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March 27, 2012 at 10:49 AMComments: 0 Faves: 0

Dr. Chamberlain's 20 Natural Ways To Treat Insomnia

By Dr. Jeff Chamberlain, MD More Blogs by This Author

As a family doctor, one of the most common medical problems I encounter is insomnia (difficulty falling or staying asleep).  In fact, I do not think I have ever made it though a day in my office without talking to at least one patient about it!  It’s a condition which at some time or another, most people will encounter. For most people, the problem while annoying, occurs only very occasionally, but for those that deal with recurrent or chronic insomnia, it can be a major issue.

What Causes Chronic Insomnia? 

The most important factor in beating your insomnia is in understanding the cause. 

Chronic insomnia can have both medical causes:

  • Pain
  • Asthma
  • Sleep Apnea
  • Medications
  • Depression, etc…

...and non-medical causes:

  • Poor Sleep Patterns
  • Noise
  • Irregular Work Hours etc…. 

Regardless of the immediate cause though, chronic insomnia is perpetuated by a derangement of the circadian rhythm (the wake/sleep sleep cycle). 

Circadian Rhythms and Chronic Insomnia

Our body has a natural circadian rhythm that is about 24 hours long and there are many neurochemical and hormonal changes that help regulate it.  A few hours before bed time, this cycle begins to get our brains ready for sleep. Our circadian rhythm also helps the brain fall asleep, gets it ready to wake up, wakes it up and gets it ready to function for the day. 

For the vast majority of people, the circadian rhythm ideally likes a 24 hour day/night, sleep/wake cycle. Even without external cues, our brains are very good at keeping this constant. The problem is that when our sleep cycles get messed up, our circadian rhythm may be telling us it is time to wake up when we actually want to sleep.  

What Can Affect Your Circadian Rhythm?

Artificial Lights: Our brains are designed to use the sun to reset our 24 hour clock every day.  And this worked great - until about 100 years ago.  It turns out that electric lights fool the brain into thinking it is still day light, and this messes with our natural 24 hour circadian rhythm.

Danger/Stress: From a survival stand point, people who fall asleep when there is danger die. Unfortunately, our body cannot tell the difference between life threatening stress and the stress of everyday life and our rhythms are easily overridden when we are stressed.  (I discuss fight or flight stress response in other blogs).

Drugs: Medications, alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, and recreational drugs can all mess with our delicate neurohormonal balance that allows our circadian rhythm to keep our wake/sleep cycles in time.

Staying Up At Night: Our brains are designed to handle diverse situations, so our cycles can be changed when we artificially force our self’s into different sleep patterns.  This trait can be useful with night, or shift work, or pulling all nighters, but artificially messing with sleep cycles has the potential to throw our body out of rhythm.

Tips for Treating Insomnia

#1. Determine The Cause/s. Figure out if there is an underlying cause for your insomnia.  Are there any medical illnesses such as stress, anxiety, depression, pain, asthma, medications, or something else that might be making your insomnia worse?  You might need to see a doctor about this.

#2. Establish a Bedtime. Most people don’t like to hear this, but it is very important: go to sleep at the same time every night and wake up at the same time every day. By establishing normal sleep wake cycles you can reset your circadian rhythm.

#3. Don’t Just Do Something, Lay There! When you’re having trouble getting to sleep, don’t get up or do anything. Just lay in bed!!!  If you get up, you are telling your internal clock that you are supposed to be awake at that time, your internal clock will remember this and it will try to make sure you are always awake at that time.  So don’t read a book, don’t watch TV, don’t play video games, don’t use your computer or phone.  No matter how boring it is, just lay in bed quietly.  For some people, it can take weeks to retrain your body, but if you activate your mind, you are telling your circadian rhythm to always keep you awake at that time.

#4. Exercise on a Regular Basis. Regular exercise (but not immediately before bed time) has been shown to help regulate sleep cycles, and improve insomnia.  I would recommend finishing your exercising at least 4 hour before bedtime.

#5. Blackout Your Bedroom. Research is very clear that light (even when your eyes are closed) messes with your sleep cycle.  It is amazing how many people’s insomnia is cured by completely blacking out their room.  Give this a try and you will be amazed out how well it works.  The goal is to have a completely blacked out room.   Here are some ticks:

  • It is amazing how LED lights are in everything.  Either get them out of the room, or cover them with duck tape.
  • Put aluminum foil over the windows (You risk looking a little crazy, but it works!) and then have heavy curtains to completely block out all out side light.
  • Cover the alarm clock.
  • Put a towel in front of the crack at the bottom of the door.

#6. Say Good Night TV, Videogames and Computer. The only thing more amazing than how many people with insomnia have TV, computers, and videogames in their bedrooms, is how quickly their insomnia is cured once the TV, computer, and videogames are gone!  It might seem harsh, but if you or your child has insomnia, get all electronics out of the bedroom.  There is a high chance that the insomnia will be cured within 2 weeks.   Just do it.

#7. No PM Caffeine. Caffeine, which is a stimulant, can really mess with the sleep cycle.  Knowing that caffeine can also take over 8 hours to leave your system, and that your circadian rhythm will start preparing your brain for sleep a few hours before bed time leads to my rule of thumb:  No caffeine (in coffee, tea, pop, or other sources) after lunch. 

#8. Quit the Nic. Nicotine is another stimulant that has been shown to mess with sleep cycles.  It might be harder to sleep when first getting off nicotine, but it helps in the long run.

#9. Rethink Alcohol. Alcohol is a good example of a short term solution that can cause a long term problem.  Although it might make you drowsy and help you fall asleep, it has been shown to make it more likely for you to wake up in the middle of the night and in general, it can mess with sleep cycles.

#10. Question Marijuana. Marijuana is not the cure-all our hippy friends think it is.  Like alcohol, it can definitely make you drowsy, but in the long term it will mess with your circadian rhythms.  A lot of people who use marijuana to get to sleep get to the point where they can not sleep without marijuana.

#11. Ditch the Pre-Bedtime Meal. This not only helps keep you at a healthy weight, but can also help your sleep.  Digesting a heavy meal can mess with sleep cycles.

#12. Quiet Helps. Having a quiet bedroom can be very helpful. Consider a white noise machine or ear plugs.  Your sleeping brain has a build in, sound induced, survival reflex that jolts itself awake at a moments notice.   Once awake, it needs to reestablish a healthy sleep pattern.

#13. Say No to Naps. Avoid naps during the day, these can mess up your sleep cycle and make it harder to get to sleep at night.

#14. Climate Control. Use heaters, AC, fans, blankets, etc… to make sure your bedroom is a comfortable temperature.

#15. Prepare for Sleep. Your circadian rhythm starts preparing your brain for sleep a few hours before bedtime, so help it out. In the 1 or 2 hours before bedtime, start your relaxation routine. This routine should only include activities that are relaxing and soothing.  Maybe it is reading a book, taking a bath or listening to music. Whatever works for you.

#16. Progressively Dim Lights. About 2 to 3 hours before bed time, start to use less and less lights.  Progressively diming light simulates a sun set, which in turn gets your circadian rhythm into a sleep cycle.

#17. Warm Milk & Herbal Tea. There can be a place for warm milk or herbal tea when establishing a normal sleep cycle.  This can be an early part of your “relaxation routine.”

#18. Think Sleepy Thoughts. This is a form of self-hypnosis.  When you first begin getting ready for bed, start slowing your mind down. Think about how sleepy you are. Think about how nice it will be to go to sleep. Think about how your eyes are getting heavy and how you can hardly keep them open.  Think about how when your head touches the pillow that your eyes are so sleepy that you just can’t stay awake.  (This technique is helped when you have “activating” activities done well ahead of time, for example, if you always make your bed, have this done well before bed time).

#19. The Bed is for Sleeping. Most sleep experts advise not using your bed for anything but sleeping and sex (some even say to not have sex in the bed).  You want your mind to link bed with sleep. If you do other activities in bed (read, watch TV, etc…) your mind may tell the circadian rhythm it is time to do those things when you get into bed.

#20. Avoid Sleep Medications. As tempting as the quick fix solution may be, over the counter and prescription sleep aids tend to be extremely habit forming.  Once you start using them, there is a high chance that you may become dependant on them.  The best thing for your long term sleep habits is to not start them in the first place.  If you already take them, then weaning your self off of them really can help you in the long term.

Remember - it probably took a while for your circadian rhythm to get messed up so resetting your circadian rhythm will take a while.  Although some chronic insomnia can be cured in a day or two, expect it to take up to 21 days.  Make the changes and keep up with them. You will be sleeping like a baby in no time!

Stay Healthy,
Dr. Jeff M.D.

Photo Credit: HaoJan

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