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General characteristics

General characteristics

Insomnia literally means 'no sleep' and derives from the Latin word 'insomnis'. Insomnia also includes a difficulty in falling asleep, an inability to stay asleep and also poor quality of sleep. Insomnia can occur temporarily during times of stress and emotional upheaval or be more long term and acts as a symptom of some form of physical or mental disruption. Long term insomnia can weaken the body and is associated with the development of further problems such as poor concentration, memory lapses, irritability, high blood pressure, muscle pains, lowered immunity, visual disturbances and deeper levels of stress, anxiety and depression.

The hormone melatonin is produced naturally in the pituitary gland in the head in response to darkness and lack of light. Melatonin regulates many natural cycles within the body and its role within the sleep cycles is to prepare the body for sleep. Its release into the bloodstream increases as the light fades and the body responds by becoming less alert and more ready for sleep. Melatonin secretion lessens as the sun rises and light returns and the body becomes prepared for waking.

Primary insomnia refers to cases when sleeplessness is not attributed to any medical or other health problems but often occurs as a result of environmental factors such as noise, light pollution, uncomfortable bed, afternoon naps, caffeine, alcohol or stimulant intake close to bedtime, lack of exercise or stimulation during the day or odd working hours etc.

Secondary insomnia refers to sleeplessness usually caused by some other health problem or condition such as asthma, anxiety, stress, depression, pregnancy, menopause, medications, pain, overactive bladder or prostate problems, long term use of sleeping pills, acid reflux, hyperthyroidism and many other health conditions. If insomnia lasts more than a week or so and does not coincide with a significant event in your life, it needs to be taken seriously.

It is important to determine and treat any underlying medical or environmental causes of the insomnia and treat those first because, as already mentioned, insomnia often indicates health problems elsewhere in the body.

Diet and lifestyle

Diet and lifestyle

Eat plenty of foods rich in the B vitamins, folic acid, calcium and magnesium. These include whole grains, seeds and dark green leafy vegetables, carrots, sprouted seeds, grains and beans, bananas, and most other vegetables. See also 'vitamins' and 'minerals'  for other food sources of these nutrients.

Avoid caffeinated and stimulating drinks, especially in the evenings.

Avoid refined carbohydrates, sugary foods and processed foods generally, especially ones with artificial additives in the form of colours, preservatives and sweeteners.

Certain foods are known to produce sleep promoting compounds. Some examples include cherries, cottage cheese, beans and legumes and raw dairy products.

Useful herbs

Useful herbs

Valerian, passionflower, hops, jamaican dogwood and wild lettuce and can help to relax the body and mind and induce sleep. Combine the tinctures in the ratio of 3 parts valerian, 2 parts passion flower and one part of the rest. Take a teaspoon in water in the evening and also an hour before bed.

Some of the adaptogenic herbs such as ashwagandha and siberian ginseng can help the nerves and mind to relax when take during the day over several weeks.

Drink a strong cup of chamomile tea (at least 2 teaspoons per cup) an hour or so before bedtime each night. You can also add a teaspoonful of dried lime blossom, lemon balm, cowslip flowers, motherwort, violet leaves or californian poppy to the cup.

Make a glass or cup of warm milk (cows, rice, soya oat etc) and add a pinch (quarter of a teaspoon maximum) of freshly grated nutmeg for a soothing, sleepy bedtime drink.

Drink nettle and oatstraw tea regularly or oatstraw alone before bedtime .

If stress and tension are the culprit then take a tincture mix of vervain, skullcap, black cohosh and st johns wort (equal parts) during the days at a dose of 1 teaspoon in water 3 times daily. You could add some crampbark to the formula also for its antispasmodic and muscle relaxing properties.

Celery seeds may also prove useful to aid a good nights sleep when taken as a tea during the early evening. Celery seeds will also increase urine output so don't take too late in the evening!

Cleavers tea can also be quite soothing. Don't take it too late in the evening though as it is diuretic.

Mullein leaf tea can also help due to its mild narcotic effects.

Fennel seeds can help insomnia associated with the menopause.

The adaptogenic herb schisandra can help to relieve stress and bring about a sense of calm and induce a good nights sleep.

Insomnia during the menopause cn be due to adrenal fatigue and falling oestrogen. Feed the adrenals with nourishing herbs such as nettle and nettle seed, ashwagandha, Siberian ginseng and liquorice root. Herbs and foods rich in phytoestrogens will also help, see menopause for ideas and suggestions.

Natural healing

Natural healing

Avoid stimulating films or activities just before bedtime. Try to have a period of calm and relaxation before retiring to bed.
Exercise daily to help relieve stress and burn off any excess energy that may be present.
Make sure the bedroom is completely dark when sleeping, even clock radios give off enough light to disrupt night time hormone levels and interfere with sleep patterns. Line your curtains if streetlights shine through.
Try a teaspoon of apple cider vinegar in water a few times daily to help with insomnia, it helps many people.
Have a relaxing warm bath just before bedtime and add 10-15 drops of lavender essential oil or any other relaxing herb for their soothing and relaxing qualities.

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