Dealing with Insomnia

With this edition’s article on insomnia we pay homage to World Sleep Day which, on 17 March, celebrates the undeniable link between enough sleep and good health – both physical and mental.

If you suffer from insomnia, it can be incredibly irksome when those around you seem to nod off effortlessly. Sometimes it can be hard to fathom why one has difficulty sleeping, when for others it is so easy. If, like many people, you struggle to sleep, read on for tips to combat insomnia and maintain wellbeing.

BEDROOM ENVIRONMENT

Eliminate lights in the bedroom, especially blue light coming from a DVD player or other appliance. Avoid looking at cell phones, laptops and iPads before sleep as these radiate blue light which is stimulating to the eyes and brain. Eliminate noise, and if this is impossible, employ white noise, discussed in this article. If your partner snores, you may need to resort to earplugs, or sleeping in a different room.

Control the temperature in the bedroom by ensuring it does not get too hot during the day, and is gently ventilated at night. Sleep in loose cotton rather than sleeping naked; it is more absorbent and therefore cooler. Light-coloured sheets reflect heat better than darker colours.

Black out the windows to eliminate streetlights and morning sunshine. There are specific curtain backings that do the job.

Try to develop a ‘wind-down’ routine, which may include a relaxing bath, dimming lights with candles, enjoying a glass of a warm milky drink, or reading a book. Avoid stimulating activities such as work or adrenalin-pumping movies for two hours before sleep.

HELPFUL ACTIVITIES

Exercise in any form for 150 minutes a week raises endorphins and relaxes the whole system. It should generally improve sleep, as long as it is not done within two hours of sleep.

Meditation, if practised regularly, can have a profound effect on stress and insomnia. There are many different forms of mediation, which can be done on one’s own or guided by a CD. A simple technique, called alternate nostril breathing, can even be performed in the middle of the night. Details are widely available on the Internet or in meditation books. By alleviating the stress response, melatonin levels are allowed to rise, by as much as 300% in some experienced meditators!

Yoga has a definite benefit when you are lying awake and stressing about not sleeping. The following five poses can be sleep-promoting, but need to be done properly. If you have not done yoga before, it is advisable to have a few classes first to set you on the right path.

The five poses are:

  1. Seated forward bend
  2. Bridge
  3. Reclining bound angle pose
  4. Shoulder stand
  5. Savasana

FOOD

Try to avoid a heavy evening meal and stimulating foods such as caffeine, sugar and alcohol. You may fall asleep more quickly after a drink, but it may be restless, broken and of a poorer quality. Tea and other liquids can stimulate the bladder, which will wake one during the night.

Foods that contain tryptophan are fish, chicken, turkey, eggs, walnuts, pumpkin and sunflower seeds, bananas and milk. Many of these foods also contain calcium, magnesium, potassium and vitamin B6, which help one relax. Unrefined carbohydrates make the tryptophan more available to the brain; so a snack of a starch and a protein before bed raises tryptophan, thereby promoting the release of melatonin, which makes one sleepy.

NATURAL SUPPLEMENTS

One of my favourites is a homeopathic combination tablet called Sedatif PC (Boiron). It helps one relax and is very useful for getting back to sleep during the night.

A few drops of lavender essential oil on the temples, or in the bath or on the pillow can help one to settle.

Herbs, such as Passiflora, and valerian and hops, as found in Redormin (Flordis), can also be useful.

Melatonin is a natural hormone, released into the bloodstream when daylight fades. Its rising level stimulates sleep. This phenomenon can be replicated with bio-identical melatonin. Unfortunately, due to new regulations, it is now only available from compounding pharmacies on a doctor’s prescription.

SOUND AIDS

White noise machines can help to minimise other noise distractions. There is a variety of these machines available to purchase. They normally come equipped with various nature sounds such as the ocean, a running stream etc. For some ideas view: www.wantitall.co.za

The effects of meditation can be replicated efficiently in the brain with advanced audio technology, which is precisely designed to synchronise one’s brainwaves. It cancels out the beta waves associated with stress and insomnia, and stimulates the alpha, theta and delta waves associated with relaxation. Thus, the benefits associated with years of meditation practice can be achieved immediately with these programmes. Examples of audio technologies include Hemisync and Equisync.

IF ALL ELSE FAILS . . .

As part of an integrative approach to health issues, don’t discount the need for a prescription sleep aid under certain circumstances. If you have tried all the above and lack of sleep is wearing you down, discuss a prescription with your doctor. Lack of sleep has a deleterious effect on one’s ability to work, think, drive and generally function in society. Chronic lack of sleep weakens the immune system, favours the development of chronic disease and shortens one’s life. Pharmaceutical hypnotic tablets are renowned for their habit-forming potential, so one wants to avoid taking them regularly for longer than a week or two. If taken for a few nights, it can help to break a bad pattern of insomnia and recharge the batteries. If they are needed in the longer term, then they should be taken not more than two to three times a week, to avoid potential addiction.

An integrative approach can restore a healthy pattern to the sleep cycle. Adequate sleep is vital to good health!

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Dealing with Insomnia

Dr David Nye
About The Author
- MB CHB (UCT), MFHOM (UK), DIP HOM (CEDH). He practises integrative medicine together with his wife, Dr Sandi Nye, in Pinelands Cape Town. As a registered medical doctor, homeopath and acupuncturist, he has a special interest in chronic illness, especially when conventional medicine fails to help. He uses a variety of modalities, tests and treatments in his quest to find the best solutions for each patient.