Created by the Center for Spirituality & Healing and Charlson Meadows.

Manage Insomnia Naturally

If you toss and turn throughout the night, unable to find decent rest, you’re not alone. Recent surveys indicate that up to 40% of adults experience insomnia in a given year, making it the most common sleep complaint in the United States. Its most common symptoms are the inability to fall asleep at bedtime or stay asleep during the night, which often causes drowsiness and fatigue the following day. Insomnia can either be acute (lasting just a few days) or chronic (lasting a month or longer), and it may be connected to another health condition, aggravated by stress or anxiety, or triggered by a disruption in your daily routines (such as travel or a changing work schedule).

If you are having trouble sleeping, you should first take into consideration if there are any changes in your life—such as a new job, high levels of stress, or medications—that might be affecting your sleep. Visit your healthcare provider to talk about your symptoms and get a physical examination to rule out or seek treatment for any underlying health conditions that may be causing your sleeping problems.

Take charge of your sleep

There are many options you can take to manage the circumstances that cause your sleeplessness and return to a more regular sleep schedule. Be aware that there may not be a single solution; rather, taking a broad look at all the factors in your life that may affect sleep is the best approach to returning to a state of balance.

  1. Improve sleep hygiene.

    The first and most important step you can take in overcoming insomnia is to develop healthy sleep habits. Creating a comfortable sleeping environment free from distractions (i.e., no television, large clocks, or laptops in the bedroom) is key in finding more consistent sleep. Follow expert-recommended sleep guidelines to create a comfortable, consistent sleep pattern. If you find yourself lying in bed wide awake for more than 20 minutes, get up. Read a few pages of a book, drink warm milk, or meditate until you feel sleepy enough to get back into bed.
  2. Make some changes in your daily lifestyle.

    If you suffer from insomnia, what you do during the day can be just as important as what you do when you lie down at night. Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine, which can disrupt sleep even in non-insomniacs. Make sure you get enough exercise each day and eat healthy foods, but avoid vigorous movement, heavy meals, and spicy foods 2-3 hours before bedtime. If you’re tired during the day because you can’t sleep at night, try to avoid napping, except for “emergency naps” before driving or operating heavy machinery. If you can, save your tiredness for when it’s time to go to bed. If you lie awake at night with your mind buzzing with work, make a to-do list before bed and set it aside, knowing that you can take care of everything tomorrow.
  3. Do yoga or tai chi.Woman meditating in lotus position.

    A systematic review of a broad range of integrative therapies found that yoga and tai chi were the most effective in improving insomnia. In fact, a daily yoga or tai chi practice can help you reduce feelings of stress, fall asleep faster, and stay asleep longer. Look for classes in your area; there are also plenty of DVDs that enable you to practice at home.
  4. Practice mindfulness meditation.

    Research shows that mindfulness-based meditation can have a positive benefit on sleep in as little as 8 weeks of practice. Meditation lowers cortisol levels (a stress hormone) and facilitates a more relaxed and accepting state of being. This can help tremendously if you find yourself unable to sleep because you are worried or stressed.
  5. Try relaxation techniques.

    Because insomnia is often connected to stress, basic relaxation techniques can help you calm your mind and body so that you can rest. Deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and guided imagery (imagining peaceful, relaxing places) are all effective ways of gently guiding your body into a relaxed state. Taking 20 minutes for a relaxation practice before going to bed can also ease the anxiety many insomniacs feel when they go to bed at night.
  6. Consider an ayurvedic perspective.

    In ayurveda, Dinacharya (a daily routine) plays a significant role in maintaining balance and achieving better health. Ayurvedic practitioners may recommend going to bed between 9:30 and 10:00 each night and getting 8 hours of sleep each time in order to sync the rhythms of the body with the rhythms of nature.
  7. Take herbal and dietary supplements.

    There are several options for non-pharmaceutical treatments for insomnia. Be sure to tell your healthcare practitioner about any herbs or supplements you use on your own.
    • Valerian is a popular botanical herb that has long been used for its sedative effects. While many people use valerian to help them fall asleep and some clinical trials have shown it to be helpful for the treatment of insomnia, larger reviews indicate that more trials are needed to conclusively prove its efficacy. (All studies agree, however, that valerian is safe to use for short 4-6 week periods at a time.)
    • Melatonin is a natural hormone that regulates sleep and can also be taken as a supplement. Many people prefer melatonin to prescribed sleeping medications because it does not have a next-day “hangover” effect and is not addictive. Like valerian, much of melatonin’s effectiveness is anecdotal and based on small research studies. A 2013 meta-analysis demonstrated that melatonin increases total sleep time with overall improvement in sleep quality. The Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database has found that melatonin’s is possibly effective for insomnia, but larger, more quantifiable studies are needed.
    • Chamomile can be taken as a bedtime tea. Though many report feelings of relaxation that are induced by chamomile, scientific evidence of its efficacy has not been proven.
  8. Use aromatherapy.

    Many people use lavender to help induce a state of relaxation, and research suggests that the inhalation of lavender essential oils can have a positive impact on sleep quality and mood. There are a number of ways you can use lavender—get a massage with lavender oil, inhale a few drops on a cotton ball, or use a diffuser. 
  9. Visit an integrative practitioner.

    Many clinical trials and personal case studies have reported the benefits that acupuncture, acupressure, massage, and reflexology can have on sleep. Larger reviews indicate that there is a need for more standardized research in these areas, but these practices are safe to try and are not likely to have any side effects.
  10. See a therapist.

    Cognitive behavioral therapy has also been found to be an effective form of treating insomnia.

A note about sleeping pills

Doctors may prescribe sleeping pills as an option to deal with short-term insomnia. However, these medications often come with side effects, such as extreme drowsiness and impaired thinking that can affect your safety and ability to function normally. There may be more dangerous health consequences when using sleeping pills as well—a recent study found that people who took hypnotic sleeping medications had an increased incidence of cancer and a higher mortality rate than people who did not take them.

If you choose to use a sleeping pill, it is important that you discuss with your provider any questions or concerns you have about your prescription and carefully research the potential side effects and risk of dependency. Sleeping pills should never be considered a long-term solution to chronic insomnia.

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