It’s been a long day; your body aches and you feel like you could sleep for days. You fall into bed and think that surely you’ll be asleep in no time. You close your eyes, settle into your favourite sleeping position and then.. nothing. Sound familiar?
You’re not alone. Millions of people around the world suffer from insomnia in one form or another. Either you struggle to get to sleep no matter how tired you are, or you wake up in the middle of the night and lie awake for hours, anxiously watching the clock. Insomnia is a common problem that takes a toll on your energy, mood, health, and ability to function during the day.
Chronic insomnia can even contribute to serious health problems. However simple changes to your lifestyle and daily habits can put a stop to sleepless nights.
Insomnia is a relatively common sleeping disorder, affecting about one-third of the adult population worldwide. It’s more common in women and the quality of sleep often decreases equally in both women and men as we age.
There are a variety of factors that can cause insomnia: stress (including anxiety about not being able to sleep), extreme temperature fluctuations, environmental noise or changes, medication side effects, hormones, or disruption to the regular sleep pattern. Leading US integrative medical practitioner, Dr Andrew Weil says depression, chronic pain, a variety of health issues and sleep apnea can also contribute to insomnia. Lifestyle can also affect insomnia – studies have shown that alcohol and caffeine intake and smoking cigarettes before bedtime disrupts sleep, as can excessive napping in the afternoon or evening.
Symptoms of Insomnia Include:
– Lying awake for a long time before you fall asleep
– Sleeping for only short periods
– Being awake for much of the night
– Feeling as if you haven’t slept at all
– Waking up too early
Secrets to Sleeping Soundly
Dr Weil believes that common problems with sleep are often easily addressed without the use of medication; ” while there are no guaranteed natural cures for insomnia, there are effective steps you can take. Ask yourself these questions (and try the simple sleep aid recommendations) if you find yourself waking frequently in the night”:
- Are you physically uncomfortable? A too soft or too firm mattress, an uncomfortable pillow, or an older, worn-out bed can all impede a good night’s sleep. Check your mattress for signs of wear at least twice a year, and consider new pillows. You may also want to see an osteopathic physician who specializes in osteopathic manipulative therapy (OMT). A session or two of this safe and effective sleep aid treatment can be life-changing.
- Is your bedroom noisy? Consider a “white noise” generator, an inexpensive but effective device for making soothing sounds to mask jangling ones.
- Is your mind overactive? If you can’t sleep because of thoughts whirling through your head, try the Relaxing Breath – it can help you put aside the thoughts that are keeping you awake. A few stretches can help with sleep aid, too.
- Are you frequently getting up to urinate and then not able to get back to sleep? Eliminate caffeine and alcohol, especially before bedtime – both can increase nighttime urination and increase sleep disturbances.
He adds; “If you experiment with all these possibilities and still wake in the early morning hours, try getting up and reading or doing some light stretching – anything other than watching the clock and worrying about the sleep you’re losing. Taking your mind off the problem can help to relax you and may help you to fall back asleep.”
Effective Daily Sleep Habits
As mentioned earlier in this article, there are no guaranteed natural cures for insomnia, but understanding what may be impacting your sleep adversely is important and establishing healthy sleep habits will make a significant difference to your quality of sleep:
- Establish a consistent bedtime routine. Take a warm bath, go for a relaxing stroll, or practice meditation/relaxation exercises as part of your regular nighttime routine.
- Try to go to bed at the same time every night, and get up at the same time each morning. This includes weekends.
- Get plenty of exercise during the day. Studies have shown people who are physically active sleep better than those who are sedentary. The more energy you expend during the day (preferable earlier in the day) the sleepier you will feel at bedtime.
- Reduce your intake of caffeine and alcohol, particularly in the evening.
- Avoid large meals late in the evening.
- Learn and use a relaxation technique regularly. Breathing exercises, meditation and yoga are good examples.
- Use “white noise” devices to block out surrounding environmental noise.
- Don’t obsess about not sleeping. Not surprisingly, studies have shown that individuals who worry about falling asleep have greater trouble dropping off. It may help to remind yourself that while sleeplessness is troublesome, it isn’t life-threatening.
- Short naps are good. Try to get into the habit of napping: ten to twenty minutes in the afternoon, preferably lying down in a darkened room.
- Spend some time outdoors as often as you can to get exposure to bright, natural light.
- Try to give yourself some time (up to an hour)in dim light before you go to sleep at night. Lower the lighting in your house and bedroom and if other members of the household object, wear sunglasses.
- Try to keep your bedroom as technology-free as possible. It is best to watch a movie or browse the internet in another room, so that you are able to switch off more easily when you get into bed. Reading a book in bed is a great way to relax before sleep.
- Keep a notebook next to your bed. If you find that you are lying in bed with ideas and things you need to get done running through your head, it is always better to write them down so you can deal with them in the morning. This will help you to relax.
- Dr Frans Hugo, from the Panorama Psychiatry and Memory Clinic, says it is a great idea to visualise something nice or replay a movie you enjoyed in your head. This will help to keep your mind busy and encourage you to relax and let go before you fall asleep.
- Dr Weil suggests mantram is an alternative choice to helping you focus your mind to get sleep. “A mantram is a spiritual word, phrase, or brief prayer that we repeat silently to ourselves to calm the body, quiet the mind and improve concentration to restore the spirit. It is the practice of repeating over and over in the mind certain syllables, words or phrases that help unify consciousness and counteract negative mental states. It is especially helpful for people with restless minds, whose turbulent thoughts keep them from relaxing, concentrating and falling asleep. The repetition of a verbal formula is a way of focusing the thinking mind and counteracting the damage done to both mind and body by thoughts that produce anxiety, agitation and unhappiness. Choose a word, sound or phrase that is pleasing to you, and repeat it. If your mind wanders, simply focus back on the word.”
Dr. Weil also recommends the following natural alternatives:
- The two best natural sleep aid treatments are valerian and melatonin. Valerian is a sedative herb, used for centuries. You can find standardized extracts in health food stores and pharmacies. Take one to two capsules a half hour before bedtime. Melatonin is a hormone that regulates the wake/sleep cycle and other daily biorhythms.
- Magnesium and calcium. Oral magnesium supplementation has been shown to improve symptoms of fatigue in persons with low magnesium levels.
- Eleuthero or Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus). Studies show that Eleuthero can help enhance mental activity as well as physical endurance.
- Coenzyme Q10. This vital nutrient is involved in cellular energy production throughout the body.
- Ashwagandha, an Ayurvedic herb prized for its ability to help the body deal with stress.
- Cordyceps, a traditional Chinese medicinal mushroom that may help fight fatigue and boost energy levels.
If you have lost out on sleep, it would be good to go to bed an hour or two earlier the following night to help you to catch up.
It is important to take persistent sleep problems seriously. If your sleep problems persist then seek relevant medical attention.
Note: This article relies on extensive references from the official website for Andrew Thomas Weil, an American medical doctor, teacher, and best-selling author on holistic health. He is founder, professor, and director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona.
Compiled by Milla Black for Longevity magazine.