08 March 2019
Insomnia, the sleep disorder that makes it extremely difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep, can really adversely affect your energy level and work performance. While it’s possible to just endure the condition and push through if you only experience it intermittently, there are some who deal with it on a daily basis – this should not be the case.
While chronic insomnia is often closely tied to our daily routines and lifestyles, there are ways to treat insomnia. Consulting a sleep doctor isn’t the only solution – there are home remedies worth considering as well.
Photo: Active Health
Will a home remedy work?
Before you start trying out some of the home remedies for curing insomnia, it’s worth investigating more about your condition before deciding the best way to deal with it. Insomnia comes in different variations, from chronic cases that last for months, caused by underlying health conditions or lifestyle practices to acute, short-term cases that accompany a stressful period in life. Knowing what type of insomnia you have can help you better decide what home remedies to pursue. For example, should you be planning a new sleep routine to maintain in the long run or should you start researching on sleep supplements for more immediate relief? It all depends on your prevailing life circumstances.
What is causing your insomnia?
Some people are more prone to insomnia than others due to certain genetic markers. For example, the number of women suffering from insomnia is twice that of the number of men. If a member of your immediate family also suffers from sleepless nights, your chances of experiencing something similar are higher.
Your personality is not tied to your genetic make-up but can affect your cognitive behaviour and emotional response to external situations. People who worry a lot and get stressed easily are more susceptible to insomnia because they have difficulty letting their mind and body relax and ease into sleep naturally.
• Mental health conditions
Beyond just being overly worried and stressed, an existing mental health issue can also disrupt your sleep. Conditions like depression and anxiety fill your head with negative thoughts and make it hard for you to relax.
Sleeping at irregular hours every day can trigger insomnia because your circadian cycle ends up being disrupted, messing up your body’s perception of bedtime. If you work shift jobs or travel across different time zones frequently, it can be hard to maintain a regular sleep schedule and you will need to work on developing some healthy sleep-inducing habits. Working close to your bedtime can also make it hard to fall asleep due to mental and physical stimulation.
• Medical conditions
Insomnia can be a side effect of other medical conditions. Common conditions that disrupt sleep are breathing conditions or chronic pains of the body. For example, having a breathing condition like a nasal allergy, asthma or sleep apnoea can disrupt your sleep quality and cause you to wake up many times during the night. Neurological syndromes like restless legs syndrome can also cause physical discomfort and make it hard to relax.
There are many causes of insomnia but what makes it chronic is often an individual's own worry about the condition. When you start stressing over the fact that you can’t fall asleep and try to force yourself to fall asleep, your body does the opposite and gets more tense and alert instead. Your mind may even start to associate the bed with wakefulness rather than sleep, leading to a vicious cycle of chronic insomnia. While seeking a behavioural therapist can to counter these unwanted mental associations, you can pick up some healthy sleep habits to help your mind recognise the bed as a place for sleeping.
Photo: Active Health
Practicing healthy sleep habits at home
Adopting healthy sleep habits to regulate your circadian cycle will help your body naturally recognise when it’s bedtime and learn to associate the bedroom as a place for sleep and not for tossing and turning. Healthy sleep habits involve optimising your bedroom conditions for sleeping and setting up a regular sleep routine.
• Conducive sleep environment
Our circadian cycle is primed to associate sleep with darkness and cool temperatures, so keep your bedroom lights dim and use an air conditioner if possible. Stay away from blue light-emitting digital devices as the light disrupts the circadian cycle and makes the body feel alert.
• Sleep routine
Engage in a routine that helps your body unwind and relax for bedtime. A warm shower or drink before bedtime can help as the subsequent cooling after the shower or drink will help your circadian clock recognise that it’s bedtime. However, stay away from drinks that contain caffeine or alcohol!
• No day-napping
We've all heard about the benefits of power-napping but when it comes to treating insomnia, you may be better off abstaining from such a practice. Naps can make it harder to fall asleep at night due to the distinct lack of sleep pressure.
• Keep the bedroom clock-free
According to Dr Swinbourne, PhD, senior sport dietitian and sleep scientist at the Singapore Sport Institute, “clock watching” can be the silent culprit behind some instances of insomnia. “People tend to get very anxious as they 'watch' the night slip away, so it's best to remove all clocks from the bedroom and keep smartphones (which happen to emit light) at more than an arm's distance away.”
Above all, the most important healthy sleep habit you can adopt is to only go to bed when you are tired and to exit the bedroom if you find that you can’t fall asleep so that your mind doesn’t start to associate the bedroom with wakefulness. How do you ensure that you are sufficiently tired by bedtime or trigger sleepiness when you find yourself wide awake? Engaging in certain activities can make you tired (in a good way) and also help you relax sufficiently for bedtime.
Activities for a healthy sleep cycle
Massages are one of the most well-known of relaxation techniques. If your insomnia is caused by feelings of stress that you can’t seem to put aside, get a family member to give you a good massage or administer a simple one on yourself. Using some fragrant essential oils with relaxing scents can also help you get into the mood for sleep.
Like massages, yoga makes for a good pre-bedtime activity because it helps to free your mind from worries and also eases the tension from your body. You don’t only have to do yoga right before bed – doing it during the day helps you relieve stress and stay mentally focused, which contributes to less stress at bedtime.
Physical movement not only lifts your mood by relieving stress, it also helps you sleep better by getting you tired in time for bed. However, the optimal timing of the exercise and intensity varies from individuals. For some people, light aerobic exercise in the evening is the most effective while others experience better results from doing the same in the afternoon. To find out what works best for you, visit our experts at the Active Health Labs and have a chat about the type of exercises you would like to include in your pre-bedtime routine.
A few minutes of mindfulness meditation every day can help you fall asleep faster. Mindful meditation helps your mind relax and allows you to attune to your body. Meditation is also an exercise you can easily do at home – all you need is a quiet place to close your eyes, focus on your breathing and actively keep distracting thoughts at bay. Aside from meditating, chanting a mantra can also help to evoke feelings of peace before bedtime. Mantra repetition is as simple as repeating a simple statement like “I am at peace” before you sleep or when you are stressed.
Aside from engaging in relaxation activities that help you get into the sleepy mood for bedtime, certain supplements and foods are also known to help induce sleep naturally.
Photo: Active Health
Sleep supplements to help you sleep
Magnesium and melatonin supplements are some of the most common sleep-inducing supplements that help to regulate your sleep hormones. If your insomnia is unpredictable and short-lasting, having a supply of quality sleep supplements can help significantly. Keep dosages low and don’t take them too often in the long-term. If your insomnia persists, it’s time to consider adjusting your sleep habits or seek professional treatment. Re-considering what you eat during your last meal of the day can also help to deal with chronic insomnia.
What to eat for better sleep?
In general, healthy pre-bedtime nutrition involves avoiding heavy meals and high doses of caffeine and sugar before bedtime. There are also some other foods which are known to improve the quality of your sleep, so you might want to start lining your pantry with these:
Almonds are a good sleep aid because they are a source of naturally-occurring melatonin, the hormone in our bodies that influences sleep. Some studies have found that almonds can improve sleep quality so if staying asleep is a problem you face, nibbling on a few almonds certainly wouldn’t hurt.
• Chamomile tea
While most kinds of tea is known to contain caffeine which is bad for sleep, chamomile tea is an exception that also has some additional sleep-inducing benefits that sets it apart from other teas. Chamomile tea contains an anti-oxidant called apigenin that is known to activate brain receptors responsible for causing feelings of sleepiness. The tea also helps to keep you calm and alleviate symptoms of depression.
Apart from being a good source of inflammation-fighting vitamin C, kiwis contain serotonin, a sleep-inducing hormone. Studies have found that eating kiwis an hour before bedtime reduces the time taken to fall asleep.
• White rice
We Singaporeans can rejoice – our favourite staple food is scientifically proven to improve sleep quality. The high glycaemic index of white rice does help to induce sleep, albeit when consumed in reasonable amounts. The insulin that is released from consuming white rice acts as a relaxant and promotes the release of dopamine, which in turn plays a role in sleep regulation.
Warm milk is famous as a pre-bedtime drink and for good reason. Milk contains a sleep-inducing amino acid called tryptophan which can help to get you sleepy before bedtime. It also makes for a soothing and enjoyable drink as part of a comforting bedtime routine.
• Tart cherries
These red spheres of deliciousness work as more than just a sundae topping; cherries are a natural source of melatonin and tryptophan. They also carry anthocyanins, which are a powerful class of anti-oxidants that can assist with treating sleep-disrupting inflammation and pain. Aside from the fruit itself, there are also concentrates and capsules to consider. Juice is also a viable option, but watch out for the sugar content!
Photo: Active Health
Insomnia is a difficult problem to deal with as there are often many underlying causes. Home remedies can be effective when it comes to dealing with stress and helping you readjust your circadian cycle but it all boils down to matching the remedy to the cause and symptoms, so do expect some trial and error. However, if the home remedies don’t work or if your insomnia is due to a medical or genetic condition, it may be a better idea to seek the help of a professional sleep specialist.