Insomnia is characterised by a difficulty in falling and remaining asleep. Although Leonardo da Vinci and Margaret Thatcher apparently thrived on less than a handful of hours, the average adult requires 7–9 hours solid kip a night. Why do we need so much? Sleep deprivation places significant stress on the body, releasing the silent stress hormone, cortisol, which over the long term has serious health implications. Studies show that insufficient sleep is responsible for an increased risk of motor vehicle accidents, depression, substance abuse, diabetes, heart disease, lowered immunity, poor concentration and even obesity. A good night’s sleep is powerful medicine.
Symptoms of Insomnia
- Trouble falling asleep.
- Waking during the night and having trouble getting back to sleep.
- Non-restorative sleep (i.e. not feeling refreshed when you wake up).
- Feeling tired or falling asleep during the day.
Insomnia – Behind the scenes
A good night’s sleep is comprised of 5 or more sleep cycles, each lasting approximately 90 minutes. Each cycle has various stages.
Stage 1 is a light sleep where you drift in and out of consciousness and can be wakened easily. During this stage, people may experience sudden muscle contractions preceded by a sensation of falling.
Stage 2 is when the brain waves slow down, and Stage 3 is when your deepest sleep is experienced – no eye or muscle movement is detected. This is when some children (and adults) experience bedwetting, sleepwalking or night terrors.
Stage 3 is also when the human growth hormone (HGH) is secreted. HGH is responsible for growth in children, explaining why children need more sleep. In adults, HGH stimulates the immune system, increases muscle and bone mass, enhances cell repair and promotes fat loss. Some scientists claim that HGH is the ultimate ‘anti-aging’ hormone. No wonder we need our beauty sleep. Following Stage 3 is REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, where dreaming occurs. REM sleep lasts only about 5–10 minutes. As people age, in addition to less sleep, they tend to wake at the transition between non-REM and REM sleep. A person deprived of REM sleep becomes moody and depressed.
What causes insomnia
- Worry-wartism and stress are the most common causes of insomnia. Worrying thoughts can assert themselves the moment your head hits the pillow or can wake you during the night.
- Some mothers never recover from night-time waking to feed and care for their babies, becoming hyper-vigilant at the slightest disturbance. This poor sleeping pattern continues even after the reasons for your insomnia have left home and have families of their own.
- Poor sleep patterns may appear after a traumatic event such as an accident, robbery, assault, divorce, childhood sexual abuse or the death of someone close.
- Depression and/or anxiety can impact on sleep, often causing early morning waking (around 3–4 am), when it is difficult to go back to sleep.
- Factors in your environment may also cause insomnia, such as a lumpy mattress, a fidgety bed companion, a bed companion who snores, a flickering street light or a neighbour with a drum kit.
- If you suffer from sleep apnoea or snoring, these will interfere with the quality of sleep. The Buteyko Breathing Technique is excellent for reducing your risk of snoring and obstructive sleep apnoea.
- Shift work can destroy many people’s chances of sleeping well. Even after returning to normal working hours, sleep patterns can be disturbed.
- Our bodies follow the circadian rhythms that operate on a 24-hour clock. For instance, between 5 pm and 9 pm, your body temperature and pulse rates are higher than at any other time, and urine production is lowest from 1 am to 5 am. These patterns occur at the same time during the 24-hour clock, irrespective of whether you are working, partying or travelling.
- Although alcohol can send you to sleep, it can also interfere with your sleep cycles.
- While the human growth hormone is secreted during sleep throughout life, growing children have the greatest requirements – a 1-year-old requires approximately 14 hours of sleep a day while a 5-year-old needs around 12 hours. Children as young as six months can take sleeping remedies.
What to do
Diet for Insomnia
- Low blood sugar levels might be the cause of your sleep problems if you tend to wake after a few hours kip. Then again, if you wake up at 1 am to raid the fridge and scoff down leftover chocolate cake, low blood sugar is definitely your problem. The solution is to eat a small meal before going to bed. In the old days, this meal used to be called supper, and it is well overdue for a comeback. Supper should contain a little protein and carbohydrate to sustain blood-sugar levels. For example, hot milk and honey, an oatmeal biscuit, cheese and crackers, or a small bowl of chicken and vegetable soup.
- Although a snack is recommended, avoid eating a heavy meal within 3 hours of going to bed. A roast dinner with the works will take several hours to digest, causing your digestive system to work hard when it should be snoozing.
- Avoid caffeine in coffee, tea, chocolate, guarana and cola. Energy drinks often contain staggering amounts of caffeine. Some people are so sensitive to caffeine that even a morning cappuccino affects their sleep that night. Caffeine only affects some people’s ability to sleep, so if you find avoiding it doesn’t make any difference and you love your cuppa, then don’t deprive yourself unnecessarily.
- Limit after-dinner drinks to a small cup of herbal tea or warm milk. Getting up to go to the loo during the night is bound to disturb sleep unless you have terrific sleepwalking skills.
- Warm milk, honey and nutmeg is a traditional remedy that works well because milk contains tryptophan and calcium. Tryptophan converts to the soothing neurotransmitter serotonin, and calcium relaxes muscles. Honey is soothing and also helps the tryptophan cross the blood–brain barrier to be converted to serotonin. Nutmeg has a slight sedative effect. Or maybe it works well because Grandma said it did. Turkey, figs, dates and bananas also contain tryptophan.
- Though a nightcap may have an initial sedative effect, alcohol interferes with those important sleep cycles. You are less likely to have a refreshing sleep and may wake up in the morning more tired than when you went to bed. Alcohol is also a diuretic, so it will likely wake you to go to the toilet at night.
Natural Remedies for Insomnia
- Valerian*, chamomile, kava, passionflower, Californian poppy, hops, skullcap, lemon balm and vervain are all somniferous (sleep-inducing) herbs. Take one or a combination in tablet form, tincture, or tea before bed. Nighty Night Herbal tea is a bestseller, containing potent sleeping herbs.
- If your sleeping problems are due to anxiety or stress, taking some of these herbs during the day can also help. They won’t make you sleepy during the day, as no herb is able to override the body, but they can calm down the nervous system, affording a better night’s sleep at the end of a less-stressed day.
- The nature of your errant sleeping patterns determines when you take your herbal medicine. If you have problems getting to sleep, then take a dose after dinner and another just before you hop into bed. However, if you wake during the night, forget the dinner dose, and take it straight before bedtime and have another tablet or dose handy if you wake during the night. The first waking is often 1 ½ hours or 3 hours after falling asleep. This equates to 1 and 2 sleep cycles. The trick is to send you into a deeper sleep for the first cycle so you are less likely to wake in between. Check with your practitioner, but you might need to take a larger dose to encourage this deeper sleep state for the first cycle.
- A vitamin B complex taken each morning is good for the nervous system. Don’t take it at night, as it may be overly stimulating.
- Calcium and magnesium are soothing minerals. Taken at night, they can help you sleep.
- A homoeopathic remedy for sleep is Coffea 30. Take 7 drops before bed each night.
- Melatonin is the natural sleep chemical produced by the body to induce sleep. It is at its peak at night-time. Melatonin can also be used to promote sleep and is often used by frequent fliers to reset their body clock. Your doctor can prescribe melatonin. Homoeopathic melatonin is available over the counter and works well for some.
- Bach flowers useful for insomnia include Mimulus (for fears that can be described, which is good for worry-warts), aspen (for fears of unknown origin and for fear of letting go), White chestnut (for thoughts that go around and around in the mind) and Rock rose (for nightmares and night terrors).
Buteyko Breathing Technique & Insomnia
The Buteyko Breathing Technique is based on increasing your tolerance to small doses of carbon dioxide. At these levels, carbon dioxide acts as a tranquilising gas, switching on the parasympathetic or relaxing nervous system. Cadence breathing and the Three by Three breathing exercise are simple to learn and a wonderful way to help you into a deep and restorative sleep. Learn more at the Breathing Gym
Other recommendations for Insomnia
- Routine is vital. Rise at the same time every morning (regardless of the number of hours slept) and go to bed at the same time each night.
- Exercise. A physically tired and exercised body is more likely to sleep. Even though you might feel tired, it’s your mind that is tired, not your body. Choose a regular time to exercise, preferably in the morning, or sometime not too close to bedtime.
- Your deepest sleep, in the early hours of the morning, is also when the body reaches its lowest temperature. Having a warm bath or shower before bed not only relaxes tense muscles, but by heating the body, your internal thermostat kicks in trying to lower basal temperature, lulling the body into believing it should be deeply asleep.
- A couple of handfuls of Epsom salts in a warm bath will help muscles to relax and assist in a restful night’s sleep. Epsom salts are made from magnesium sulphate. Taken internally, Epsom salts can cause diarrhoea (hence the phrase ‘goes through you like a dose of salts’), but absorbed through the skin, Epsom salts can have a relaxing effect.
- Create a sleep-inducing environment. This might mean moving your bed to a room at the back of the house, away from the road, or hanging dark curtains to block out a streetlight.
- If your bedroom looks like it has more cords and electrical devices than a small recording studio, get them out of the bedroom. There is some evidence that simply being around electrical fields can disturb the body’s normal circadian rhythms. This means no TV in the bedroom.
- Relax for an hour before retiring. Listen to relaxing music, read (avoid the murder and horror genre), or watch television (not the news or high drama, stick to self-help or re-runs of the soaps). Do not work or study.
- Herb pillows made from an assortment of dried herbs, including hops, lavender and chamomile, placed under your pillow can be helpful, or place a few drops of the essential oils on your pillowslip each night.
- If you feel your insomnia may be due to a past traumatic episode, hypnotherapy or kinesiology may help break its hold on you.
- Avoid or limit daytime naps to half an hour.
- Keep calm colours in your bedroom, such as dark blue, violet and indigo. Lime green, bright yellow and orange are considered mentally stimulating colours.
- Shift workers who suffer from insomnia may need to consider their line of work – is this job really worth the effect on your health?
- Sleeping tablets are among the most commonly prescribed drugs. They are often addictive and may also affect sleep quality, so you may get to sleep but wake up feeling like you haven’t. However, sleeping tablets have their place; some sleep can be better than none. Talk to your doctor if you wish to wean yourself off these drugs, as rebound insomnia may occur if you cut them out too quickly.
- Poor sleep often becomes a habitual problem. Like all habits, you must consistently repeat the behaviour to change the habit. This is true with insomnia. When you find something that works, don’t stop after 1 or 2 good nights. Keep up the ‘habit’ or supplement for a few weeks until the body is used to the new routine.
Aromatherapy for Insomnia
Blend the following essential oils in 120 ml of orange blossom water, or lavender hydrosol or an essential oil solubiliser and shake well. Spray on your bed linen, pyjamas and/or pillowslip before sleep and dream well! Alternatively, for a relaxing bath soak, blend with 200 g of Epsom salts, 50 g of bi-carb soda and halve the amount of drops of essential oils.
- 4 drops of vetiver oil – insomnia, nervous tension, depression (These are not actions…
- 10 drops of chamomile oil (Roman or German) – sedative, insomnia, nervous tension
- 6 drops of neroli – anxiety, depression, nervous tension
- 10 drops of lavender oil – antidepressant, sedative, nervine
- 5 drops of sandalwood oil – sedative, nervous tension, stress-related complaints
At a glance
- Eat a light supper containing a little protein and carbohydrate before going to bed. This will keep your blood sugar levels steady.
- Avoid eating a large meal within 3 hours of bedtime.
- Alcohol may make you sleepy, but it can interfere with your sleeping patterns and leave you feeling unrefreshed in the morning.
- If you have trouble falling asleep, take a dose of sleeping herbs at dinnertime (see above for suggestions). If you have problems staying asleep, take another dose at bedtime. These herbs can also be taken during the day as they can calm the nervous system.
- Nighty Night Herbal Tea – a couple of cups after dinner
- Calcium and magnesium are soothing minerals. Taken at night, they can help you sleep.
- Bach flower remedies are particularly helpful if stress and anxiety are the cause of your insomnia.
- Buteyko Breathing Techniques
- Exercise is important to tire the physical body. Try to get into a morning routine of gym, walking, swimming – whatever rocks your boat.
- A hot bath or shower last thing at night heats up the body. As the body starts to cool down, this will send sleepy-time messages to the brain.
- If your insomnia is due to past stressful events, hypnotherapy and kinesiology can help.
- Once you have a set of routines and remedies that work, don’t stop. Insomnia is a pattern, as is good sleep. Keep up the good routine and happy dreams!
*Valerian is a wonderful sleeping herb for most people. However, for a small percentage, it can have a ‘paradoxical’ effect, that is, the reverse of what is intended. If this happens to you, always avoid valerian and choose from some other herb.