Sleep is necessary in order for our body and brain to recover from our daily activities. (29) However, as many as 35% of adults have experienced insomnia, a sleep disorder marked by the inability to either fall or stay asleep. (25) With lack of sleep having an effect on everything from our autonomic bodily functions such as blood sugar balance (2) to our ability to safely drive a car, (27) insomnia can have dangerous consequences. Continue reading to learn what exactly insomnia is, and how you can manage it naturally.
What is insomnia?
Insomnia is often characterized as a disorder in which a person experiences one or more of the following symptoms:
- Daytime impairment or distress associated with lack of sleep
- Difficulty falling asleep
- Experiencing nonrestorative sleep
- Inability to stay asleep
- Sleep difficulty that takes place at least three times per week and has persisted for at least one month (23)
Having any of these issues can lead to a diagnosis of insomnia. There are two basic types of insomnia: acute (short-term/several weeks) and chronic (long-term/several months). (23)
Insomnia occurs when a lack of sleep takes place despite adequate opportunity to sleep. Having insomnia can significantly and negatively impact quality of life and overall health. Chronic insomnia (three nights per week lasting at least three months) is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, chronic pain syndrome, obesity, asthma, diabetes, depression, and anxiety. (13)
Key insomnia symptoms include:
- Being awake for much of the night
- Lying awake for a long time before being able to fall asleep
- Not feeling rested or feeling as if you haven’t slept even when you have
- Sleeping for only a short period
- Waking up too early (29)
What causes insomnia?
Common causes of insomnia include:
- Certain medications used to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), asthma, depression, and high blood pressure
- Certain sleep disorders (e.g., sleep apnea, restless legs syndrome (RLS))
- Irregular sleep schedule (e.g., shift work)
- Mental health disorders (e.g., anxiety, depression)
- Neurological problems (e.g., ADHD, Alzheimer’s disease, autism, dementia)
- Physical illnesses (e.g., neurological and respiratory conditions )
- Poor sleep habits caused by working late, playing video games, or using other electronic devices close to bedtime
- Stress (11)(25)(29)
For many people, one or a combination of these factors can cause and exacerbate insomnia. (25)
Natural treatments for insomnia
Because there is no single cause for insomnia, there is also no one single treatment for insomnia, and different people may benefit from various forms of treatment. A good place to start is to identify what contributing factors may be causing your insomnia and address those concerns through diet, lifestyle modifications, and supplements when directed by a practitioner. (8)
Insomnia has also been linked to various lifestyle and sleep habits. Factors that can contribute to insomnia include having an irregular sleep schedule, working late, napping during the day, using digital devices before bed, and refraining from physical activity. (7)
2. Eat a healthy diet
A study involving 93,676 postmenopausal women found that diets consisting of high amounts of added sugars, starches, and refined grains (e.g., white bread and white pasta) were associated with the occurrence of insomnia symptoms. In contrast, diets that consisted of whole foods and an abundance of fruits and vegetables were significantly associated with fewer insomnia symptoms. The study also found that higher intakes of dietary fiber, whole grains, fruit, and vegetables were significantly associated with lower chances of developing insomnia. (9)
According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, the findings of the study suggest the blood sugar spikes and crashes caused by the high amounts of refined carbohydrates could be responsible for triggering insomnia. For this reason, minimizing refined and processed foods, and including more whole foods with a low glycemic index, which raise blood sugar levels more slowly could prevent rapid blood sugar spikes and crashes which are linked to sleep disturbances causing insomnia. (20)
3. Limit caffeine
Caffeine, a natural substance found in many foods and beverages such as coffee beans, tea leaves, cacao pods (used to make chocolate), and kola nuts, is the most widely consumed psychoactive substance in the world. (5) Caffeine is also synthetically produced and added to certain medications, energy drinks, and supplements for its energizing and alertness-promoting effects. (28)
Caffeine works by blocking adenosine receptors in the brain. Adenosine is a sleep-promoting chemical that is produced by the brain throughout the day. Adenosine builds up in the brain later in the day, causing you to feel more tired. By blocking the receptors that sense adenosine, we don’t feel the natural sense of tiredness that occurs as the day progresses and we stay alert and awake. (19)
Caffeine impacts our circadian rhythm,(2) the body’s sleep-wake cycle. (19) Caffeine has also been shown to reduce sleep time, quality, and satisfaction levels. (5) For these reasons, it’s no surprise that caffeine consumption can lead to insomnia or worsen insomnia. Caffeine consumption should be minimized, particularly later in the day, when trying to manage insomnia. (19)
Multiple studies have found that regular physical activity leads to better sleep. (6)(14) Individuals who engage in regular physical activity are also less likely to have insomnia and sleep issues. (16)(18)
According to the National Sleep Foundation, exercise may be just as effective as certain medications for treating insomnia. (18) Exercise may be beneficial for insomnia for the following reasons:
- Causes changes to your body temperature: During exercise your body temperature increases and afterward your body’s temperature drops. These changes in temperature are similar to the changes that occur when the body is in a restful state and can therefore send signals to the brain that it is time for sleep.
- May boost your mood: Exercise leads to the release of endorphins, hormones that can reduce feelings of stress and anxiety.
- May improve circadian rhythms: Exercise can help reset your internal clock by helping you feel tired when it is close to bedtime. Certain forms of exercise also increase serotonin levels, a hormone that is involved in the sleep-wake cycle. (10)(16)(17)(18)(21)(22)(31)
Cognitive-behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I)
Cognitive-behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) is often the first-line of treatment for those with insomnia as it does not pose the potential side effects that can accompany prescription medication. The focus of CBT-I is to identify the anxieties people with insomnia have regarding sleep, and then replace those anxieties with healthier beliefs and attitudes. CBT-I usually includes:
- Sleep education: Learning about healthy sleep patterns and lifestyle habits can help you understand what may be causing your insomnia and what changes can be made.
- Sleep hygiene: The focus of sleep hygiene is to engage in behaviors that improve sleep quality and quantity while refraining from behaviors that cause sleep problems.
- Stimulus control: Stimulus control is a strategy that helps to reduce factors that condition the mind to resist sleep. For example, not being able to fall asleep may increase anxiety making it even more difficult to sleep. A CBT-I therapist may encourage their client to get up from bed if they cannot fall asleep after 10 minutes of lying down and return to bed when they feel sleepy. The aim of this is to eliminate the anxiety that stems from not sleeping which can otherwise act as a vicious cycle making it harder and harder to sleep.
- Sleep restriction and compression: The goal of these techniques is to reduce the time spent awake in bed and avoid daytime naps in order to cause fatigue and thus the ability to fall asleep at bedtime.
- Relaxation: Relaxation techniques such as breathing exercises, meditation, and muscle relaxation can help to put your mind and body in a restful state and help you fall asleep. (8)
When treating insomnia naturally, sleep hygiene should always be a focus. Sleep hygiene includes different tips on what to do before bed to create the most sleep-conducive atmosphere and routine possible. This involves making adjustments to room temperature and darkness, and avoiding certain foods and beverages before bedtime. Creating a relaxing bedtime routine can go a long way in helping to ease insomnia. (26)
In addition to lifestyle modifications, your practitioner may recommend certain supplements that may help reduce insomnia. Supplement ingredients which may be beneficial for insomnia include:
- Valerian (15)
To read more about natural sleep supplements check out the Fullscript blog. Always consult your integrative practitioner before taking any supplements.
The bottom line
Insomnia is a sleep disorder characterized by the inability to either fall or stay asleep. Insomnia can be caused by a variety of different factors such as, certain health conditions, prescription medications, poor diet, and unhealthy lifestyle habits. Manage insomnia by addressing the issues that may be causing or contributing to the sleep disorder through various diet and lifestyle modifications as well as with the use of certain supplements. If you’re a patient, always speak to your integrative practitioner before making any adjustments to your wellness plan.
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