Insomnia Solutions

January 30, 2014    BY Carrie Demers

I have trouble falling asleep, and even after I do, I wake up often in the night. I’ve tried taking sleeping pills, but I’m worried about side effects and dependency. What can I do?

You’re not alone. We are a society of insomniacs: over 60 million Americans fail to sleep soundly on a regular basis, and many more suffer from occasional bouts of sleeplessness. Insomnia saps our energy and impacts our physical, mental, and emotional well-being. It puts us at higher risk for heart disease, obesity, diabetes, fibromyalgia, and depression. Sleep deprivation is also linked to memory loss, lower mental performance, and slower response time—often leading to accidents or mistakes as well as self-doubt. Getting enough quality shut-eye is essential to regaining our health, vitality, and confidence—and it all starts with examining our lifestyle and habits.

Sleep deprivation is also linked to memory loss, lower mental performance, and slower response time—often leading to accidents or mistakes as well as self-doubt.

Simple Sleep Solutions

Most sleep experts will tell you that the key to consistent and restful slumber lies in cultivating good sleep hygiene—a set of simple and sensible behavior guidelines which echo yogic and ayurvedic principles. You’ll be surprised how much your sleep can improve if you apply these tips routinely over time.

Setting your Internal Clock

Maintain a consistent schedule. Sleep experts recommend going to bed and waking up at the same time every day (including weekends) to help train the body to snooze soundly. Ayurveda agrees. Insomnia is caused by imbalanced vata—the constitutional energy, or dosha, associated with the elements of air and space, and characterized by movement and creativity. When excessive, this energy causes restlessness and anxiety. A regular routine goes a long way in balancing vata. 

Insomnia is caused by imbalanced vata—the constitutional energy, or dosha, associated with the elements of air and space, and characterized by movement and creativity.

Go to sleep when you are tired, ideally by 10 p.m. According to ayurveda, kapha—the dosha associated with the water and earth elements, often characterized by heaviness and inertia—dominates the hours between 6 p.m. and 10 p.m., which means that it is easier to fall and stay asleep if you manage to get in bed during that window of time. Between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., pitta, the dosha associated with fire, increases, stimulating the mind and coaxing the night owl in you to engage in activity.

Create a wind-down bedtime routine. Spend the last hour of the day taking a warm bath, drinking herbal tea, doing self-massage, listening to peaceful music, or reading an inspirational book. Devote 10 or 15 minutes to a yogic relaxation practice. I find the following tension-relaxation exercise particularly helpful for quieting the nervous system. Lie on your back on the floor or your bed with your head, neck, and spine aligned. On an inhale, tense your face (squeeze your eyes tight, and purse your lips); on an exhale relax your facial muscles completely. Repeat once more. Then take a full breath and notice the softness in your face. Next bring your awareness to your right arm: tense the entire arm from shoulder to hand, spreading the fingers on an inhale; relax on an exhale. Repeat, and then take a resting breath. Continue tensing and releasing in this manner, moving to the left arm, the abdomen, the right leg, the left leg. Then just rest and breathe, noticing the calm and openness in your entire body.

Creating a Good Sleep Environment

Only use your bed for sleep and sex. It’s your sanctuary of rest and nurturance, so don’t eat, work on your computer, or watch TV in bed. This way, your mind gets the message that when your head hits the pillow, it’s time to relax and sleep. 

Don’t watch the clock. Anxiety about time (how little time you’ve slept; how much time is left before the alarm goes off) is not conducive to restful sleep. So just don’t look.

Keep your bedroom cool. Studies show most people sleep better in colder conditions. Temperatures in the range of 60 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit help the body’s core temperature drop, which in turn induces sleepiness. So if your bedroom is too warm, turn down your heat or open your windows. 

Avoid sensory stimulation. Light, noise, or an uncomfortable bed can activate your senses and disturb your sleep. Keep your bedroom dark and quiet. And invest in a high-quality mattress, a supportive pillow, and soft, breathable bedding. 

No More Tossing and Turning

If you wake up in the middle of the night and can’t fall back asleep, instead of counting sheep, you can count your breath. Practice diaphragmatic breathing in bed for up to 15 minutes—this stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system and allows you to relax. (Visit yogaplus.org/breathing basics to learn more.) Or count the length of your inhale and exhale, then gradually increase the length of your exhale (aim for a 1:2 inhale-to-exhale ratio, but make sure not to strain your breath).

If you are still feeling awake, leave the bedroom. Engage in an activity that is boring, such as folding clothes. Don’t turn on the TV or computer, keep the lights low, and keep your activity slow and non-stimulating. Then return to your bedroom in about 30 minutes, and try falling asleep again. If you’re still awake in 15 minutes, get out of bed and repeat. 

This may sound tedious or frustrating—and you may be tempted to just pop a pill—but research shows that sleep hygiene practices are more effective than drug therapy for overcoming insomnia in the long run. 

When you stay the course and gently train your brain, your mind will eventually surrender to your good sense—and sleep. Sweet dreams! 

Natural Remedies for Catching Zzzs

Even though prescriptions for sleep medications are popular, they’re only a short-term solution. Over time, they lose their effectiveness and can have negative side effects such as daytime drowsiness, forgetfulness, and rebound insomnia. Try adjusting your sleep hygiene instead, and then supplement with herbs that are calming to the nervous system. Valerian, kava kava, lemon balm, passion flower, chamomile, lavender, and St. John’s wort have a nourishing effect on the nervous system and are often blended in herbal sleep formulas. They are mild, nontoxic, nonaddictive, and safe for children as well as adults. Take 2 to 3 tablets/capsules or 30 drops of an herbal tincture a half hour before sleep, nightly, for several weeks. 

Nourishing tonic herbs like ashwagandha, punarnava, and brahmi can be taken for 2 to 3 months to strengthen the nervous system, making it less susceptible to sleep disturbance.

Several ayurvedic herbs are also sleep-enhancing. Jatamansi, called “Indian valerian,” has a similar effect to the herbs above. Nourishing tonic herbs like ashwagandha, punarnava, and brahmi can be taken for 2 to 3 months to strengthen the nervous system, making it less susceptible to sleep disturbance. These herbs can be found through ayurvedic distributors or in health food stores. And since ayurveda embraces using food as medicine, sedative spices like nutmeg and poppy seed are also recommended for sound sleep. Try taking 1/8 teaspoon of nutmeg mixed with warm milk before bedtime. 

You can also try 5-Hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP), a natural supplement containing tryptophan, an essential amino acid that the body converts to serotonin. Take 200 to 400 mg at bedtime for 2 to 3 months. 

Daytime Tips for a Good Night’s Sleep

The way we eat, exercise, and manage our stress all impact how well we can wind down and surrender to sleep at night. Here are some lifestyle tips to support sound slumber. 

1. Exercise moderately every day. Daily exercise is linked with deeper sleep and better overall health. But avoid vigorous exercise within 2 to 3 hours of bedtime (light stretching is fine).

2. Get some sun. Exposure to sunlight helps reset your circadian rhythm, so be sure to get outside and catch some rays. 

3. Avoid caffeine, tobacco, and alcohol. All of these chemicals have sleep-disturbing effects. If you don’t want to give up caffeine, try to limit your intake to the morning, avoiding it after lunch. (Its half-life is about 6 hours, which means half of the caffeine you ingested is still in your system 6 hours later, and another quarter lingers 12 hours later—that’s after midnight if you’ve had your last cup at noon!) Alcohol is a depressant so it may initially induce drowsiness, but it actually suppresses REM (or rapid eye movement) sleep while it’s in the system, and ultimately causes restless sleep after it’s been metabolized. As for smoking, tobacco, which is a stimulant, revs the body up and interferes with falling asleep, while nicotine withdrawal can disrupt slumber later in the night.

4. Avoid heavy food close to bedtime. Spicy, oily, or sugary foods late in the evening can thwart your efforts to snooze. Try to eat dinner before 7 p.m., so you’ve had a couple of hours to digest before bedtime. If hunger is keeping you awake, drink a cup of warm milk (see page 12 for a soothing recipe with turmeric), or snack on some fruit or whole-grain crackers.

Carrie Demers
Carrie Demers MD, has practiced integrative medicine for 22 years. After earning her medical degree and becoming board-certified in internal medicine, Dr. Demers went on to study massage, homeopathy, yoga, meditation, nutrition, herbal medicine, and ayurveda. She uses all these modalities to support patients’ inherent ability to heal.

Dr. Demers sees patients, writes articles, and lectures nationally on integrative medicine. She is board-certified in integrative medicine, and has been the... Read more>>