Natural Remedies For A Good Night’s Sleep
Sleep tips and safe natural remedies for getting to sleep, mild insomnia, jet lag and shift workers, and teens/young adults.
ON THIS PAGE
Brain Waves, Sleep Cycles & Melatonin
Jet Lag and Shift Work
Teens and Young Adults
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Sleep problems are very common: up to two thirds of adults have some trouble with sleep. There are different kinds of sleep problem:
Humans are diurnal creatures. That means we are not biologically designed to be active in the dark. That’s why we depend so much on artificial light (simulated daytime) and why changes in routine, like jet lag and shift work, play such havoc with our sleep.
Possible reasons for sleep problems:
o Recent traumatic events
o Teenagers: different sleep needs
Poor sleep can affect our health. It can lead to difficult concentration, mood changes, a lowered immune system, appetite changes and poor digestion.
Please do check with your doctor, or another qualified health professional, if you have persistent trouble with sleep. But many people do not want sleeping pills, and there are health/addiction risks with those. Consider homeopathic treatment to deal with the underlying causes of your difficulty.
Brain Waves, Sleep Cycles and Melatonin
Our brains have regular cycles of different types of activity, both day and night. These cycles last around 1.5 – 2 hours. At certain points in these cycles, it is easier to fall asleep.
Learn to be aware of your cycles around bedtime. If there is a time you feel sleepy, or yawn a lot, make sure you are ready for it (teeth brushed, hot water bottle filled), and go to bed! Catch it while it is there, otherwise you may be lying awake waiting for the next one. There is an art to catching this (it may involve missing the end of a movie) but it is worth cultivating.
In between cycles, it is normal to wake for a minute or two. Usually we are not aware of this, but if we have worries, or physical pain, we may become more awake instead of falling back into sleep.
If you wake in the night and do not go back to sleep quickly, be aware that you will probably stay awake for a whole cycle: 1.5 - 2 hours. You may as well read a book, or get up for a bit. When you start to yawn, go back to bed: the next ‘sleep bus’ is due and you may just catch it!
I would add, don’t go to bed if you are NOT sleepy. Of course you must use your common sense – for instance, if you have had a recent shock or bereavement, you may not get sleepy at all, and going to bed just for a physical rest may be your best option for a while. But if you just have chronic sleep problems, try to tune in to your sleep cycle, and be ready in bed when you feel sleepy.
A regular routine often helps. If you are trying to establish a routine, it is important to make yourself get up at a regular time, even if you need an alarm. Sleeping in will make the next night more difficult.
Melatonin is our natural sleep hormone. It makes us feel less alert, sleepier. Melatonin is inhibited by daylight and bright artificial light. It is produced in low light and during darkness.
Light and dark stimulate nerves going from our eyes to an area of the brain called the hypothalamus. This in turn stimulates our pineal gland to produce melatonin at the right times. The pineal gland is located approximately behind the centre of your forehead.
Children produce most melatonin, and older people the least.
In some countries you can buy melatonin; it is also available on the internet. It is not licensed in the UK, although it may be available on prescription.
Commercial melatonin manufacture is not well regulated. Doses are much higher than our bodies would produce. Treat it with caution: it is a hormone, and it is dangerous to interfere with the natural function of our bodies. Other natural remedies may be safer, and you can boost your natural melatonin production by increasing daylight exposure, and by keeping lights low near bedtime.
Melatonin may be suitable for short-term use, where it is important to re-set your body clock quickly. I do not recommend it for long-term use.
As nature intends us to sleep when it is dark, work with this if you can.
Expect a difference between summer and winter. Some people can tolerate light, but if you can’t, make sure you have good curtains or a blind, or use an eye mask.
Also, expect a difference if you use a lot of artificial light, especially bright flickering light such as television or a computer screen. Near bedtime, these will make it harder for your body to get ready for sleep, because they inhibit melatonin, the sleep hormone.
Use dimmer light before bed. Avoid having a TV in the bedroom, and near bedtime, opt for activities with a low light, like reading, talking, radio, music or games.
Use natural daylight to help establish healthy sleep. Make sure you get some natural daylight every day: this works best if you are OUTSIDE. It does not have to be sunny – which is just as well here in the UK! Visit the great outdoors for a few minutes in the early morning/after you wake. Take a few minutes outside before bed, take a walk round your street or garden, you may see a hedgehog or some bats. Gaze at the stars (and avoid bright lights indoors). This is especially useful for shift workers or anyone with jet lag, as it re-sets the body clock more quickly.
Light boxes can help if you can’t get outside. These simulate natural daylight better than lightbulbs.
Natural daylight and sunlight are also vital for our production of vitamin D. vitamin D helps our immune systems, bone structure, and may also help protect from depression and cancer. Get as much natural daylight as you can without sunburn.
Time and routine
Get to bed before 11.00pm and make it a routine; you will sleep better. Our bodies need sleep at particular times to recuperate, and heal physical problems. For example, our gall bladders process toxins and our adrenal glands recuperate mainly between 11.00pm and 1.00am.
Some people are more sensitive to electrical fields. Try moving your sleep position so your head is at least 1 metre from any mains electrical appliance, if it is switched on, or any electrical socket that is on, and that includes standby. You can now buy cheap remote-controls that switch off appliances on standby throughout the whole house.
Research shows that making mobile phone calls at bedtime can double the time it takes to get to sleep (Sleep Research Centre, Loughborough University, 2007).
Turn off your phone! A beep from a text can often disturb sleep.
Some don’t mind, some do. If random noises are a problem, try a white noise CD, or leave the radio on low, or some music on repeat. Make sure the electronic equipment is not too near the bed, not only because of electromagnetic radiation, but because any clicks may disturb you.
It is easy to be judgemental about sources of noise, especially when we are tired. Cultivate a forgiving mind.
It is common to hear noises at night, and unfortunately this is more common as we get older. These noises may sound distressingly real, or may be associated with disturbing dreams. Get a burglar alarm or close circuit TV, to put your mind at rest. If technical help suggests that the noises are not ‘real’, check in with your doctor or another qualified health professional. It is nothing to worry about, because so many people experience this problem.
If you get unwanted late-night phone calls, turn off your household phone/mobile if you can.
Homeopathic treatment may also reduce your sensitivity to noise, and ease anxiety.
Cuddles and Comfort
Physical comfort really helps sleep. Don’t be shy about anything that helps you be comfortable: a cuddly toy, a hot water bottle, a soft blanket. Leave the light on. Cuddle your partner or make love. Humans are not naturally solitary animals, and these things are some of the best and most natural aids to sleep.
If you are living alone and don’t want to be, consider longer term options. Move house, share housing, take a lodger.
Get comfortable. Is your bed OK? You may need a new or different bed, buy a good mattress, try a futon, a sleeping bag, some sheepskins or something different. Keep warm enough, keep your feet warm, or have a warm bath before bed. If you are too hot, open the window. Window locks may help you feel more secure, and insect netting protects you from smaller visitors. Invest in some summer-weight bedding. Alcohol before bed also tends to make you feel hot in the night, and makes you wake up in the small hours.
It’s worth it – your future sleep and happiness are at stake!
Position of Bed
Try something different. A different bed, a different room, downstairs instead of upstairs. A different position of the same bed. If you are east-west, try north-south, and vice versa. Generally this involves a good tidy-up of the bedroom, which is helpful too!
Try raising the head of the bed by an inch or two. Use blocks of wood or sturdy books protected by newspaper, and get someone to help you, if you are not sure about lifting the bed. Change it just an inch or two at a time. Some people prefer to raise the foot of the bed, instead.
Strange to say, exercise can help you sleep! Moderate exercise a few times a week undoubtedly helps towards healthy sleep patterns. Go for some gentle physical activity towards the end of the evening, a late walk or a gentle session at the pool or gym, even a few trips up and down your own stairs. Yoga is good: inverted postures, gentle twists, and the Child pose are all relaxing.
Fresh air usually has a calming effect on our brains, too, helping us put problems into perspective. Take some binoculars outside and look at the stars.
Yes it helps – really! But seriously, steady regular breathing is good, the following do not help:
night time asthma
Meditation can help you learn gentle breathing and also help calm your thoughts.
Buteyko re-training can improve mouth breathing, snoring and sleep apnoea, and asthma. Contact me for more information.
Writing Reading and Listening
Try opening a diary or journal before bed, and putting down your thoughts and worries. This may just help to keep them out of your head during your sleep hours, and also provides a useful record of what is going on.
If you are troubled by racing thoughts when you wake, try keeping a notebook by your bed, or a dictaphone if it won’t disturb a partner. Write or talk out your thoughts, however repetitive, and then you can sleep again. But leave the big light off.
Personally, I find reading helps, and my eyelids usually droop before the end of a chapter. But sometimes, I am so gripped by the story that it has the opposite effect!
Some folk listen to music, but you may find the spoken word more soothing. This is because it gives your mind something to latch onto, other than your personal worries. Consider Radio 4 or some audio tapes/CDs of stories (yes, for grown-ups too) or interesting subjects. Your library may have some. A timer on the radio or at the mains means you won’t have to remember to switch it off.
Listening to radio programmes is also very relaxing before bedtime, it avoids the bright lights of TV. If you have a computer, check out radio channels where you can often ‘listen again’ to the week’s programmes. You have hundreds of interesting programmes to help you unwind, from history to natural history, stories to gardener’s question time. If you prefer music there is Radio 1, Asian Network, classical, folk, easy listening or world music. Make sure you can’t see the screen, the bright light disrupts your melatonin. Or record it and listen in bed.
Don’t look at the clock. Hide it.
Don’t overdo essential oils, eg. too much lavender can keep you awake.
If you persistently wake early, this can be a symptom of depression. You may not feel depressed – but check it out with your doctor. There are some useful natural remedies too.
Check your neck! Neck tension is a prime reason for inability to fall asleep, because we are often not aware of it.
Try this: lie comfortably, then begin to raise your head ever so slightly. It should barely leave the pillow. Hold it up for two or three breaths, then release, letting your head feel heavy, and letting go. Repeat 2-3 times. Learn to feel when you are holding tension in your neck. Try different positions too.
Try toe tapping! Lie down, on your back, heels together. Tap your toes together as quickly as you can, count 2-300 times. This helps send blood to your feet and not your brain! At least it makes a change from counting sheep…..
Try reverse psychology. Concentrate on keeping your eyes open - they will naturally want to close, but stay focussed and keep them open for as long as you can.
Try this site for some ancient Chinese Feng Shui tips on sleep: http://fengshui.about.com/od/fengshuiforhome/qt/bed_placement.htm
Food, Drink and Caffeine
If you have supper, skip it. If you don't, try it. If you are hungry, low blood sugar can actually wake you in the night. If you have acid reflux, don’t eat late, and try a slippery elm drink.
Foods to help Brain Chemistry
Some foods contain small amounts of melatonin. Rice, oats, and sweet corn are the best sources. Ginger, bananas, barley and tomatoes also contain some melatonin. You would need to eat 20 bowls of porridge to get the same amount as contained in a small melatonin supplement!
Tryptophan is the amino acid that the body uses to make serotonin, a brain chemical that calms the mind and makes it less 'busy'. Calcium helps the brain use the tryptophan. This may explain why milk is a traditional bedtime food: dairy products contain both tryptophan and calcium (although they have other disadvantages for health).
Many other foods contain Tryptophan. You can see that these are protein-rich foods.
Soy products: soy milk, tofu, soybean nuts
Meats , Poultry
Whole grains especially brown rice and whole oats.
Hazelnuts, Peanuts, Walnuts
Sesame seeds, sunflower seeds
In general a light snack with some protein and some complex carbohydrate is the best recipe. High sugar snacks may keep you awake.
Foods high in B vitamins help us to make serotonin.
Foods high in Calcium help us to make melatonin.
Omega 3 oils help the brain relax, eg. oily fish, flax seed oil, walnuts. One 2002 study showed a 50% improvement in anxiety and sleep problems from taking just 1000mg fish oil daily (take advice if you use blood thinning meds).
Contrary to popular opinion, restricting your fluid intake is unlikely to influence how much you wake in the night – this is more connected with the functioning of your kidneys! Don’t drink gallons last thing at night, but by all means have a cuppa. Keep your water up during the rest of the day. Alcohol sends you off to sleep OK, but tends to make you wake in the night - often feeling hot. Avoid alcohol after dinner and you should be all right.
Avoid caffeine after lunchtime. Caffeine is contained not only in coffee, but also in:
Tea (usually OK but don’t have too much)
Diet pills esp. those labelled ‘thermogenic’
Some medicines eg. paracetamol compounds, decongestants: read the label, ask your pharmacist.
Jet Lag and Shift Work
Sleep rhythms are easily disrupted by changes of routine. Shift work is particularly difficult if you are on changing shifts. Lack of sleep is dangerous. Shift workers and those with jet lag are at increased risk of accidents and car crashes. Women shift workers may experience disturbed menstrual cycles and lowered fertility.
Tips: jet lag
Jet lag is worse travelling East and when crossing more than five time-zones. Those travelling East have trouble getting to sleep, and those travelling West tend to wake up too early. It seems to affect women worse than men, and those over 50 worse than those younger. With careful preparation and management, adjusting to jet lag only takes a few days.
Try to prepare for travel by changing your sleeping hours towards what will be expected at your destination. Start a few days before you leave. On arrival, don’t nap, or sleep in, but stick to the sleep times normal for that place.
If you are travelling West: before travel, maximise light exposure in the evenings. On arrival, maximise morning light, and wear dark glasses later in the day to reduce light.
If due to go East: maximise morning light before you travel. When you arrive, get as much evening light as you can to keep you awake.
Travelling to high altitudes normally disrupts sleep for several weeks.
Tips: shift work
If you must maintain a sleep pattern permanently at odds with natural daylight, you may find a light box helpful. Set it up where you have your breakfast, and get 20 mins. light before you go out. Avoid any alcohol for 3 hours before work.
Use bright lights during your working time. Make the most of every break to move around actively, because keeping still makes you sleepier.
Before a night shift, try to get a nap. Some employers provide for naps during night shifts.
When you leave a night shift, wear dark glasses to stop the daylight from turning off your melatonin. Take special care if you are driving. Ask housemates or family members to help you, by keeping noisy activities away from times you are sleeping. They could use headphones for music or TV. Put a sign on your front door to warn callers.
If you are missing sunlight, you may need to supplement to maintain healthy levels of vitamin D.
Special Sleep Problems
For example, sleep walking or nightmares, narcolepsy, sleep apnoea, post-traumatic stress, autism or certain medical conditions (see below). For these you will benefit from specialist advice. Treatment from a homeopathic practitioner or acupuncturist can help a great deal. These conditions are not suitable for over-the-counter remedies.
Medical conditions that affect sleep
These might include: kidney problems, alcoholism, severe pain, liver disorders. Naturally I cannot comment on serious medical problems, please take advice from your doctor.
There are everyday conditions that can affect sleep. Use the Natural Health Answers REPORT for practical suggestions in your individual situation. Also check out natural remedies, here and on the Stress page. Always check the safety of any natural remedy or supplement, or contact me for advice.
Alcohol – in excess
Smoking or drugs
Some medications can affect sleep, these is not a complete list:
decongestants (may contain caffeine or ephedrine or similar)
pain medication which includes caffeine
You can find more listed on the Stress page.
St. John's Wort (Hypericum)
The most popular herbal anti-depressant.
Current research indicates that this herb acts on neurotransmitters, brain chemicals which influence mood (serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine). It both makes these neurotransmitters more available, and inhibits their re-uptake (stops de-activation). This is similar to SSRI anti-depressants. It may also act similarly to MAOI anti-depressants.
For shift work, SAD or insomnia, St. John’s wort may increase melatonin levels. Results take around 4 weeks to be apparent. No restriction on duration of use.
Warnings: If pregnant or breastfeeding, use only under supervision. avoid in bipolar illness (manic depression).
St. John’s Wort can make the skin more sensitive to sunlight. Especially avoid artificial UV (sunbeds).
St. John’s Wort can affect the way certain drugs are metabolised (processed by your body), so must be used with caution if you are on any medication from your doctor. A partial list is available on the Stress page. Please also ask your doctor or pharmacist.
A B-Complex vitamin, especially useful in anxiety and depression. B12 works by assisting production of neurotransmitters, chemicals involved in elevating mood (dopamine and serotonin).
B12 may help people whose sleep rhythms are disturbed. This can happen in depression, SAD syndrome, shift work and jet-lag. B12 works by improving the production of melatonin, the hormone we naturally secrete during sleep/darkness.
Vegans may lack B12. You can take B12 alone, or in a B complex combination.
vitamin B12 – none.
B Complex (all the B vitamins) – avoid with cataracts. High doses of vitamin B3 only, may cause harmless facial flushing. Rarely can lead to upset stomach – reduce dose. caution in epilepsy.
Valerian is a traditional sedative, widely used in herbal combinations for stress or insomnia. Studies suggest it is most useful when taken over a period of time for chronic sleep disorders. It improves the time needed to get to sleep, and the quality of sleep and relaxation.
Valerian has also shown some promise for helping people sleep better after discontinuing conventional sleeping pills (with supervision).
Several studies suggest that Valerian affects GABA, a brain chemical that balances excitement/anxiety with relaxation. Valerian reduces anxiety and relaxes smooth muscle eg. the muscle of the digestive tract. Those with a nervous digestion may benefit.
In combination with St. John's Wort (above), studies show Valerian is as effective as the tri-cyclic antidepressant Amitryptilene, and more effective than Diazepam. Valerian can be taken alone or in combination with other herbs that possess a relaxing effect, such as passionflower, or hops.
Research suggests that Valerian does not impair driving ability, nor produce morning drowsiness, when it is taken at night, but please take care if you are using it. Valerian does not lead to addiction or dependency.
Warnings: Rarely, some people may experience nausea, light-headedness or even a slight stimulant effect. Reduce dose.
May have an additive effect when combined with barbiturates (e.g., pentobarbital) and benzodiazepines (eg. Valium, sleeping pills). may enhance the effects of drugs for high blood pressure or asthma.
Avoid with alcohol.
Valerian should be stopped about one week before surgery because it may interact with anaesthesia.
There are no known reasons to avoid Valerian during pregnancy or breastfeeding. Valerian can be used in small amounts for children over 3, but only under professional supervision.
Vervain (Verbena officinalis)
In England, common Vervain grows in gardens and by roads. It is a tall perennial with a spike of pale lilac flowers. Vervain is a nerve tonic, strengthening the nervous system and calming tension and stress. It is an anti-spasmodic, so it helps relax muscles. It also benefits the liver.
It is sometimes called 'verbena', unfortunately so are some other plants. Be sure you get Verbena Officinalis.
Try Vervain tincure, 15-30 drops 2-3 x day in water or juice, including a dose at bedtime. Children 6-12 may try half the adult dose.
Warnings: No adverse effects reported and no well-known contra-indications with medication. Avoid in pregnancy until the last two weeks (best taken under the guidance of a herbalist), when its relaxing effects may help.
Avena Sativa - Oats
Traditionally used to help the nerves and encourage relaxation. Oats also have a reputation, surprisingly, as a mild aphrodisiac. There is no research to back this up!
Plant sterols and alkaloids in oats have anti-anxiety effects. Oats are also very nourishing and useful in convalescence, or chronic illness. They contain significant amounts of iron, manganese and zinc.
Oats can even help to balance your cholesterol. They contain beta-glucans and other polysaccharides which have cholesterol lowering effects (as touted by certain margarine manufacturers). And they help you relax – anxiety tends to raise cholesterol.
Oats combine well with other herbal relaxants such as Vervain or Valerian.
Warnings: none known.
Magnesium is sometimes called ‘nature’s tranquilliser’. It is a muscle relaxant.
A deficiency of magnesium may contribute to osteoporosis, depression, PMS, fatigue, cramps, and migraines.
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