Insomnia is something nearly all of us have experienced at some time in our life. It can be an acute or chronic problem, and can greatly impact the way we experience life. An acute bout of insomnia lasts from a single night to a couple of weeks, and is often from stress or anxiety about work, school, an upcoming exam or public speech, or due to a traumatic event. Chronic insomnia is a long term problem that has been on going for more than 6 weeks; it can have detrimental health consequences and is associated with serious medical conditions and inflammation in the body. Chronic insomnia may be caused by a medical or psychological problem, and it is important to have more severe health issues ruled out, such as sleep apnea.
Sleep hygiene is critical for those who have difficulty falling or staying asleep. Avoiding stimulating activities and substances, screens, alcohol, and a heavy or late dinner are ways to practice good sleep hygiene. Also, going to bed and waking at the same time every day, getting plenty of morning light, daily exercise, and daily relaxation exercises or meditation are other helpful lifestyle habits.
Avoiding screens (phone, computer, tablet, television) for at least a couple hours before bed is very important. Screens are very stimulating and trick your brain into thinking it is still daylight; this wrecks havoc on sleep cycles. Exercising can also be too stimulating right before bed, it is usually better to get exercise earlier in the day or at least early in the evening. Exciting or disturbing shows, books, news, or thoughts are also best to avoid. Caffeine, including: tea, coffee, energy drinks, chocolate, and sodas should be avoided later in the day. Other stimulants including medications, recreational drugs, and even stimulating herbs (ginseng, guarana, etc), are to be avoided later in the day, or altogether. Alcohol, excessively heavy or greasy foods, and large meals are also known to disturb sleep. It is a better practice to eat a lighter, earlier dinner to promote restful sleep.
Winding down and having a relaxing routine before bed is another positive hygiene habit. A calming chamomile or bedtime tea, taking a bath with epsom salt and lavender essential oil, gentle stretching or yoga, soft music, meditation or reading a book (a real one!) in bed are examples of part of a routine you may want to incorporate. Be careful with drinking too many fluids close to bed as it may cause you to have to wake to urinate during the night. Try to avoid drinking tea or more than a sip or two of water an hour or two before you hit the sheets.
Meditation and calming and restorative yoga postures can help your body relax and your mind unwind, helping you sleep soundly. Meditation and yoga are especially helpful for insomnia that is caused by stress. Even sitting just for a few minutes, focusing on nothing but your breath is calming to the mind and body. Yoga postures gently stretch and strengthen, reduce pain, and ease stress. Small studies have shown great benefits of daily yoga for insomnia sufferers. A daily yoga practice showed improved sleep efficiency and total sleep time, while reducing the amount of time it takes to fall asleep.
Some supplements are natural sleep aids. Melatonin, L-Theanine, and 5-HTP are a few of the main sleep supplements you will encounter. Melatonin is a natural hormone produced by the pineal gland that helps regulate sleep and wake cycles and helps maintain normal sleep patterns. L-Theanine is an amino acid found in green tea leaves. L-Theanine has a calming effect on the brain, increasing serotonin and dopamine, relieving stress, and alleviating anxiety, depression and insomnia. 5-HTP is another naturally occurring amino acid. 5-HTP increases serotonin levels and is a dietary supplement used as an antidepressant, sleep aid, and appetite suppressant.
Common herbs such as lemon balm, chamomile, valerian, passionflower and hops are few of the main Western herbs that can be used to influence restful sleep. Often these herbs are found together in bedtime teas. Lemon balm is an herb with a pleasant lemony flavor that promotes restful sleep, eases anxiety and stress, and is an anti-viral as well. Chamomile is a flower in the daisy family and is beneficial for insomnia, along with various other uses, such as relieving anxiety and calming digestion. Valerian is a flowering plant with sedative properties. It is used for insomnia and also to reduce anxiety. Passionflower is a flower that is native to the southeastern parts of the Americas. It has a more mild effect than valerian, but is also used to treat insomnia, anxiety, and even seizures. Hops are flowers that are most known today for their use in flavoring and stabilizing beer, but they are also used as an herb to treat insomnia, restlessness, and anxiety. Hops also have an anti-bacterial properties.
Chinese medicine practitioners use acupuncture and Chinese herbs to treat insomnia. Chinese medicine theory attributes insomnia to agitation of the Shen (spirit). Because the Heart “houses the shen,” during sleep, insomnia typically arises due to some Heart imbalance, often exacerbated by other organ systems that are out of balance. Acupuncture helps to relax, relieve stress and anxiety, correct imbalance, and reduce pain. All of these benefits can help you get a better night’s rest. Chinese herbs are very powerful for treating insomnia. Herbs help supplement acupuncture treatment and can create balance in the body more quickly than acupuncture alone.
More than thirty percent of the US population suffers from insomnia according to statistics from 2016. With insomnia being linked to anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, obesity, cardiovascular disease, and more, it is very important for those suffering to find effective ways to treat insomnia. It is best to start with lifestyle changes before resorting to medications. Practicing good sleep hygiene and getting daily exercise and yoga or meditation is a great place to start! Most of us do not practice proper sleep hygiene, staying on our devices too late, and even bringing them into bed with us. I believe most cases of insomnia are due to poor sleep practices, stress and anxiety. If good sleep hygiene is practiced and you are also getting daily exercise and still continue to have trouble with insomnia, then please consider using acupuncture, herbs, and supplements to help you find yourself having sweet, restful sleep.