Whether you suffer from a chronic inability to fall or stay asleep, or you have occasional bouts of insomnia, the debilitating effects of sleeplessness can negatively impact every part of your life. As someone who has struggled with and conquered this dilemma, I’d like to share with you some of the tools and practices that have helped me on my journey to satisfactory sleep. Maybe you think you’ve tried everything, but I feel much of the info below is novel and unique, so hopefully it will provide some new options for you.
Let’s start with a quick cheat sheet for how to recover your Z’s, followed by an in depth discussion of each suggestion below.
Lifestyle Practices: -Exercise at least once daily, preferably outdoors -Use natural, dim orange/red hued lighting after sundown -Avoid TV, computer, phone screens after sundown -Do yoga and breathing practices before bed -Use an eye pillow / mask
Let’s start with the lifestyle practices. It’s absolutely vital for your general health and wellbeing to exercise in some form or another at least once daily. This does not mean you have to sign up for a gym membership or even break a sweat (although both can be helpful). Simple things like going for a walk, a bike ride, doing yoga or climbing stairs can be greatly beneficial to both your physical and mental health, but they also work out any restlessness that can keep you up at night. Our bodies are built for movement throughout the day, but our society continues to trend toward more sedentary lifestyle, leading to pent up energy that can prevent a good night’s sleep. If you can, try to exercise outdoors to give your body exposure to natural sunlight. Being indoors a lot can mess with our body’s natural sleep-wake cycles called circadian rhythms, as we are no longer exposed to the physical cues of sunlight or darkness, which govern these rhythms.
Which brings me to my next point. Be mindful of the light spectrum which you expose yourself to throughout the day, especially at night. The sun naturally emits blue spectrum light (which is why the sky and ocean are blue), and this is also the same spectrum emitted by light bulbs (especially fluorescent) and TV / Computer / Phone screens. Blue spectrum light (BSL) has been shown to suppress the natural production of Melatonin—a vital brain hormone for sleep and natural circadian rhythms. When we continue to expose ourselves to BSL after the sun has gone down, we confuse the body and suppress our natural sleep cycles. To counteract this suppression, try to use natural, dim orange/red spectrum light (the opposite of spectrum of BSL) such as candle light or Himalayan salt lamps. You can also buy light bulbs that are colored orange / red that fit in normal fixtures. Lastly, if you have no choice but to be exposed to BSL after dark, you can wear blue-blocking glasses to protect your precious Melatonin stores, and turn down the brightness settings on any screens you may have to use.
Another great way to ease your mind and body into a good night’s sleep is yoga. Try yin and restorative practices at night before you go to bed, as these slow meditative styles activate the parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for the relaxation response. If you don’t have time to do a 30 to 60-minute practice every night (which would certainly be ideal), just do one or two poses for 5 to 15 minutes each. One of the best restorative postures to induce parasympathetic dominance is Viparita Karani or Legs Up the Wall, as it reverses the blood flow back toward the vital organs, reducing heart rate and stress hormones. Simply sit with your outer hip (left or right) directly against the wall, legs extended parallel to the wall, then lay your torso on the floor perpendicular to the wall as you swing your legs up it, so that the base of your pelvis is near or touching the wall. You may like a folded blanket under the low back for support, a sandbag on top of the soles of your feet and an eye pillow for added relaxation. If you’re still not tired after this, try Nadi Shodhana or Alternate Nostril Breathing, a yogic breathing technique known to calm the mind and balance the energy channels along the spine. Sit in a comfortable upright position, and use your dominant hand to alternately close and open each nostril while breathing through the nose. Use the pattern Exhale-Inhale-Switch, and try to do at least 12 inhalations and exhalations on each nostril. When you lay down to sleep cover your eyes with an eye pillow (some have a calming lavender scent!) or eye mask. I find that the gentle pressure against the eyes helps to fall asleep, and if you are trying to sleep past sunrise it will help prevent the light of the sun from waking you in the morning.
Now for some natural remedies that can help you fall or stay asleep without the negative side effects associated with sleeping pills. If you are like me, most of the calming herbs like Lavender and Chamomile are nice but they don’t really help me when suffering from insomnia. I need something potent! So I’ve researched some herbs that work with the body to rapidly induce deep relaxation and sleep.
The first one is Chinese Cat’s Claw (Uncaria Rhyncophylla) a.k.a. Gambir Vine. This herb is actually used in Traditional Chinese Medicine to treat agitation and psychosis in the elderly, but it has very calming properties as well as some very beneficial side effects. Not to be confused with its Latin American cousin (often just called Cat’s Claw, latin name Uncaria Tomentosa) which has completely different effects, this herb works by inhibiting a neurotransmitter in the brain called NMDA to reduce excitement in the nervous system. This mechanism of action is actually the same as Nitrous Oxide, used to reduce pain and anxiety during surgery and dental procedures, albeit to a much lesser degree. This reduction in excitement in the brain (known as excitotoxicity) has been shown to protect the brain from damage that occurs by overstimulation. Additionally, the herb has potent anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, anti-cancer and brain/memory boosting qualities that make it a useful supplement with beneficial side effects rather than negative ones. My personal experience with this herb is an immediate and substantial sensation of calm and tranquility, perfect for falling directly asleep after use. I would recommend half a dropper full of liquid extract to start—a little goes a long way and you can always add more if the first dose was not enough. While this herb is not addicting, it may lose potency over time as the body builds tolerance to its active ingredients. Because of this, it may be best utilized as infrequently as possible, however, no negative effects have been shown from prolonged use. For more information on Chinese Cat’s Claw, check out this article
Next we have Spikenard (Nardostachys Jatamansi) known as Jatamansi in Ayurveda (traditional Indian Medicine), where it has been used since ancient times as a brain-boosting herb with relaxing qualities. Spikenard increases a neurotransmitter called GABA in the brain, associated with anxiety relief, relaxation, and sleep. GABA is the same neurotransmitter that mediates the feeling of relaxation that alcohol produces, but with Spikenard you get the same effect without intoxication. Instead, it has been shown to reduce stress and depression and improve cognitive functioning. A close relative to Valerian Root, a common sleep aid, I prefer Spikenard due to its more reliable effects, pleasant aroma, and added brain benefits. Its easiest and most powerful route of application is the essential oil, which can be put in an empty capsule and swallowed for nearly immediate relief of insomnia. I’d recommend 2 to 3 drops of the oil, and set up a few pre-formulated capsules next to your bed in case you wake up in the night and can’t fall back asleep. This oil is very powerful and makes me tired right away, without feeling groggy the next morning. You can even use a smaller amount (1 drop) during the day for anxiety or brain enhancement. To learn more about Spikenard, click here.
Magnolia Bark (Magnolia Officinalis) is another powerful herbal ally to help in the battle against insomnia. Another herb from Traditional Chinese Medicine, the bark of this beautiful flowering tree has well-documented calming and brain boosting effects. Additionally, it has been shown to prevent spikes in stress hormones like Cortisol, an imbalance of which often causes premature waking. Another herb that can be taken safely every day, magical Magnolia also has anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, antidepressant and anti-anxiety properties. This herb can be taken during the daytime as well for its antidepressant qualities, which can be boosted by combining with Ginger. For more info on Magnolia see this article.
Lastly, Kratom (Mitragyna Specioca) is a potent herb in the coffee family, native to Southeast Asia. This herb acts on the Opioid receptors to induce relaxation both physically and mentally. Because of this action, it is also a powerful pain reliever and helps to reduce inflammation as well. It is important to note that Kratom can be physically addicting if taken more than 3 times weekly (I would recommend a maximum use of 1x weekly), due to its interaction with Opioid receptors. This is a potent medicine that will help you sleep if all else is failing, and yet it will not leave you groggy or hungover in the morning. It may have negative side effects if you take too much, however—such as nausea, constipation, or disphoria. Because of the potential for negative side effects and physical dependency this herb should be used with caution and as a last resort. When used properly, it can be an extremely valuable asset to have at your disposal for those stubborn bouts of insomnia when you are desperate for sleep. Start off with only half of a teaspoon, and wait at least an hour to fully feel the effects before deciding if you need more (as I said, if you take too much, you are in for a bad time). If you have an addictive personality and feel it will be hard to exercise restraint when using this herb, I’d recommend against purchasing. It is currently available through online retailers and is may be marketed as “Not for Human Consumption” despite much research showing it’s responsible use without major negative effects—this is likely due to its competition with big Pharmaceutical interests, and their desire to stay off industry lobbyists' hit list. The worst things that can happen are throwing up, feeling like crap or getting addicted (withdrawal symptoms include insomnia, anxiety, depression, and physical discomfort). In the end, this is a powerful herb to be respected and used minimally with discretion. It is an excellent substitute for pharmaceutical opiates such as Valium, for those of you who would prefer an all natural, more accessible, less harmful, less expensive option. This can also be a great herb to use when you are sick or suffering from an injury, to reduce pain and discomfort so you can sleep soundly. I currently do not have a recommended source for this herb, so do your research carefully and read third party reviews before purchasing.
If you'd like my personal sources for these herbs check out the bullet point list "Natural Remedies" at the top of this post, with links to each product. It is my sincere hope that these suggestions help you on you journey toward restful sleep and total wellness in your life. If you have any questions about the information here or would like to formulate a personalized plan for your wellness goals, please contact me!