-Therese J. Borchard
Two-and-a-half years ago, I experienced a terrible case of insomnia. I took the sleeping drug Lunesta (eszopiclone), which afforded me a few wonderful nights’ sleep until I realized it substantially increased my anxiety during the day. Within a week on the drug, I became addicted, experiencing more and more withdrawal (anxiety) symptoms. Other sleep aids had the same effect — even over-the counter medications like Benadryl (diphenhydramine). So I was forced to figure out how to get my sleep back on track naturally.
I asked anyone I knew who had ever suffered from sleep problems for tips on catching some quality ZZZs, and spent lots of time researching ways to get some shut-eye without taking drugs. Although it felt like I was the only one awake at night, I certainly wasn’t alone. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than one-quarter of the U.S. population occasionally does not get enough sleep, while nearly 10 percent experience chronic insomnia. Sleep problems are associated with a number of chronic illnesses and, according to the CDC, are a real threat to our nation’s health.
For the last month I’ve been battling the beast of insomnia again — it’s common when you taper off of any medication — so I’m back to compiling techniques I’ve learned from other folks who lie awake at night.
Here are some natural remedies that have allowed them to get a better night’s sleep.
1. Herbal Teas
Many of my friends who suffer from sleep problems have benefitted from drinking different kinds of herbal teas an hour or two before they go to bed at night. You can make your own from dried herbs: Put a teaspoon of your mix into a tea ball or tea bag and add to hot water, or try some tea bags from a trusted boxed brand. You want to include or look for ingredients such as lavender, valerian, chamomile, passionflower, lemon balm, ashwagandha, holy basil, rosemary leaf, and dill seed. Some popular tea brands include Sleepytime, Yogi Tea (I like their Honey Lavender Stress Relief tea and Calming tea) and Traditional Medicinals (especially their organic Nighty Night tea and Cup of Calm tea).
2. Essential Oils
For nearly 6,000 years, essential oils have been used for therapeutic purposes — sleep issues included. Several people in my online depression community use lavender oil to help them relax before bed and to help them sleep. They either apply a few drops to their temples before going to bed at night or spray a lavender mist on their pillow. I’ve used lavender oil myself for about a year now, and I do think it’s helpful. Other calming essential oils include valerian, vetiver, roman chamomile, and marjoram.
3. Meditation and Relaxation Tapes
A few years ago when my daughter couldn’t sleep, we would listen to calming meditations by Lori Lite designed for children. They were very effective in helping her to relax her body and mind enough to drift off to sleep. There are all kinds of sleep meditations and apps on the market today. Mashable published a good list awhile back. Personally, I like the meditations by Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, founding director of the University of Massachusetts Medical School’s Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society in Worcester, as well as its stress reduction program.
Dr. Zinn’s voice soothes me more than any other meditation guide. A friend of mine swears by the meditations found on the free app CALM. Of course, you don’t need a guide to meditate. Sometimes just paying attention to your breath on your own — concentrating on your belly as it rises with each inhale and lowers with each exhale — or concentrating on a bodily sensation is a great way of calming yourself down.
4. Soothing Music and White Noise
Many of the apps listed above come with soothing music and white noise. Some nights, I’m not up for listening to instructions on how to relax each of my muscles or reminders to pay attention to my breath. I simply visualize myself lying by the ocean, listening to the waves on the shore, or I concentrate on my breath as I listen to nature sounds. So I have a few apps and soundtracks of just ocean waves and rain and water streams that are helpful for unwinding. Other people I know like to listen to soothing music, instrumental melodies, or simple white noise.
5. Cooler Temperatures
According to California-based clinical psychologist Arlene K. Unger, PhD, becoming overly heated is a common cause of sleeplessness. As one of the many helpful hints in her book Sleep: 50 Mindfulness and Relaxation Exercises for a Restful Night’s Sleep, she advises wearing lighter pajamas, keeping the window slightly open, and possibly ditching the heavy covers. I know people who sleep much better with a fan. The breeze and white noise create a conducive sleeping environment.
6. Melatonin and Other Natural Supplements
There are several natural supplements that can help relax the nervous system and assist sleep. The most common are melatonin, which regulates the sleep-wake cycle, and the amino acid l-theanine that’s typically found in teas. Valerian, GABA, kava, and 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) are others. I’ve found the combination of magnesium and calcium to be effective at times. Some natural sleep aids that combine various supplements include Neuroscience’s Kavinace Ultra PM, Genestra’s Calm-gen, and Nature Made’s Sleep supplement.
7. Epsom Salts Baths
Taking an Epsom salts bath in the evening has been one of the more effective parts of my sleep hygiene routine. Epsom salts are a mineral compound containing magnesium, sulfur, and oxygen. When used in a warm bath, they allow magnesium to be easily absorbed into the skin, which promotes a feeling of calm and relaxation.
According to a 2012 study in the journal Neuropharmacology, magnesium deficiencies induce anxiety, which is why the mineral is known as the original chill pill. I simply add two cups of the lavender-scented Epsom salts with added potassium and zinc to my bathwater. I then turn off the bathroom lights and use a lavender candle.
8. Prayer Beads and Mantras
You need not be a devout Catholic to use prayer beads: They’re employed in all of the world’s religions as part of meditative practices. The process of repeating a prayer or mantra over and over again while thumbing the beads can be very relaxing and soothing. Personally, I’ve slept with a rosary since I first experienced insomnia two years ago. The prayer beads have become my safety item, much like a child’s blankie, and give me comfort in the middle of the night when I wake.
Any kind of yoga primes the parasympathetic system and promotes relaxation, taming the stress responses that cause insomnia. I’ve found hot yoga to be especially beneficial for sleep because, in addition to doing the healing postures, sweating releases stored toxins (so it’s very cleansing). Certain postures like these 19 listed in Yoga Journal are especially helpful for sleep. Doing them in the evening, or even when you wake at night, can soothe your central nervous system. Practicing Savasana (Corpse Pose) in particular before sleeping can promote deep rest, according to yoga instructors I know. There are also some apps you can download, like Yoga for Insomnia, that will help guide you through the postures.
10. Audiotapes and Free Lectures
Reading in periods of sleeplessness helps many folks I know doze off into slumber. But as a highly sensitive person, the light wakes me up. According to some Harvard research, all light-emitting e-books and screens negatively affect our sleep — even the Kindle. I therefore prefer to listen to audiotapes. Lately, I’ve been listening to the book Wherever You Go, There You Are by Kabat-Zinn. It’s a collection of small chapters about mindfulness that is effective at calming me down. Since audio books can be expensive, you might consider downloading university lectures, which are free content, from iTunes U — the section of Apple’s iTunes music store devoted to higher education.