Reviewed & edited by Dr. Jeffrey C. Lederman, DO, MPH and Julie A. Cerrato, PhD, AP, CYT, CAP
Insomnia is medically defined as the inability to obtain the proper rest needed for adequate functioning throughout the day. Insomnia may often present as a symptom of an underlying medical condition, be traced back to lifestyle habits, mental or emotional disturbances, or linked to a disruption in the body’s circadian rhythm — the natural 24-hour clock that has been observed in humans, plants, animals, and cyanobacteria.
The following provides information on insomnia natural treatments.
Insomnia is experienced differently by those suffering from the condition, but it is marked by the inability to feel sufficiently rested, regardless of the amount of sleep acquired during the night. In some individuals, insomnia and its symptoms follow a night of restless tossing and turning but for others, insomnia sets in despite six or seven hours of sleep.
Unfortunately, insomnia can affect individuals at any age. It is estimated that 30%-50% of the population is affected by insomnia at some point in their lives, and 10% suffers from chronic insomnia.
There are many medical conditions that can cause insomnia like Sleep Apnea and Restless Leg Syndrome. These diagnoses often go undiagnosed for many years and a discussion initially with someone who can monitor your sleep may lead to a discussion with a medical clinician for further testing.
How Insomnia Feels
Common symptoms of insomnia include difficulty in falling or remaining asleep throughout the night, feelings of exhaustion throughout the day, an inability to focus, feelings of anxiety or of being “on edge,” intestinal distress, tension headaches, and dizziness.
Prolonged insomnia can lead to inner ear disturbances such as tinnitus, or persistent migraines. Long-term insomnia is also linked with an increased risk for heart disease, certain types of cancer, and automobile related accidents. Moreover, insomnia can be both a symptom and a sign of an underlying medical condition.
How Insomnia is Conventionally Treated
Treatment for insomnia may be sought through a psychologist, physician, counselor, or social worker. Because of insomnia’s complex nature, treatment will vary from individual to individual. Conventional treatment often suggested by physicians includes the use of prescription drugs. Some commonly prescribed drugs used to treat insomnia include Ambien (zolpidem), Lunesta (eszopicilone), Rozerem (ramelteon), Sonata (zaleplon), and Silenor (doxepin).
However, prescription pills, along with over-the-counter sleep aids, should not be taken unless a doctor is consulted and a full seven to eight hours of sleep is possible or individuals may potentially experience morning grogginess and other side effects. Many of the conventional sleeping medications may only be prescribed temporarily, as they can be habit forming.
Struggling with insomnia is extremely difficult and the frustration, anxiety, and feelings of helplessness that insomnia brings can push even the strongest personality to their breaking point. The good news for insomnia sufferers is that there is hope beyond temporary medication. There are many holistic therapies available for treating insomnia that can help improve your health and well-being.
Holistic Healing for Insomnia Sufferers
A holistic approach to treating insomnia focuses on the individual and not just the symptoms. Holistic therapies address the mind, body, and emotions. This multi-prong approach is effective for treating insomnia because insomnia’s root can often be traced back to emotional disturbances, stress, and/or depression. By treating the whole person and not just the symptoms of sleep deprivation, holistic and natural therapies provide a comprehensive approach for handling insomnia and renewing a natural sleep cycle. Some of these holistic therapies include Behavioral Therapy, Relaxation Techniques, Acupuncture and Acupressure, Yoga and Meditation, and Biofeedback.
One of the most effective behavioral therapies for insomnia is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, otherwise known as CBT-I, addresses sleep habits, scheduling patterns, and thoughts and emotions that may be keeping you from much needed restorative rest. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy works through several techniques in which a CBT-I clinician will document sleep assessments, have the individual record a sleep journal to track sleep patterns and habits, and provide information on techniques like Sleep Restriction Therapy, Stimulus Control, and Sleep Hygiene. Each of these techniques are designed to help reprogram the brain and negative sleep patterns that have developed over time. One of the major benefits of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is the self-empowerment it provides, especially when it comes to relapse prevention. While CBT-I will take time and effort, rewards include gaining valuable knowledge and key practices that can help combat against recurring insomnia.
- Sleep Restriction Therapy is a controversial step of CBT-I, since it initially involves the restriction of sleep. Although it is counterintuitive, it is a significant and effective component of CBT-I. It involves controlling time in bed based upon the person’s sleep efficiency in order to restore the homeostatic drive to sleep.
- Stimulus Control aims to associate the bed with sleeping and limit its association with stimulating behavior. People with insomnia are instructed to go to bed only when they are tired, limit activities in bed to sleep and sex, get out of bed at the same time every morning, get up and move to another room when sleep-onset does not occur within ten minutes.
- Sleep Hygiene aims to control the environment and behaviors that precede sleep. Go to the Holistic Lifestyles section for more on Sleep Hygiene.
Individuals suffering from insomnia often have an impaired ability to relax. The mind races, the body is restless, the breath is irregular, and a continual series of mental and physical irritations prevents the onset of sleep. Relaxation techniques specifically designed to soothe tight muscles, increase regular respiration and clear the mind are particularly useful to stave off insomnia. Common relaxation techniques include deep abdominal breathing, meditation, and exercises that will relax each muscle group before bed and during the night.
- An effective breathing technique is the square breath. Sitting or laying down in a comfortable position, inhale for three breaths, hold the breath for a count of three and exhale to a count of three. Repeat this square for 3-5 cycles. Other breathing exercises stem from Yogic Pranayama and can be learned from a Yoga practitioner.
- Visual meditation techniques include closing the eyes, thinking of a peaceful object or scene, visualizing its detail and taking calming breaths for 3-5min. Guided meditation with audio tapes or an instructor, are also highly effective for insomnia.
- Progressive muscle relaxation techniques help an individual to relax each muscle group before sleep. To begin, tense a single muscle group (i.e. hands) for 5 seconds. After 5 seconds, release the tension in that muscle group, allow the muscles to go limp, and exhale. Hold this relaxed pose for 15 seconds and then proceed on to the next major muscle group.
Founded on the concept of removing blockages in mental, physical, and emotional life force and energy, acupuncture is the science and art of restoring the balance of natural energy to the body. Developed within Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), this form of therapy has proven useful in alleviating numerous conditions and disorders. Similarly, acupressure promotes physical, mental and emotional healing. As insomnia oftentimes reflects a disturbance to the body’s natural sleep cycle called the circadian rhythm, acupuncture and acupressure are highly effective forms of treatment to restore sleep.
The ancient Chinese practice of acupuncture uses very thin needles inserted into specific reflex points of the body to stimulate nerves, muscles, and connective tissues associated with a host of disorders. In regards to insomnia treatment, acupuncture triggers a sequence of messages to the brain that subsequently increase amounts of certain chemicals (like serotonin) that play a central role in sleep promotion and relaxation.The flow of energy in the body is often blocked at certain points along energetic channels called meridians. Acupuncture stimulates points along these channels to remove the blockages and allow for muscle relaxation, enhanced respiration, pain relief and the onset of sleep.
A needle-free variation of acupuncture called acupressure can also be used to treat insomnia. Acupressure targets the same reflex points on the body as acupuncture, but delivers treatment via finger pressure rather than penetrating the skin with needles. It is believed that acupuncture and acupressure work to adjust the body’s natural circadian rhythm, making it a gentle and ideal form of treatment for all ages, including the elderly. Commonly used pressure points to aid in relaxation and induce sleep can be found at the base of the neck, along the shoulder blades, between the eyebrows, and directly below both sides of the ankle bone.
The mind-body practices of Restorative Yoga and Meditation work hand-in-hand with holistic therapies like Biofeedback and relaxation techniques.
Yoga works to renew the body’s natural flow of energy while also conditioning the body to create fresh energy through various postures. Practicing yoga also trains the mind to focus on present moment awareness, similar to a key aspect of relaxation techniques that aid in the treatment of insomnia. Adopting a daily practice of at least 20 minutes of yoga can help restore circadian rhythm and promote relaxation and sleep acquisition.
A regular meditation practice is wonderful for self-healing and particularly useful in the treatment of insomnia and its related issues. Meditation works by stilling the thoughts in the mind through the practice of several techniques such as focusing on breathing, chanting, and practicing detachment from outside influences while sitting in a relaxed comfortable position for a period of time. The ability to enhance sensations of peace and calm within the mind is one of the forefront benefits of meditation. Reduced levels of stress and a greater flow of energy are additional meditation benefits that work at combating insomnia.
Biofeedback is a non-invasive way to monitor your body’s relaxation levels and in turn, mentally manipulate your heart rate, blood pressure, and other physiological responses. Utilizing biofeedback as a holistic treatment of insomnia subscribes to the belief of “mind over matter.” In a typical biofeedback session, sensors are attached to the patient to record the presence of muscle tension, heart rate, breathing rate, and hand temperature. The visual, and sometimes audio, recording of the fluctuating physiological responses helps the patient to recognize and become familiar with their stress and subsequently practice relaxation techniques to alter their responses accordingly.
In a Biofeedback session, a patient may notice sweaty palms, increased heart rate, and faster breathing when asked to recall an unpleasant situation. In doing so, the patient will witness the rise and fall of stress levels in their systems by releasing their muscles and taking slow, deep breaths while watching the monitor. This mental recognition allows the insomnia sufferer to have greater control over their bodily stress responses, empowers the patient, and teaches them relaxation practices to employ as they seek sleep in the comfort of their own bedtime routine.
Holistic Lifestyle Changes
Holistic lifestyle changes are extremely powerful when taking action to relieve insomnia. By following sleep hygiene practices, creating and adhering to a routine daily schedule, and employing tried-and-true holistic therapies such as aromatherapy and blue light therapy, the active education of sleep is possible without the aid of medication.
Sleep hygiene, one of the main components taught under Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, can be adopted independently of Behavioral Therapy to provide simple, effective methods to reduce sleep disturbances and promote sound sleep.
Common aspects of sleep hygiene include:
- Only using your bedroom space for sleep and sexual activity.
- Avoid reading, watching television, or eating in your bedroom
- Avoiding naps during daytime hours
- Adjusting the light and sound of your bedroom to be more conducive to sleep
- Adding 20 minutes of exercise to your daily routine
- Avoiding tobacco, caffeine, and alcohol in the evenings
- Avoiding a heavy meal before bedtime. It is best to finish dinner a few hours before sleep and to avoid foods that would cause indigestion.
- Creating a bedtime routine that induces relaxation. A hot bath, a cup of warm milk, or twenty minutes of meditation are all ideal relaxation techniques to establish as a pre-bedtime routine.
Another lifestyle modification to try includes creating and sticking to a regular routine. By establishing a set bedtime and a set wake up time, the body is able to synchronize with its natural circadian rhythm. It is vital to maintain this regular routine throughout the weekends as well as during the workweek, and be patient while the body and mind work to discover an optimal bedtime and wake time. Once a regular routine is set, it will be possible to make changes as need be by slowly adjusting the time schedule over the course of 15-minute increments.While attempting to set the bed/wake time may be initially difficult remembering to always wake up at the same time is critical. There may be nights initially that one may have little or no sleep. Eventually, one will get tired earlier so that the bedtime will come earlier.
Environmental Stimuli Inhibition
For some, insomnia follows an inability to block out noise or light from their surroundings. Eye masks, earplugs, and white noise machines all work wonders in eliminating sound and light distractions that may be keeping an individual awake. If suffering from sleep apnea and insomnia, a CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) Machine may greatly ease symptoms and allow normal respiration while sleeping. The main focus of environmental stimuli inhibition is to create a quiet, peaceful, and dark bedroom atmosphere that will be conducive to a full night’s rest. For more tips on how to create a sleep promoting environment, visit Sleepfoundation.org
Aromatherapy, or the use of essential oils, has a long-standing history as aiding in sleep therapy. Essential oils such as lavender, ylang-ylang, patchouli, valerian, and naroli are all renowned for their ability to ease tension and induce relaxation. The healing properties of essential oil rapidly interact with body systems connected to emotion, nervous system, body temperature, and appetite. You can apply a few drops of the essential oil to your pillowcase, add the oils to a diffuser in your bedroom, or combine a few drops into a warm bath before bedtime.
Holistic Diet & Nutrition
In addition to making schedule changes and practicing sleep hygiene techniques, there are also several diet and nutrition modifications that can be made to promote better sleep. There are a host of wholesome foods that contain melatonin, a naturally occurring chemical that has been found to help induce sleep. Alternatively, there are also caffeinated foods and beverages that should be avoided as when seeking to improve insomnia
Eliminate Sources of Caffeine
- An important dietary change that can help combat insomnia is to eliminate sources of caffeine that prevent the body from resting peacefully. Green tea offers an alternative option to coffee. While green tea still contains some caffeine, it has L-Theanine that modulates caffeine metabolism so the tea is less stimulating to your nervous system than coffee but equally comforting. If coffee is a must, be sure that it is only consumed in the morning, or at least a full eight hours before bedtime. Other sources of caffeine to avoid after lunchtime include soft drinks, chocolate, and tea.
The addition of certain foods to your diet can help induce or sustain much needed sleep for proper daily functioning.
Tart Cherry Juice
One of the most delicious dietary additions is the consumption of tart cherry juice to induce sleep. Recent studies have shown that tart cherry juice has an effective impact on aiding insomnia sufferers to sleep. The science behind tart cherry juice’s effectiveness on sleep acquisition is related to its high levels of melatonin.According to Dr. Apovian, author of The Overnight Diet and Director of the Nutrition and Weight Management Center at Boston University School of Medicine, “Antioxidant-rich tart cherries are one of the world’s best sources of melatonin. Tart cherry juice concentrate, available in health food stores or online, has been shown to reduce insomnia and improve the quality and duration of sleep. Remember that it is a liquid concentrate; it must be diluted before using it.”
Melatonin, a naturally occurring hormone that is released into our bloodstreams at night, can be an effective sleep aid when taken orally. In addition to foods like tart cherry juice and walnuts, you can purchase over-the-counter melatonin supplements as a sleep aid. As always, be sure to consult your physician before taking any supplements to clear any potential drug interactions.
Another dietary supplement that can help to promote sleep is valerian root. It has sedative properties and promotes a sense of calm and well-being. Valerian root has been used throughout centuries to aid in relaxation and is a common ingredient in conventional holistic sleep aids. As always, consult with your physician before taking this and any other sleep supplements as some drug interactions are possible.
Another nutritious, delicious way to prevent insomnia is to include foods that contain tryptophan at dinner time. Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that does not naturally occur in our systems. When ingested through food sources that contain this amino acid, tryptophan works in the body to produce niacin and serotonin. Both niacin and serotonin aid in the regulation of sleep cycles. Common sources of tryptophan include cheese, chicken, turkey, fish, nuts, milk, soy, and tofu.
Products & Equipment
Numerous aromatherapy products and equipment are available to aid in the treatment of insomnia. For aromatherapy, an essential oil diffuser is a commonly used method. Diffusers come in different forms; some are candle-lit and others are electric. As the diffuser is activated and heats up, the water will steam and release the essential oil into the air. You will want to breath deeply and slowly to take in the essential oil molecules that are released through the diffuser. If you prefer a simpler approach to aromatherapy, there are many candles and oils you can incorporate into your bedroom.
Environmental Stimuli Inhibition
As mentioned earlier, there are many innovative products on the market today that work to create a more conducive sleeping environment in your bedroom. Eye masks, ear plugs and sound machines can all assist in promoting a serene sleeping environment and rest. Additionally, sound reducing machines, air purifiers, and NightWave Sleep Assistant may offer protection against environmental stimuli. The NightWave Sleep Assistant incorporates light effect with deep breathing exercises to deliver powerful sleep assistance.
Living with insomnia does not have to become a lifetime of insomnia. From aromatherapy to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to adjustments in diet, schedule, and mindset, an array of treatment options exist that can bring relief and rest. Insomnia sufferers can take heart in the knowledge that there are many actions to take today for a good night’s rest tomorrow. If insomnia persists, there are numerous resources available for treatment including therapists, holistic providers and sleep centers.
- Sleep therapists are trained medical professionals who utilize Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in the treatment of insomnia. They include psychologist and psychiatrists who are highly trained to uncover the root cause or causes behind a case of insomnia.
- There are also many holistic health providers trained in various forms of holistic therapies that treat insomnia. They include acupuncturists, Ayurvedic practitioners, massage therapists, and meditation or yoga instructors.
National Sleep Centers
Community resources and social support provide a much-needed avenue of encouragement for insomnia sufferers Sleep centers are available nationwide to conduct a host of assessments and sleep studies and enable insomnia sufferers to better understand their natural sleep rhythms and potential insomnia triggers. Led by specialists and physicians, a local sleep center will be able to provide a deeper understanding of the insomnia‘s root cause, provide a care plan, and oversee the recommended course of treatment. A list of national sleep centers can be found at Sleepfoundation.org.
Updated: March 2014
Written by Kristin Accorsi
Reviewed & edited by Julie Cerrato
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