All of us suffer from the occasional bout of insomnia at some point in our lives, whether it's difficulty in quieting our minds enough to fall asleep, physical discomfort due to illness or a meal that isn't sitting well, or trouble with nighttime waking. Here are some of my favorite remedies for getting the best night of sleep possible:
Proper evening eating - Finish your last meal of the day at least 4 hours before bed, and eat lighter meals for dinner. This will also help prevent heartburn and indigestion which both contribute to sleeplessness. Eat foods high in tryptophan for dinner - bananas, dates, figs, nuts, tuna, turkey, and yogurt. Tryptophan converts to serotonin in the brain, which is converted to melatonin, promoting sleep at night time. These foods have the added benefit of boosting mood. Steer clear of foods high in tyramine, an amino acid that increases brain stimulation, before bed - bacon, cheese, chocolate, eggplant, ham, potatoes, sugar, spinach, tomatoes, and wine.
Probiotics - There has been a lot of modern research done on gut bacteria and how it impacts the brain. A healthy gut biome increases serotonin levels in the brain, the feel good hormone, which is converted to melatonin. Probiotics encourage a healthy gut biome. Choose a brand that is diverse in strains and high potency.
Avoid caffeine after noon - Skipping the afternoon coffee or caffeinated beverage has been shown to assist in falling asleep quickly at bedtime and avoiding tossing and turning. If you commonly hit the afternoon slump, opt for a piece of fruit, handful of nuts, or a quick but brisk walk. All of those things will boost mood and wake you up without side effects.
Avoid alcohol before bed - With the exception of the occasional hoppy beer (see Hops under Herbal Remedies below), avoiding alcohol before bed can help get a restful peaceful night of sleep. While alcohol may initially increase drowsiness, it prevents the body from going through the proper sleep stages, thus leaving the individual groggy and tired the next morning.
Milk - Warm milk has been used to promote sleep for thousands of years. Best to use raw milk from organically raised, pastured cows.
Avoid OTC drugs - Like alcohol, over-the-counter sleeping medications often leave the person lethargic and tired the next day. Dependency can also occur, requiring increasing doses. Speek with your doctor or naturopath before attempting to wean yourself off any medicines, OTC or prescription.
Melatonin - Not for long term use, melatonin is especially helpful to adjust sleep cycles for those that travel to other time zones. Melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone, normally created in the pineal gland, is especially sensitive to light, so using blackout curtains and minimizing lights (including from electronics) before bed, can assist in preparing the body for sleep. This is especially important for kids who seem to be extra sensitive. It's common practice in the USA to watch TV, browse our phones or computers, or play on our tablets before bed. Some phones have a nighttime setting that changes the screen color to a warmer tone to encourage better sleep, but ultimately try to avoid lit electronics at least an hour before sleep time.
Schedule - Try to keep as consistent a schedule as possible by going to bed and waking up at the same time everyday, even on weekends. Once you have established a normal sleeping habit, you may find an alarm clock unnecessary.
Exercise - Physical activity a few hours before bed is a great way to burn off extra energy and get the body ready for sleeping. It boosts serotonin production, which is vital for melatonin production and proper sleep. Regular exercise also lowers blood pressure and resting heart rate, both of which contribute to restful and restorative night's sleep.
Epsom salts bath - A warm epsom salts bath is great for relaxation and promoting sleep. Magnesium is beneficial for both kids and adults, and most people are chronically low in magnesium. A few drops of lavender essential oil in the bath is also helpful.
Focusing outward - A similar concept to outward prayer, a friend recently taught me this trick, and it's been working well for my child. To get the mind off of inward focus, especially helpful for those battling obsessive thoughts, try focusing on a mundane activity like counting the number of door knobs in your house, or the number of walls, or windows, or lights. This is the same principle as counting sheep, but is something tangible for your brain to visualize, mentally moving throughout your dwelling, and places the mind's focus externally.
Prayer - When internal worries and anxiety prevent you from relaxing into sleep, prayer can be a great asset. Specifically, turning your thoughts and prayers outward, by praying for other people. We all know quite a few people, so this exercise is great in that it can go as long as needed. I find it helpful to start with my inner circle, immediate family, then on to friends and extended family, to acquaintances in my various social circles, then people I may have interacted with that day, and on to my neighbors, child's teachers, my former coworkers, town officials, city, state, country, and world leaders. People battling recent natural disasters or other tragedies. There is always someone in need of prayer.
Listening to music - Some people find quiet music helps ease them into a relaxing sleep. Instrumental music seems to work the best, or nature sounds.
Reading - A simple yet extremely effective strategy in which you can train your brain to associate reading with sleep time. I've successfully done this and it is now so effective that I only need to read for 10 minutes or less at bedtime before I can no longer keep my eyes open. The only downside to this technique is that I am so well trained that daytime reading also can have this drowsiness effect, albeit not nearly as much, if I read in bright natural light. Not recommended for students or those that do a lot of reading for their vocation.
Often available prepackaged as teas or capsules, herbs can be a wonderful addition to your nighttime regimen. Not recommended for extended use unless under the guidance of an herbalist or naturopath, consider rotating through a few herbs.
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) - Promotes sound sleep, relaxation, calmness, relieves anxiety and nervousness. Safe for kids.
Catnip (Nepeta cataria) - Good for sleep issues caused by anxiety. Safe for kids. Found in many sleepy teas.
Chamomile (Matricaria recutita) - One of my favorites for relaxation. Makes a delicious tea. Safe for kids, but people of all ages with hay fever allergies may react to chamomile.
Hops (Humulus lupulus) - Hops, a strong bitter herb probably best known as a beer ingredient, is wonderful for relaxing the body and promoting sleep. Too strong for kids to take internally, but makes a wonderful addition to a sleep satchel that can be placed in a child's pillow, along with lavender and lemon balm. For adults without alcohol dependency, sensitivity, or liver issues, a high hops beer like an ale (or a low alcohol bitter) an hour or two before bed may be beneficial for relaxation and deep sleep promotion. Do not combine alcohol with other sedatives including herbs and essential oils.
Lavender (Lavandula officinalis) - Probably the most well known of the sleepy herbs, lavender is wonderful for insomnia caused by anxiety and nervous exhaustion and is safe for kids.
Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) - A wonderful addition to the garden because it grows extremely well in a variety of climates and soil conditions, lemon balm works well to relieve sleeplessness, stress, and anxiety. Can be eaten raw in salads (has a wonderful lemony flavor and smells amazing), or brewed into a tea before bed, tinctured, or infused. Safe for kids.
Nourishing Herbal Infusions - For minerals like calcium and magnesium which aid in getting a solid nights sleep. (Easy to make...click here for my recipe!)
Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) - An herbal sedative, passionflower triggers drowsiness and relieves insomnia related to anxiety and stress by providing a sound, restful sleep. Not suitable for kids under 10 years old.
Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora) - This is a wonderful herb for soothing a nervous disposition, including anxiety, and excessive energy before bed. Overdosing can have the opposite effect, so be extremely mindful of dosage. Do not combine with other sleep remedies.
St. John's Wort (St. Joan's Wort, Hypericum perforatum) - The tea is good to quiet an overactive mind at bed time. Also helpful to calm fears, nervousness, and traumas. SJW is ok for kids, but can cause photosensitivity in both kids and adults, so use caution when going outside. SJW can also interact with prescription antidepressants, so be sure to check with your prescribing doctor before taking any herbal remedies with your prescriptions.
Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) - Another well known calming and sedating herb. Relaxes the muscles. Safe for kids over age 12 internally.
Most herbs have multiple uses, which are beyond the scope of this article, so I highly recommend thoroughly researching your planned remedy before taking it, to make sure all of its actions are suitable for your needs and constitution. As always, it is highly recommended that you work with a trained herbalist or naturopath when selecting your herbal remedies, as well as consult with your physician as needed.
Not all oils are safe for kids, for use in pregnancy, or with certain diseases and disorders. This list is only for short term diffusing at bedtime. Start with one oil at a time to see how you do with it before moving on to blends. Please consult an aromatherapist for uses extending beyond this.
Bergamot (Citrus aurantium sp. bergamia) - calming, refreshing, and relaxing
Bitter Orange (Citrus aurantium) - calms nervousness and anxiety
Roman Chamomile (Anthemis nobilis) - Calming and soothing to the nerves
Green Myrtle (Myrtus communis) - Relaxing, releases tension, and relieves insomnia
Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) - One of the most well known oils for promoting relaxation and good sleep, safe for kids over 6 months old, save for use in pregnancy.
Lemon Verbena (Lippia citriodora) - Calming and and mood boosting
Mandarin (Citrus reticulata) - Relieves anxiety, nervousness, and stress. Sedative action. Safe for use with children over 6 months old.
Mandarin Petitgrain (Citrus reticulata, from the leaves) - Strongly sedating
Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis) - Soothing, sedating but gentle. A little goes a long way.
Rose (Rosa damascena) - Relaxes the nerves.
Ylang Ylang (Cananga odorata) - relaxing
Bach Flower Remedies
(Safe for all people - babies, kids, adults, and pregnant women, does not cause extended drowsiness). The flower remedy depends on the cause of the insomnia:
Secret keeping - Agrimony
Overworrying - Elm
Unresolved anger - Holly
Work related stress - Hornbeam
Restlessness and nervousness - Impatiens
Fears - Mimulus
Depression - Mustard
Heart troubles - Olive
Unresolved guilt - Pine
Worrying about other people - Red Chestnut
Overactive mind - White Chestnut
Bitterness and resentment - Willow
(Safe for all people - babies, kids, adults, and pregnant women, does not cause extended drowsiness). Like flower remedies, homeopathy depends on the cause of the insomnia:
Unable able to turn off an overactive mind - Nux vomica
Anxiety - Arsenicum
For those that work late, or get woken up shortly after going to sleep - Cocculus
Excitement, racing mind - Coffea (less effective in coffee drinkers)
Dread or anticipation, racing mind - Gelsemium
Obsessive thoughts - Pulsatilla
If your sleeplessness is more frequent than occasional, it would be best to seek out additional in depth professional support to determine and focus on healing the underlying causes.
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