The textbook definition of insomnia is the 'chronic inability to sleep or to remain asleep during the night'. The insomniac's definition of insomnia might be 'chronic torment of body and mind'. Losing a good night's sleep every now and then is one thing, but night after night of lying awake is slow torture.
Each person's requirement for sleep is genetically determined, and stabilises by early adulthood. The average sleeping range is four to ten out of each 24 hours, which may reassure those who feel they are far short of the magical eight hours. Similarly, the person who needs ten hours sleep may not be a loafer. A good night's sleep consists of four or five cycles, each concluding with REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, the dreaming state. All stages are necessary for physical and mental wellbeing.
- Worry-Wartism is the most common cause of insomnia. The symptom is the recurrence of worrying thoughts which become more pronounced the minute your head hits the pillow. Many Worry-Warts are mothers, where the onset of insomnia coincided with the stork bringing home a baby. Some women never regain their pre-baby sleep patterns. The syndrome can also set in after a traumatic event such as an accident, robbery, assault, divorce, not having enough money or the death of someone close. Worry-Wartism can also be an inherited characteristic.
- Factors in your environment may cause insomnia, such as a lumpy mattress, a fidgety bed companion, a very loud snorer, a flickering street light outside your window, a neighbour with a drum kit.
- Sleep apnoea and snoring also interfere with the quality of sleep.
- Shift work for most people destroys their chances of sleeping well, sometimes for months after returning to normal hours. Our bodies follow circadian rhythms, which operate on a 24 hour clock. For instance, between 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. body temperature and pulse are higher than at any other time. Urine production is lowest from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. These rhythms occur irrespective of whether we work, party or travel during these hours. (See also Jet Lag.)
What To Do
Sleeping tablets are among the most commonly prescribed drugs in Australia. In 1995-1996 more than three million scripts were written for sleep-inducing drugs. Unfortunately, sleeping tablets disturb sleep quality, so you may get to sleep but wake up feeling like you haven't. Talk to your doctor before weaning yourself off these drugs, as rebound insomnia may occur if you cut them out too quickly.
- Avoid caffeine totally, i.e. coffee, tea, chocolate, guarana, cola. Some people are so sensitive to caffeine that even a morning cappuccino can affect their night's sleep.
- Limit after-dinner drinks to a small cup of herbal tea or warm milk. Getting up to go to the loo during the night is bound to disturb sleep unless you have great navigational sleepwalking skills.
- Warm milk, honey and nutmeg is a traditional remedy that works well because milk contains tryptophan and calcium. Tryptophan converts to the soothing neurotransmitter, serotonin; and calcium relaxes muscles. Honey is soothing and also helps the tryptophan cross the blood-brain barrier to be converted to serotonin, and nutmeg has a slight mind-altering effect. Or maybe it works well because grandma said it did.
- Though a nightcap may have an initial sedative effect, alcohol interferes with those important sleep cycles. You are less likely to have a refreshing sleep, and may wake up in the morning more tired than when you went to bed. Alcohol is also a diuretic, so it is likely to make you get up to go to the loo during the night.
- Low blood sugar levels may be the problem if you tend to wake after a few hours' sleep. If you wake up at 3 a.m. and raid the fridge for leftover chocolate cake, low blood sugar is definitely your problem. The solution is to eat a small meal before going to bed. This meal used to be called supper, and is overdue for a comeback. Supper should contain a little protein and carbohydrate to sustain blood sugar levels. For example hot milk and honey and a digestive biscuit or cheese and crackers.
- Avoid eating a heavy meal within three hours of going to bed. For instance, a roast dinner with the works can take several hours to digest. Your digestive system will be working full time when it should be resting, along with the rest of you.
Herbs and Supplements
- (See Nighty Night)
- Valerian, chamomile, kava, passionflower, hops, skullcap, lemon balm and vervain are all somniferous (sleep inducing) herbs. Take one or a combination as a tablet, tincture or tea an hour before bed. Herbs such as these help balance the nervous system, so, if anxiety is also part of your problem, take these herbs three times a day. They will not make you sleepy during the day, and will help you achieve a sounder night's sleep. Another tip with dosage is that if you have trouble falling asleep take a largeish dose after dinner and if you have problems staying asleep, take the larger dose just before bedtime.
- Herbal tisanes containing herbs such as Valerian and Californian can be helpful drunk after dinner
- A vitamin B complex taken each morning is good for the nervous system. Don't take vitamin B at night, it may be overly stimulating.
- Calcium and magnesium are soothing minerals, taken at night they will help you sleep
- A homoeopathic remedy for sleep is Coffea 30. Take 7 drops before bed each night.
- Herb pillows made from an assortment of dried herbs including hops, lavender and chamomile may be placed under your normal pillow.
- The body converts the amino acid tryptophan to serotonin, a neuro-transmitter that induces a restful sleep. Take tryptophan along with a supplement containing vitamins B6 and B3 and magnesium as these are necessary for converting tryptophan to serotonin. (At the time of writing tryptophan is still hard to obtain due to a batch of tryptophan capsules containing a contaminant some years ago. This safe amino acid should soon be easily available, but your doctor can prescribe it.)
- Bach flowers useful for insomnia include mimulus, for fears which can be described... good for Worry-Warts; aspen, for fears of unknown origin and for fear of letting go; white chestnut, for thoughts going around and around in the mind.
- Routine is vital: rise at the same time every morning, regardless of the number of hours slept, and go to bed at the same time each night.
- A tired and exercised body is more likely to sleep. Choose a regular time to exercise, not too close to bed-time, preferably the morning.
- Have a warm bath before bed every night. Add a few drops of essential oil of lavender or chamomile and a handful of Epsom salts to deepen the relaxation.
- Create a sleep-inducing environment. It might mean moving your bed to a room at the back of the house, away from the road, or hanging dark curtains to block out the street light.
- Learn how to meditate. If you are wakeful 30 minutes after going to bed, practise meditation for a few minutes.
- Limit in-bed activities to sleeping and sex. Don't watch TV, study or have breakfast in bed.
- Relax for an hour before retiring... listen to relaxing music, read, or watch television. Do not work or study.
- Avoid or limit day time naps to half an hour.
- Keep calm colours in your bedroom, such as dark blue, violet and indigo. Lime green, bright yellow and orange are considered to be mentally stimulating colours.
At a glance
- Good food
- Small meals frequently, supper, hot milk and honey, eat earlier.
- Food to avoid
- Caffeine, heavy meals, alcohol.
- Remedies to begin
- Valerian, hops, etc. Vitamin B complex in morning, tryptophan.
- Exercise, meditation, keep regular hours, lavender bath.
- Lack of trust about letting go.