling of fullness.
Increased cortisol and anxiety
Your sleep–wake cycle follows a circadian rhythm, and your body’s production of the stress hormone cortisol also follows a similar circadian rhythm. Cortisol drops to its lowest point at midnight and peaks an hour after you wake up. Sleep disturbances and not getting enough sleep can affect your body’s production of cortisol and may result in you producing more cortisol during the day in an attempt to make you feel more alert. This can lead to increased feelings of anxiety.
Nocturnal hypoglycaemia can also be a cause of insomnia. When blood sugar levels drop during the night the adrenal glands secrete adrenalin and cortisol, which signals the body to wake up and eat.
Lack of sleep can also accelerate ageing. The quality of your sleep impacts the functioning of your skin and how quickly it ages. A study showed that poor sleepers were seen to show increased signs of skin ageing and slower recovery from a variety of environmental stressors including sun exposure.
Disrupted immune defences
Adequate sleep is essential for a strong functioning immune system. Sleep is said to have “healing” properties because it’s while you sleep that your immune system releases cytokines and naïve T-cells that help your body fight off infections and heal injuries. This is why it is important to get plenty of sleep when you are sick. Lack of sleep can disrupt the functioning of the immune system and reduces your body’s ability to heal wounds and defend itself against viruses and infections.
12 natural ways to treat insomnia
1 Optimise your bedroom for sleep
Set up your bedroom so it is quiet and relaxing and limit your exposure to bright lights in the evening. Make sure your bedroom is dark by turning off lights, and by using curtains, blinds or an eye mask. Use earplugs if you need them. Get off computers and phones one or two hours before bed if possible and keep TV, phones and computers out of your room. Charge your phone in another room and buy yourself an alarm clock if you need one so you’re not tempted to check your phone in bed. Your bedroom should only be used for sleep, meditation and sex.
Keep your room at a comfortable temperature and well ventilated. A cooler room will help improve the quality of your sleep. Opening a window or using a fan to move the air around is also recommended to improve night-time breathing and sleep quality. Make sure that you have a comfortable, good-quality mattress and pillows and bedding that is comfortable and will maintain a good temperature.
2 Get optimal hours of sleep
Adults should be aiming to get around seven to nine hours of sleep a night. The ideal sleeping hours for optimal healing and anti-ageing effects are between 10am and 6am. You should try to be asleep between 10pm and 11pm to get a good boost of HGH. Levels peak at midnight so the hours of sleep you get before midnight are important. Try to keep a consistent sleep schedule by going to bed and getting up at the same time each day. Even if you don’t get a good night’s sleep stick to your regular sleeping hours and get up at the same time.
3 Establish a relaxing bedtime routine
Great ways to wind down before bed are to read, meditate, write in a gratitude journal or have a relaxing bath with calming essential oils. Lavender essential oil has a calming effect on the nervous system, making it ideal for people with nervous tension and sleep problems. Lavender can assist relaxation and help get you off to sleep. You could try placing a few drops of lavender in a warm bath before bed or in an oil burner, or place some dried lavender near your bed at night.
4 Limit blue light at night
Blue light is one of the colours of the light spectrum. The main natural source of blue light is from the sun. Blue wavelengths are beneficial during the daylight hours as they boost mood and alertness. It is important to get some sunlight each day. However, blue light can be disruptive at night as it puts your circadian rhythm out of balance. Exposure to light in general suppresses the secretion of your sleep hormone melatonin, a hormone that influences your circadian rhythm to help you sleep. Blue light has the biggest impact on suppressing melatonin levels. Blue light from electronics (TV, computers, mobile phones, fluorescent and LED lights) is linked to sleep problems. Wearing blue-blocking glasses when you’re working on the computer or watching TV at night can be very beneficial. You can also dim your screens and use a blue light filter on your computer and phone.
5 Cut down on caffeine
If you’re having trouble sleeping you should cut down on coffee and other caffeine-containing foods and drinks. Having too much caffeine can affect your ability to fall asleep easily, reducing the depth and quality of sleep. Caffeine stimulates the production of stress hormones and inhibits the effectiveness of the hormone adenosine, which gives you a sense of calmness. If you have problems sleeping, avoid coffee or caffeine-containing drinks like black tea, soft drinks or energy drinks after 2 pm.
6 Drink calming teas
Drinking calming caffeine-free herbal teas like camomile and passionflower before bed is a lovely way to relax the nervous system and aid the transition into a restful sleep.
7 Take tryptophan
There is something in the old saying “Having warm milk before bed can help you sleep.” Milk is a good source of the amino acid tryptophan, which is needed to make serotonin and melatonin, two of the brain’s calming and sleep-inducing neurotransmitters. Other foods that contain tryptophan include almonds, bananas, turkey, chicken, beef, brown rice, pumpkin seeds, soy and eggs. Warm milk (cow’s, soy or almond) with a teaspoon of cinnamon, or yoghurt with banana and crushed almonds, can make a great night-time snack to help you sleep.
8 Limit alcohol
You may think that having a few glasses of wine at night makes you feel relaxed and helps you get off to sleep more easily, when actually it can cause sleep problems. Drinking too much alcohol at night can interrupt your REM sleep cycle, which is your deepest most restful stage of sleep. Regular alcohol consumption can also lower your natural melatonin levels, which can contribute to insomnia and sleeping difficulties.
9 Boost melatonin
Melatonin is an important hormone that is produced at night to promote a deep and restful sleep. The time of day influences this hormone’s cycle. Melatonin levels naturally rise in the evening and fall in the morning. There are several natural ways you can increase your melatonin production, including increasing your sunlight exposure (especially in the morning), meditation and reducing alcohol intake and stress levels. There are also certain foods that can help boost your melatonin such as oats, walnuts, bananas and almonds. Tart cherry juice has been found to significantly increase melatonin levels in the body. Melatonin supplements are popular to help with jet lag and shift working. Studies have shown that melatonin can improve overall sleep quality in individuals with sleep disorders. It can reduce the time needed to fall asleep and increase the total amount of sleep time.
10 Take a magnesium supplement
Magnesium is considered the “anti-stress” nutrient as it helps to calm and support the nervous system, making it beneficial for people who find it difficult to get off to sleep. Taking a magnesium supplement is recommended if you suffer from insomnia — the recommended dosage is 400mg of elemental magnesium before bed.
11 Supplement with GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid)
GABA is a major inhibitory neurotransmitter that helps regulate brain and nervous system activity. GABA slows down neuron firing, which helps you feel more calm and relaxed and can help promote better sleep. When supplementing with GABA it can have a sedative-like effect, making it a popular sleep aid.
12 Try herbal remedies for insomnia
In addition to herbal teas, there are many herbal medicines that can be taken as tinctures or tablets/capsules which are highly effective for treating sleep disorders. Here are some of the top botanicals commonly prescribed by herbalists and naturopaths to treat insomnia.
- Camomile (Matricaria recutita) has been used for centuries for its calming and anti-inflammatory properties, where it has been prescribed for insomnia and nervous complaints. Camomile has a mild sedative action helping to promote a sense of calmness, which eases anxiety, along with inducing restful sleep. Camomile can be enjoyed as a night-time tea, or taken as a fluid extract at 1–4mls three times a day.
- Kava (Piper methysticum) is native to the South Pacific Islands, where it has been used for centuries as a medicine and as a part of important ceremonies. Kava has a calming effect on the nervous system; it produces brain wave changes, similar to valium and other calming medicines. Kava helps relieve anxiety and insomnia and other stress-related symptoms like muscle tension. Kava is traditionally prepared as a special tea, but it is also available in tablets or fluid extract taken at 2-4mls three times a day. Look for a high-quality kava extract or supplement.
- Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) was used in folklore in pillows to help people fall asleep. Lavender is a highly aromatic flower often used as a remedy to treat insomnia, anxiety and depression. When lavender essential oil is inhaled it has a soothing and calming effect on the mind and nervous system, helping to promote relaxation and lift mood. Having a massage at night using lavender essential oil can be particularly beneficial for alleviating anxiety and helping aid sleep. For a calming massage oil, combine two drops of lavender essential oil per tablespoon of carrier oil such as almond oil. Lavender essential oil should not be taken internally. Lavender flowers however can be used as a tea, found often in night-time blends, or as a supplement.
- Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is a lemon-scented herb and member of the mint family that has been long used for its soothing medicinal qualities and aromatic properties. Lemon balm is popular among herbalists for treating insomnia and anxiety-related conditions. Lemon balm has a sedative and calming effect on the nervous system. It contains an active compound called rosmarinic acid which enhances GABA availability. As a culinary herb lemon balm is used in salads, soups and other dishes, or can be taken as a fluid extract 2–4mls three times a day, or as a tea.
- Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) is used for its sedative and anxiety-relieving properties. Passionflower helps calm and support the nervous system, making it extremely beneficial for calming restlessness and nervous tension. Passionflower is also the herb of choice for treating insomnia, as it aids the transition into restful sleep without the side effects of sleeping tablets. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, studies have found that passionflower can be equally as effective as benzodiazepine drugs to improve anxiety. The best way to have passionflower is as a tea, or taken as a fluid extract 0.5–1ml three times a day.
- Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora) is an American herb used traditionally by Indian tribes as a sedative. Herbalists today use skullcap to treat anxiety, insomnia and depression. Skullcap can be drunk as a tea or as a fluid extract 2–4mls three times a day.
- Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) is a well-known herb used by herbalists today to treat insomnia and sleeping difficulties, due to its mild sedative and tranquilising effect. This herb helps you fall asleep without making you feel groggy the next morning, unlike pharmaceutical equivalents. Valerian is also an effective treatment for anxiety as it helps sustain levels of the neurotransmitter GABA in the brain. Valerian can be taken as a single dose before bed, or for anxiety taken 0.3–1mls three times a day.
- Ziziphus (Ziziphus jujuba) is a Traditional Chinese Medicine that has a long history of use for the treatment of insomnia due to fatigue. Ziziphus contains active compounds that have a sedative-like effect and it’s commonly found in TCM sedative sleep formulas. Ziziphus has been found to help improve both sleep quality and quantity.
References available on request.