Sleep Disorders

Updated 11 August 2014

A natural approach to sleep problems

So you go to bed feeling tired and wake up exhausted? Join the club. You are not alone, there are millions of other zombies out there that also get less than seven hours a night.

A natural approach to sleep problems

In this series of articles, we take a look at what you can do or take to prevent, alleviate or cure common ailments naturally. As many complementary and alternative medicine therapies haven't undergone rigorous testing, we base the recommendations here on the amount of evidence that is currently available (indicated with asterisks):
It is important that we get between seven and nine hours of good quality sleep every night. This is because when we sleep, a number of essential physiological changes occur.

Natural steps to healthy sleep (check the evidence rating)
*** Good evidence of a health benefit
** Some evidence of a health benefit
* Traditionally used with only anecdotal evidence

Change your sleep time habits ***

Make sure that what you eat or drink before bed does not interfere with sleep ***

  • Don't consume any alcohol, caffeine and nicotine before bedtime
  • Don't go to sleep on an empty or a full stomach

Vitamins and minerals
These nutrients have been shown to help sleep:

  • 5HTP**
  • Magnesium**

Sleep-inducing herbs include the following:

  • Valerian ***
  • Lavender *
  • German Chamomile *
  • Passion Flower *
  • Oats *
  • Ginseng *

Homeopathic remedies to induce sleep:

  • Belladonna will help with general insomnia *
  • Cocculus takes the yawn out of jet lag and interrupted sleep patterns *

Alternative/complementary therapy
The most commonly used complementary approaches to sleep problems include:

  • Meditation***
  • Yoga**
  • Acupuncture**
  • Aromatherapy*

Serious sleep problems
Chronic sleep deprivation can exacerbate age-related ailments, like high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes and memory loss. Consult your doctor straight away if you have any of the following symptoms:

  • If you haven't slept properly for more than three weeks, you may be suffering from chronic insomnia. You might need to go to a sleep clinic.
  • Send a snoring partner to a GP because it is your sleep pattern that is disrupted and ultimately you that suffers.
  • If you grind or clench your teeth in your sleep, you might have sleep bruxism. This is not such a serious condition, but it could impact negatively on your teeth. A doctor might be able to recommend relaxation techniques and other ways to stop the grinding.
  • Hyperinsomnia is a condition in which you are excessively sleepy over about a six-month period. A doctor can prescribe behavioural changes to help you.

Know the symptoms
You know that you're not getting your sleep quota if you experience many of the following things:

  • You've had a big lunch and even though you didn't have a sip of alcohol, you feel very sleepy and are lights out before dinner.
  • On weekends and holidays, you sleep a lot longer than on working weekdays.
  • You need a deafening alarm clock to wake up in the morning and when it goes off, you immediately hit the snooze button as you desperately try to snatch a few extra minutes of sleep.
  • When you do manage to wake up, you virtually have to pry yourself out of the bed and into a cold shower to wake up.
  • You drink over four cups of caffeinated coffee or tea a day.
  • Your natural urge to "get-up-and-go" has gone.
  • You seldom finish watching TV shows or reading a book, because you always feel sleepy and nod off.
  • Your bed partner has a snoring problem.
  • You only last one hour as a passenger in a plane, car or bus before you start to feel sleepy and doze off.
  • You're finding routine tasks like doing the washing or paying your bills more difficult to perform.

Natural remedies
Doctors will always recommend that finding the cause of your insomnia, before they treat the symptoms, but while they are searching there are some natural remedies that can promote peaceful sleep.

Change your sleep time habits ***

  • Get into bed only when you feel sleepy.
  • Take the TV out of your room.
  • Get into a specific pre-bedtime routine, whereby every night, you might meditate, drink a cup of herbal tea or listen to soothing music. These will all act as cues to your body that it is time to sleep.
  • Try not to nap, but if you can't resist an afternoon snooze, don't sleep for more than an hour and if you do, make sure it's before 3 p.m.
  • Go to bed and get up at the same times every day to try and correct your body clock and get a sleep pattern going.
  • Exercise at least four hours before your head hits the pillow.
  • Instead of relying on an alarm clock that puts you in a bad mood the minute you open your eyes, use the sun to wake you up and set your biological clock. As soon as you get out of bed go outside and turn your face towards the sun for about 15 minutes. If it's too cold to do this, or there is no direct sunlight, leave your curtains ajar so that you allow natural sunshine to gently wake you up.
  • Never sleep with all the windows tightly shut, even in winter. Your bedroom should always be cool because a drop in temperature will ensure a deep sleep.

Make sure what you eat or drink before bed does not interfere with sleep ***

  • Don't drink consume any alcohol, caffeine and nicotine before bedtime.
  • Don't go to sleep on an empty or a full stomach
  • Why not try a cup of delicious herbal tea? Correctly called tisanes, herbal teas are made from flowering plants without woody stems. Herbal infusions can include flowers, herbs, fruit and spices. These infusions are caffeine-free unlike all other types of tea. Examples of sleep-promoting herbal teas include chamomile, hops, limeflower, passionflower or valerian.

Vitamin and minerals
These nutrients have been shown to help sleep:

  • 5HTP**
  • Magnesium**

Sleep-inducing herbs include the following:

  • Valerian *** - Double-blind trials have found that valerian is an effective treatment for people with mild to moderately severe insomnia.
  • Lavender *
  • German Chamomile *
  • Passion Flower *
  • Oats *
  • Ginseng *

Homeopathics remedies to help sleep:

  • Belladonna will help with general insomnia *
  • Cocculus takes the yawn out of jet lag and interrupted sleep patterns *

Alternative/Complementary Therapy
Battling to go to sleep? Give this calming Zen meditation a try just before you hit the sack:

  • Dim or switch off the overhead lights and sit up in bed with your legs crossed.
  • Now, choose a spot on the wall opposite you to focus on.
  • Concentrate on your breathing, making sure that it is deep, so that when you inhale through your nose, you do so from your diaphragm and make sure your shoulders are relaxed. Count to 10 slowly, inhaling on the odd numbers and exhaling on the even numbers. If your mind starts wondering, gently bring it back to focus on the spot and on your breathing.

Take this warm, luxurious aromatherapy bath 30 minutes before going to bed by adding one or two drops of the following essential oils to your bath water:

  • Chamomile
  • Hops
  • Lavender
  • Mandarin
  • Marjoram
  • Neroli
  • Sandalwood
  • Ylang-ylang

Mix your own relaxing massage oil by combining five drops of two or three of your favourite oils in a carrier oil, such as almond.
  • Now massage it into your neck and shoulders.
  • To put kids to bed, massage their hands, feet, back and legs with a lavender and chamomile essential oils blended with a carrier oil.
  • Put a few drops of this mix on your pillow or in a burner next to your bed.

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    Ask the Expert

    Sleep disorders expert

    Dr Alison Bentley is a general practitioner who has consulted in sleep medicine and sleep disorders, in both adults and children of all ages, for almost 30 years. She also researches and publishes on a number of sleep-related topics both in formal research journals and lay publications including as editor of Sleep Matters, an educational newsletter on sleep disorders for doctors.

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