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Not being able to fall asleep at night is one of the most frustrating experiences: you’re doing everything to will your brain into submission and sleep, and yet that’s the time it decides to be hyper alert. You suddenly become aware of the clock ticking, your partner breathing, that tiny red light on the TV – and to top it off the Coldplay lyrics “when you feel so tired but you can’t sleep” start playing in your head like a sick joke. (Well, at least that’s what happens to me.)
If this happens on the odd occasion, there’s nothing to worry about. But if this happens to you multiple times per week, there’s definitely a bigger issue at hand and it’s not something to take lightly. Being unable to get a good night’s rest affects your energy levels, alertness, hormonal balance, appetite, weight and your mood the next day i.e. snapping at your partner for no reason or dramatic road rage. If that sounds like you, understand that you’re not alone – apparently 30% of the adult population suffers from insomnia throughout the year and 10% of the population has chronic insomnia (1)
Causes of Insomnia
First and foremost, it’s important to understand why you’re unable to fall asleep. Without addressing the root cause or making some behavioural changes to address the problem, taking natural supplements or herbal remedies will just provide you with a Band-Aid solution.
Below are some of the most common causes:
STRESS AND ADRENAL FATIGUE
Most of us run around with non-stop mental chatter consuming our brains and endless to-do lists on a daily basis, and unfortunately it’s taking a toll on our ability to fall asleep. If you’re in a state of chronic stress, your adrenal glands will continuously pump out cortisol (the long-term stress hormone) which pumps out glucose to keep your blood sugar and energy levels high, leaving you feeling wired and tired. If this sounds like you, making lifestyle changes to help relax alongside some of the remedies below will have the most impact.
ANXIETY AND DEPRESSION
Did you know that 50% of all cases of insomnia are due to psychological factors such as anxiety and depression? (1) If it’s mild or occasional, some of the herbs below may help you. Of course, if it’s overwhelming and all-consuming, you need to speak to a medical practitioner.
ERRATIC BLOOD SUGAR LEVELS
If your blood sugar dips too low in the middle of the night, your adrenal glands will release cortisol to get more glucose back into your bloodstream, and essentially tell your brain to wake up and go eat something. A few ways to avoid this is: 1) never going to bed hungry; 2) having a diet that promotes blood sugar balance in the first place. If your body is accustomed to peaks and troughs throughout the day due to a high carb or sugar diet, it will come to expect the same before bedtime; and 3) avoid eating a large meal before bed as this will cause a jump in blood sugar followed by a crash, which will then trigger cortisol while you’re asleep.
CAFFEINE AND RELATED COMPOUNDS E.G. COFFEE, TEA, CHOCOLATE, ENERGY DRINKS
It’s a no brainer that caffeine will keep you awake, but it’s a matter of when you should stop having it during the day. And this will actually depend from person to person. Some people can metabolize caffeine really quickly in the liver (within 30 minutes) and for some people it can take up to 12 hours. I fall into the latter category; a medium coffee in the afternoon once managed to keep me up until 6am the next day. (Yep, never again!) Test out different times in the day to see how it affects you, but ideally don’t have caffeine after lunch time.
EXERCISING TOO CLOSE TO BEDTIME
I know it’s hard to fit in workouts alongside work and social obligations, but try not to work out after 8pm since it’ll keep you wired for a while.
Ever go to bed feeling cold but then wake up in the middle of the night sweaty, annoyed and wanting to throw off your blanket? You’re probably setting your thermostat too high. Surprisingly, research shows that the ideal temperatures is between 15 and 19 degrees Celsius, or 60 and 67 degrees Farenheit (2, 3)
AIR QUALITY (HUMIDITY, DUST MITES, MOLD)
If a dry, itchy throat or sneezing is keeping you up, consider looking into the air quality in your bedroom. Is dust gathering behind the headboard and under your bed? Does your bedroom need a humidifier to get rid of dryness? Is there black mold growing on any wall in the room? If you find mold you should get it inspected, as insomnia is one of the signs of black mold toxicity.
SLEEPING TOO LATE
I know this one isn’t easy, but try to be in bed by 10pm, or 10:30pm at the latest. The deepest and most restorative sleep takes between 10pm and 2am, so if you’re going to bed after midnight you’ll not only have trouble falling asleep since you’re wired, but your sleep won’t be as restful. (4)
5 Must-Do’s to Cure Insomnia
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Before diving into the list of natural sleep remedies, it’s important to make sure you’re actually following some of the basic rules for getting proper sleep! Remember, the purpose of natural supplements and herbs is to give you that extra help or push, but the eventual goal is to be free of all supplements and fall asleep on your own.
The sleep hormone, melatonin, is produced in the absence of light. It is literally triggered by darkness, so the ideal environment in your bedroom should be a pitch black room. The best way to guarantee this is wearing an eye mask – I promise, it will take your sleep to a whole new level. Bonus: try to get as much bright sun exposure early on in the day; if you’re in darkness all day long your brain can’t appreciate the difference between day and night and won’t optimize your melatonin production.
SWITCH OFF SCREENS 1 HOUR BEFORE BEDTIME
So you’ve probably heard you shouldn’t stare at a screen before sleep but you may not know the reason behind it. Research has now confirmed two things: 1) when your brain registers bright light, it thinks “hey it’s still daytime! I don’t need to make your sleep hormone melatonin yet”; 2) your brain is actively engaged, which tells your body to produce the stress hormone cortisol to keep you wide awake, which then prolongs the time it takes to fall asleep (5)
Yes, I can already see some of you rolling your eyes thinking I’m going woo-woo on you and will tell you to chant affirmations about sleep in the mirror. Hear me out: we all have a million things going on in our head before we sleep, and writing them down (whether on a list or in a journal) is a great first step to clearing your mind. What’s even better is actually writing about what you were grateful for that day, as it helps you feel more peaceful and less worried. In one study, writing in a gratitude journal for 15 minutes every evening helped students worry less at bedtime and sleep longer and better afterward. (6)
EAT DINNER BY 7PM
Eating a heavy meal and then going to bed will not only upset your blood sugar balance, but it will likely lead to indigestion, acid reflux and overall feeling extremely uncomfortable. Your body won’t be able to focus on repair and healing (as it should at nighttime) and instead will be overwhelmed with trying to digest your meal.
GO TO BED BY 10PM
See explanation above. Seriously, try it for one week and your life will change. Plus, if I had to take a guess, the majority of people staying up after 10pm are probably watching movies, YouTube or on social media which is making insomnia even worse.
6 Powerful Natural Sleep Remedies
If you’re not on any medication, you can start taking these right away. If you are, just check in with your doctor before you try any of these to make sure there’s no contraindications. You can easily buy these online on Amazon or at your local health food store.
- This is a precursor to the neurotransmitter in your brain called serotonin, which is an important initiator of sleep. Research shows it can increase REM sleep by up to 25%, while increasing deep sleep without altering overall sleep time. (1)
- Dosage recommendation is 100-300mg taken 30-45 minutes before going to sleep.
- This soothing herb gently strengthens the nervous system and is therefore good for nervousness, anxiety and exhaustion.
- One study showed it was just as effective as medication to reduce feelings of depression, anxiety and helplessness. The dosage was 3ml in a 1:5 tincture (7)
- A simple trick to help fall asleep is adding a few drops of lavender essential oil to your pillow or in an essential oil diffuser
HERBS: VALERIAN, PASSION FLOWER, HOPS, CALIFORNIAN POPPY, SKULLCAP
- Valerian root is probably the most powerful natural sleep aid since it acts like a sedative that relaxes the entire nervous system
- It has more than 20 double-blind clinical studies to confirm that it improves sleep quality and relieves insomnia (1)
- Valerian has additional benefits like relieving anxiety, cramps, migraines and rheumatic pain.
- Pour a cup of boiling water into 1-2 tsp of the root, and let it sit for 10-15 minutes. Or take 150-300mg in a capsule (0.8% valerenic acid) or 4-6ml of a 1:5 tincture.
- If you’re looking for maximum impact, try finding a herbal supplement that combines as many of the herbs above as possible
- Here’s a quick science lesson: magnesium and calcium both work well together but have an opposite effect on muscles and the nervous system; magnesium helps to relax, and calcium helps to contract
- If you have soreness, muscle aches and pains or cramping at night, or even if you just feel wound up and stressed, magnesium is the ultimate relaxation mineral.
- Simple take liquid magnesium or a powdered mix like Natural Calm (350mg magnesium) about 30 minutes before bedtime
- This is the amino acid (building block of protein) that’s found in green tea, and it’s the reason you’ll feel more relaxed and calm after having a cup
- The beauty of this supplement is that it relaxes you without any drowsiness, and also increases levels of GABA, another neurotransmitter that helps dampen brain activity and shuts off mental chatter
- A study found that a dosage of 200mg helped improved sleep quality, but it didn’t prolong the amount of sleep (8) Definitely consider taking this is your insomnia is fuelled by anxiety.
- Yep, you can now find a synthetic version of the sleep hormone itself in a bottle! This is perfectly safe to take, however it only works if you’re actually deficient in melatonin to begin with. Studies have found if you have adequate levels, taking it will do nothing for you. (1)
- The typical dosage is between 1-3mg and you can get it in a liquid or capsule supplement
(1) Murray, Michael T, and Joseph E Pizzorno. The Encyclopedia Of Natural Medicine. 3rd ed. Atria, 2012. Print.
(2) Onen SH, Onen F, Bailly D, Parquet P. Prevention and treatment of sleep disorders through regulation of sleeping habits. Presse; Mar 12; 23(10): 485-9.
(3) National Sleep Foundation: The Sleep Environment
(4) “Sleep And Longevity”. Doctoroz.com., 2017. Web. 8 Apr. 2017.
(5) Chang, Anne-Marie et al. “Evening Use Of Light-Emitting Ereaders Negatively Affects Sleep, Circadian Timing, And Next-Morning Alertness”. N.p., 2017. Print.
(6) Digdon, N. and Koble, A. (2011), Effects of Constructive Worry, Imagery Distraction, and Gratitude Interventions on Sleep Quality: A Pilot Trial. Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, 3: 193–206. doi:10.1111/j.1758-0854.2011.01049.x
(7) Akhondzadeh, Shahin et al. “Comparison Of Lavandula Angustifolia Mill. Tincture And Imipramine In The Treatment Of Mild To Moderate Depression: A Double-Blind, Randomized Trial”. Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry 27.1 (2003): 123-127. Web.
(8) Shirakawa, S. Theanine supplementation and sleep quality. 17th European Sleep Research Society. 2004.
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