Sleep is a vital component of human life. It allows us to recover, recharge, and get ready for the next day of events. Most humans spend about 1/3 of their life sleeping and recovering. However, some individuals have insomnia, a sleep disorder associated with difficulty falling asleep and/or staying asleep. While over-the-counter supplements and prescriptions can be prescribed to combat this disorder, some helpful remedies can be used to reduce symptoms of insomnia that are simple and perhaps less costly.
What is Insomnia?
Insomnia is a common sleeping disorder characterized by difficulty falling or remaining asleep during a sleep cycle. While the condition may come and go, it can also be a chronic disorder that lasts for an extended period. Although insomnia can be acute or chronic in occurrence, two types of insomnia can be seen in either of these cases.
Primary insomnia: Sleep conditions are not the result of any physical or mental health problem.
Secondary insomnia: Sleep conditions are a direct result of physical/mental health problems (asthma, depression, cancer, or arthritis) or related to substance abuse (alcohol).
Causes of primary insomnia include:
- Stress: related to life events (death, job change, divorce)
- Environmental: noise, light, temperature changes
- Changes to sleep schedule: jet lag, night shift work
Causes of secondary insomnia include:
- Mental health issues such as depression and anxiety
- Side effects of medications treating depression, cold/flu, blood pressure
- Caffeine, tobacco or alcohol use before sleep
- Combination of other sleep disorders
Who Suffers from Insomnia?
Though insomnia can occur spontaneously in any individual, certain populations tend to suffer more commonly from it. For instance, those with mental health issues and those with irregular sleep schedules are more prone to suffer from symptoms of insomnia. Other populations who tend to suffer from insomnia include:
- Individuals with “night owl” tendencies, irregular sleep cycles
- Self-described “worriers”, those who tend to get stressed out easily
- Individuals unable to unwind and relax after stresses throughout the day
- Individuals with sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome
- Genetic predisposition to insomnia
How Does Insomnia Affect the Body?
The most common symptoms of insomnia include fatigue, sleepiness during the day, irritability, loss of concentration, and memory problems. However, prolonged effects of insomnia can predispose you to more severe conditions, such as:
- Stroke, seizures, elevated blood pressure
- Weakened immune system
- Heart disease
- Obesity - During sleep, the body regulates two hormones, leptin and ghrelin. These hormones control feelings of hunger and fullness. Without proper rest, leptin (feelings of fullness) is reduced in production while ghrelin (appetite stimulant) is increased.
By not getting enough sleep, concentration and coordination are also greatly affected. It can lead to balance problems, memory loss, and an increased risk of accidents.
Look for the Remedies
Getting your sleep schedule back to normal does not necessarily mean taking a trip to your physician. Many at-home remedies can be a valuable source to rectify sleep deprivation and reduce symptoms of insomnia. While sleeping medications can offer a short-term solution to sleep deprivation, they often come with unpleasant side effects that have the potential to be worse than the symptoms of insomnia itself. Furthermore, individuals with chronic insomnia often build up a tolerance to such medications, which can result in the need for a higher dosage of the medication for it to continue to work.
These remedies can be a healthy alternative to sleeping medication:
This consists of slow breathing while remaining in a seated position. During this time, you can focus on your thoughts, feelings, breaths and sensations as they come and go. Mindful meditation focuses on stimulus and appraisal of arousal sensations. In theory, according to Black et al. (2015), this form of meditation can “increase relaxation response while also alleviating mood disturbances, which can improve sleep function”. While this form of meditation is safe, it can bring up strong, unexpected emotions. If these emotions become too intense, it may be a good idea to find a different remedy better suited for you and your mental health.
By focusing on a helpful or positive personal mantra or chant, you can create a positive environment and relax your mind. By focusing on the words/sound of the mantra, this will help you relax and go to sleep.
Yoga can be a remarkably effective remedy for sleep deprivation. Not only does it improve movement and flexibility, it can also reduce stress and boost focus. By performing a style of yoga focused on deep breathing and slow, controlled movements, your body can remain focused but also help you relax and unwind. The Sleep Foundation notes the following:
“Individuals who incorporate yoga into their daily schedules fall asleep faster, stay asleep longer, and return to sleep faster if they wake up in the middle of the night.”
For beginners, it would be helpful to start with simple movements/positions and not push your body beyond it’s limits.
Exercise (cardio, strength training, etc.)
– Training is an essential factor in improving sleep, in addition to one’s mental and physical health. Exercise can improve mood, increase energy levels, and reduce symptoms of depression or anxiety. By introducing 20-30 minutes of strength training or aerobic activity into your daily schedule, it can improve your sleep cycle and help reduce associated symptoms. However, it is crucial to have a proper stretch/warm-up routine prior to beginning any exercise. Finding the best course of activity for yourself can reduce the likelihood of an unnecessary injury.
With stresses of daily life, your muscles can sometimes shoulder the burden. This is represented by tight muscles in the neck, shoulders and back. If you’re lucky enough to schedule a professional massage, this can reduce feelings of pain, soreness, and anxiety, while also improving relaxation throughout the body. Focusing on the touch of the massage therapist and the relaxation of tight muscles can help clear your mind. Although massage can be a very relaxing and stress-free remedy, knowing your body and how it may react to stimulation, different oils/creams, and pressure is an essential factor in determining if this is the best option for you.
This mineral helps relieve tension within muscles and reduce stress. In doing so, it can help to reduce symptoms of insomnia and improve sleep. Adequate dosing of magnesium should be determined by your physician. Some common side effects include stomach upset and intestinal issues.
This plant based remedy can help reduce stress, improve relaxation, and help you unwind. Lavender can be used orally or through aromatherapy. Aromatherapy with lavender helps promote relaxation, which in turn can lower heart rate, blood pressure, and respiratory rate.
Melatonin is a natural hormone produced by the human body. This hormone helps regulate the sleep-wake cycle, also known as circadian rhythm. While darkness (when you go to sleep) promotes the production of melatonin, light (or blue light from phones) can reduce melatonin production, making it harder to fall asleep. Melatonin supplementation can promote better sleep quality in those with insomnia.
A native herb in Asia and Europe, valerian root is a common herbal remedy that has been used for anxiety, restless leg syndrome, and menopause. By reducing symptoms of anxiety, the mind feels more relaxed and worry-free. Reducing these symptoms has the potential to help improve sleep in individuals who struggle with insomnia.
This amino acid is found in many foods that contain protein. The most well-known source of tryptophan is turkey. Tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin and ultimately melatonin, which both work to promote sleep, cognition, and mood. So, it makes sense after eating Thanksgiving dinner that you often feel relaxed and tired, which may result in a long nap. Tryptophan can also be found and taken as a supplement as well. It is important to note that some common side effects include nausea, headaches, stomach pain, lightheadedness, drowsiness and heartburn.
Your Sleep Cycle, Your Decision
Although insomnia can have several causes, there are numerous remedies to help combat its associated symptoms. Understanding your triggers and symptoms can help you plot a course of action to improve your mood and sleep schedule. Talking with your physician will help you come up with the best resolution to managing and hopefully resolving your insomnia. There is no harm in trying a combination of different remedies to find a plan that best fits you. Perhaps incorporating exercise, massage, and mindful meditation is the right fit for you, as opposed to more plant-based remedies like lavender tea or a valerian root supplement.
Though insomnia can be a debilitating sleeping disorder, it doesn’t have to consume your everyday life. It is of utmost importance to address any underlying health issues that may be the root cause. Speaking frankly with your physician about symptoms related to anxiety, depression, or melancholy can help you become more aware of your mental hurdles and put you on a path to recovery and wellness. While the path to recovery may not be a short or easy one, taking steps to improve your sleep habits is very important. Since we spend a third of our life asleep, let's make sure it's relaxed, calm, and uninterrupted.