There are many reasons why people have a difficult time staying asleep. The good news is that common problems with sleep are often easily addressed without the use of medication or pharmaceutical sleep aids. There are no guaranteed natural cures for insomnia, but there are effective steps you can take, including natural sleep aids. Ask yourself these questions (and try the simple sleep aid recommendations) if you find yourself waking frequently in the night:
When you’re desperate to get some rest, it’s tempting to head for the medicine cabinet for relief. And you may get it in the moment. But if you regularly have trouble sleeping, that’s a red flag that something’s wrong. It could be something as simple as too much caffeine or viewing electronic screens late at night. Or it may be a symptom of an underlying medical or psychological problem. But whatever it is, it won’t be cured with sleeping pills. At best, sleeping pills are a temporary band aid. At worst, they’re an addictive crutch that can make insomnia worse in the long run.
In traditional Chinese medicine, insomnia often stems from kidney energy weakness. This syndrome is not necessarily related to kidney disease in Western medicine. A few signs of kidney energy weakness are a low backache, tiredness and fatigue, and a burst of energy at about 11 pm in the evening. Women in menopause often experience this type of insomnia. People who are taking anti-estrogenic drugs such as tamoxifen also experience this type of insomnia, however, they should not take herbal combinations such as the herbal formula liu wei di huang that may increase estrogen levels.
Kava. The root has long been a favorite among Pacific Islanders for promoting relaxation. In fact, one analysis found that kava was significantly more effective at treating anxiety than a placebo, and some preliminary research suggests it could also help treat insomnia. But like valerian, long-term use of the stuff isn’t advised, since it could have a negative impact on your liver.
Valerian is thought to affect levels of one of the calming neurotransmitters in the body, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). It also relieves muscle spasms and is thought to help alleviate menstrual period pain. Valerian is typically taken an hour before bed. A standard dose is 450 mg. If taken during the day, valerian may result in drowsiness—it is often taken in two to three 300 mg doses with meals.
Mindful breathing practices have been a part of yoga and Eastern wellness modalities for centuries but aren’t as popular in Western culture. The most well-known champion of the 4-7-8 breathing technique in the U.S., who is somewhat responsible for the prevalence that the technique does have amongst integrative medicine practitioners, yogis, and those in search of stress reduction and overall relaxation, is Harvard-educated Andrew Weil, MD.
The other benefit of speaking with a healthcare professional is that you can discuss the use of sleeping pills. There are two major classes of prescription medications that can help you sleep: benzodiazepines and nonbenzodiazepines. The list of sleeping pills is long and includes drugs like Ambien, Lunesta, Sonata, Trazodone, Belsomra, and others. These should not be used longer than a few weeks and if insomnia persists, you may want to seek other treatment. In particular, you can ask for a referral to a psychologist who might be able to teach you cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBTI) techniques.
This technique acts like a natural tranquilizer by slowing down your heart rate. According to Dr. Andrew Weil, director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona, “Unlike sleep medications, which often lose effectiveness over time, four-seven-eight breathing is subtle at first but gains power with practice.” In other words, the more you do it, the better it works. So, what are you waiting for?
If you’re bringing the stress of your job and daily life to bed with you, you’re not going to sleep well. Resolve to keep everything that’s stressful out of your bedroom, so don’t bring in work materials, your phone or even allow yourself to think about work while in your bedroom. You can also gain control over your worries and anxieties by keeping a worry journal. Write about the things that are bothering you so you can work through them instead of bringing them to bed with you.
It’s a well-known fact that having a heavy meal just before bed can cause you to have a poor night of rest, but did you know that there are some foods that could help you sleep better? That doesn’t mean you need to add calories necessarily or eat a huge meal right before bed, but it could mean that you can incorporate some of these foods into your dinner or as a small after-dinner snack.
Slowed responses and dulled concentration from lack of sleep don't just affect school or sports performance, though. More than half of teens surveyed reported that they have driven a car while drowsy over the past year and 15% said they drove drowsy at least once a week. The National Highway Safety Traffic Administration estimates that more than 100,000 accidents, 40,000 injuries, and 1,500 people are killed in the U.S. every year in crashes caused by drivers who are simply tired. Young people under the age of 25 are far more likely to be involved in drowsy driving crashes.
Drug interactions may change how your medications work or increase your risk for serious side effects. This document does not contain all possible drug interactions. Keep a list of all the products you use (including prescription/nonprescription drugs and herbal products) and share it with your doctor and pharmacist. Do not start, stop, or change the dosage of any medicines without your doctor's approval.
Abdominal breathing. Most of us don’t breathe as deeply as we should. When we breathe deeply and fully, involving not only the chest, but also the belly, lower back, and ribcage, it can actually help the part of our nervous system that controls relaxation. Close your eyes and try taking deep, slow breaths, making each breath even deeper than the last. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Make each exhale a little longer than each inhale.
Valerian research is more contradictory than that pertaining to melatonin. One valerian study found no benefit to taking the herb at the 14-day mark but discovered that it “greatly improved sleep” after 28 days. Dr. Goldstein confirmed this, noting that, while valerian will work for some “super sensitive” people the first time they take it, for others it may need to build up in their system for weeks before they start to notice any changes (though she notes that the same has been said about melatonin).
According to the American Sleep Association, one in every three adults experiences occasional insomnia, while another one in 10 has chronic insomnia. While most of us crave a good night’s sleep for the short-term benefit of feeling more alert, we also realize that sleep is crucial to our health. During those nightly hours of shut-eye, our bodies experience a prolonged period of repair and renewal that can improve everything from treatment of chronic conditions to weight management.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia is a pretty common technique. Also called CBT-I, the therapy typically involves self-monitoring, mental strategies (like developing positive thoughts about sleep), and creating an environment that promotes sleep—and it’s been shown to improve sleep quality. Self-help treatment for insomnia symptoms associated with chronic conditions in older adults: a randomized controlled trial. Morgan K, Gregory P, Tomeny M. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 2012, Oct.;60(10):1532-5415. Learn these strategies with the help of a therapist or with online guidance or books—both are equally effective ways of implementing CBT-I. Efficacy of a behavioral self-help treatment with or without therapist guidance for co-morbid and primary insomnia—a randomized controlled trial. Jernelov, S., Lekander, M., Blom, K., et al. Department of Clinical Neuroscience, Karolinska Institutet, Sweden. BMC Psychiatry, 2012 Jan 22;12:5 Not into seeing a therapist? Check out Sleepio, a digital program that helps users learn about and implement CBT practices from the comfort of their own homes.
Reading books on electronic devices before bedtime disrupts the body’s natural sleep rhythms, according to research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In the study, 12 people read a book on an electronic device for 4 hours before bed, in a dimly lit room, for 5 consecutive nights. On another 5 nights, they read a real printed book on the same schedule. When using an electronic device, they were less drowsy, took longer to fall asleep, and were less alert in the morning. According to the researchers, use of electronic devices suppressed melatonin levels, making it more difficult to get a good night’s rest.
Herbal teas like chamomile and valerian act as a mild sedative. They relax the body and make you feel like your eyes are too heavy to keep open. Of all the herbal teas, I recommend the Celestial Extra Sleepy Time Tea. Not to throw a product placement out there, but this stuff works. It contains pretty much everything that contributes to sleep - chamomile, tilia estrella, and valerian. The combination in this is like a slumber guarantee.
However, if you’re increasing your sleep debt over a longer period of time- say, if you’ve just had a child and aren’t able to get a full eight hours every night- you can’t easily make it up over just a few nights. In cases like these, it may take a few weeks to really fill your sleep debt. Your best bet is to plan a vacation or stay-cation with a light schedule and no obligations, and then turn off your alarm clock and go to bed and wake up when it feels natural. This will “reset” your sleep system so that while you may be sleeping 12 hours a night at the beginning, you’ll eventually settle back in to the amount that is your basal sleep need.
Sleep deprivation for even one or two nights can vastly affect your need for sleep. Unlike many things in life, sleep time is not something that is routinely changed. You can’t get used to a lower amount of sleep just because it fits your schedule. If you try to, it will affect your judgment and reaction time, even if you are not consciously aware of it. But you can’t resist it for long. Sleep deficit can be cured only by getting some sleep.
Another method for determining your sleep need is to take a "sleep vacation." During a two-week period, when you have a flexible schedule or perhaps are on vacation, pick a consistent bedtime and do not use an alarm clock to wake up. Chances are that for the first few days or week you will sleep longer because you'll be paying off your "sleep debt"—the amount of sleep deprivation that you've accumulated over a period of time. If you continue going to bed at the same time and allowing your body to wake up naturally, you will eventually establish a pattern of sleeping essentially the same amount of time each night, probably in the range of 7 to 9 hours. Congratulations! You've identified the amount of sleep that you need.
Probably not all people will be able to fall asleep this quickly all the time, especially on days when you might be upset or anxious near bedtime for whatever reason. Your best bet is not to try just one or two strategies from the article, but as many of the strategies as you can at the same time, and keep up this routine for several weeks or more.
Whole grain crackers. It’s not just a coincidence that you immediately want to take a nap after chowing down on a carb-heavy meal. Carbs cause your body’s blood sugar levels to spike, which appears to play a role in regulating your body’s sleep-wake clock, suggests a recent Japanese study. Still, you’ll probably get a stomachache and end up tossing and turning all night—by devouring a gigantic bowl of pasta. So pick a lighter option, like a handful whole grain crackers.