If you’re having a sleepless night you’ll try anything to doze off – but how do traditional cures for insomnia work, and which is most effective?
Insomnia, the inability to sleep regularly and without awakening, can be very disturbing – it has all sorts of potential health side-effects apart from the immediate ones of tiredness, irritability and impaired cognitive ability.
There are many causes of sleeplessness, including stress and certain types of medication, but there are equally many traditional remedies suggested as cures for insomnia.
While it’s important to consult your doctor if your insomnia is severe or long-term, in many cases these traditional cure for insomnia will help until the stressful events are over and you return to a natural patterns of sleep.
They are certainly a better option than going straight for the option of sleep medication. While this can ‘knock you out’, it often fails to put you into the deep Rapid Eye Movement stage of sleep which is essential for your mental health; and can have side-effects such as headaches, muscle aches, dry mouth and constipation. So sleeping pills are rarely a good long-term cure for insomnia.
Let’s look at some of the natural solutions you can try before having to refer to your doctor.
Physical activity is essential for good sleep; one study concluded that people who get 60 minutes of exercise five days a week have more normal REM sleep than non-exercisers. You may benefit from even less exercise than that; a 30-minute session of exercise three or four times a week can help you to sleep for an hour longer each night and redue the number of times you wake in the night.
Working out in the morning is apparently more beneficial, researchers believe because this regulates blood pressure better later in the day, making it a more effective cure for insomnia.
Being active during the day makes it easier for the body’s clock, the circadian rhythm, to put you to sleep at night. Just don’t exercise soon before going to bed, as this raises blood pressure and delays sleep.
The body’s circadian rhythms are regulated largely by sunlight, which stimulates the pineal gland, which controls the levels of hormones in your system. When you want to sleep, you need to stimulate the production of melatonin, a natural relaxant produced by a part of the brain known as the hypothalamus.
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So your plan should be to get plenty of light during the day – open your curtains, go outdoors, and if you are stuck indoors, try to sit by a window. Then when it’s time to sleep, block out light with blackout curtains, switch off all electronic devices such as TVs and tablets which produce light, and your circadian rhythms should kick in and help you to find one of the most natural cures for insomnia.
There are various ways to promote relaxation and reduce insomnia-causing stress.
Some, like yoga, require a level of commitment and flexibility which might not be right for all of us.
But there are simpler methods of promoting relaxation which don’t require any special techniques to provide cures for insomnia.
Keeping a journal is said to be an effective way of relaxing; spend some time before bed writing an entry about the positive events of the day. People who stay up later at night are apparently more prone to negative thoughts, so try going to bed earlier.
Even thought exercises like imagining yourself in a relaxing situation, say lounging on a beach, can be effective. In time, the thought image itself will become a signal to your system to calm down.
So does counting sheep work? While the practice has become the popular subject of humour as one of the traditional cures for insomnia, it isn’t thought to be a particularly effective sleep aid; one study found that asking subjects to imagine peaceful scene such as a waterfall was more effective.
One popular exercise is progressive muscle relaxation. Try tensing and relaxing each part of your body, starting with your toes and working up the body. By the time you get to your head, you should find yourself pleasantly relaxed all over and ready to nod off.
Unsurprisingly, what you eat during the day can have an effect on your sleep patterns at night, so controlling your diet can be one of the most natural cures for insomnia.
Positive influences include bananas, cheese and nuts, which contain tryptophan, an amino acid essential in the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter which promotes relaxation.
Omega 3 fatty acids such as those found in fish are thought to play a part in sleep management, and cherries are packed with relaxing melatonin.
Carbohydrates such as pasta will make you sleepy, but a large portion may cause indigestion – instead try wholegrains with low-fat milk, a combination which settles the stomach and provides a good source of calcium.
Equally important are the foods and drinks you must avoid.
Coffee, black tea, cola, and dark chocolate are packed with caffeine, which can stimulate you for up to six hours, so cut them out after midday..
And spicy and fatty foods will also keep you awake by raising your body temperature and stimulating your digestive system.
This may vary in effectiveness according to the daytime temperature, but you could try showering at night as well as in the morning. You don’t want it too hot, but a nice warm shower can alert your nervous system that it’s time to relax.
Some studies suggest that, whether the effect is psychological or physiological, scenting your bedroom with aromas such as lavender, spikenard, vetiver, frankincense, myrrh, and clary sage may promote relaxation and sleep, and be one of the most pleasant cures for insomnia.
Drinking camomile tea is said to have mild sedative effects, and St John’s Wort can also be used to make a relaxing tea. Valerian root has been shown in some studies to be effective in promoting a good night’s sleep, and passionflower is also a mild sedative.
So if you’re having a sleepless night and you’ll try anything to doze off, see if these simple lifestyle changes and traditional cures for insomnia work for you, and find out which of these remedies is most effective.