Rejuvenating sleep is an extremely important and fundamental part of feeling great and healthy. Unfortunately, too many of us are plagued with insomnia and miss out on sleep’s wonderful healing properties. This article will explain what you can do (and what you should avoid) to naturally cure insomnia at home.
In order to get good sleep you should avoid the following stimulants:
- Teas that contain caffeine
- Yerba Mate
It is very important to stabilize your blood sugar from the time you eat dinner until you go to bed. Make sure you eat a balanced meal of protein, low-glycemic carbohydrates and fat. Bed-time snacks are OK but they must be balanced and not contain sugar or processed carbohydrates.
One example of something good to eat before bed is 1-2 tablespoons of almond butter. This is a slowly digesting food that will keep your blood sugar stable while you sleep.
Exercise can significantly improve your sleep quality. The earlier in the day the better if you are going to exercise, but some exercise is better than none so do it late if you have to.
Avoid watching television before you go to bed as this can disrupt your sleep. Avoid intense movies or reading material as this can stimulate your adrenals which will keep you awake.
Try and follow a regular sleep schedule. Go to bed and wake up at the same times every day. Your brain likes consistency when it comes to sleep.
Begin a regular meditation practice. Meditation can calm the mind, reduce stress, anxiety and help you get clear on what is important so your mind is not racing. I highly recommend www.calm.com to teach you how to meditate. Just 5 minutes a day to start will begin to work and you can meditate up to 20 minutes a day if you can.
Practice deep belly breathing like a baby breathes for 5 minutes every day. This will help to alkalize your body and reduce stress. If you want to improve your first morning urine pH this will actually make a big difference. Try doing it in the evening before bed to reduce tension in your body which will help you sleep.
Your bedroom should be completely pitch-black. No clock radio, lights or outside light of any kind should be in your sleep space. Even though your eyes are closed, your brain is still receiving light stimuli through your eyelids which can reduce melatonin levels. To illustrate this, try looking directly into the sun or a bright light with your eyes closed and you’ll see a small amount of light coming through.
Try writing down what you need to do the next day in the evening. This helps to clear your mind because now you know exactly what you need to do the next day and you can put it to rest.
Eat right for sleep
Covering a healthy diet is beyond the scope of this guide but I can give you a few pointers that relate to healthy sleep.
1. Try eating only protein and fat for breakfast without much or any carbohydrates. This sets the tone for healthy blood sugar for the next 24 hours. An egg and vegetable omelet or a protein shake with greens and nuts are two examples of this type of breakfast.
2. Only eat low glycemic carbohydrates for lunch and dinner so your blood sugar remains stable.
3. Some carbohydrates are required for glucose to get into the brain which carries tryptophan across the blood-brain barrier. This will ensure healthy serotonin and melatonin production at night. If you just eat a lot of protein at night with no carbohydrates then it may be difficult to fall asleep.
If you are extremely tired in the morning and are a “slow-starter” then this can mean a couple of things. The first is that you are insulin resistant and your blood sugar needs work. A fasting blood glucose and hemoglobin A1c are good markers for insulin resistance. This also ties in with adrenal function so be sure to get your adrenal hormones checked.
The other is that you are not falling into deep REM sleep for long enough due to the factors described above. Something is preventing proper melatonin production which gets you into REM sleep.
What can you drink at night to sleep better?
One old school remedy is to drink warm milk. Casein peptides in milk have been shown to reduce anxiety and help people sleep.
Chamomile tea also helps to reduce anxiety but sometimes it has a paradoxical effect and causes insomnia. You’ll know the first time you try it if it’s not for you.
I have gotten great feedback on Yogi brand “Soothing Caramel Bedtime” tea which contains chamomile, skullcap, poppy and L-theanine. It can be found on Amazon.com or at your local health food store.
What about your hormones?
When it comes to hormones it’s all about balance. Too much cortisol from the adrenal gland will cause insomnia and too little will create blood sugar and adrenalin issues that will wake you up. In addition to keeping your blood sugar stable throughout the day and at night I like to use adrenal adaptogens and phosphatidyl serine.
Zinc will lower excess cortisol levels so I have people take Zinc with dinner if their insomnia is due to excess cortisol levels.
Progesterone has a calming effect on the brain and nervous system and can work wonders for menopausal women who can’t sleep due to hot flashes and hormone deficiencies. I like to use natural progesterone cream or liquid drops to improve progesterone levels.
Too little estrogen will cause hot flashes and insomnia however, too much estrogen will also cause insomnia. It’s important to get your levels checked so we know which of the three estrogens your body makes are imbalanced.
If your blood sugar levels drop too low when you are sleeping then your adrenals may release adrenalin which wakes you up and then it’s hard to fall back asleep. It’s best to eat something small in that scenario which usually puts you back to sleep.
What about thyroid hormones?
If you are hypothyroid then insomnia is a common symptom. Thyroid hormone is important for proper serotonin and melatonin metabolism so it can be difficult to sleep if your thyroid levels are low.
Too much thyroid hormone increases your metabolism and makes you anxious so you’ll have difficulty sleeping. It also creates blood sugar and adrenal imbalances which compound the problem.
Supplements That Help You Sleep
Melatonin is a hormone produced by the pineal gland in the brain with many functions. Your body works with natural circadian rhythms related to night and day. Melatonin’s job is to regulate your body’s response to changes in light as well as changes in seasons such as winter and summer. When it becomes dark, your brain responds by producing melatonin to put you to sleep. Melatonin enhances REM sleep which is your deepest and most restorative sleep time.
Melatonin is manufactured through this process:
Tryptophan (amino acid) ==> 5-HTP ==> Serotonin ==> Melatonin
Nutrients required for this process are vitamin B6, SAMe, iron and a folate-derived compound known as THB (tetrahydrobiopterin).
Melatonin levels decline with age due to calcification of the pineal gland and many other unknown factors.
The following are research-backed benefits of melatonin:
- Supports Growth Hormone Production
- Stimulates the immune system
- Powerful antioxidant
- Increases lifespan in animal studies
- Improves sleep quality
- Reduces jet lag
- Helps night-shift workers regulate sleep patterns
- Relieves depression and SAD (seasonal affective disorder)
- Protects the brain
- Improves recovery from stroke
- Reduces migraines
- Reduces side-effects of chemotherapy
- Protects the liver from toxins
- Alleviates glaucoma
- Reduces stress hormones
- Reduces blood pressure
These factors may reduce your natural melatonin production:
- Poor sleeping habits such as going to bed too late
- Inadequate darkness during sleep: clock radios, night lights, street lights. Your room should be pitch black. You should be able to hold your hand in front of your face and not be able to see it at all.
- Not enough sunlight exposure during the day
- High stress levels
- Caffeine or alcohol consumption
- High protein/low carbohydrate diet resulting in less tryptophan availability to the brain
- Inadequate cofactors for melatonin production as listed above
- Medications: Aspirin, diuretics, beta-blockers, benzodiazepines
The most effective general dose recommendation is 3 mg, 30 minutes before you want to fall asleep. Dosing ranges from .5mg to 20mg depending on how deficient you are and your unique health history. 5-HTP can be taken with melatonin to enhance sleep quality.
If you wake up in the middle of the night then you may do best on a time-released melatonin product that slowly secretes melatonin into the bloodstream while you sleep.
Foods High in Melatonin (highest to lowest concentration)
- Sweet corn
- Japanese radish
Potential Danger: Melatonin may exacerbate autoimmune diseases such as Rheumatoid arthritis and Lupus. Immune-related cancers such as leukemia and lymphoma are contraindicated. Melatonin is also not recommended during pregnancy, breastfeeding or if you are trying to get pregnant. Do not combine melatonin with corticosteroids or MAO inhibitors.
5-HTP is an amino acid that occurs in the human body and is the precursor to serotonin. 5-HTP is currently used to relieve mild to moderate depression, anxiety, insomnia and fatigue. It has been used in combination with lithium for bipolar (manic) depression at a dose of 200mg three times a day. It has also been shown to relieve migraine headaches at dosages of 200 to 600mg/day.
Fibromyalgia sufferers took 300mg three times a day and showed improvement in sleep quality, depression, insomnia and muscle pain. Double-blind clinical trials have shown 5-HTP to improve sleep quality and the time it takes to fall asleep.
Recommended dose on an empty stomach before bed is approximately 50mg to as much as 300mg. 5-HTP should not be taken with antidepressants and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors.
5-HTP may enhance the effects of St. John’s wort. Vitamin B6, niacin, and magnesium should be taken on the same day as 5-HTP as they are required for its metabolism.
GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is the main calming neurotransmitter in the body and central nervous system. Recommended dose approximately 100mg before bed.
Inositol is one of the best compounds to increase GABA levels. 1,000mg with dinner or before bed can really work wonders for insomnia related to GABA deficiency.
L-Theanine is a non-protein amino acid found naturally in green tea (Camellia sinensis). It is clinically proven to reduce stress, balance mood and improve the quality of sleep. Its mechanism of action is through a direct effect on GABA receptors. Recommended dose approximately 200mg before bed.
Phosphatidylserine’s greatest benefit is its ability to lower cortisol levels by optimizing the brain’s relationship with the adrenal glands. After only ten days of high doses of PS, research has shown that excessive cortisol levels can be decreased in healthy men. PS has also been shown to enhance brain function and memory, decrease anxiety and depression, improve mood, and enhance metabolism. It is also an antioxidant.
It is very difficult for the body to make PS as it requires many nutrients for production. Supplementation is vital for optimizing adrenal function so cortisol cannot have its negative effects on the body and the thyroid. 100mg taken 1-3 times a day in divided doses or just 100mg before bed can work wonders for some people.
Magnesium has a calming effect on the nervous system and your muscles. It also is important for healthy serotonin metabolism making it a vital mineral for healthy sleep. I have most patients taking magnesium glycinate before bed to optimize pH which has a nice side effect of improving sleep function. Some menopausal women do well with some calcium added to the mix which also helps with sleep.
Dosing for herbs is based on a variety of factors. Consult with your healthcare professional about recommended doses. Herbs can be taken in capsule form, liquid tincture or tea.
Valerian (Valeriana officinalis)
Valerian root has been used for hundreds of years in Europe to relieve insomnia, anxiety, muscle spasms, stress-induced heart palpitations, digestive spasms, hysteria, nervous headaches and menstrual pain. Native Americans would boil the roots into a tea to calm nerves. Valerian root induces the release of GABA in the brain which has mild sedative effects. GABA basically calms the brain and nervous system. Valerian also influences serotonin and norepinephrine levels. Numerous studies have looked at the combination of Valerian and St. John’s wort for depression and anxiety. This combination was shown to be as effective as the drug amitriptyline for depression and more effective than Valium for anxiety without any side effects.
Passion Flower (Passiflora incarnata)
Passion flower is traditionally used as a sedative, to calm nerves, insomnia, anxiety, nervousness and as an antispasmodic. Passion flower works well for those who “can’t turn off his or her mind.”
Passion flower actually binds to benzodiazepine receptors in the brain which reduces anxiety thus helping you sleep. The nice thing about passion flower is that it does not have the side effects that medications do such as drowsiness upon awakening, impaired memory, decreased motor coordination.
German Chamomile (Matricaria recutita)
Chamomile has been traditionally used to reduce tension and induce sleep, to relieve menstrual cramps, quiet upset stomach and relieve intestinal cramping. Chamomile is currently used for IBS, insomnia, indigestion, heartburn, PMS, inflamed bowel, peptic ulcers, intestinal cramping and as an ointment for eczema. Chamomile has the same action as passion flower by binding to benzodiazepine receptors.
Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora)
Skullcap was traditionally used to calm nerves, reduce spasms, stress headaches and for nervous exhaustion. Skullcap is currently used with chamomile, lemon balm, oats and St. John’s wort for insomnia, anxiety and mild obsessive-compulsive disorder. Skullcap can also help with restless-leg syndrome.
Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis)
Lemon balm was traditionally used for digestive disturbances. It is currently used for relieving nervousness, improving sleep, reducing over excitability and has a mild sedative effect. Lemon balm also works well as an antiviral topically on the herpes virus. Lemon can be combined with St. John’s wort for seasonal affective disorder. Lemon balm works by enhancing GABA activity thus calming the brain and nervous system but without the side effects.
Lavender (Lavendula angustifolia)
Lavender flowers and essential oils have been traditionally used with St. John’s wort and lemon balm for depression. It has also been used for insomnia, irritability, headaches, digestive disturbances, pain and topically for burns.
Hops (Humulus lupulus)
Hops have been traditionally used as a diuretic, placed in small pillows next to the bed to induce sleep, digestive bitter for nervous stomach and digestive tract spasms, and as a sedative for insomnia, anxiety, nervousness, and tension headaches. Hops are currently used for insomnia-especially those with difficulty falling asleep, restlessness, anxiety, and stress-induced tension.
Kava Kava (Piper methysticum)
Kava works by modifying GABA receptors in the brain, preventing adrenaline uptake and reducing anxiety. Kava was traditionally used to reduce anxiety, reduce spasms, sedative, diuretic and as a non-alcoholic calming drink. Kava is currently used to relieve anxiety, nervousness, and tension. German studies have shown that kava is as effective a treatment for anxiety disorders as tricyclic antidepressants and benzodiazepines without the side effects. Kava enhances REM sleep without morning grogginess and relieves insomnia.
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)
Ashwagandha also known as Indian Ginseng has been traditionally used as an adrenal adaptogen, sedative, anti-inflammatory, nervous system tonic, astringent, diuretic, antispasmodic and to raise low blood pressure. In Ayurvedic medicine, it is used as an aphrodisiac, tonic for exhaustion, anxiety, depression, impaired memory and poor muscle tone. Ashwagandha is currently used to support the adrenal glands, for chronic fatigue syndrome, anxiety, insomnia, stress-induced ulcers and male impotence associated with exhaustion and anxiety.
Rhodiola rosea and Holy basil are additional adrenal adaptogens that help with sleep and balance blood sugar.
Black Cohosh may help insomnia induced by menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes and mood swings.
Other calming herbs include Jamaican dogwood bark (Piscidia erythrina) and California poppy (Eschscholzia californica).
If your sleep problems are adrenal/blood sugar related then adrenal adaptogens taken during the day and phosphatidylserine at night tend to work the best.
If your melatonin levels are low then 1.5-3mg is usually adequate but you may do best on a time-released product if you wake up in the middle of the night.
If your GABA levels are low due to intense stress and anxiety then Inositol before bed usually works. Theanine or any of the herbal medicines mentioned can be added as well.
If you follow all of these strategies and utilize supplementation, you should be able to achieve quality sleep.
You may not do well on a formulation, however, due to one or two particular ingredients that aren’t right for your brain. In this case, talk to your doctor about what individual compounds may work best for you.
I have gotten great feedback on the “Sleep Master Sleep Mask” available on Amazon.com if you don’t have a place to sleep that is completely dark.
Additionally, if you can’t sleep due to noise then I recommend the following ear plugs on Amazon.com: 3M 312-1261 Single Use E-A-R Soft FX Bell Shape Polyurethane Foam Uncorded Earplugs (1 Pair Per Poly Bag, 200/PR Per Single Box).
Another way to “brain dump” and put your mind at ease if your mind tends to have a lot of racing thoughts is to play the game Tetris for 10 minutes before bed. It is available for free on smartphones and if you just Google “Play Tetris online” you will find a number of websites that allow you to play it for free.
If you are going to play Tetris on a smartphone or tablet then you should install an app called “Twilight” which eliminates blue light and changes the color of your screen to a more reddish tinge so that the blue light from the screen does not create sleep problems. This color change reduces the frequency of light from your devices screen which tricks the brain so it doesn’t think it is still daytime. You should install Twilight anyway or use the night time feature on your smartphone to eliminate blue light which tells your brain that the sun is out.
Even if you do everything you can from a holistic perspective, you may need sleep medication. Remember that it is very difficult to overcome any health problem without adequate sleep so don’t hesitate to talk to you doctor for prescription sleep medication. The benefits of achieving restful sleep outweigh the potential side effects.
Insomnia is a sign of something out of balance in your body so be sure to get tested for anything that may be the cause such as your thyroid, sex hormones, adrenals, neurotransmitters and blood sugar. Even if supplementation is helping you, it’s still not a long-term solution. Work with your doctor to find the cause so you don’t need to take medication or any of the supplements listed in this guide. They can, however, work wonders in the short-term while the detective work is being done.