It is thought that about a third of people in the UK experience episodes of insomnia. It tends to be more common in women and seems to be more likely to occur as we get older. So what can we do about it?
The odd hour of sleep lost is no big deal for most of us, and many people adapt and cope quite well with a few less hours sleep occasionally. However, ongoing sleep disturbance and full blown insomnia can be devastating in a way that people who have never had the problem find it hard to understand. Insomnia can leave us not just physically and mentally tired, but can also lead to depression, irritability and low immunity. It can also leave you with pale and lacklustre skin, fatigued muscles, impaired memory and reduced ability to concentrate. Over time it can cause anxiety and be a major cause of stress, which can have a knock-on effect when it comes to our relationships with other people. The reasons for insomnia are varied, and sometimes specific causes can’t be avoided, but stress is one of the most common causes. While stress relating to a specific issue in your life may not be something you can just turn off, there are some things you can do to reduce its impact on your sleep, and there are some common causes of sleep disturbance that can be avoided:
- Allow time to unwind before sleep. It can be good to distract yourself from your worries so a little reading can help, but not if it’s your bank statements!
- Try and adopt a regular sleeping routine (in this way we are just like babies, our bodies and minds respond to certain triggers and routines). In time your body should start to tell you when it’s time to sleep.
- If you have a streetlight outside your bedroom window, consider getting a blackout curtain or using a sleeping mask. Research has indicated individuals in cities with high light levels have lower quality sleep than those in towns or countryside.
- Don’t watch T.V. or play computer games too near to bedtime and avoid checking Facebook on your phone or tablet. This is because the light emitted by TV and monitor screens can over stimulate mental activity, and stops you producing the hormone melatonin which is crucial for sleep. We are programmed to be awake when it is light.
- Don’t eat your evening meal too late. If you are still trying to digest food late into the night your body won’t want to shut down. We also need to rid ourselves of certain toxins through urination as part of the digestive process, so eating late will make you wake up to go to the toilet. It can be an idea to eat your main meal in the day and eat light at night.
- Don’t consume too much caffeine or other stimulants during the day and preferably none in the evening. We get caffeine not just from tea and coffee, but also from fizzy drinks, energy drinks, cold remedies and chocolate. Sometimes even one or two cups in the day will be enough to cause problems.
- Don’t drink too much alcohol or water late at night if you find that they cause you to wake up.
- Try relaxing herbal teas or an oat or malted drink to encourage sleep. Eventually this may help by association too – your brain will link the drink with sleeping time.
- Do some exercise during the day or early evening, ideally in the fresh air.
Ashwagandha, a plant that is native to India, is widely used in Ayurvedic Indian medicine for the treatment of stress and as a general restorative and tonic. Like ginseng it has been in use for thousands of years and is referred to as an ‘adaptogen’ by herbalists, meaning that it can be used to help the body to rebalance itself. Because stress is often a major factor with sleep problems, and because sleep problems in turn cause stress, it may be helpful if you are suffering from insomnia. Pukka Night Time is an organic night time herbal blend including valerian & ashwagandha. Valerian is a much studied herb and is useful for the treatment of minor sleep problems (see below). Take 2 capsules an hour before bed.
The leading herbal remedy used for the treatment of insomnia is valerian. It grows wild all over Europe, and has been in use for centuries as a sleep aid. There are now several good quality scientific studies that support its historical use as a sleep remedy. Studies have shown that valerian root makes getting off to sleep easier, and also crucially increases deep sleep and dreaming (1). This means you are getting more restful sleep, or what many of us call ‘proper sleep’. It is also important to note that valerian does not cause a morning ‘hangover’, a side effect which can be associated with the use of some prescription sleeping tablets. Research has shown that valerian does not impair reaction time, alertness, or concentration the morning after use, so it doesn’t impair your ability to drive or operate machinery (2,3). Hops is often combined with valerian for its mildly sedative properties, which may be more helpful than valerian root alone for treating insomnia (4). Try A. Vogel Dormeasan which is made from extracts of freshly harvested, organically grown valerian root and hops. Take 30 drops half an hour before bed, in a little water. The smell and taste is quite strong, but it may be mixed in fruit juice instead to disguise this.
5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP), which is normally sourced from the seeds of Griffonia simplicifolia, a woody shrub from North Africa, is a building block for the hormone serotonin. Serotonin is an important hormone that is involved in the regulation of mood and sleep. 5-HTP supplementation is therefore potentially helpful for the treatment of insomnia. Studies have shown that it may actually increase rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep, which is a stage of deep sleep which we need to feel fully rested and to maintain good cognition, or brain function, memory and muscle strength (5). This is one reason why we often feel so physically exhausted and weak if we have prolonged periods without a good sleep. If we are deprived of REM sleep it can also impact on our mood. Higher Nature Serotone 5-HTP contains various co factors that help you to utilise the 5-HTP, these include various B- vitamins and zinc. Do not take it if you are pregnant or taking fenfluramine. 5-HTP should not be used if you are taking prescribed anti-depressant medication.
Tart (or Montmorency) Cherry, which most of us know as a food ingredient, is rich in B-vitamins and minerals. Importantly, it is also a natural source of the sleep-regulating hormone melatonin. Some studies have shown that taking tart cherry can improve sleep quality, so it may be helpful for people with long term sleep problems and insomnia (6). Terra Nova Smooth Mag powder contains the benefits of tart cherry combined with good doses of Magnesium citrate to aid relaxation and promote sleep. It also contains Green Oat Seed, another stress beating herb. Take one scoop (approx. 5g) an hour before sleep, mixed with water, juice, milk or plant milk.