Derived from the Latin 'without sleep,' insomnia poses difficulty initiating, maintaining, or getting quality sleep and waking up. How likely you are to develop insomnia depends on several factors, like age and gender. While older adults are more likely to endure sleepless nights, young adults and adolescents are also susceptible because of social jetlag or acute stress. In this article, we explore natural and accessible strategies to combat insomnia and reclaim restful sleep.
Natural ways of combating insomnia
Insomnia can be a very tiresome condition that can affect your everyday life, from mood to performance. In the age of streaming TV series, smartphones, and travel, it can be difficult to maintain a healthy lifestyle sleep-wise. To ensure a good night's rest, you have to keep to so-called sleep hygiene rules:
- Go to sleep and wake at the same time, and limit naps. During waking hours, you build sleep pressure and the 'sleep hormone' known as melatonin, both of which ensure you fall asleep.
- Physical exercise, such as going for a daily walk, can help you fall asleep. We have to recognize that physical and psychological/mental tiredness are not the same. Keeping yourself physically active is part of a healthy lifestyle.
- Limit what you eat several hours before bedtime, especially heavy meals, as they are difficult to digest and will give you energy. Additionally, avoid drinking sugary or caffeinated drinks, including non-herbal teas — caffeine is a stimulant that can make you alert.
- Avoid stimulants like nicotine (cigarettes, patches, gum) and certain medications (if possible) before bed.
- Make sure your sleeping environment is comfortable, like the bed, temperature, lighting, and noise. All of these can make a difference, especially if you suffer from sleep disturbances.
- Do not use your bed for non-bed-related activities, such as working, watching television, reading, eating, or making calls or appointments. These activities have a stimulating effect, which might lead to difficulty initiating sleep.
- Try making lists for the next day's activities, such as planning work or school tasks or balancing finances, before bed. Worrying about bills, work, or school can interfere with sleep initiation and increase stress levels.
Traditional treatment for insomnia
Keeping sleep hygiene and limiting/managing stress might not always be sufficient to relieve insomnia symptoms. In those cases, there are other treatment options for persistent sleep problems.
Prescription medication can be used to relieve insomnia. Sleeping pills are powerful medications and have to be taken with caution. They are also rarely used for the long-term treatment of insomnia and usually are prescribed for a couple of weeks. However, some milder versions of sleep medication are safe for long-term use. In every case, the medication should be prescribed to you personally by your healthcare provider. It is extremely important to use these medications as instructed.
Cognitive behavioral therapy
Cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia is something that is used together with short-term sleeping pills or as a stand-alone treatment. Therapy can help you identify triggers for insomnia and help you manage them. This is usually offered as the primary treatment for insomnia.
Light therapy is often used in cases with circadian clock misalignment or circadian disorders. Since light is the main timer for our circadian rhythms, exposure to the correct wavelength light may help to align you to the correct rhythm.
Causes of insomnia
Your age and gender are the most clearly identified risk factors for developing insomnia. While the relationship between healthy aging and increased difficulty sleeping is not well defined, studies suggest the loss of neurons in the brain due to aging will affect your ability to sleep. That said, young adults can also experience insomnia, along with those who are experiencing acute stress. Women tend to suffer from sleep problems more than men, with the difference becoming apparent after the onset of puberty and getting worse over time.
In addition, co-occurring health conditions that are common in the elderly can be a significant contributor to insomnia. Some of these can include:
- Low blood oxygen levels (hypoxemia)
- Dyspnea conditions (asthma, pneumonia, and lung diseases)
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease
- Arthritis and other pain conditions
- Neurodegenerative diseases (Alzheimer's and Parkinson’s diseases)
Evidence suggests that menstrual cycles, pregnancy, and menopause can negatively affect sleep cycles. However, keep in mind that menstrual cycles, pregnancy, and menopause do not independently cause insomnia. Rather, they are contributing events that mostly affect women who are already disposed to insomnia.
Finally, there are several other factors associated with the increased likelihood of sleep disturbances leading to insomnia:
- Chronic illnesses
- Circadian rhythm disorders (usually leading to insomnia)
- Restless legs syndrome
- Sleep apnea
- Chronic snoring
Consequences of insomnia
Insomnia, if untreated, has a severe impact on individual health and well-being. If you are experiencing persistent problems sleeping, contact your healthcare provider. If left untreated, chronic (persistent) insomnia can lead to:
When to seek professional help
If you are experiencing persistent sleep disturbances and have trouble initiating or maintaining sleep for some time, you should consider natural ways of improving sleep duration and quality. If the natural ways of relieving insomnia — decreasing stress, maintaining appropriate sleep hygiene, and remaining active — are not effective, contact your healthcare provider. As with any condition, you should not diagnose yourself.
A diagnosis of insomnia can be made if your symptoms persist for at least one month and on three or more occasions during the week. In some cases, insomnia is defined by a poor quality of sleep, regardless of the amount of time you spend sleeping.
In addition, healthcare professionals will consider whether your insomnia is caused by another sleep or mental disorder, from a medical condition, substance, or medication use or abuse.
Insomnia can be a stand-alone diagnosis or occur with another health condition. Approximately 40% of insomnia diagnoses are co-occurring with other neuropsychological disorders, such as anxiety or depression.
Is insomnia a mental disorder or not?
Insomnia, as a stand-alone diagnosis, is not considered a mental disorder; however, it often concurs with mental health disorders.
Is insomnia permanent?
Sleep hygiene, medication, and therapy have been shown to be successful in relieving insomnia symptoms. Unfortunately, there are cases of treatment-resistant insomnia.
How fast will natural remedies start to help with my insomnia?
It highly depends on the individual. Sleep hygiene tips are usually relatively quick to work; however, changing habits is difficult. Try natural ways of relieving insomnia for 2–3 weeks.
Insomnia can be caused by a number of factors, including your gender and age, and it often co-occurs with other health problems.
Young adults and adolescents can also experience insomnia, most often due to not going to bed early enough on weekends. Acute stress can also cause insomnia.
Chronic insomnia can cause you to have accidents, have trouble thinking, feel depressed, and have an overall decrease in life satisfaction.
Insomnia can be decreased by maintaining good sleep hygiene, exercising daily, avoiding eating too much before bedtime, avoiding stimulants such as tobacco, and decreasing stress by making lists of tasks to perform the next day.
Above all, if you are experiencing symptoms of insomnia, consult a healthcare professional.
- Sleep Medicine Reviews. A systematic review and meta-analysis of cognitive and behavioral interventions to improve sleep health in adults without sleep disorders.
- Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism. Sleep timing, sleep consistency, and health in adults: a systematic review.
- Behavioral Medicine. Relationship of Sleep Hygiene Awareness, Sleep Hygiene Practices, and Sleep Quality in University Students.
- Curr Opin Pulm Med. Gender differences in sleep disorders.