Do you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep throughout the night? If so, you may be suffering from insomnia. On average, adults need around seven hours of sleep and children need nine hours. Not getting necessary sleep can have an array of impacts on the body. Sleep problems can increase your chances of getting sick, lead to weight gain, impact mood, lower attention span, make processing ideas difficult, and of course just the general annoyance of feeling drowsy the next day (1).
What is Insomnia?
Insomnia is a disorder in which an individual has difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep. There are two main types of insomnia; acute and chronic. Insomnia often occurs at least three times a week and lasts for at least a month. However, studies have shown severe insomnia can last an average of four years (2). People with insomnia tend to have problems falling asleep (onset), staying asleep (maintenance), and/or they wake up too early in the mornings.
Acute Vs. Chronic Insomnia
Many people have experienced this type of sleep disruption. The occurrence is brief and often occurs due to life circumstances. For example, have you ever stayed up tossing and turning because you had a big test the next day? Your brain keeps running through a variety of thoughts and you just can’t seem to get that restful night sleep you were wishing for. This type of insomnia often passes on its own and resolves without treatment.
Chronic insomnia occurs at least three times a week and typically last for three months or longer. There can be a variety of causes including but not limited to medications, unhealthy sleep habits, shift work and changes in your environment.
What Causes Insomnia?
There is not one particular mechanism that leads to insomnia. Because of this, not every treatment plan will work for everyone. The most common lifestyle factors that can cause insomnia include (3):
- Anxiety and stress
- Alcohol and drug use
- Shift work
- Certain medications. Ex. SSRI’s (used to treat depression) and dopamine agonists (used to treat Parkinson’s disease.)
- Sleep apnea (pauses in breathing at night)
- Pain. Ex. joint or back pain
- Hot flashes
- Need to urinate at night
- Sleep walking
- Grinding of teeth
- Restless leg syndrome
- Digestive problems
- Allergies or respiratory conditions
Natural Treatments to Help Combat Insomnia
Turn Off Electronics and Distractions
It is important to turn off distractions, especially screens, at least 30 minutes before bed. If possible, leave your cell phone in another room and turn off all electronic devices. Make sure the TV is off, the lights are dimmed, and any extra noises are removed.
Set The Tone
Take a hot bath to sooth your mind and body. Consider calming music, white noise, ear plugs, or even turning on a fan. Meditate, pray, and/or practice mindfulness. Whatever it may be, make sure the activities you choose signal to yourself that it’s time to get ready to sleep. These activities need to feel peaceful, not obnoxious. Think classical or instrumental music, not heavy metal.
Calm Your Mind
At least 30 minutes prior to bed, try reading a book. This gives your brain a chance to unwind. Genres such as psychological thrillers might not be the best idea. Remember, the goal is to fall asleep, not stay awake anticipating what happens next in the plot, or having anxiety.
Maintain a regular sleep schedule
Going to bed at the same time every night (including weekends) helps your circadian rhythm stay in tune. To learn more about how your circadian rhythm is impacting your health and well-being, click here.
I know, I know, I know! Sometimes you feel like you need that extra pick me up in the afternoon to keep you going but the truth is, having caffeine after 12pm can keep you from sleeping at night. Instead, turn to water, herbal teas, and adrenal support to help get you through the day. The last thing you need is to suffer from a vicious caffeine cycle. This occurs when you consume caffeine during the day to combat your caffeine induced sleep deprivation.
Set the Temperature
Do you ever find it difficult to sleep when it is too hot or cold? I know I do, especially with heat. Aim for 60-73 degrees Fahrenheit.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: EXERCISE! Exercise has been shown to decrease insomnia and sleep complaints. Exercise decreases anxiety, boosts mood, and improves overall quality of life. Exercise is your friend! You may even consider switching your workouts to the morning for an extra energy boost during the day. This also makes for a more calming, unwinding feeling during your evenings. (5)
Eat Melatonin-Stimulating Foods
Melatonin is a hormone that is naturally released by our bodies at night. When the sun begins to go down, melatonin is produced by our pineal gland to help signal to our bodies that it is time to sleep. Examples of melatonin-stimulating foods include bananas, tomatoes, ginger, nuts, sunflower seeds, turkey, rice and barley. If snacking late doesn’t appeal to you, trying including some of these foods with your dinner.
Natural Sleep Aids
Get cozy and feel a little drowsier with some warm, calming chamomile tea. While not a permanent solution, consider natural sleep aids such as valerian root, magnesium, melatonin, and passion flower. Often times you can find these in tea or supplement forms and they can help get you out of a sleepless cycle.
Invest in a Good Mattress and Pillows
If your mattress and pillows are uncomfortable, it could be near impossible to get a good night’s sleep. No amount of tips and strategies are going to help if you are tossing and turning and can’t get comfortable to begin with.
Insomnia can have an overall negative impact on your quality of life and overall health. A number of lifestyle factors, health and psychological conditions play a role in development of sleep disturbances. If you can’t sleep at night, work to reduce your stress levels, create a soothing nighttime routine that sets the tone for a restful night’s sleep, change your diet and exercise routine. If you suffer from chronic insomnia, don’t be afraid to talk with your doctor about a treatment plan that is right for you. For many, lifestyle and behavioral changes may be all you need, however, in some cases medication may be necessary and a conversation to have with your health care professional.