There are few things worse than spending your nights tossing and turning. Whether it’s anxiety about work, stress about financial woes or just plain insomnia, when you can’t sleep, the repercussions are more serious than just feeling drowsy the next day.
Sleep is one of the most important things you can do to keep your body healthy. In fact, according to a study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, a lapse in adequate sleep time — at least seven hours a night — can lead to a decreased attention span, depressed feelings and difficulty processing ideas. (1) It can also lead to increased weight gain and increase your chances of getting sick. And there are financial repercussions of insomnia or trouble sleeping as well — as this condition is related to lost productivity, absenteeism, work-related accidents and high health care costs. (2)
Although it seems like so many people struggle with getting restful sleep, insomnia and sleep issues are not normal and they need to be addressed. Not getting enough shut eye? Try my 20 favorite tried-and-true strategies — including some natural sleep aids — to help you get a good night’s rest on those nights you can’t sleep. Your body will thank you!
What Is Insomnia?
Did you know that one in five people have suffered from insomnia at some point in their lives? In fact, one of the most common concerns that I hear from patients is “Dr. Axe, I can’t sleep.” Insomnia is a sleep disorder that can reduce your quality of life and overall health. Some people with insomnia have trouble falling asleep and others have difficulty staying asleep for multiple hours.
Insomnia has been defined as difficulty sleeping that occurs at least three times per week for at least a month. Although studies show that severe insomnia lasts for a medium of four years. (3) Adults need about seven hours of sleep per night and children need about nine hours. If you, or your loved ones, aren’t getting a full night’s sleep, you may be suffering from insomnia and may benefit from dietary and lifestyle changes. (4)
Types of Insomnia
- Acute insomnia: Acute insomnia is characterized as a brief episode of difficulty sleeping and it usually resolves without the need for treatment. This type of insomnia can be caused by a stressful or traumatic event.
- Chronic insomnia: Chronic insomnia lasts for a longer period of time, as it’s usually defined as sleeping difficulty for at least three nights per week that lasts for three months or longer.
- Comorbid insomnia: Comorbid insomnia is when sleeping difficulty occurs with another health condition that’s associated with changes in sleep. Some medical conditions, like depression, can cause insomnia, and pain or muscle conditions, like back pain or restless leg syndrome, can make it hard to fall and stay asleep. A similar insomnia category is what’s called psychophysiological insomnia, which is when insomnia symptoms are caused by cognitive, behavioral and psychological factors.
- Sleep onset or initial insomnia: This is when a person has trouble falling sleep initially, but doesn’t tend to wake up in middle of the night.
- Maintenance or middle insomnia: This is when a person has trouble maintaining sleep and is often waking up in middle of the night.
- Late or terminal insomnia: This is when a person wakes up too early in the morning and cannot go back to sleep.
People dealing with insomnia will typically develop at least one of these common symptoms:
- taking a very long time to fall asleep
- waking up frequently in middle of the night
- not sleeping soundly
- non-restorative sleep (not feeling refreshed after sleep)
- long periods of wakefulness in middle of the night
- not being able to fall back asleep when you wake up in middle of the night
- waking up too early and not being able to fall back asleep
- fatigue and cognitive impairment as a result of too little sleep
- difficulty at work and school, and in personal relationships as a result of too little sleep
Causes of Insomnia
There are a number of conditions and lifestyle choices that can lead to insomnia. According to research published in the journal Depression and Anxiety, there is evidence linking insomnia to hyper-arousal (or increased activation) in cognitive, endocrine, neurological and behavioral domains. This means that there’s no one mechanism that causes insomnia, which is why one treatment plan isn’t effective for everyone. (7)
The most common conditions and lifestyle factors that cause insomnia include: (8)
- stress and anxiety
- pain, such as back pain
- frequent urination/urge to urinate at night
- hot flashes
- sleep apnea
- restless leg syndrome
- digestive problems
- allergies or respiratory conditions
- working nights or shift work
- alcohol and drug use
- neurological conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease
- certain medications, including antidepressants, psychostimulants, anticonvulsants, decongestants, steroids and dopamine agonists
Insomnia is more prevalent among women, especially with the onset of menstruation and menopause, and older adults. Other risk factors for insomnia include certain medical disorders, psychiatric disorders, pain conditions and working the night shifts. (9)
If you’ve been struggling at night to fall or stay asleep, you may want to get tested for insomnia. An insomnia test (which is called a polysomnography) is conducted at a sleep laboratory that has rooms for you to sleep in for 1–2 nights. During your sleep, you will be connected to an EEG and monitored at different stages of sleep in order to indicate how long you spend in deep, restful sleep. This is a non-invasive test that is used to indicate the extent of your sleeping difficulty. Your body movements, breathing patterns, heart rate and oxygen levels overnight will also be tested.
If you are not ready to be monitored for insomnia, but you want to keep track of your sleeping patterns, you can keep a sleep log. A sleep log tracks your bedtime and wakeup time. You can also note how many times you woke up and how you feel throughout the day. This may help your healthcare provider to determine the cause of your insomnia and the extent of your sleep disturbance.
There are also devices that you can wear that will monitor your sleep from home. Although the results won’t be as accurate as what you would receive after an insomnia test in a lab, this can serve as a useful tool if you are unsure about how many hours of sleep you are getting every night. (10)
Conventional Treatment of Insomnia
It’s common for doctors to suggest behavioral and psychological techniques for treating insomnia before turning to pharmacological treatment. If your doctor or healthcare provider determines that you would benefit from medications for insomnia, he or she will may prescribe one of the following types of drugs:
- Benzodiazepines: These are a type of sleeping pill that are used to induce sleep for a long period of time. Possible side effects of these kinds of drugs include withdrawal symptoms, drowsiness during the day, unsteadiness, confusion and memory impairment. Examples of benzodiazepines include Ativan, Valium and Doral. (11)
- Non-Benzodiazepine hypnotics: Non-benzodiazepines (also referred to as “Z drugs”) are sedatives that are used to treat insomnia because they act on the GABA receptor. These types of medications have become the most common prescribed hypnotic agents in the world. Possible side effects of Z drugs include memory loss, physical and psychomotor effects, such as falls or car accidents, fatigue and withdrawal symptoms. Examples of non-benzodiazepines include Lunesta, Sonata, Ambien, Edluar and Intermezzo. (12)
- Melatonin receptor agonists: These types of drugs are used to treat insomnia, sleep disorders and depression. These medications bind to and activate the melatonin receptor, helping to improve your circadian rhythm and sleeping patterns. A common type of melatonin receptor agonist is Rozerem, which may cause dizziness and drowsiness during the day. (13)
Can’t Sleep? 20 Insomnia Natural Remedies
1. Set the right temperature
A too-warm room makes you sweaty, while super cold temps leave you shivering. Opt for a range between 60 and 73 degrees Fahrenheit. A slightly chilly temperature helps decrease your body’s internal thermometer, initiating sleepiness and ensuring that you stay comfortable throughout the night.
2. Set the mood
Dim the lights at least 30 minutes before bedtime. Turn off extra noises, lights and distractions. Turn on a fan, white noise machine, calming instrumental music or use earplugs to adjust your environment to be the most comfortable to you. Try to make this a routine to tell your body it’s time to sleep and help it ease into a peaceful night’s rest.
3. Use essential oils
Incorporating essential oils, or aromatherapy, into your nightly routine is a safe, natural and therapeutic way to encourage your body to wind down. I especially love using lavender essential oil and Roman chamomile oil to get me in a drowsy mood on those nights I can’t sleep.
Studies suggest that lavender oil can improve your sleep quality and works as a natural sedative. (14, 15) And chamomile, whether in tea, tincture or essential oil form, is one of the best medicinal herbs for fighting stress and promoting relaxation, according to research from Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine and Pharmacognosy Review. Inhaling chamomile vapors is often recommended as a natural remedy for anxiety and general depression, which is one reason why chamomile oil is a popular ingredient in many candles, aromatherapy products and bath-soaking treatments. (16)
I recommend diluting the pure oil with a carrier oil like almond or coconut oils and then spritzing the combination on your pillow or rubbing it on your neck. Or add just a few drops to an essential oils diffuser to fill the room with a relaxing scent. Learn more about the power of essential oils and diluting them in my essential oils guide.[embedded content]
4. Unwind your mind
Settle into bed with a good novel or a spiritual growth book a half hour or so before bedtime. This practice gives your body a chance to unwind instead of forcing it to try and head straight to sleep. But steer clear of thrillers or other brain-jarring reads — you want to lull yourself to bed, not stay awake with a page turner!
The key is to reduce stress, especially right before bedtime. For most people, along with diet, this is a major culprit for keeping you up at night — your mind starts racing with ceaseless thinking and you’re seemingly unable to shut your brain off.
5. Skip late night sugar and simple carbs
Avoid eating sugary sweets, chocolate, simple carbs, juice or high-glycemic fruit just before bed, as it can spike blood sugar, boost your energy and you can wake up feeling hungry. Instead, try a little bit of protein with vegetables or a small amount of complex carbohydrates with protein, which can boost melatonin and help you fall asleep fast! (17)
Some people can tolerate some fruit before bed, but make your snack with a combination of melatonin-forming foods and high-protein snacks so you don’t wake up in the middle of the night. Some good bedtime snacks are:
- half a banana with almond butter on a slice of sprouted grain bread
- hummus with carrots, cucumber or celery
- apple chips and sunflower butter
- a small handful of cashews, 1/4 cup dried fruit with some seed-based crackers
6. Keep electronics out of bed
Watching television in bed and answering late-night work emails can trick your brain into thinking that your bed is just another spot to get things done and not the place to settle down after a long day. (It’s also a sign of nomophobia.) Watch your evening programs in the living room and keep that space sacred by eliminating electronics.
7. Maintain a regular sleep schedule
Keep your circadian rhythm in check by adhering to a regular sleep schedule as much as possible — yes, even on weekends! As your body becomes used to getting into bed and waking up at the same hours, you’ll find it becomes easier to fall asleep and wake up naturally. Aim for an average of eight hours of quality sleep a night.
8. Limit caffeine after 12 p.m.
Did you know caffeine’s effects can last up to 12 hours? If you can’t sleep at night, your mid-afternoon cup of joe and even a caffeine overdose might be to blame. In fact, a review of two randomized control trials showed that eliminating caffeine for a whole day was able to improve sleep quality and lengthen sleep duration. (18) Instead of turning to caffeine, try an alternative, caffeine-free drink for a daytime jolt instead.
I love this Cilantro Ginger Smoothie. Filled with refreshing cucumber and ginger, it’ll give you a boost of energy without the sleep-depriving effects of caffeine.
9. Work out in the morning
That rush of endorphins you feel after a solid workout is awesome — until it’s the reason you can’t sleep at night. Try shifting your workout schedule to the mornings. You’ll feel great having completed your exercise session bright and early, and it’ll be easier to unwind at night. Plus, research shows that exercise is known to effectively decrease sleep complaints and treat symptoms of insomnia. (19)
10. Journal before bed
When you can’t sleep, oftentimes, it’s our own thoughts preventing us from falling asleep. Instead of running through situations or problems in your mind after lights out, try journaling before bed. It’s a therapeutic way to address what might be troubling you and chronicle your day before drifting to sleep.
11. Eat melatonin foods and melatonin-producing foods
Melatonin is one of the major keys to a natural, healthy sleep cycle. So eating a combination of certain fruits and carbohydrates that support melatonin or contain tryptophan, which contributes to melatonin production, will help you sleep and stay asleep.
I don’t recommend having a heavy meal right before bed or eating a large amount of sugary fruits, but include these items during your dinner or an hour before bed as an evening snack, to increase your melatonin production and ensure a sound sleep.
To further spur the production of serotonin and thus melatonin, it’s recommended that you eat these tryptophan-containing foods in the evening. (20)
- Grass-fed dairy products
- Fish, chicken, turkey
- Sprouted grains
- Beans and pulses
- Rice (black, brown or red rice are the best)
- Sesame seeds
- Sunflower seeds
NOTE: Most people notice a better sleep when they combine 15–20 grams of carbohydrates in their evening snacks; however, some people do better without carbohydrates later at night. So, listen to your body. If snacking late doesn’t sound good, then just incorporate these foods into your dinner.
12. Add magnesium food or supplements
A magnesium deficiency can lead to sleepless nights. While there are plenty of magnesium-rich foods you can eat naturally, adding a supplement can help jump-start your levels and help you sleep better. In fact, one study in the Journal of Research in Medical Sciences found that magnesium supplements improved insomnia and sleep efficiency. Opt for 500 milligrams daily. (21)
13. Don’t count sheep
If you find yourself having trouble going to sleep for over 20 minutes, and you still feel restless, don’t just lay there trying to force yourself to sleep. It’s better to get up and do something else for a few minutes, rather than lay there worrying about the clock. Again, avoid technology, watching TV or doing any work, but try reading a book, journaling or any lower light activity. (22)
14. Get some sunshine
Starting your day with natural light exposure helps reset your biological clock. It also balances your body’s melatonin and cortisol levels, and serves as a natural source of vitamin D. In fact, research shows that vitamin D deficiency may be linked to sleep disorders. (18, 19) Try going for an early morning walk or leaving the office during your lunch hour to get your dose of sunshine.
15. Relax with a detox bath
Instead of taking a rushed shower, try a Detox Bath instead. It’ll help relieve your body of toxins, release the power of essential oils, and soothe both your body and brain. The lavender bath is my favorite to bring the body into balance and help it feel relaxed.
16. Sip on chamomile tea
If you’re the type who likes curling up with a warm beverage after dinner, cozy up to a mug of chamomile. Not only can sipping on a warm drink before bed make you feel drowsier, the naturally caffeine-free tea has a calming effect on the body.
17. Meditate with breathing, prayer and thankfulness
Guided meditation, mindfulness and healing prayer can help to reduce stress and put you into a positive space that improves your sleep quality. Take several deep breaths, and let it all out. Let your thoughts rest, and focus on relaxing each part of your body. Then spend a few minutes reflecting on what you’re thankful for, praying or just spending some time alone with your thoughts. Always dwell on the positive parts of your day and the bright things you have to look forward to, as it can have a powerful effect on easing your mind into a restful state.
A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials indicates that mindfulness meditation significantly improved total wake time and sleep quality in patients with insomnia. Researchers suggest that meditation may serve as a supportive and complementary treatment for sleep complaints. (23)
18. Use natural sleep supplements
If you find yourself facing a chronic lack of sleep, consider natural sleep supplements like valerian root, passion flower and melatonin. Research shows that these natural sleep supplements may help to improve sleep quality without producing side effects. Often, these are available in a tea or in supplement tablets. These can get you over the hump when you’ve had several sleepless nights and help your body get some much-needed rest. But these should be used for a limited time only — if you find that minimal sleep has become the norm over several weeks or months, consult your doctor. (24, 25)
19. Engage in full-body exercise
Working larger muscle groups during the day, like your legs or all-over body workouts, helps physically exhaust your body, making it easier to fall asleep. I also love burst training; these short but intense exercises really wear you out. You’ll sleep like a baby!
20. Invest in a good mattress and weighted blankets
All these strategies are null and void if you’re sleeping on an uncomfortable mattress! Your health depends on getting a good night’s rest, so you want to be sure your mattress is up for the challenge. Check out my tips to choose the right mattress to ensure great sleep every night.
Lastly, consider using a weighted blanket in order to calm down sleep anxiety, as a study in Occupational Therapy showed that these blankets are effective for many types of anxiety-related conditions. (26) The blanket can weigh anywhere from 10 to 20 pounds and is weighted down by beads lined inside the blanket that work like a deep tissue massage. This weight apparently can create serotonin in your body, of which some of that becomes melatonin and helps you get your rest.
If you have trouble sleeping at least three nights per week and this has lasted for longer than a month, I recommend that you consult with your healthcare provider about the possible causes and you work to formulate a treatment plan.
For many people, making lifestyle and behavioral changes can have a huge impact and doesn’t require you to take medications for insomnia. This is a decision that you should make with your doctor after trying these natural remedies for insomnia.
- Many people ask themselves or their healthcare providers why they can’t sleep and “do I have insomnia?” It’s actually a common condition that affects one in five people.
- Insomnia is a sleep disorder that can reduce your quality of life and overall health. It has been defined as suffering from sleep disturbances at least three times per week for a month or longer. But many people dealing with insomnia actually deal with the symptoms for 1 to 4 years.
- What causes insomnia? A number of health conditions, psychological conditions and lifestyle factors play a role in the development of insomnia.
- What do you do when you can’t sleep at night? Start by reducing your stress levels, unwinding and creating a P.M. routine that’s soothing and sets the tone for a night of restful sleep. Other natural remedies for insomnia include exercising in the morning, changing your diet, using natural supplements like valerian root and melatonin, and using lavender or chamomile essential oils.
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