Every month brings with it a new theme to my clinic – last month, it was sleep. Whether you’ve tossed and turned once or twice or have been counting sheep for months, sleeplessness is something familiar to us all.
Sure enough, a 2015 study reported by Science magazine found Portugal to be one of the most restless countries in Europe, with almost 30% of adults grappling with sleep problems.
Many turn to sleeping pills – a short-term solution – or alcohol, which causes early waking and a less refreshing sleep.
So what solutions can natural medicine offer for this all-too-common affliction?
The word ‘hygiene’ may seem a strange one to pair with ‘sleep’, but it is so important to adopt healthful habits around sleep.
A clean, tidy, cool room with a good supply of fresh air is a must. Clutter and mess do not help calm the mind!
All technology – phones, TVs, laptops and WiFi monitors – should be kept outside the bedroom or turned off. For a really restful night, switch off your home WiFi router – sensitive people will notice the difference straight away.
Poor sleepers should also switch off from their screens within at least half an hour of going to bed. Dim the lights, read a book or write down your thoughts – the latter may help over-thinkers switch off after a long day.
Use your bedroom only for sleeping, sexual activity or reading. No working, exercise, phone calls, nail-painting, dog-grooming or even lying awake at night. If you’re awake, get up and only go back to bed when you’re tired.
The same applies to the morning – once you are awake, get up. Try to establish a routine sleep pattern and stick to it.
Coffee and alcohol
Avoiding coffee sounds painfully obvious, but you would be surprised how many people knock back an espresso at 5 or 6pm and then wonder why they can’t sleep!
The half-life of caffeine in the body is just under 6 hours in healthy adults, and decaf coffee is actually not 100% caffeine-free. In other words, avoid any stimulants after lunch if you can help it.
Alcohol in excess also makes the liver work harder overnight, which releases stress hormones and wakes you up with a jolt in the early hours, making it very difficult to drift back off.
Increase melatonin, naturally
Melatonin is a hormone produced by the pineal gland which helps regulate sleep. Some people take synthetic melatonin supplements – I prefer the natural approach: turn off the technology, dim the lights and make yourself a hot lemon and honey drink.
The honey promotes insulin-release, which is converted into melatonin through tryptophan and serotonin. The lemon prevents a sharp spike in blood sugar from the honey, promoting instead a slower and more sustained release of insulin and, therefore, melatonin.
A sharp drop in blood sugar can also wake you up during the night – taking honey before bed and eating complex carbohydrates with your evening meal helps prevent this at the same time as increasing melatonin.
For anxious, over-stressed or busy people, herbs taken during the day help support the adrenal glands, calm the nervous system and generally prepare the body for sleep.
Herbs in this category include Skullcap, a calming nervine for over-thinkers, Oat Straw, an adrenal tonic and nervous system restorative, and Ashwagandha, a nourishing ‘adaptogenic’ herb that regulates the endocrine system and is calming without being overly sedative.
Other calming nervines include Lemon balm, Blue vervain, Lavender and Zizyphus spinosa. Each of these herbs has other specific indications – lemon balm is uplifting and helps calm an overactive thyroid; vervain is a great herb for perfectionist workaholics; lavender helps reduce anxiety and Zizyphus is wonderful for releasing tension during the menopause and helping with night time flushes.
As with all herbal medicine, it’s a question of finding what works for you specifically.
Herbs taken at night, or ‘knockout’ herbs, can be taken alongside a daytime mix or, in some cases, offer an instant solution in and of themselves.
These stronger sedatives include California poppy, Corydalis ambigua, Wild lettuce, Passion flower and Lime flower.
A strong Lime flower (Tilia europea) tea is enough to send anyone off to sleep – it’s also a wonderful children’s herb, traditionally used for colds and flu as it was thought to stimulate the immune system. Nowadays Tilia is used mainly as a relaxing vasodilator, helping to reduce blood pressure in anxious or overstressed persons.
Chamomile is another great herb for kids and can be given as a tea throughout the day as well as at night. For very hyperactive children, combine with a little Lavender.
Pinpointing the cause
Of course, it all depends on the cause of sleeplessness. If grief or bereavement is a factor, I use Rose petals or Hawthorn berries to support the heart, whilst if nightmares are an issue, the herb Wood betony can be very effective.
Thyroid or autoimmune problems, depression and other inflammatory disorders can also cause sleep trouble and need to be ruled out in chronic cases.
If in doubt, see your local natural health practitioner for a full holistic evaluation of your symptoms.