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Natural Remedies for Insomnia: The Ultimate Guide

Natural Remedies for Insomnia

Kent Probst, BS, MEd

Kent Probst is the owner of Long Healthy Life Blog

You’re tossing and turning at night.  Struggling to get a good night’s sleep.  You’re not alone.

You probably know how insomnia makes you feel.  You’re tired during the day.  You’re moody, irritable and easily angered.

Maybe you’re falling asleep at work or in school.  Your performance is declining.  You’re not motivated during the day.  You may not have any energy.

One fourth of all car accidents are related to insomnia or sleep disorders. Trying to drive while somnolent is just as dangerous as driving while intoxicated.

In today’s busy society, we still try to cram more into our schedule than ever before.  And when it comes to sleep, many of us treat it like a luxury.

The National Sleep Foundation says that a third of Americans experience insomnia.  It’s an epidemic problem.  A third get less than 7 hours of sleep per night.

Fortunately, you can sleep better with natural remedies for insomnia.


Insomnia: What it Does to Your Health. 

Did you know that chronic insomnia can lead to heart disease, poor learning and memory, diabetes, depression, weight gain, and premature skin aging?

Insomnia is also linked to the following health problems:

  • Asthma
  • Arthritis
  • Endocrine abnormalities
  • Neurological illness
  • Urinary problems
  • Sinus problems
  • Gastrointestinal issues

Insomnia also weakens your immune system by increasing levels of tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-α) and interleukin-6 (IL-6), which promote inflammation.

A weakened immune system also increases the risk of bacterial, parasitic and viral infections.

Your endocrine system is also affected by insomnia, which elevates the hormones epinephrine and cortisol.  The result can be osteoporosis, weight gain and diabetes.

Published studies also show that long term insomnia is also associated with heart failure and atherosclerosis.

Getting a good night’s sleep (7 to 9 hours) helps you detox your brain of beta amyloid plaque, the substance found concentrated in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients.

Additionally, insomnia can make you age faster by increasing levels of T cells, immune cells associated with increased inflammation.

Insomnia has been shown to increase the frequency of musculoskeletal pain.  Your body’s ability to modulate pain declines with poor sleep quality.

Research done by the American Cancer Society demonstrated a link between increased risk of early death and chronic insomnia.


Optimize Stages of Sleep with Natural Remedies for Insomnia

If you’re sleeping normally, you should experience 3 stages of sleep.

Stage 1 is the transition from being awake to falling asleep, also known as hypnagogia.  During this time you may experience hypnagogic hallucinations, which are quite common.  Sleep paralysis occurs during stage 1, in which you may not be able to move or speak. Lucid dreaming may also occur during this stage, and you’re aware that you’re dreaming.

Stage 2 is the beginning of sleep where heart rate and respiration drop. You dissociate from your environment. You are preparing for deep sleep. 40-60% of your sleeping time is attributed to this stage.

Stage 3 is the most restorative phase and the time in which deep sleep occurs.  During this stage, the brain produces growth hormone in which the tissues of the body are repaired.  Respiration decreases and blood pressure drops. It’s difficult to wake someone during stage 3.

REM (rapid eye movement) occurs while dreaming.  Memories are consolidated in the brain.  The muscles shut down to prevent people from acting out while dreaming.  We experience dreams mostly during stages 2 and 3, and intermittently during stage 1. People usually experience between 3 and 5 REM periods while sleeping.

While sleeping, we typically cycle through the stages from 1 to 3 and back to stage 2, followed by REM.  This takes about 90 minutes, and occurs about 5 cycles per night.


How Can You be Sure You Have Insomnia?

You may have difficulty falling asleep (Onset Insomnia) or difficulty staying asleep (Maintenance Insomnia).

If it lasts only a few weeks, it’s acute insomnia.  If it occurs three nights a week and lasts for at least three months, it’s chronic insomnia.

Insomnia can also be described as primary or secondary.

If you’re not sure what’s causing it, then it’s primary insomnia.  When there’s a known cause, it’s secondary insomnia.


Are You at Risk?

Secondary insomnia can be caused by medical problems, such as anxiety, depression, chronic pain, asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder.

Sometimes insomnia can cause your depression.  It’s not always clear cut, trying to determine what’s causing what.

If you’re taking a prescription medication for another condition, the drug side effects could be causing insomnia.  Consult your physician to determine if your medication is the culprit.

The following medications can cause insomnia:

  • Decongestants
  • Diuretics
  • Antihistamines
  • Monoamine oxidase inhibitors
  • Serotonin reuptake inhibitors
  • Corticosteroids
  • Chemotherapeutic agents
  • Calcium channel blockers
  • Beta-agonists
  • Theophylline

More than 40 published scientific studies demonstrate an increased risk of early mortality associated with hypnotic sleep aids, or sleep medication. One risk factor is the risk of overdose or lethal combination of sleep medication with another substance.

Daniel F. Kripke, MD, Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at UC San Diego, has stated, based on his review of the research, that hypnotic sleep aids may only help you sleep 10 to 20 minutes more per night.   And they don’t make you more alert and productive during the day.

Restless leg syndrome can also cause insomnia.  Symptoms of restless leg syndrome can be strongest when trying to sleep and include the urge to move your legs and leg pain.

If you’re between the ages of 55 and 85, you’re at greater risk for insomnia.  The tendency to experience insomnia increases with age.

Women also have a higher incidence of insomnia than men due to hormonal changes related to menstruation, pregnancy and menopause.  Menopausal women may see improved sleep quality from hormone replacement therapy.

Men have another risk factor.  Low testosterone levels can cause insomnia.  Obesity is a known cause of low testosterone levels.  It may be wise to have your testosterone levels checked with a blood test.

If you’re an overweight, middle-aged man, your chances of experiencing obstructive sleep apnea increase.  During sleep apnea your throat muscles relax and make it difficult to breath.  This can occur many times per night.

Sleep apnea also correlates with cardiovascular disease, diabetes, gout, and cancer.  If you have sleep apnea, you may want to consult your physician.  You have an array of treatments available from conventional to novel treatments to lifestyle and dietary changes.

Substance abuse and poor mental health are also associated with insomnia.  Young people with insomnia have a greater risk of using illicit and mood-altering drugs, as well as developing an introverted personality.

Another form of insomnia can be characterized as psychophysiological.  It is believed to be related to over-stimulation of the cerebral cortex.  This results in anxiety, making it difficult to sleep.

The following factors can also cause insomnia:

  • Caffeine
  • Nicotine and smoking
  • Alcohol
  • Stress
  • Shift Work
  • Spicy foods
  • Foods high in fat
  • Heavy meals at bedtime

Medical conditions such as, asthma, stroke, chronic pain, heart failure, gastrointestinal problems and hyperthyroidism also increase the risk of insomnia.

By now natural remedies for insomnia should become even more attractive.


Why Natural Remedies for Insomnia?

You may have already seen the advertising for prescription drugs for insomnia, such as Lunesta, Ambien, and Restoril.  Unfortunately, they often have side effects.

The good news is that insomnia can be successfully treated if you don’t like the side effects from drugs, or you’re interested in a more natural approach.

You can start by making some changes to your lifestyle and sleep hygiene, or habits related to sleeping:

  • Turn your alarm around so you can’t see it
  • Avoid activities in the bedroom that aren’t related to sleep
  • Establish a healthy bedtime routine such as listening to soothing music
  • Exercise regularly
  • Don’t exercise less than two hours before bedtime
  • Get one hour of exposure to natural light during the day
  • Minimize sleep during the day
  • Avoid alcohol, nicotine and caffeine near bedtime
  • Try to go to bed at the same time daily
  • Avoid eating a meal at least three hours before bedtime
  • Keep your bedroom cool and quiet
  • Make sure you have a good mattress
  • Keep a journal to identify the cause of your insomnia
  • Listen to some soothing music before going to sleep
  • Keep your bedroom as dark as possible

Resetting Circadian Rhythms with Sleep Restriction can help by increasing your need for sleep.  Start by limiting the time in bed that you spend sleeping.  If you’re sleeping five hours, but staying in bed eight, restrict the time in bed to five hours.  You may feel sleep deprived initially, but you’ll condition yourself to go to sleep faster.  Gradually increase the time in bed in increments of 15 minutes until you’re sleeping the whole night.

Good sleep hygiene is an integral part of your regimen of natural remedies for insomnia.


Food as Natural Remedies for Insomnia

Try eating one of the following foods to improve sleep quality:

Walnuts contain melatonin, the hormone that regulates your sleep/wake cycle.  Eating a serving of these nuts at bedtime can raise your melatonin levels and improve the quality of your sleep.

Almonds may help you sleep better, since they contain magnesium and calcium, two nutrients that have been shown to improve sleep quality.

Low Glycemic or Complex Carbohydrates don’t lower your serotonin levels like simple carbohydrates.  Good examples of low glycemic carbs include beans and legumes (lentils, black-eyed peas, chickpeas, black beans, mung beans).  Whole and cracked grains include brown rice, wild rice, groats, quinoa, barley, steel-cut oats and buckwheat.

Cheese contains tryptophan an amino acid needed to produce serotonin, the neurotransmitter that makes you feel sleepy and relaxed.

Chamomile Tea, which is known for inducing relaxation, may help you sleep better when taken at bedtime.

Warm Milk is well known by many who drink it at bedtime, since it contains the sleep inducing amino acid Tryptophan.

Cherries are another food that contains melatonin.

Bananas contain vitamin B12, the nutrient necessary for making melatonin.


Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

You may want to consider working with a clinician for chronic insomnia.  The clinician can help you change how you think about sleep.  CBT can modify your sleep habits and suggest changes to your sleep environment.

In published studies, cognitive behavioral therapy with a psychologist has been shown to significantly mitigate insomnia, whether primary or secondary.  In some cases, it’s more effective than drugs as a treatment for insomnia, whether your insomnia is primary or secondary.

The therapist may also employ biofeedback to help you better manage muscle contractions, heart rate and respiration, thereby improving insomnia, anxiety and pain.  CBT may also help with improving sleep hygiene through the use of stimulus control therapy by reducing arousal and anxiety associated with going to bed.


Relaxation Techniques

If you’re prone to being affected by stress, try the following for better quality sleep:

Try meditating 15 to 30 minutes a day, or every other day.  Sit or lie in a comfortable place.  Try to eliminate all thoughts from your mind and focus on your breathing.  When your mind wanders, bring it back to your breathing.  With practice you can reach a deeply relaxed state.

You may benefit from doing yoga in a structured class, especially if you’re new to it.  Having an instructor will help you get into the positions correctly and avoid injury.

The University of Michigan has detailed information on how to practice progressive muscle relaxation:

Research has demonstrated that consistently practicing one or more of these techniques reduced insomnia symptoms and improved sleep quality.  All of the techniques can be self administered following guidance from an experienced professional.  For maximal effectiveness, they should be done consistently over the long term.


Nutritional Supplements and Herbs

Melatonin is the hormone produced by the pineal gland and regulates the sleep-wake cycle.  Melatonin levels peak at night and drop significantly during the day.  A deficiency of the body’s production of melatonin can cause insomnia.  Melatonin supplementation is widely accepted by health care practitioners as an effective method of treating insomnia.  Dosages generally range from 1 to 5mg.

L-Tryptophan is the amino acid that makes you sleepy after eating food like turkey.  As you age, the levels of L-Tryptophan in your body decrease with age.  But L-Tryptophan supplementation can improve sleep quality by increasing your body’s production of melatonin.

Valerian, an herb, is commonly taken for supporting restful, healthy sleep.  Activity of GABA (Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid) a neurotransmitter that blocks impulses between brain cells may be positively affected by Valerian.   Valerian may improve total sleep time and sleep quality.  Allow two weeks for it to work fully.

Passion Flower, an herb from the Passiflora incarnata plant, is taken for its sedative qualities.  It’s also used for treating anxiety, diabetes and asthma.  In double-blind trials and randomized studies, participants reported improved sleep quality, less night waking and improved sleep latency.

Lemon Balm, an herb related to the mint plant, is known for treating anxiety and for relaxation.  In clinical trials, combining it with Valerian demonstrated reduced insomnia and improved sleep quality.

Chamomile, a well known herb, taken for relaxation and sleep. It is commonly taken as an oral supplement or tea at bedtime.  It’s believed that it regulates benzodiazepine receptors in the brain.  Chamomile has also been shown to improve anxiety and depression.

Ashwagandha, an Indian herb, has been used for centuries for healthy mood response and treating anxiety.  It’s known as an adaptogen.  Published studies have shown that it improves sleep quality by reducing anxiety and stress by increasing GABAergic activity.  It also reduces cortisol levels.

Honokiol, an extract from the leaves, seeds and bark of the Magnolia tree, has more commonly been used to treat mood disorders, such as depression and anxiety.  It’s now being used to treat insomnia.  It’s believed that GABA receptor activity in the hippocampus is improved by Honokiol.  Honokiol crosses the blood-brain barrier, and in animal studies demonstrated increased non-REM sleep and shortened sleep latency.

Magnesium, the mineral necessary for the healthy functioning of much of your body, is also a sleep regulator.  A magnesium deficiency can cause insomnia, as well as diabetes and heart disease. Combining magnesium with zinc and melatonin has been shown in studies to improve sleep quality.  Magnesium threonate is the optimal form for sleep.

Glycine is another amino acid that may improve sleep quality. Glycine may elevate your levels of serotonin. Serotonin is associated with improved mood, appetite and social behavior.  In several published studies, participants who supplemented with oral glycine reported improved sleep quality.

Zinc, a trace mineral responsible for healthy neurocognition and immune function, may also be a regulator of circadian rhythms.  This is why combining it with melatonin and magnesium has been shown to improve sleep quality.

Lavender Oil, used in aromatherapy, is another alternative treatment you may want to explore.  Lavender oil been shown to reduce insomnia symptoms in clinical trials when inhaled 20 minutes twice a week.  It has also been demonstrated to help with depression.

Saffron.  The spice widely known for cooking can also be taken as an oral supplement to treat insomnia.  Limited evidence suggests it may improve sleep quality in one week after taking a 300mg dose.  Sleep latency also improved in some animal studies.

Danshen, also known as Salvia Miltiorrhiza, has traditionally been used for better sleep. A small amount of animal research exists demonstrating that it has properties that promote relaxation.  Otherwise not much research exists regarding how it affects sleep.

Bioactive Milk Peptides.  The breakdown of milk protein by enzymes produces peptides that are thought to induce sleep and relaxation.  It’s believed they do this by affecting the brain’s GABA receptors.  Two published studies demonstrated that alpha-s1 casein hydrolysate reduced insomnia symptoms and improved sleep quality.

Not all nutritional supplements or herbs work effectively for everyone.

Finding the right natural remedies for insomnia may not happen overnight.

Finding the right one for you may take time.

Anecdotal evidence suggests switching to a different nutritional supplement or herb once a month.  Herbs, such as Valerian, tend to lose their effectiveness if taken for a long time.

Don’t take more than the recommended dosage.


Banish Sleepless Nights and Wake Up Restored

With the right combination of natural remedies for insomnia you can beat the sleepless nights.

It’s possible to significantly improve your sleep quality naturally, without side effects from drugs.

You have the resources to consistently get a good night’s sleep.

When you improve your sleep quality over the long term, you’ll be happier and more productive during the day.

Beating insomnia means significantly improving your health by reducing the risk of all the health problems that go along with it.

Best of all – you’ll feel better.

Beating insomnia doesn’t have to be just a dream.

You can make it a reality.  Why wait?

Rest assured.  Natural remedies for insomnia work.

You could start experiencing better sleep as early as tonight with natural remedies for insomnia.


Additional Resources

American Academy of Sleep Medicine

National Sleep Foundation


Disclaimer: This post includes affiliate links, and I will earn a commission if you purchase through these links. Please note that I’ve linked to these products purely because I recommend them and they are from companies I trust. There is no additional cost to you.

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Hi, I'm Kent

As a personal trainer, exercise physiologist, and bodybuilder, I’ve dedicated my life to optimal nutrition, fitness and natural remedies. And putting it all into practice. Now I’m taking my experience and knowledge to the next level by helping others through blogging.


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