Insomnia? Try these remedies...
Updated: Sep 13
Do you have problems falling asleep or do you wake up in the middle of the night and find it difficult to fall back to sleep? Maybe you tend to wake up in the morning after at least seven hours of sleep without feeling fully rested? These are all signs of having insomnia or sleeping difficulties.
For some, insomnia is a symptom of underlying factors like a physical health condition, the use of medications, overconsumption of alcohol or other recreational drugs, psychological problems like stress or trauma. While for others, there is no obvious physical or psychological cause for insomnia and it can simply be an inability to feel tired or relax. It is quite often accompanied by a feeling of anxiety, nervousness, depression or fear.
The sleep-wake cycle can also be disturbed by irregular sleeping habits, like jet lag, staying up late frequently to watch TV or socialise, or working night shifts. Mostly, this can be remedied by simply changing these habits. For others, the biological clock may have been damaged by more serious conditions like encephalitis, stroke or Alzheimer's disease. In such cases, the problem will be more challenging to treat.
CONVENTIONAL TREATMENT OPTIONS
One of the ways western medicine deals with insomnia is light therapy. This is when the patient is exposed to intense light at certain times of the day in order to reset the biological clock. This is usually prescribed for those suffering from non-chronic insomnia like jet lag, those who find it it difficult to fall asleep or those who do fall asleep easily but wake up at very early hours of the morning.
When the insomnia has reached a chronic stage where it affects a person's ability to function normally, sleeping pills are usually prescribed by a medical doctor. These tend to be highly addictive and come with many side effects. In some cases melatonin is prescribed, but this can only be used for a couple of weeks since the side effects of long term use are unknown.
THE AYURVEDIC APPROACH
In Ayurveda, insomnia is caused by Vata dosha accumulation. The air element in the body accumulates in excess leading to lightness and restlessness which causes sleeping problems. Additionally, Pitta dosha aggravation (a longer term overaccumulation of the fire element), can also lead to insomnia. In Ayurvedic treatment, reducing the excess or aggravated dosha is the primary focus of treatment.
If a dosha is in excess, it may be brought under control by adjusting lifestyle and diet alone. However if the dosha has become aggravated over a longer period of time (a more chronic condition), then specific measures to remove the excess dosha from the body are needed. This may include the intake of herbs and/or the use of cleansing therapies like Panchakarma.
A nutritive Vata balancing diet is generally recommend for those with sleeping difficulties or insomnia. This includes predominantly sweet, sour and salty tastes. It is especially important to avoid overly stimulating and light foods during the evening like hot spices, raw foods or salads.
The evening meal should consist of primarily of naturally sweet heavy warm foods like boiled rice with pumpkin and ghee and should be consumed at least 3 hours before bed. If you are not lactose intolerant, consume half a cup of warm milk (organic) with a pinch of nutmeg before bed. Rice milk or soya milk may also be used.
Spicy or heating herbs like basil, bayberry, calamus, camphor, cardamom, eucalyptus, hyssop, peppermint, pippali (indian long pepper), rosemary, saffron, sage, spearmint, thyme, and wintergreen should generally be avoided if you suffer from insomnia, hyperactivity or restlessness. Other substances that should be avoided are ephedra, ma huang, coffee, damiana, black or green tea and yohimbe.
A few herbs that can be classified as pungent are also calming or sedative in nature. These often have a very strong and earthy taste and can be very beneficial for insomniacs. These include asafoetida, garlic, jatamansi, nutmeg, valerian, and lady's slipper. Other herbs recommended to balance Vata dosha include Ashwagandha, Gotu Kola (Indian Pennywort or Brahmi; Centella asiatica, Bacopa monniera).
Aromatherapy is the use of incense, flower essences and essential oils to promote the healing process. It is an important therapy of Ayurveda, mainly used for balancing the mind.
Essential oils should not be applied undiluted directly to the skin. They should also not be consumed orally. See my blog post on aromatherapy for more details.
For better sleep diffuse lavender, roman chamomile, neroli, jasmine, gardenia or mandarin in the bedroom for 15 minutes before going to bed. Alternatively, you can sprinkle a few drops in your room or on your pillow/bedsheets. For light sleepers use jasmine, for stressed sleepers use lavender and for uneasy sleepers gardenia.
In one study, scientists sprinkled lavender oil or an unscented placebo on the bedsheets of 12 female insomniacs and found that the women with lavender-scented sheets slept better and woke up feeling refreshed.
Daily light and gentle yoga exercises and breathing techniques have been proven to relieve insomnia. Check out this video for examples of yoga postures suitable for insomnia.
Left nostril breathing is beneficial for insomnia, anxiety, and hyperactivity. Sit in a comfortable position with a straight spine. This can also be in a chair if you have difficulty sitting on the floor in a cross legged position. Make sure both feet are well grounded on the floor if you sit in a chair. Use the right thumb to close off the right nostril and breath in and out comfortably through the left nostril for at least 5 mins.
Any form of calming meditation before bed will also be helpful.
To promote sleep, sesame oil massage should be applied to the whole body or when short of time, to the feet only. Wait at least 15 minutes before taking a warm bath.
Make sure to turn off all electronics like TV, computer or phone at least 2 hours before going to bed to allow your mind to wind down.
Avoid any stressful or heated conversations right before bedtime. If you have a partner or co-habitants that enjoy talking a lot, ask them to respect silence at least an hour before bed.
Your bedroom should be a peaceful, quiet and relaxed atmosphere free of clutter and only used for sleeping and love making. Avoid placing any electronics like TV, phone or computer in the bedroom.
If there is a lot of light pollution in your area, use window blinds or any other method to create complete darkness in your room. Alternatively you can use a face mask. Your bedroom should be dark enough so that you are not able to see your hand when you wave it front of your face.
Follow a daily routine or dinacharya as outlined in this post. Go to bed at approximately the same time everyday, ideally between 9:30 pm and 10pm but no later than 11pm.
Finally, feel free to do anything that relaxes you before bed and be conscious of avoiding any activities that make you feel tense or agitated.
Wishing you lots of peaceful and restful nights ahead!
Cavanagh, D., & Willis C., (2004) “Everyday Ayurveda: A practical guide to healthy living”
Frawley, D., (1996) “Ayurveda and the Mind: The healing of consciousness”
Frawley, D.,& S, Ranade., (2004) “Ayurveda's Nature Medicine"
Pole, S., (2012) “Ayurvedic Medicine: The Principles of Traditional Practice"
Merck & Co., Inc., (2005) "Merck Manual of Medical Information"
Mishra, L.C., (2004) "Scientific basis for Ayurvedic Therapies"