According to the National Sleep Foundation a whopping 1/5 of Americans report chronic insomnia, 25% of the population use prescription sleep medications, and almost half of all individuals report weekly sleep disturbances.
And it’s no wonder. After all, we live in a high-powered, overworked, over-stimulated culture wherein stress is worn as a badge of honor.
Yet we shouldn’t be so proud.
Sleep deprivation is not only uncomfortable, but it can actually be dangerous. Lack of sufficient sleep is correlated with higher rates of depression, mood disorders, and heart disease, as well as increasing the likelihood of accidents, lower job-performance, cloudy thinking, and digestive disturbances.
But don’t reach for the pharmaceuticals! There are plenty of natural insomnia solutions that will get you snoozing better in no time.
Insomnia can be quite complicated to understand.
A simple explanation from a Chinese medicine standpoint is that qi (energy) should flow up during the day and settle down during the night.
Insomnia happens when the energy goes up inappropriately, and has trouble coming back down when it should. This excessively upward-moving pattern can arise from many different places.
There are 4 Common Causes of Insomnia:
1. Your Brain is Buzzing
If you’re busy all day, it can be hard to slow down what Buddhists call your “monkey-mind”. You know you should relax when you come home, but it seems like your thoughts are stuck in non-stop-action-mode.
Now read this: you might unwittingly be making matters worse.
Even if you can turn your thoughts away from work in the evening, it’s likely that you fill every empty space with informational clutter from the television, radio, a good book, or your computer, right up to the moment you go to bed.
For many people this non-stop stimulation can lead to insomnia.
The Solution: If you’re nodding your head because this rings true for you, you’ll want to turn away from the constant chatter and find some quiet space in the evening.
An hour before bedtime, turn off all electronics (unless they’re there for the sole purpose of providing you with soothing music,) take a hot bath or shower, meditate, and/or practice some restorative yoga or taiqi.
Turning one (or more) of these strategies into a bedtime routine will trigger a relaxation response over time, so you’ll always be ready to sleep when you go to bed.
2. Your Bedroom is Overstimulating
Modern bedrooms are frequently setup in ways that cater to non-sleep-related activities.
Desks and televisions are the most common perpetrators, but when you carry your computer or smartphone into your sleeping space you’re also adding to the problem.
Engaging with these items in your bedroom conditions your brain to recognize that space as one of activity rather than rest, so when finally close your eyes it becomes a lot harder for your brain to switch gears into sleep-mode.
The Solution: Declare your bedroom a stimulation-free zone. Remove all electronics and work-related objects.
Also, make sure your bedroom is dark enough by hanging thick curtains or wearing an eye-mask to bed.
If you are kept awake by outside noises consider sleeping with earplugs or getting a white-noise machine.
3. You Are Chronically Stressed Out
This may be the most common underlying cause of sleep disturbances. In fact, stress is so common that it is linked to the 6 leading causes of death in the US.
True, brief moments of stress can be useful. In the morning levels of the stress hormone cortisol should spike, giving you the impetus to start the day. (Think of it as nature’s coffee, conveniently built into your nervous system.)
Later, as you’re going about your business and encounter a stressful stimulus (like your boss yelling at you, or a deadline that is quickly approaching,) your body essentially “wakes up” all over again. Your Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) kicks into superhero mode and your adrenal glands release a heavy dose of cortisol.
This makes your blood rush out of your organs and into your muscles, thereby quickening your response time so you can adequately deal with the situation at hand.
But if you’re constantly stressed out you are making your SNS run a marathon when it has only trained for sprints.
Pretty soon it’s no longer able to put out as much energy, and the next thing you know you find your energy rhythm is completely out of whack. Instead of being at its highest in the morning, cortisol spikes erratically throughout the day (or even worse, plateaus entirely,) and you find yourself just as awake at 11 p.m. as you are at 11 in the morning.
The Solution: You desperately need a change in perspective.
Instead of priding yourself in your accomplishments, make relaxation, enjoyment, and play priorities in life.
If this means that you have to schedule fun-time into your routine, do it. Write down that you’re going to take a bath, go to the museum, get bodywork or acupuncture on such-and-such a day, at such-and-such a time, and then stick to your commitments to yourself.
If you have trouble committing to yourself then set up an adult play-date with a dear friend. Going on a hike, seeing live music, or checking out new classes are excellent ways to relieve stress.
Find what works for you. Your life literally depends on it.
4. Physical Discomfort
Digestive issues, fibromyalgia, restless leg syndrome, sleep apnea, snoring, and nocturia (waking up to pee at night) are just a few of the common complaints associated with insomnia.
The Solution: Get help. You can try all the other techniques listed in this article, but your best bet to solve these issues is to find a licensed acupuncturist, herbalist, and/or craniosacral therapist (bonus points if your practitioner does all three!).
No matter the cause of your insomnia, there are 10 more things everyone can do to improve their sleep:
1. Have a set bedtime. Your sleep cycle is rhythmic, so the more consistency you can provide in your routine, the more efficiently your sleep and wake hormones can adjust.
If you can go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, you’ll fall asleep faster and wake up more refreshed than you do when your patterns change frequently.
2. Increase your magnesium intake. Magnesium has been shown to positively affect sleep regulation, but the majority of Americans are deficient in this important mineral.
You can increase your magnesium levels by eating magnesium-rich foods such as leafy greens (like kale, chard, and spinach,) pumpkin seeds, almonds, bananas, and quinoa.
3. In the evening, take a hot bath with at least 2 cups of Epsom salts. Epsom salts are also magnesium rich, and when you take an infused hot bath you absorb the magnesium through your skin.
As an added bonus, Epsom salt baths can also relieve muscle tension and act as effective stress relief.
4. Lavender essential oil has been proven to be effective against insomnia as well as depression.
Put a few drops in your bath, on your temples, or fill a small spritz bottle with water and 10-30 drops of oil to scent your bedroom.
5. After dinner, enjoy a cup of chamomile tea. It won’t just help you sleep, but it can help you digest better too!
*Be sure to increase the dose incrementally, everyone responds to herbs differently and more is not always better.
If you are a generally stressed-out individual, passionflower can actually help you throughout the day as well. Try taking 3 drops of tincture 3-5 times a day and see if it helps you relax.
7. Where your awareness goes your energy goes, and if you’re experiencing insomnia your energy is too far up.
So when you’re under the covers, focus on the bottoms of your feet, especially the space in the middle of your feet under the ball.
But don’t just visualize it, really feel that area. If you have trouble doing this, massage this spot for a few minutes on both feet and then focus on the lingering sensations. It might be tough at first but it’ll get easier with practice.
8. You’ve heard it before and you’ll hear it again: regular moderate exercise can do wonders for your health, including your sleep cycle.
Find a few physical activities that make you happy and incorporate them into your life. Once your blood has coursed through your system your body will be able to rest much better.
9. Avoid Caffeine. If you don’t want to cut it out all together, limit your caffeine intake to the morning hours exclusively. And remember, even decaf products and chocolate can potentially contain enough caffeine to affect your sleep.
10. Finally, melatonin is a sleep hormone that your body naturally produces. Taking a melatonin supplement right before bed can help you drift off faster. Note, however, that it’s not ideal to take melatonin regularly, and low doses are preferable.
As always, please check in with a doctor before starting any new regimens. Each situation is different, and though they are mild, some remedies might not be appropriate for all individuals.
Also, if you feel that you have tried everything and are still unable to sleep, employ the help of a natural health expert (like a Chinese medicine practitioner or naturopath) before you turn to pharmaceutical drugs.
Though they can be helpful in the short-term, chemically modified sleep aids can be very addictive and dangerous, and are best avoided if at all possible!
What do you do when you can’t sleep? Leave a comment below!