Do you struggle with insomnia? Sleep is so important for our overall health. And yet it can be so elusive sometimes. Did you know humans are the ONLY animal that don’t sleep when they are tired? Are you among the 50% of the population who suffers from insomnia? Do you have a hard time falling asleep? Or maybe you fall asleep just fine—but then you wake multiple times in the night? Or do you sleep through the night OK, but wake up feeling exhausted each morning? If you can relate to any of these, read on for some sleep hacks to kick insomnia and sleep like a baby again.
Resolving insomnia is one of the top concerns of my health coaching clients and many of my readers as well. And while insomnia and sleep issues can plague us for a variety of reasons, those reasons can be very different from person to person. And they can even vary for the same person on different days, making it hard to pinpoint the exact cause. So how do you know what’s at the root of your insomnia?
Science has shown that the body does the majority of its repair and rejuvenation while you sleep. And lack of quality sleep can lead to obesity, a suppressed immune system, a greater risk of cancer, dementia, and more. Driving while tired has even been shown to be just as dangerous or worse than driving drunk. And while pharmaceutical sleep aids may help you fall asleep instantly, they can have long-term side effects that you don’t want—like a 35% increased risk of cancer and a higher mortality rate for long-term sleep-aid use.(1) Plus sleeping pills can leave you feeling groggy and can be addictive. So how can we get to the true root of our insomnia issues and sleep better, naturally?
Could You Have Sleep Apnea?
Your sleep issues could stem from a wide range of things including sleep apnea, hormonal imbalances, stress, too much caffeine, not enough physical exercise, a food sensitivity you didn’t know you had, and even dehydration. And poor sleep can cause a wide range of issues besides just feeling tired.
The first place to start is to rule out sleep apnea. This is a fairly common disorder where you may have pauses in breathing while you sleep. Breathing pauses can last from a few seconds to minutes. This can greatly disrupt the natural sleep cycle, not to mention oxygen getting to your brain! Heavy snoring and/or waking up with a snort can be an indication of sleep apnea. If this sounds like you or someone you know, ask your health care provider for a sleep-study referral. Sleep apnea can lead to other more serious problems down the road if not treated. In fact, there is now notable evidence(2) linking sleep apnea to the heart condition atrial fibrillation (A-Fib).
Do You Mouth Breathe?
I also highly recommend reading the book BREATH by James Nestor, a fascinating look at the importance of how we breath, or don’t. You’ll also learn about mouth-taping which can significantly improve your nighttime breathing and sleep. I’ve been mouth-taping for over a year now, since reading this book, and it has been a game-changer in helping me sleep better!
Once you’ve ruled out sleep apnea, as mentioned above, there are many other things that may be causing your insomnia. Everything from diet, to exercise (or lack there of), to your daily habits may be messing with your night-time dream-time.
Keep a Food/Mood Journal
With my health-coaching clients I recommend using my Food, Mood, & Gratitude Journal. Write down EVERYTHING you eat for a week or two if you can. Also write down: how you FEEL at the time you’re eating (both physically, and mentally—does it make you feel happy? do you feel bloated?); again 1-2 hours AFTER eating (physical and emotional feelings); and 3-4 hours after (same thing.) And of course write down how you slept. Did you have problems falling asleep? Waking up multiple times in the night? Waking up too early, or too tired? And even track how often you poop, and the consistency—it’s all relevant to your overall health. And that includes how you sleep!
While keeping a Food, Mood, & Gratitude Journal might seem like a daunting task, it can really help get to the bottom of what’s causing your insomnia or sleep issues. One of my clients was having a horrible time sleeping every night. Once he started tracking everything in his Food, Mood, & Gratitude Journal, he realized he was having a cup of coffee every afternoon at 3-4 PM (to get him through that afternoon slump.) That caffeine in turn was affecting his sleep 6-8 hours later.
How Caffeine Affects Sleep
When I’d originally asked him about caffeine intake, he hadn’t mentioned that afternoon cuppa-Joe because it was such an ingrained habit it didn’t even register. Once he cut out ALL caffeine after 12 noon, he fell asleep easily and slept through the night. He was truly amazed and grateful that his sleep issues were so simply resolved! It’s worth noting caffeine has a half-life of six hours, and can take up to ten hours to fully metabolize(3), so any caffeine (coffee, black or green tea, chocolate, or caffeinated energy drinks) consumed after 12 noon can absolutely affect your sleep.
While caffeine can be a big cause of sleep deprivation, other things as simple as an unknown or undiagnosed food sensitivity may also be at play. Once you start tracking everything in your journal, you’ll start to see patterns in how certain foods may be affecting you or your sleep cycle. And these clues will help you become your own health detective. (This is why keeping an accurate Food, Mood, & Gratitude Journal is SO important.)
Lack of sleep can affect everything from your immune system, to weight gain, to potentially developing cancer. Studies show that your brain even gets a “brainwash”(4)—a deep clean, removing dead cells and toxins from your brain—while you sleep! So it’s really important to get to the bottom of your insomnia quickly. Starting with my Food, Mood, & Gratitude Journal can often help you rule things out.
But what if your Food, Mood, & Gratitude Journal doesn’t shed any light on your insomnia? Blue light might be at play. That would be the artificial light that emits from your cell phone, tablet, computer, TV, or any other LED lights, digital screen or device. Basically any light that isn’t natural outdoor light or incandescent light (from traditional light bulbs) or real candles is “blue light”.
So what does blue light have to do with insomnia? A lot actually. Blue light directly affects your pineal gland which is where the sleep hormone melatonin is produced(5). When your eyes take in blue light, they send a signal to the pineal gland to stop making melatonin because “it must be daytime, we don’t need to sleep now.” So it’s really important to turn off ALL blue lights/devices at least one hour before bed. Or you can wear “blue blocker” glasses, or turn on the red-screen/night-screen on your devices—although I personally find it hard to see the screen if the red light is dark enough to actually block out the blue light.
Best to ditch the blue lights entirely, and wind down with a real paper book, take a bath, or go for a walk outside in nature, to slow down an hour before bed. Lower lighting also signals your melatonin production to start ramping up.
Melatonin – Your Sleep Hormone
Another thing that can affect your melatonin production is your cortisol levels. You may know cortisol as your stress hormone. The more stressed you are, generally the more your cortisol spikes. You can think of melatonin and cortisol as two ends of a hormone teeter-totter. When one is up, the other should be down and vice versa. Cortisol should drop in the evening as melatonin increases to help you sleep. (Unless your blue lights are blocking your melatonin production.) Then melatonin decreases through the night as cortisol rises in the morning to help wake you up (unless you’ve supplemented with too much melatonin to help you sleep.)(6)
So maybe you’re thinking “I’ll just take a melatonin supplement to help me sleep”? Well, you might want to re-think that. For one thing, the body produces a very small amount of melatonin to help you sleep, equal to about 300 mcg. So even if you can find a 1 mg supplement of melatonin, that’s already 3x what your body needs.
And most melatonin supplements range from 5-15 mg, (and some supplements tested had more or less than the bottle indicated).(7) Yikes! That could be 15-45+ times the amount your body actually needs…Think about that melatonin/cortisol teeter-totter for a minute… with that much extra on the melatonin side, it could take a loooong time for the cortisol side to come back up in the morning. Which is why taking melatonin supplements may make you feel groggy in the morning (or cause headaches, nausea, or dizziness).
Another word of caution: there aren’t many studies on taking melatonin supplements on a long-term basis to help with insomnia. However, there is some indication that long-term use of melatonin may signal the body that it no longer needs to produce its own melatonin. This is no bueno, as melatonin is also used to regulate immune function, bone density, blood pressure, cortisol levels, and as an antioxidant among other biochemical processes in the body. So it’s best if your body can produce its own melatonin in the amounts it needs, and not rely on melatonin supplementataion.
Now that you know a few things that can stand in the way of your sleep, here are some natural remedies you could try at home.
6 Natural Sleep Remedies to Try at Home
If you are one of the many who suffer from insomnia, you may have tried some of these tricks already. But hopefully there will be one or two new ones here that just may be the ticket to help you sleep better naturally, if the things we discussed above don’t help you kick your insomnia.
- Lavender: With its relaxation properties, lavender essential oil has often used to help people sleep better naturally. Try taking a hot bath with lavender bath salts before bed, then rubbing lavender oil on the soles of your feet as you get into bed. 60% of everything you put onto your skin is directly absorbed into your body. The bottoms of your feet have larger pores than the rest of your body, so they quickly absorb essential oils and distribute the healing benefits into your bloodstream. This helps to relax your body from the feet up. *Note: With few exceptions, essential oils should not be applied directly to the skin, instead dilute it in a carrier oil. Lavender is one of the few exceptions where it’s ok to apply neat, or directly to soles of feet.
- Kiwi Fruit: Who knew that those fuzzy green fruits contain phytochemicals that promote sleep? Plus it turns out that they are also loaded with serotonin. Researchers at Taiwan’s Taipei Medical University “studied the effects of kiwi consumption on sleep. They found that eating kiwi on a daily basis was linked to substantial improvements to both sleep quality and sleep quantity.” Volunteers ate two kiwifruit one hour before bed for four weeks and improved the quality of their sleep by 42%. So try eating two kiwis before bed and sleep like a baby… My mom tried this and greatly improved her quality and length of sleep! A word of caution on kiwis however, they are one of the most common fruits for food allergies/sensitivities(8), and I developed an allergy to them after eating too many. So you might want to eat them sparingly.
- Tart Cherry Juice: The juice from tart cherries also contains a phytochemical that promotes sleep. A recent study published in the European Journal of Nutrition found that tart cherry juice helped to “improve the quality of sleep, sleep duration, and help reduce the need for daytime napping. The research team found that adults who drank two 1 ounce servings of tart cherry juice per day experienced a demonstrable increase in sleep efficiency as well as a 39 minute increase in average sleep duration.” As the name implies it is TART not sweet, luckily you only need to drink a 2 oz shot a day. You can find Tart Cherry Juice online or at most natural food stores. Drinking the juice is more effective than taking capsules or chews.
- Sleep in the Dark: If you live in a neighborhood with lots of light pollution, ensure your bedroom is as dark as possible, with shades or drapes blocking outside light. Getting too much light at night can disrupt melatonin production(9), which in addition to disrupting your sleep has also been shown to increase risk for some types of cancers. Also pay attention to the full moon. Many people find it difficult to sleep a day or two before and after the full moon, due to the increased light affecting melatonin proudction.
- Pranayama Breathing: Pranayama breath work has been shown to calm and relax the mind, and help with sleep issues. Try this breathing technique from Andrew Weil as you lay down to sleep each night: Inhale for count of 4, hold for count of 7, exhale for count of 8. Repeat 3-4 times initially, building up to 6-times, but not more than that. Check out my video here for how to practice this pranayama technique.
- Yoga Nidra Meditations for Sleep: Listen to a Yoga Nidra Meditation for Sleep (this is one of my favs) to help you relax before bed. Or try a Counting Meditation where you count backwards from 10 to 1, inhaling and exhaling slowly with each number. If you lose track of what number you’re on or when you get to 1 start over again. There are also several free meditation apps including Insight Timer App, Chopra App, and Synctuition that can help you relax before bed and reduce insomnia.
Natural Remedies to Help You Kick Insomnia
If you still need a bit more help kicking your insomnia, here are a few products that may help. Neal’s Yard Remedies also offers some great organic products to help you sleep better naturally. Essential Oils can be a big help, just be sure you’re using EOs safely. I mentioned lavender essential oil and lavender bath salts above. Let’s take a look at some other natural remedies here:
- Night Time Remedies to Roll ~ Roll this Essential Oil blend onto your pulse points (insides of wrists and elbows, backs of knees, behind ears, base of throat) to help you relax and sleep well all night.
- Goodnight Pillow Mist ~ Spritz this deliciously scented pillow spray (with essential oils) on your pillows before bed and get ready to dream the night away… I LOVE this one and use it every night, it sends me instantly to dreamland.
- Skull Cap Tincture ~ This is a great tincture to quell a monkey mind, if you’re ruminating over lots of things as you lay there in bed, this may be a good one to try.
- Passion Flower Tincture ~ Extracts from passion flower (Passiflora incarnata) have been used world-wide to reduce anxiety and insomnia.
- Lemon Balm Tincture ~ Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), a member of the mint family, is a calming herb that has been used historically to reduce stress and anxiety, promote sleep, improve appetite, and ease pain and discomfort from indigestion (including gas and bloating, as well as colic).
- Traditional Medicinals Organic Nighty Night Valerian Relaxation Tea ~ This delicious night-time tea contains passion flower, lemon balm, and valerian another calming herb. (Be aware that in a small segment of people, valerian may act as a stimulant rather than a calming herb.)
Take a look at your cat or dog right now, chances are they are sleeping (like our cats Tosh and Tikka above!)… Take a page out of their play book and get some Zzzzs when you feel tired. Best of luck, and sleep well!
Please post a comment with your go-to sleep tricks, or which ones of these helped you kick your insomnia. And if you’d like assistance delving into your sleep issues more deeply, or some accountability on getting yourself back on track, Book a FREE Discovery Call, I’d love to chat!