6 natural ways to manage insomnia
Most of us suffer from insomnia at one time or other, but what are the most effective ways of addressing the problem?
To reap the full benefits of sleeping both the quantity, quality and timing of sleep are important.
- The optimal sleep quantity is for most people between 7-8½ hours. This is time spent sleeping as opposed to just time spent in bed.
- The optimal sleep quality relates to four stages of sleep with stage one being the lightest type of sleep, basically dozing, and stage four being deep sleep where it is very difficult to rouse a person. To this, we should add REM “rapid eye movement” sleep in which most of your dreams occur. The basic sleep cycle involves descending through the four stages of sleep from one to four. If your sleep quality is good then you will typically descend through these stages of sleep quickly on falling asleep. Stage four deep sleep is lacking in many people with sleep problems, including for instance those with the muscle aching condition called fibromyalgia who rarely register any stage four sleep.
- Sleep timing concerns when over the course of a day you take your sleep. For instance, do you go to bed after midnight, or 2-3 hours before midnight?
6 natural ways to manage insomnia
Balancing light levels
During the evening
The use of artificial light before bedtime is strongly associated with sleep disruption. That is because the artificial light depresses levels of melatonin, our sleep hormone at just the wrong time of day. Some forms of light are worse than others with the shorter wavelengths being the worst. Blue and violet light has the shortest wavelengths and is present in smartphones, laptops and some street lights and car headlights. White light contains blue wavelengths and so is problematic during the evening as well.
During the morning up until lunchtime
Natural sunlight is around 200 times as bright as most indoor lighting. As such it is far more effective at synchronizing our circadian rhythms than indoor lights. It does this by depressing our melatonin levels to levels that allow us to be fully alert and ready for action. If it is a sunny morning there is no more effective way of improving sleep problems than getting out in the bright sunlight for 30 minutes or more.
By controlling light levels
It is not always possible to get the bright sunlit mornings and dark evenings that our bodies need. One way to help is to use artificial light aids to both wake-ups and increase sleepiness. Sunrise alarms are devices (costing around £50), that gradually brighten a dark room and can help those suffering from SAD. Blue light reducers include the handy piece of free software called f.lux, which is available for smartphones and computers. A more comprehensive solution is to use amber tinted spectacles (from £10-£30), which reduce the melatonin disrupting light from indoor lighting and televisions as well as computers and smartphones. Put them on two hours before bed for the best results.
Your body requires a cool and dark environment for optimal sleep. Keep your bedroom cool. If possible aim for 18C or less, if this is not possible then open windows, and failing that in hot climates air conditioning may be the only remaining option. Basically the closer you are to 16-19C the better your chances of sleeping well.
Another useful technique is to heat the body up with a hot bath (shower and saunas should also work). The cooling of your body after the bath will encourage a deeper sleep. This will work best in cool or temperate climates, but not at all if you can’t cool down quickly afterwards. One hour before bedtime is probably optimal for the bath.
In some bedrooms flashing lights or changing light levels can be a problem, and in these cases blackout curtains or eye, masks should be considered.
Earplugs can also be used where there are noisy neighbours or snoring sleeping partners, however, make sure that they do not disturb you by making you aware of your own heartbeat. Finally sleeping partners moving around can be an issue, causing anything from:
- Seismic disturbances that can make sleep difficult.
- Pulling duvets away causing uncomfortable blasts of cold air.
- Breathing towards your face causing more cold air draughts.
Bigger duvet covers and more sleeping attire are possible solutions if palatable.
Foods before bed
Avoid food, especially those containing proteins, fats and fibre, such as meat, fish, dairy, eggs and beans too soon before sleep. The digestive process for these types of food takes longer than simple carbohydrates. They can sit in the stomach for over 2 hours and can cause digestive distress if you are lying down soon after a big meal.
However, foods containing simple carbohydrates such as sweets, cakes, fruit juices, breakfast cereals and white bread can help with sleep by boosting levels of serotonin and its derivative melatonin in the brain. A snack of this type of food one hour before bed can help with getting to sleep. However, if you have too much you may get a blood sugar rebound where your blood sugar levels plunge below normal and this can wake you up feeling hungry.
We have a system called the autonomic nervous system that controls our general level of activation. When it is in its sympathetic (“flight or fight”) mode we are fully activated, ready to run away from a tiger. When it is in its parasympathetic (“rest and digest”) mode we are ready to eat and recuperate from the day's travails. If we experience levels of stress that are difficult to cope with or that last for a long time we can find it difficult to relax. This can feed through until bedtime when if our sympathetic system has not switched off we can find it difficult to get to sleep.
Practices such as yoga, meditation and deep breathing exercises can all help. Other practices such as walking, dancing, hard exercise, gardening or deep baths may also work. For any individual, there are normally practices that can help with relaxation either during or after the practice. Be aware of what practices work well to get you relaxed and schedule them into your routine.
Exercise during the day is an effective way for many people to get to sleep and to improve their sleep quality. The correct intensity of exercise will vary between individuals with some, such as active athletes finding intense activity most effective, while many people will gain benefit from more moderate exercise. Make sure the activity is one that you enjoy or it is likely you will not reap any sleep benefits from it.
The 3 best insomnia supplements
Perhaps one of the most effective supplements to try if you’ve addressed all the treatments discussed above would be magnesium. Magnesium is released from cells during stress responses, and if the stress does not end, magnesium levels become permanently lowered. Supplemental magnesium can act as a laxative for some people, and if so try one of the other supplements below. A sensible dose would be 400mg of magnesium glycinate or taurate per day.
Taurine is an amino acid derivative formed in the pancreas. It is found naturally in muscle meats, offal and seaweed and has been found to reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol while raising levels of the generally calming neurotransmitter, GABA.
Taurine can also be taken in a supplemental form conjugated with magnesium as magnesium taurate or on its own. The conjugated form, magnesium taurate, containing two effective sleep remedies is worth trying unless you suffer side effects with either of the components. Taurine on its own is not associated with any side effects in the literature I’ve examined. It may, however, interact with lithium if this anti-depressant is being taken,
Found in green tea and to a lesser extent black tea, L-Theanine has a calming effect on the brain, reducing anxiety. It is thought to achieve this by altering levels of the neurotransmitters such as GABA, serotonin (a precursor of melatonin – the sleep hormone) and also of dopamine.