Suffering from sleepless nights? Some of these home remedies may be useful in helping with your insomnia.
What is insomnia?
Most people have a little trouble sleeping from time to time, however, when sleeplessness becomes frequent and begins to have an impact on day-to-day life and wellbeing, it is known as insomnia.
Insomnia can be characterised by an inability to fall asleep or waking up in the night or too early in the morning and being unable to go back to sleep.
Most people function best with a regular seven to nine hours of sleep a night, with a consistent bedtime routine at around the same time every night. Some people find that they need more or less sleep than this, but the need for a consistent, restful sleep is universal.
Signs of insomnia include:
- Difficulty getting to sleep.
- Waking up a lot through the night, especially if it's hard to get back to sleep.
- Feeling tired through the day; sometimes unable to nap despite extreme tiredness.
- Becoming irritable, changing mood and concentration levels.
Why do I have insomnia?
There are lots of reasons for insomnia, including:
- Working variable shift patterns, especially those who alternate night and day shifts. Jet lag can also throw sleep patterns out of rhythm.
- Stress - simple work or life stressors, or other mental health conditions like depression or anxiety.
- Environment - a bedroom that is too hot, cold, bright, or generally uncomfortable can prevent good sleep.
- Stimulants like caffeine, alcohol, tobacco, or illicit drug use.
If managing one of these underlying causes doesn't improve your sleep patterns, there are a number of non-pharmacological methods that might help.
Sometimes there are physical or medical reasons for insomnia and simply treating those problems can improve those sleepless nights.
For example, people with dust mite allergy who suffer from congestion overnight may benefit from a scrupulously clean sleep environment and an evening antihistamine; people with chronic pain conditions may have to tweak the timing of their medications.
If existing health conditions or medical treatments are affecting sleep, it's important to get a doctor's advice before you make any changes.
There are a number of underlying causes for insomnia - very often, good habits and simple home remedies can help to improve sleep, but if there's a deeper reason for your insomnia, we recommend that you consult a GP for advice.
What is sleep hygiene?
Sleep hygiene is the name for the patterns of activity and habits that lead to restful sleep and rested days. It includes an understanding of the things that both improve and impair our sleep patterns, and what we can do to help ourselves sleep better.
Create an environment for good sleep
It's a good idea to keep the bedroom quiet, reasonably cool, and avoid clutter as much as possible. Keeping it clean is important too - not just for the relaxation and peace of mind you get in a clean and tidy room, but because odours, dust, and uncomfortable surroundings can affect your sleep.
In more restricted accommodation such as bedsits and student halls of residence, we might have to get a little creative to preserve the bed as a safe haven for rest.
Understand the circadian rhythm
Humans are simply designed to be awake in daylight and sleep in the dark.
Where you live in the world can affect the way the circadian rhythm works - those of us near the equator who enjoy relatively stable lengths of day and night year-round will have a different relationship with natural light than someone in the North of Norway where the sun doesn't set for two months of every year.
If we can stick to a fairly regular routine - getting up and going to bed at around the same time every day, and where possible aligning our daily routine with hours of dark and sunlight, then we allow our bodies to follow their natural pattern of rest and wakefulness.
The light of our phone screens, tablets, televisions and computers are culprits for impairing our natural circadian rhythm, shining blue-light wavelength that's particularly bad for our sleep patterns.
Create a night-time routine
Humans are creatures of habit, and if we get used to a certain relaxation routine before bedtime, it can help us get to sleep faster and have more restful nights. A good bedtime routine may include:
- A warm bath or shower - perhaps with some essential oils to help you relax and ready for sleep.
- Turn off phones and other screens - bright light at night is terrible for our circadian rhythm, particularly the blue light of most of our electronic devices.
- If you must look at your phone near bedtime, do turn down the brightness. There may also be a night shift setting that filters some of that blue light.
- Use mindfulness and relaxation techniques like yoga to get yourself ready for rest.
- Have a warm drink at bedtime - but avoid the caffeine. Milky, malty drinks, oat milk and chamomile tea are all good.
- Self-care - this can be something as simple as remembering to apply some moisturiser or massaging in some hand cream.
Even the basic, essential parts of getting ready for bed can be incorporated into a particularly relaxing nighttime routine.
Getting into pyjamas, brushing your teeth, even just switching off the lights can be part of a relaxing night-time pattern of behaviour.
Eat to sleep!
There is a close relationship between food and sleep. People who have poor quality sleep tend to feel hungry and crave more for unhealthy snacks.
This causes them to enter into a vicious cycle where their diet impairs their sleep, and their lack of sleep impairs their diet. Being mindful of the effect of specific foods on sleep quality is important when trying to beat insomnia.
The timing of meals may be just as important - eating a heavy meal at bedtime may make it harder to fall asleep, although going to bed hungry can make for a restless night.
A careful balance - eating the right foods at the right time - can make a big difference to sleep quality.
Foods that helps with sleep include:
- Warm milky drinks, especially malted drinks like Horlicks.
- Chamomile tea, or other specially-blended night-time teas.
- Foods high in B vitamins, which improve melatonin production (a hormone that helps us get to sleep). Foods rich in B vitamins include meat and dairy products, yeast extract, dark green leafy vegetables and seeds.
Following a general healthy diet - one rich in fruit and vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins - is linked to good sleep quality.
Foods that impair sleep include:
- Caffeine - a cup of tea or coffee can be a useful pick-me-up in the morning, but caffeine still continues to affect you around 6 hours after drinking it, so it's important to limit caffeinated drinks to the morning.
- Cheese and processed meats - a chemical called tyramine is present in some foods which increase alertness, hindering you from getting to sleep.
- Sugar - sugar gives us a short-term energy boost that can wreak havoc on sleep patterns, and people who have high-sugar diets have poorer sleep patterns than those who don't, even if they don't eat it near bedtime.
Simple exercises that can help with insomnia
There has been a lot of research supporting exercise as a treatment for insomnia. Some aerobic exercise ("cardio", or non-weight training exercise) is actually as effective as taking sleeping tablets, and more likely to have a positive long-term effect.
The type of exercise you do and the timing of your exercise can affect your sleep patterns. This can vary from person to person, so if you're someone who gets a real buzz after exercise, you might want to exercise earlier in the day.
- Cardio - cardiovascular or aerobic exercise is any exercise that gets your heart and lungs working harder from sustained activity. Cardiovascular exercise throughout the day has a fantastic effect on sleep, and contributes to all-round good health.
- Yoga - effective for strength, flexibility and relaxation, yoga can improve sleep patterns in most people. Yoga classes are widely available, and there are numerous books, apps and videos showing you how to begin to do yoga at home.
- Stretches - gentle stretching exercises at bedtime can improve sleep patterns in a similar way to other meditative exercises like yoga.
Traditional Chinese Medicine
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for insomnia can take various forms, including:
- Acupuncture - using fine needles at specific points on the body to improve health.
- Acupressure - a non-invasive therapy using similar principles to acupuncture.
- Herbalism - the use of therapeutic natural medicines to improve health.
TCM is a holistic therapy where all aspects of a person's life are considered when choosing the right treatment course.
Consulting a specialist at a registered TCM clinic is essential to ensure that the treatment is carefully chosen to suit you as an individual.
Some people find that aromatherapy - the use of powerful essential oils mainly through massage or inhalation, to promote specific changes in wellbeing - can help with sleep disturbances.
There is a wide range of aromatherapy products that are easily available, including incense burners, massage oils, bath products, pillow sprays, scent diffusers and more.
Using aromatherapy-scented body lotions and self-care products can be a helpful and enjoyable part of a bedtime routine. Lavender oil is one of the most common essential oils used for relaxation and sleep, but others include chamomile, sweet orange, bergamot, and damascene rose.
Psychotherapy isn't just for people diagnosed with mental health issues; it can be used to improve various aspects of health and lifestyle quality and has proven benefits for sleep quality.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can help teach relaxation and meditation techniques that can help with insomnia, especially if you find that you're lying awake at night with your mind racing.
Do natural sleep aids have side effects?
Most of the natural techniques for improving sleep quality are completely safe, requiring only some healthy lifestyle modifications to have a significant effect on sleep quality and reduce insomnia.
Some herbal treatments and even aromatherapy may have a small risk of side effects for some people, however.
If you have any concerns at all, consult a professional who specialises in those treatments. For serious concerns, see your GP.
Are natural sleep remedies safe for pregnant people?
Pregnancy can be a wonderful, exciting time, but it can also be a time of increasing discomfort, changes in the body and fluctuating hormones which can cause disturbed sleep.
Many of the simple techniques recommended for insomnia can be safe and effective in pregnancy; gentle exercise and pregnancy yoga, good routines, avoiding caffeine and limiting screen time can all go a long way towards improving sleep patterns.
Some natural remedies may not be suitable during pregnancy, however. Some TCM and even aromatherapy products don't have the benefit of long clinical evidence of safety in pregnancy, thus it's best to stick to the clinically proven and safe methods.
When to seek help
If you have tried natural remedies and have been practicing good sleep hygiene for a while without any improvement, it's okay to ask for professional support.
If insomnia is affecting your daily life and impacting your physical or mental health, you might need some expert help. Seeing a GP doesn't mean you have to take sleeping tablets, although that might be one of their suggestions to get you through sleepless nights in the short term.
Doctors are more likely to recommend a course of cognitive behavioural therapy or similar techniques to develop good long-term sleep habits and insomnia-management skills.
This article was first published in Homage.