Insomnia is a common complaint of the central nervous system. It is characterised by a difficulty getting to sleep, staying asleep, or feeling rested after sleep. Individual sleep requirements vary with age and levels of activity, it is generally accepted that we need an average of 8 hours sleep per 24-hours, except in infancy and old age. Sleep is essential for normal functioning and to allow the body to heal. Fatigue, poor concentration, forgetfulness, irritability and minor aches and pains are common for suffers of chronic insomnia. A single stressful event or a prolonged period of stress may give rise to insomnia; however, the original cause may no longer be the same one preventing a person from getting a good night’s sleep.
Physical pain, respiratory problems, frequent urination and digestive upsets are just some of the physical conditions that can prevent a person from getting to sleep or staying asleep. Insomnia can manifest as a symptom of heart disease, hyperthyroidism, colitis or during menopause. The longer insomnia lasts the more likely it is for other problems to arise and the more difficult to restore normal waking and sleeping patterns.
Depression can disrupt sleep, causing early morning awakening and trouble getting back to sleep. Conversely, chronic insomnia can result in depression, frustration, worry and anxiety. “Also taking medications with stimulant properties and withdrawal from drugs or alcohol may contribute to impaired sleep. Insomnia lasting more than a few weeks may be associated with chronic drug or alcohol abuse, medical disorders, or psychiatric disorders, or it may result from primary sleep disorders, such as restless legs syndrome and sleep apnea.”¹
Dietary advice for insomnia
It is essential to ensure the diet is rich in minerals and the B group of vitamins. Dark leafy greens like spinach and kale, lettuces, broccoli, celery, cauliflower, legumes and nutritional yeast are good sources. Green juices, bean sprouts, seaweeds and supplements such as Spirulina provide essential nutrients in easy to assimilate forms.
Wholegrain foods such as oats and barley are calming and help to balance sugar levels. Eliminating mucus producing foods and stimulants such as alcohol, caffeine, sugar and foods that contain artificial additives, and the avoidance of high protein or hard to digest foods after eight o’clock in the evenings, will give the digestive system time to rest.
Equally important is refraining from activities that stimulate brain activity close to bedtime. Stress and negative habits such as smoking and late night television can perpetuate the problem. Positive affirmations, deep breathing and time spent in nature can nurture and calm mind and body.
The brain is 80% water, so it is important to ensure adequate intake of water. Important nutrients include vitamins A, C, D and the B group, minerals such as boron, zinc, magnesium, potassium, selenium and calcium, omega 3 and 6 fatty acids and all 28 amino acids.
Natural healing protocols for insomnia
Maintaining a schedule by rising and retiring at the same hour, not napping during the day, regular exercise and getting plenty of fresh air are simple yet effective measures. Allowing time to wind down in the evenings by reading a book or looking back over the day and affirming accomplishments and letting go of worries can help to ease anxiety. An herbal bath, soothing music and deep mindful breathing can help to relieve physical, emotional and mental tension.
A bedroom that is well aired and free of pollutants from chemical cleaning products, a comfortable bed, natural fibre sleeping attire that allows the body to breathe, removing distractions such as phone and television and a soothing décor can all contribute to a restful night. A sleep pillow filled with hops, lavender, wild lettuce and lemon balm may also help in creating the right environment for sleep.
Essential oils can be inhaled, added to bathwater, combined with vegetable oil and massaged into the skin, or used in a burner to aid relaxation. For insomnia Valerie Ann Wormwood recommends: valerian, marjoram, clary-sage and Roman chamomile.
Walking barefoot on a patch of grass helps to discharge negative electrical energy from the body. Reflexology and acupuncture can effectively treat tension and any associated health problems. Reiki and meditation can help in releasing more subtle negative energies on emotional and mental levels.
Herbal remedies for insomnia
Hypnotics are a classification of herbs that help to ease a person into sleep. Herbalist, David Hoffman classifies passionflower, hops, wild lettuce and valerian as strong hypnotics. These are relaxing nervines with a sedative effect. Milder in action are Chamomile, lemon balm, linden and motherwort.
Skullcap, vervain and oat seeds are nutritive nerve tonics with a calming effect can benefit people withdrawing from caffeine or nicotine. “Their function is to feed, regulate, strengthen, and rehabilitate the nerve cells.”²
Antispasmodics are nervines that relax muscular tension and would be of particular benefit for those who tend to hold stress in the body. Cramp bark, wild yam and black cohosh will help to ease persistent coughing or muscle cramping, which can keep a person awake.
“Adaptogens will help in a way similar to nervine tonics, but should be used only in the morning to help deal with stress, as they might be too energizing.”³ For adrenal exhaustion, the ginsengs, liquorice, holy basil, shizandra berries and ashwaganda will help in managing stress on physical, emotional and mental levels.
Nervine stimulants, in small amounts, can offset the sedative effects of the more relaxing herbs when needed. Wormwood is an extremely bitter nervine to stimulate the liver; mugwort has a similar action. Other herbs to consider include horsetail for its silica and calcium content, and nettles for their chlorophyll, vitamins and minerals and capacity to increase the uptake of calcium. “Borage contains potassium and calcium, combined with mineral acids.”4
Herbal infusions for insomnia
The ritual of preparing and enjoying an herbal infusion can promote relaxation. A blend of borage, lemon balm, chamomile and vervain will taste good and soothe tired nerves throughout the day. Dr. Kloss recommends hawthorn: “The tea is good for nervous tension and sleeplessness.”5
Sleep tinctures for insomnia
A sleep tincture to be taken in the evenings, so as not to cause drowsiness during the day, could include: wild lettuce, hops, passionflower, oat seeds, valerian and vervain. Wood betony could be included if there is physical pain, motherwort or black cohosh for menopause or chamomile for indigestion. Most nervines are bitter and will have a tonic action on the body as a whole.
Because we all experience insomnia at some time there can be a tendency to accept it rather than address it. Chronic insomnia can negatively impact health and should not be ignored. A multi-faceted response that recognises the inter-connectedness of mind and body and our inner and outer environments, can help to restore balance.
Disclaimer: This article is for information purposes only and should not be taken as medical advice.
(1) N.D. Barnard, R. Weissinger, B.J. Jaster, S. Kahan, C. Smyth, Nutrition Guide for Clinicians. 2nd Ed. Washington, DC: Physicians Committee For Responsible Medicine; 2009. p. 697.
(2) Christopher J.R. School of Natural Healing. Centennial Ed.U.S.A.:Christopher Publications; 2009. p. 372.
(3) Hoffmann D. Medical Herbalism. Rochester, Vermont: Healing Arts Press; 2003. p. 358.
(4) Grieve M. Borage. A Modern Herbal. Available at: http://botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/b/borage66.html (accessed 13 July 2016)
(5) Kloss J. Back to Eden. 2nd Ed. Twin Lakes USA: Lotus Press; 2009. p. 135.