Q. I find myself tossing and turning at 4 a.m., only to fall deeply asleep 20 minutes before my alarm sounds. I am incredibly frustrated! What are some home remedies for insomnia?
A. An occasional episode of insomnia can make it difficult to handle the day, but regular episodes of insomnia can make it difficult to handle life. You can at least take comfort in knowing you’re not alone. It is estimated that more than 60 million Americans suffer from insomnia regularly. In 2005, pharmacists filled more than 43 million prescriptions for sleep drugs—a 32 percent increase from 2001.
The causes of insomnia are varied, but psychological factors often are present. Environmental and dietary factors also play a prominent role, and statistics show that, for unknown reasons, insomnia is more common in women than men.
Insomnia is classified into two broad categories: sleep-onset insomnia (or difficulty falling asleep), and maintenance insomnia, which causes frequent or early waking. Treating either type of insomnia should begin with an awareness of your needs. All people don’t require the same amount of sleep, for example, and some may think they have a problem only because they don’t fit into the norm. Sleep cycles can vary among people and throughout a person’s life, and while one person may require only four hours of sleep, others need 10 hours to feel refreshed.
3 Lifestyle Changes
Health: Sleep disturbances can have underlying physiological causes, so treating the cause can solve the sleep problem. People suffering from hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, for example, can experience fluctuations in blood-sugar levels during the night. The brain needs a constant supply of glucose to function, and a drop in blood sugar signals the body to produce hormones and neurotransmitters that stimulate sugar release. The resulting rise in blood sugar may wake a person up. (A small amount of fruit or juice upon waking will relieve the symptoms.) It is important to have a correct diagnosis, however. If an exam and blood test reveal that you are hypoglycemic, ask your health-care provider whether nutritional measures are appropriate for you.
Serotonin is a natural chemical associated with inducing sleep. Sometimes, deficiencies in tryptophan, vitamin B6, niacin, magnesium or other nutrients can inhibit the formation of this hormone.
Daytime stress: Many of my patients need to get wound up to achieve their goals during waking hours, but trouble occurs when stress built up during the day is released at bedtime—they lie with their brains racing, unable to shut off the mental background noise. In Chinese medicine, this type of insomnia is called “disturbed shen qi,” or a disturbed mental spirit. I’ve found that managing one’s day to minimize stress or release it before bedtime by taking a brisk walk or a warm bath is more effective than taking a sedative. And be aware of stimulants ingested during the day; try cutting back to see if that relieves the problem.
Sleep surroundings: The sleeping environment can have an important bearing on both types of insomniacs. Noise, an uncomfortable bed, a snoring partner and light are obvious distractions. One often-overlooked factor is temperature. Most people sleep more soundly in a cool room. Research by the University of South Australia in 2004 showed that the body needs to drop its core temperature in order for sleep to initiate normally.
6 Herbs for Insomnia
As an herbalist, I find most of my solutions for insomnia in the plant world. I most often recommend reishi mushrooms, hops, valerian, skullcap, passionflower or lemon balm. The type of herb and the dose depend on a person’s specific condition; the dosages listed here are those recommended by the German Commission E when noted.
Reishi mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum) is the plant material I use most often to relieve insomnia. While it’s not traditional in Western herbalism, reishi seems to resolve disturbed shen qi, calm a person during the day, reduce anxiety, help overcome environmental distractions and regulate sugar metabolism. Reishi also has been shown to reduce cholesterol and blood pressure, strengthen the heart and stimulate the immune system.
Reishi’s active ingredients include polysaccharides, which stimulate the immune system, and triterpene acids, which reduce high blood pressure, among other things. The health benefits of this herb have been demonstrated in many studies, both in the lab and clinic, which gives me great confidence in it.
DOSE: Three 1-gram tablets of the mushroom taken three times a day. Studies indicate that reishi is generally safe to use, although there are few reports on its long-term use.
Hops (Humulus lupulus) have been used as a sleep aid for centuries. The volatile oils of the dried fruits have a significant sedative action. Hops tea can be taken to relieve stress during the day or just before bedtime, or the strobiles can be stuffed into a little sleep pillow, where their fragrance will be released whenever you turn your head.
DOSE: Use about 1 heaping teaspoon of whole hops for every cup of boiling water to make a tea. Hops have been shown to be generally safe, although some people have experienced allergic reactions. The German Commission E recommends a daily dose of 1/2 gram.
Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) is another herb familiar to insomniacs throughout history. Although beneficial in inducing sleep, it can be mildly habit-forming. I therefore recommend taking valerian for sleep for only for short periods (up to one month) or occasionally when sleep disturbance is serious. A group of chemicals called valepotriates and valerenic acid have been shown to depress the central nervous system.
DOSE: To help you sleep, take a dose of 300 to 400 mg of valerian product standardized to 0.5 percent essential oil about one hour before bedtime. While valerian is generally considered to be safe, to err on the side of caution, pregnant women should not use it.
Nineteenth-century medical practitioners used skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora) to treat chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia. Its calming action is mainly due to the component scutellarin, which is an antispasmodic.
DOSE: I generally use this herb in combination with reishi, hops and valerian or alone as a tincture of 15 to 40 drops two to three times daily. In Chinese tradition, 1 to 3 teaspoons of the root for every cup of water are used to make a tea (start with boiling water and let simmer before drinking). No health hazards have been linked to skullcap.
It is believed that the alkaloids and flavonoids of passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) significantly tranquilize the central nervous system. I find that using passionflower for sleep gives one a feeling of well-being while reducing spasms and anxiety and aiding sleep.
DOSE: Passionflower tinctures and extracts are available in health-food stores. For occasional insomnia, I recommend drinking a cup of tea made by pouring a cup of boiling water over 1/2 teaspoon of the dried herb; steep, then sip before going to bed. Passionflower contains alkaloids that can reduce the effects of a class of antidepressants known as monoamine oxidase inhibitors; the German government allows passionflower preparations to contain no more than 0.01 percent of these alkaloids.
The leaves of lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) often are used as a tea, especially in combination with chamomile, to relax the body and induce sleep.
DOSE: Steep 1 to 2 teaspoons of the herb in a cup of hot water. There are no noted side effects.
Insomnia can be caused by anxiety, pain, tension, caffeine, alcohol, drugs or even worrying about falling asleep. Pinpointing whether one or more of these factors is the culprit can bring relief because you can try to improve the situation. Accordingly, take charge with the 20-minute rule: if you lie sleepless in bed for more than 20 minutes, get up and do a task. Get your mind out of the circular problem of being kept awake by the inability to fall asleep. Read, iron that pile of clothes or write in your journal.
Four-Hour Sleep Cycle
While sleeping straight through for seven or eight hours might be the ideal, some people prefer a four-hour sleep cycle. Some of my patients have had great success on only four hours of straight sleep, supplemented with a 15-minute break after every subsequent four-hour period of wakefulness. The break can consist of a catnap, meditation, light exercise or sipping a cup of tea—it’s their choice. After the sixth of these work/break cycles, instead of the 15-minute break, they go to sleep again for four hours.
However, the six cycles take 25.5 hours, which doesn’t fit neatly into the 24-hour day. Still, some people feel that this extended day works best, and they make the odd readjustment here and there to fit in with society. They say that using the 15-minute breaks to catnap is key; they go quickly into a sound sleep and awaken feeling refreshed. Leonardo da Vinci, Winston Churchill and Florence Nightingale, all very productive people, were known to have slept in four-hour cycles.
The information offered in “Ask the Herbalist” is not intended to be a substitute for advice from your health-care provider. Questions? Write to email@example.com with “Ask the Herbalist” in the subject line.
Terry Willard operates the Wild Rose Wholistic Clinic in Canada and lives on an organic herb farm on the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains.