Natural remedies for insomnia
It usually goes something like this. You lie awake, watching the minutes and hours tick by, frustrated about all the vital sleep you’re missing. Your mind turns to your busy day tomorrow and you wonder, "How will I get through the day without sleep?" You’re now worrying about worrying and at this point you surrender to your day ahead as a foggy-headed automaton, operating on a steady stream of caffeine and sugar. If you’re fed up with counting sheep to no avail, you may be reassured to know there are many naturopathic strategies to help remedy sleeping problems.
The stress of work, study or maybe a period of transition has probably disturbed your sleep at some point. Stressful periods are a fact of life and insomnia seems to go hand in hand with these times. Sleep difficulty is, in fact, most commonly due to stress and may be the first indication that your work or lifestyle habits need assessment.
Tissue repair, rest and the restoration of vital organs and body systems occur during sleep. Periods of insomnia can impede these processes, not only leaving you feeling unrefreshed mentally, but physically you will not feel optimally functional. During times of stress and emotional difficulty, more strain is put on the physical and emotional reserves, increasing the need for proper sleep. It’s during these times, when sleep is most likely to be disrupted, that you may need some assistance to ensure a healthful night’s rest.
Insomnia is the inability to fall asleep or to remain asleep for the required length of time, leaving the affected person almost permanently tired during the day. Sleep difficulties are most often caused by stress or worry but in some cases are associated with disease or certain medications. Insomnia falls into three sub categories:
Initial insomnia Difficulty in falling asleep, most commonly due to emotional disturbances such as anxiety, stress, depression, illness and pain. Sleep disorders such as restless leg syndrome (involuntary muscle twitches that disrupt sleep) and sleep apnoea fall under the category of initial insomnia. Sleep apnoea is a condition in which breathing stops periodically during sleep. This condition is usually seen in people who are overweight and sleep on their back. Repeated obstruction causes a cycle of sleep, choking and waking. Sleep apnoea can also occur in non-obese people and is probably due to an abnormality in the airways. Other causes of initial insomnia include the withdrawal of sedative medication, use of stimulant drugs such as caffeine and an irregular sleep schedule.
Middle insomnia: Waking during the night, again usually due to emotional disturbances such as anxiety or depression and may also be associated with pain.
Early morning awakening: Falling asleep occurs normally, but the sufferer wakes early and cannot sleep again or falls into a restless sleep. This is common in elderly people, who require less sleep, but may also occur as a symptom of depression or anxiety.
While stress and other emotional difficulties are the common causes of insomnia, if these are not affecting you to a point of losing sleep, try to pinpoint where the problem may lie in order to guide you to the most appropriate avenue of treatment. Transitional periods and new life circumstances can affect sleeping patterns dramatically, even if the change is a positive one. Such situations may include pregnancy or the addition of a new family member, moving in with a new partner and sharing the bed, retirement, illness or death of a loved one, or the development of a physical or emotional illness.
In addition to their medicinal properties, herbal teas are very useful due to the overall calming effect a cup of warm tea brings. As an adjunct to teas, herbal tinctures are potent liquid extracts that are prescribed according to the individual. Following is a list of herbal sedatives and nervous system tonics commonly employed by naturopaths to treat insomnia.
- Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata)
- Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)
- Chamomile (Matricaria recutita)
- Hops (Humulus lupulus)
- Lime blossom (Tilia spp)
- Skullcap (Scutellaria laterifolia)
- Valerian (Valeriana officinalis)
- St John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum)
- Vervain (Verbena officinalis)
Note: Always consult a qualified naturopath or herbalist before taking herbal medicines. Some herbs are contraindicated in pregnancy, breastfeeding, in certain medical conditions or while taking particular medications.
As with herbal medicine, homoeopathics are medicines selected carefully according to the individual. Common homoeopathic remedies for insomnia include:
- Kali phos: for excessive mental exertion leading to stress.
- Coffea: where the person feels hyperactive and experiences physical excitement.
- Ignatia: for anxiety and depression accompanied by restlessness and light sleeping.
- Nux vomica: for insomnia due to overwork and stress, also from the overuse of caffeine.
- Muriatic acid: where the person is tired but cannot sleep and feels restless and irritable.
- A vitamin B complex supplement in the mornings can help to support the nervous system to assist generally with stress.
- When cramping or muscular pain is the cause of insomnia, a calcium and magnesium supplement is useful in reducing muscular spasm.
- Folate is indicated in restless leg syndrome and muscle cramping. Many good vitamin B complexes contain folate.
Flower essences gently address emotional imbalances by helping you best cope with your difficult circumstances. To treat the issues common in sleep disturbances, flower essences to consider are:
- Cherry plum: for tension, panic and the inability to let go.
- Impatiens: for the inability to relax as a result of mental and physical tension.
- Olive: for insomnia due to overtiredness and exhaustion from long periods of stress.
- White chestnut: for the inability to calm the mind, when persistent thoughts inhibit sleep.
Insomnia may be due to a drop in blood sugar overnight. If your body has not been adequately fed during the day, it will wake you wanting food at night. To avoid swings in blood sugar levels, it’s important to ensure an adequate protein intake during the day. Protein-rich foods take longer to break down, thus stabilising blood sugar and reducing the impulse to reach for sugary snacks that leave you feeling hungry soon afterwards. Include variable sources of protein at each meal; for example, organic meats, lentils and beans, eggs, fish, yoghurt, tofu, miso and tempeh.
Tryptophan is an amino acid found in foods such as turkey, pumpkin seeds, brown rice, bananas, corn and dairy products. Tryptophan facilitates the production of serotonin, a chemical that is believed to have a role in relaxation. Vitamin B6 taken as part of a vitamin B complex also plays a role in the production of serotonin. A decrease in serotonin levels is said to be associated with sleeplessness. The absorption of tryptophan is encouraged by carbohydrates, so it’s important to include a carbohydrate component in the evening meal such as brown rice, potato or a slice of wholegrain bread.
Meal size is an important consideration when taking measures to improve sleep. Avoid having a rich, heavy meal at night as a large amount of energy is diverted into the digestion rather than into rest. The process of digesting a large meal activates the nervous system and is likely to disrupt sleep. Try not to eat less than two hours before bed. An easily digested protein such as tofu plus a carbohydrate and vegetables makes an ideal dinner. Limit or exclude from your diet refined carbohydrates such as sugar and white bread.
Make it your goal to have no more than two caffeinated drinks per day and be aware of where caffeine may be found: coffee, tea, cocoa, cola drinks, energy drinks and chocolate are the main culprits. Caffeine is a powerful stimulant that raises blood pressure and heart rate, directly working against the potential for a restful sleep.
Similarly, the nicotine in cigarettes is also a stimulant, despite the claim from many smokers that smoking helps them relax. If life without caffeine is just not possible, limit tea and coffee to the mornings and experiment with tasty combinations of herbal teas such as chamomile, lemon balm and lime blossom during the afternoons and evenings.
Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant drug, meaning it reduces the functioning of the nervous system. While drinking alcohol helps you to feel drowsy, it’s disruptive to natural sleep patterns. Like many habit-forming drugs, more and more alcohol is needed over time to achieve the same effect, feeding the potential for a dangerous addiction. When alcohol is consumed before sleep, the liver and other digestive organs get sidetracked to process and eliminate the alcohol rather than work on rest and repair. This results in a tired body and maybe a slight dehydration headache at best. At worst, consider a debilitating hangover and the unbearable thought of facing a day of work, parenting or study.
Regular aerobic exercise that raises the heart rate and causes you to sweat, such as cycling, swimming, dancing, team sports, aerobics, brisk walking or jogging at least four times per week for 30 minutes (depending on the individual’s physical and medical situation) can be beneficial for insomnia in the following ways:
- Exercise produces endorphins, the body’s own "happy drugs" that bring about feelings of wellbeing and mental relaxation.
- Vigorous activity causes the body to become physically fatigued, encouraging the desire for sleep.
- Exercise helps to get you "out of your head and into your body" as a way of physically working out the frustrations that may be keeping you up at night.
- Exercising with a friend is fun and motivating. Get together with a mate or two and join the local tennis club, netball team, rowing club, aerobics class or whatever takes your fancy.
- It has been found that the influence of light and dark greatly affect our sleep/wake cycles. In today’s world we live by artificial light, not allowing our body’s rhythms to operate naturally. When possible, enjoy morning sunlight with exercise to help establish a more natural and regular pattern in the sleep/wake cycle.
- There is much to be said for the feeling of personal satisfaction that comes with increasing your fitness. Challenge yourself to brave the cold morning, swim one more lap or stay on the exercise bike for an extra five minutes. You will be amazed how exhilarating these small achievements are.
Choose two or three activities that you find fun and challenging and schedule them into your weekly routine. Vary your exercise plan to keep it interesting and different. It’s important that exercise is not done in the late evening or before bed as it can take some time for the body to calm down after vigorous activity. In addition to strenuous activity, mild exercise can be useful to help you unwind at the end of the day. A light stroll after dinner or some yoga stretches can help in being a part of your nightly relaxation routine.
Create a "sleepy" space
- Retain the bedroom exclusively for sleep and intimacy by working and studying in another room. Keep televisions and phones elsewhere in the house. This physical separation of the outside world from the sleeping area helps to avoid associating the bedroom with the activity of daily life.
- Make the bedroom a peaceful and comforting space through your creative use of colour, music, artwork, soft light and furnishings.
- Open the window to reduce stuffiness by allowing fresh air to flow in during the night.
- Ensure that your mattress and pillows are supportive and your bedding is warm enough.
- If your bedroom is in an unfortunate position where street noise or loud neighbours are disrupting your sleep, the solution may be as simple as buying a set of earplugs (many sleep-deprived partners of snorers swear by this tactic!).
A relaxing evening ritual
This is important where stress and times of transition are causing insomnia. Maintaining a nightly routine helps in telling your brain and body its time to slow down and prepare for rest. Try to stick to a regular bedtime. One hour before bedtime, begin consciously winding down. Start by stopping work, study, housework or whatever keeps you busy at night. Decrease the intensity of activity by turning to things such as reading or listening to music.
Have a bath and take your herbal tea with you. Incorporate candles and essential oils to your liking. Try a few drops of lavender or geranium in the bath. If you need something to do in the bath, take some reading material, but make sure its relaxing, such as an inspirational book, a good novel or a magazine. If you don’t have a bathtub, a shower can also be luxurious. Make it a beautifying experience and indulge in your favourite soaps and creams. Create your own world of relaxation and be aware of your stress melting away.
Just before bed, set aside your clothes for the next day. This may also be the time to take your homoeopathics, flower essences or whatever remedy you may have discussed with your complementary healthcare provider. Arrange your pillows and settle into bed. Many people enjoy reading just before sleep. Make sure your bedtime reading is the same kind of relaxing reading mentioned above — no work or study allowed! In keeping with a routine, set your alarm and get up at the same time each day. It may help to turn the clock to the wall to avoid watching the minutes tick by. Make the commitment to yourself to be disciplined with your nightly routine to optimise your chances for a deep, restful sleep.
There are many techniques available to help consciously relax the mind to facilitate sleep. Books and audio tools are available at spiritual and general bookshops, some healthfood shops and complementary health centres. It’s worth exploring various approaches such as:
- Guided meditation
- Creative visualisation
- Breathing exercises
Melting physical tension
Massage therapy is an ideal adjunct in a holistic approach to insomnia. If you find that stress and muscular tension are contributing to your difficulty sleeping, consider allowing yourself the lovely indulgence of a professional relaxation massage as often as your budget allows.
Talk it out
Verbalising or writing down the things that are bothering you can prevent them from taking up space and energy in your mind. Speaking out loud to yourself may help, but if you’re experiencing difficulties that are overwhelming you, it might be time to talk with someone close to you. Alternatively, professional counselling may be the key to moving on.
Are you sure there is cause for concern?
There is no universally recommended amount of sleep required for a healthy life. If you’re worried that you are getting only four or five hours sleep each night, consider how you feel during the day. If you wake feeling ready for your busy day and don’t suffer fatigue as a part of life, you just might be one of the lucky people who simply don’t need as much sleep. Consider it a blessing and really optimise that extra time that most people dream of!
When to call in the professionals
- When insomnia has become longstanding for any reason.
- When you are feeling you cannot manage alone, whether the situation is long or short term. Consult your primary healthcare provider for treatment and/or referral.
- If insomnia is associated with illness.
- Any form of undiagnosed pain or discomfort that’s inhibiting sleep in any way must not be ignored.