If you’re reading this at 3am, you’re not alone. Roughly 60 million other Americans are afflicted with insomnia each year.
Insomnia is a complex beast and has many different causes. How do you define your sleeplessness? Do you have a hard time falling asleep, or do you find yourself waking up far too early? Is your sleeplessness the result of chronic pain or some other condition? Are you lying awake because of job stress, or are you worrying about money?
While there are several over-the-counter and prescription medications that help with sleeplessness, these come with plenty of side effects, including daytime grogginess and even dependency. Therefore, using natural sleep aids is often a healthier choice.
Insomnia May Run in Your Family
According to some studies, sleep disorders can be genetic. My grandmother and great-grandmother were notorious insomniacs, and my dad and I have inherited the unfortunate tendency to be up at all hours of the night. Both of us refuse to take prescription sleeping pills, and I’ve spent years researching and experimenting with various sleep remedies and techniques, trying to find a natural, healthier combination that works.
By now, I’ve learned there is no “magic bullet,” especially since my insomnia appears to be genetic. However, I get more sleep, on average, using natural remedies than I would using nothing at all. And the sleep I do get, even when I wake early, is of better quality. This means that most days, even with five or fewer hours of sleep, I’m able to function fairly well.
Types of Insomnia
Insomnia is not diagnosed by the hours of sleep you get each night; each person has a different threshold for the amount of sleep they need to wake up feeling rested and ready for the day. Rather, insomnia is diagnosed by the impairment or distress you feel if, on a regular basis, you don’t get enough quality sleep to function effectively during the day.
If you frequently start the day feeling like you’ve been run over by a garbage truck, then you probably have insomnia.
There are many different types of insomnia:
Adjustment (Acute) Insomnia
Adjustment insomnia, also called acute insomnia, is usually a short-term episode of sleeplessness that stems from life events, such as stress, a new job, death of a spouse or loved one, or other major life change.
Insomnia is considered “chronic” when you have difficulty sleeping for at least three days a week, for three months or longer. Chronic insomnia can have many causes.
Onset insomnia is when you have difficulty falling asleep at the beginning of the night. With onset insomnia, you regularly lay awake for hours after the lights go out.
Maintenance insomnia is the inability to stay asleep. With maintenance insomnia, you regularly wake in the middle of the night and find it difficult, if not impossible, to go back to sleep.
Other Causes of Insomnia
The National Sleep Foundation states that insomnia can also be caused by certain medical conditions; this is called comorbid insomnia. Some conditions that can cause insomnia include:
- Gastrointestinal problems (such as reflux)
- Endocrine problems (such as hyperthyroidism)
- Neurological conditions (such as Parkinson’s disease)
- Chronic pain
- Low back pain
- Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS)
- Sleep apnea
- Psychiatric symptoms, such as depression and anxiety
Many medications that are taken to treat these conditions can also cause insomnia. Additionally, insomnia often increases as you age. Women are also more likely to be afflicted with insomnia than men.
Natural Remedies to Sleep Better
Sleep insufficiency, especially over the long term, can be devastating. It negatively affects your emotions, your productivity, and your overall quality of life.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), people with sleep insufficiency are more likely to suffer from chronic diseases, such as hypertension, diabetes, depression, obesity, cancer, increased mortality, and reduced quality of life. Additionally, sleep insufficiency has been linked to countless motor vehicle accidents, workplace accidents, and medical and occupational errors.
Fortunately, there are many natural sleep remedies that can help you fall asleep, stay asleep, and experience better quality sleep throughout the night.
Melatonin is a hormone naturally produced in the brain to help regulate your sleep and wake cycles. Your body’s circadian rhythm, which is your own unique sleep/wake cycle, is what influences how much melatonin your brain produces. The amount of light you’re exposed to each day also plays an important role in melatonin production. Understanding how light and darkness affect your melatonin can help you get better sleep.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, exposure to light stimulates a nerve pathway in the retina that leads directly to the hypothalamus, the part of your brain that controls essential functions, such as thirst, hunger, and sleep. Within the hypothalamus is the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), which communicates with other parts of your brain to control hormones, body temperature, and other elements that contribute to your feelings of wakefulness or sleepiness.
Once you’re exposed to light first thing in the morning, your SCN kicks into gear, sending signals so that your body temperature goes up and cortisol is released. These functions are what help you wake up naturally. In the evening, when you’re exposed to more darkness, the SCN signals your brain to release melatonin, which helps you fall asleep.
Everyone’s brain releases different levels of melatonin, which is why taking a melatonin supplement can help you sleep better at night. Supplements range from 1 mg to 10 mg. A chewable supplement, taken half an hour before bed, can help you fall asleep quickly; this is helpful if you suffer from acute or onset insomnia. Timed-release melatonin, where melatonin is released slowly throughout the night, will be more effective if you suffer from maintenance insomnia.
If you decide to take supplements, start off with the lowest possible dose. In higher doses, melatonin can make you feel groggy and sleepy during the day. It’s also important to take melatonin right before your regular bedtime; waking up in the night and taking melatonin to get back to sleep can also lead to daytime grogginess, especially at higher doses.
You can also help increase your body’s melatonin naturally. For example, dimming the lights an hour before bed will tell your SCN to start releasing melatonin. However, staying in bright light, or exposing yourself to artificial blue light (such as the light that laptops and cell phones emit) will send a powerful signal to your brain that it’s still daylight.
This delays melatonin release and makes it harder to fall asleep. To sleep better, avoid all electronic devices two to three hours before bedtime. This is particularly important for children and teens.
2. Milky Oats
Milky Oats, also known as Avena Sativa, Milky Seed Oats, or Green Oats, is a tincture made from the oat plant. The oats are harvested early, before the grains harden into the oats we eat for breakfast. During this stage, which only lasts a week, a milky sap can be squeezed from the premature grains. This sap is rich in potassium, iron, calcium, and magnesium, as well as vitamins A, B complex, and C.
Milky Oats is a boon to our central nervous system. The tincture can help soothe anxiety, alleviate the mental exhaustion associated with depression or daily stress, and help with sleeplessness.
Milky Oats acts as a balm for your nervous system, especially when you’ve been under prolonged stress (and this includes the stress from long-term insomnia). If you find yourself getting irritable or crying over the smallest things, erupting into angry outbursts, unable to focus, or experiencing digestive problems due to stress, then milky oats might be able to help.
Milky Oats is not an instant cure. While you’ll likely feel somewhat calmer an hour after taking the herb, it’s most effective when used over time. Regular consumption, over weeks and months, will help stabilize and strengthen your nervous system, and make you feel rejuvenated during the day and calmer at night.
Even though herbalists have known for centuries that Milky Oats can help restore sleep, there are few medical studies to back this up. Instead, researchers have focused their attention on Milky Oats’ ability to improve brain function and focus.
A study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that Milky Oats helped improve cognitive function in participants. In another study, published in Nutritional Neuroscience, researchers found that Milky Oats not only improved cognitive function, but improved the speed of performance as well.
I’ve taken Milky Oats for several years now; it was one of the few herbal tinctures that my midwife said was safe to take when I was pregnant and experiencing extreme insomnia. I now take Milky Oats daily, in the morning and right before bed. I strongly believe that it helps contribute to my overall feelings of well-being and relaxation at night.
You can find Milky Oats at many health food stores (although it’s not as widely carried as many other herbs.) I use Gaia’s Organic Wild Oats Milky Seed.
3. Passionflower Extract
Passionflower, or P. incarnata, is a climbing vine native to the Southeast United States; however, it has also been grown in Europe for centuries, when the earliest explorers brought back cuttings of the beautiful plant.
Herbalists quickly discovered that passionflower could be used to reduce stress, minimize anxiety, and calm the nervous system. The soothing properties of passionflower also make it an effective remedy for insomnia.
A study published in Phytotherapy Research found that participants experienced better quality sleep after drinking passionflower tea compared to those on a placebo. Another study, published in Alternative Medicine Review, found that when passionflower was given to rats, it significantly prolonged sleep time.
Passionflower might also be an effective remedy against anxiety. A study published in the journal Anesthesia and Analgesia found that patients who received passionflower prior to surgery experienced less anxiety than those on a placebo.
Passionflower comes in several different forms; you can consume it as a supplement, as a tincture, and as a tea (which is delicious). I use the tincture, and, for me, it has been the most effective of the three.
Valerian, or Valeriana officinalis, is native to Europe and certain parts of Asia. The herb is a relatively well-known sleep aid. You can find valerian in many sleep teas and over-the-counter sleep remedies. Valerian has been used since the second century to ease insomnia and soothe nervousness and anxiety. Even Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, described the benefits of the herb.
A study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology found that valerian is effective for promoting regular, deep sleep. However, positive changes in sleep patterns are not immediate; the herb must be used for at least two to three weeks to influence sleep. This makes valerian an effective remedy if you have chronic insomnia, but ineffective for insomnia related to short-term events, such as jet lag.
An analysis published in the journal Sleep Medicine looked at 18 recent studies on valerian. Researchers concluded that valerian would be an effective treatment for insomnia.
In teas, and even some tinctures, valerian is often combined with other soothing and relaxing herbs, such as hops or melissa. You can take valerian tincture on its own, or try a blend. Mountain Rose Herbs’ Sleep Care Extract is particularly good.
Other Techniques to Improve Sleep
In addition to natural herbal remedies, there are plenty of other ways you can encourage longer, more restful sleep:
- Get More Exercise. Daily exercise has been proven time and again to be one of the best natural remedies for insomnia. I do yoga daily, and I get more sleep with regular exercise. Try to avoid exercise an hour or two before bed; too much activity can keep you awake. The exception to this is a soothing, nighttime yoga or T’ai Chi routine, which might help relax your muscles and encourage sleep.
- Stick to a Regular Bedtime. Going to bed at the same time each night helps regulate your circadian rhythm, which will help ensure you fall asleep and stay asleep.
- Don’t Look at the Clock. Nothing is more maddening than looking at the clock hour after hour, getting stressed that “you’ll never get back to sleep.” To resist temptation, turn it towards the wall or put a Post-it note over the time before you go to bed.
- Avoid Electronics. Remember, the blue light of computers and cell phones can wreak havoc on melatonin production. If you wake up in the night, don’t turn on an electronic device. Read a book or meditate instead.
- Eat a Light Dinner. Heavy dinners can make you feel uncomfortable, especially when you’re lying down. Try eating a light, healthy meal for dinner. You can also try eating a light snack right before bed; foods that contain tryptophan (such as eggs, cottage cheese, and turkey) might also help you sleep.
- Don’t Stay in Bed. If you’re still tossing and turning after 30 minutes, it’s usually best to get up and do something relaxing. The reason is that insomnia can become a habit, and if you stay in bed worrying that you’re not sleeping, it can prime your brain to wake up in the future. Subconsciously, your bed becomes the place you “worry,” not sleep. Instead of lying there getting frustrated, make a cup of Sleepytime Tea, or read a favorite book.
By now, I’ve realized that insomnia is not something that I can “treat” and get rid of entirely. It’s something that I’ll have to live with the rest of my life. I consider all these herbs and techniques part of my toolbox for managing insomnia. I’ve also found that I have to rotate these tools on a regular basis for them to stay effective.
For example, one month I might take melatonin and Milky Oats. The next month, I might use valerian and passionflower right before bed. However, some techniques, such as yoga and healthy eating, are part of my daily routine and never change. All of these things put together help me manage living with insomnia.
If you’re having trouble sleeping, you might need to try several different remedies, or even several combinations, to find a blend that works. And you might find, like me, that it helps to rotate remedies.
What do you use to help sleep better at night?