Insomnia is defined as taking more than 30 minutes to fall asleep, waking up too early, or sleeping less than 6.5 hours a night. Insomnia is two times more common in women than in men and affects 6% to 10% of adults. Insomnia is the most common sleep disorder and is often undiagnosed and untreated.
Insomnia can involve lying in bed at night, unable to turn off the mind in order to get to sleep. It can also involve being able to get to sleep without much difficulty but waking up several times during the night with the inability to get back to sleep.
Types of Insomnia: Primary Insomnia indicates sleep problems that are not otherwise associated with another medical condition. Secondary Insomnia occurs because of some other medical condition, including, but not limited to heartburn, depression, chronic pain, medication, or substance abuse. Insomnia can vary in duration and how often it occurs, and is therefore classified as acute or chronic.
Acute Insomnia – Acute insomnia is short term or occasional. Acute forms typically last from one night to a few weeks. Acute insomnia can also come and go, with periods of time when a person has no sleep problems.
Chronic Insomnia – Chronic insomnia lasts a long time and is ongoing. Typically insomnia is considered chronic when the sufferer experiences it at least three nights a week for a month or longer.
Causes Of Chronic Insomnia: The causes of chronic insomnia can be complex and can result from a combination of factors, including, but not limited to:
- Depression (the most common cause of insomnia)
- Chronic pain, such as that from arthritis, fibromyalgia or another illness
- Parkinson’s disease
- Chronic stress
- Kidney disease
- Restless leg syndrome
- Sleep apnea
- Excessive use of alcohol or caffeine before bedtime (Behavioral Reasons)
- Excessive naps late in the day (Behavioral Reasons)
Diagnosing Insomnia: An evaluation that includes a physical exam, medical history, and a sleep history is used to diagnose insomnia. Sometimes patients are asked to keep a sleep diary to track sleep patterns. For serious and chronic insomnia, a referral to a sleep center for special tests may be given.
Herbal Treatments For Insomnia
There are many ways to deal with insomnia. It is important to seek the advice of a medical professional when insomnia interferes with the quality of your life.
Herbal teas and other herbal remedies have been used for millennia to help people sleep better at night. The main benefit of these herbal remedies over modern treatments for sleep is that they are all natural, non-addictive and do not have the side effects that are often seen with synthetic sedatives prescribed by conventional medicine.
Many different herbs can be used as natural alternatives for insomnia. They can be used on their own or in combination with other natural sleep remedies. One study showed that acupuncture along with herbs worked better than one or the other on their own.
Valerian – This herbal remedy is commonly used in Europe, where herbal remedies are most popular. Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) increases the amount of the neurochemical GABA, which stands for gamma aminobutyric acid. This neurotransmitter, when released, reduces anxiety and makes it easier to sleep. Valerian is a great option for those who have a hard time falling asleep and it reduces nighttime waking. Valerian is an all-natural herbal sedative that does not have any of the dangerous side effects or addictive properties of Valium and other prescription sedatives under the benzodiazepine category. It also works well in combination with other sedative herbs, including, skullcap, California poppy, hops, and passionflower.
Dose: It can be taken in capsule, tincture or tea form. 1 teaspoon of dried valerian root can be mixed with hot water and steeped for around 15 minutes to release its active ingredients and drank as needed. For tincture use 2 to 5 drops two to three times per day.
Chamomile – This is a popular sleep aid, usually taken in tea form. It contains a substance known as apigenin, which mimics GABA in the brain. By turning on GABA receptors, it induces a state of relaxation and helps you feel tired enough to sleep.
Dose: Take 2 tablespoons of dry chamomile flowers and brew it with hot water. Lemon juice, milk, and/or honey can be used to spice up and flavor the tea, although it tastes great on its own.
Lavender – Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) is good as an aromatherapy remedy for the induction of sleep and has no side effects. Lavender has been shown in research studies to bring on brain wave patterns similar to sleep.
A study conducted at Britain’s University of Southampton tracked sleep patterns of 10 adults. For one week, 5 of the adults slept in a room where the air was diffused with lavender essential oil, while the other 5 participants slept in a room diffused with a placebo (sweet almond oil). For the second week, the participants switched rooms. The results of the study showed that participants ranked their sleep quality as being 20% better on average in the lavender-scented room versus the one scented with placebo.
Another study conducted by psychologists at Wesleyan University found that 31 men and women who sniffed lavender essential oil versus distilled water for only four 2-minute periods before bedtime slept more soundly as shown by their sleep cycles and brain scans. Moreover, the participants who smelled lavender reported sleeping more soundly and feeling more energetic the next morning.
Dose: You don’t eat Lavender but use it as aromatherapy, either in a diffuser or in a sachet next to your pillow. There are also essential oil candles, and essential oil drops can be added to a hot bath for relaxation before bedtime. Be sure to use only high quality essential oils for best results.
Lemon Balm – Lemon balm is a commonly used herb in Traditional Chinese Medicine. It has many uses, one of which is to raise serotonin levels, which promotes sleep.
Dose: Make a tea using 8-10 tablespoons of fresh lemon balm (about 2 tablespoons when dried) and mix it with a couple of teaspoons of dried chamomile flowers then steep with water. It takes about 45 minutes to work so schedule your tea drinking accordingly.
St. John’s Wort – St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) is a common anti-depressant in Europe and actually dates back to ancient Greece. It is being discovered in the US as a great way of raising serotonin levels in the brain and improving sleep. When there is more serotonin, the sleep-inducing melatonin increases as well so that you can get a restful night’s sleep. Modern scientific studies have shown St. John’s Wort to help with chronic insomnia and to alleviate certain types of mild depression. It mixes well with lemon balm for an additive effect.
Dose: You can take 2 teaspoons of the dried herbal tops and flowers of the St. John’s Wort plant and steep it for 5-10 minutes to make a tea or you can take a prepared capsule. For tincture, use 1/2 to 1 teaspoon two to three times per day. It typically takes about 2-3 weeks for the full therapeutic effect to take place. St. John’s Work causes sensitivity to light, so exposure to sun while taking it is not recommended. Should you experience light sensitivity or any unpleasant symptoms, stop use, and consult with a qualified herbalist.
Hops – Hops are often additives in natural sleep aids because it is known to promote a relaxed state of mind, which is perfect for a good night’s sleep. Hops also have a long history of use for nervousness, restlessness, and sleeplessness.
Dose: You can use it in a tea or in capsule form. It takes about 2 tablespoons of hops to 4 cups of boiling water to make a tea that you can refrigerate and reheat every night. You can also make a sachet of hops and use it as aromatherapy next to where you sleep.
Passion Flower – Passion flower (Passiflora incarnata) is an effective herb for use in insomnia that is caused by mental worry, overwork, or nervous exhaustion. It is a common ingredient in forty different sedative preparations sold in England. Herbalists advocate its use for both kids and adults as it has no side effects even when used in large doses.
Dose: Passion flower can be drank in tea form, or used as a tincture with 30 to 60 drops taken 3 to 4 times per day.
California Poppy – California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) is a wonderful natural treatment for insomnia; it induces relaxation and eases mild anxiety. It is mild enough for use in children. Studies have shown California poppy to be an effective plant sedative with anti-anxiety properties. One study conducted in 1995 showed it to improve both quality and latency of sleep.
Dose: California poppy can be taken in tea form or as a tincture (a much stronger form than the tea) with 30 to 40 drops two to three times per day.
Kava Kava – Kava kava (Piper methysticum) is often used for it relaxation benefits. Its all natural sedative effect is ideal for insomnia, acute sleeplessness and also fatigue.
Dose: Drink 1 cup of Kava Kava tea two to three times per day. It can also be used as a tincture with 3 to 4 drops two to three times per day.
Wild lettuce – Wild lettuce (Lactuca virosa) is a mild sedative that is effective for occasional restlessness and both acute and chronic insomnia. It is safe for kids.
Dose: Use in tincture form with 2 to 3 drops three to four times per day.
Getting Started With Herbs: Everyone reacts to herbal sleep medications differently, so it is a good idea to keep trying different formulations to find what works best for you.
Caution: Talk to your doctor about taking any herbal remedies for insomnia, especially if you are on other types of medication that can interfere with it. Herbs are powerful plants and some are contraindicated with certain medications.
It is always a good idea to consult with an herbalist, who is a specialist in herbal remedies as they can advise you on the best herbs and doses for your particular insomnia condition.