Natural Remedies For Insomnia (Part 1 – Clinical Categorizations & Common Causes)
After having a horrid experience of chronic insomnia myself, which lasted about 9 months, this topic is close to my heart, and I can fully relate to the nightmare that is ongoing insomnia and how difficult it can make day to day life.
I'm also much more aware of the overall causes and issues that I believe very often attribute to insomnia, and so I'll be discussing both the causes, what can be done to minimize and even remove them completely, and also some of the more powerful methods you can use to bring your sleep back closer to its natural rhythms.
This is a 3 part series, so you can view the other parts of this series here (as they become available) by clicking on the below links:
Part 1 – Clinical Categorizations & Common Causes – The contents of this page, we'll be looking at the things you might not be aware of when it comes to major common causes and less frequent causes of insomnia. (May be important to understand to figure out your solution). I'll also quickly define the types of insomnia you might be dealing with at the start of this page, again because it's useful in best planning your treatment approach.
Part 2a – Natural Insomnia Cures Part 1 – Herbal Remedies With Studies Verifying Effectiveness (coming shortly) – We'll be diving into some of the research proven natural remedies for insomnia.
Part 2b – Natural Insomnia Cures Part 2 (coming shortly) – We'll look at some lesser well known tools that you can use if your insomnia is really bad (Including what I personally used to get out of my horrible chronic insomnia period).
So let's have a look at what might be causing your insomnia, as this is an important part of understanding your problem so you can find the correct ways of overcoming it for you personally, as this will be different for each individual .
It should be noted quickly that there are 2 main types of insomnia in terms of the clinical categorization. Those types are called primary insomnia and secondary insomnia. Primary insomnia means that the insomnia is not causes by something else, and is the primary problem. Secondary insomnia on the other hand is a reaction to something else that the person is experiencing, such as a physical health issue like asthma or arthritis, or a mental health issue like anxiety and depression .
Here are the clinical variations, and the most common reasons that people develop insomnia, you can jump to a specific section by clicking on any of the links below:
Main Clinical Classifications of Insomnia
– Acute Insomnia
– Chronic Insomnia
– Co-morbid Insomnia
– Onset Insomnia
– Maintenance Insomnia
Example Of A Sleep Disorder Questionnaire
The Main Causes Of Insomnia
– Chronic And/Or Acute Stress
– Incorrectly Timed Circadian Rhythm
– Mental Health Issues
– Sleep Specific Disorders
– Medications And Supplements
– Medical Conditions
– Age Related Factors
Main Clinical Classifications of Insomnia
Acute Insomnia – Acute insomnia basically refers to a brief period of insomnia that's caused by some kind of situational stressor. This could be any kind of stressful event, from the death of a loved one, a new job, problems at home, or just about anything else that might elevate someone's stress levels and therefore interfere with their sleep.
This type of insomnia is very common and will affect most people at some point in their life. Treatment for this kind of insomnia is quite often not required as it's usually temporary in nature and resolves by itself as life circumstances change .
Chronic Insomnia – This is the more worrying form of insomnia that last for longer than a month . This form of insomnia is often related to other day time symptoms which can be categorized as affecting different areas of functioning, such as mood, cognitive ability and general performance. Chronic insomnia patients are more likely to take time away from work, be error prone and have accidents at work and at home, visit the hospital or their GP, and are more likely to be involved with fatal road accidents.
People suffering from this chronic form of insomnia are also more likely to have issues with anxiety and depression (either resulting from the insomnia, or being one of the causes for the insomnia itself). They are also more likely to partake in substance abuse, and their is a higher tendency towards suicide from those suffering with this affliction .
Co-morbid Insomnia – This relates to insomnia that occurs with another condition, commonly including problems with anxiety and depression, as these issues tend to tie in with chronic sleep problems as they increase arousal. Apart from the mental health aspect, certain physical health issues such as fibromyalgia can be attributed to poorer sleep and in some cases even chronic insomnia for some people .
Onset Insomnia – This refers to a problem in falling asleep at the beginning of the normal sleep cycle. Some people with this particular issue may go to bed feeling tired, but then seem to get a new burst of energy (particularly mental energy) and then find it difficult to drift off to sleep, sometimes lying sleepless for hours before they can fall asleep. This can intermingle with acute insomnia, and most people have experienced this form of insomnia on and off.
Maintenance Insomnia – This type of insomnia refers to a problem with staying asleep. People who suffer from maintenance insomnia might not have any issue falling asleep initially, but then find themselves waking up in the middle of the night. A common time that people report waking up with this type of insomnia is around 2-4 am. Like onset insomnia, this can relate to cases of both acute and chronic insomnia.
Example Of A Sleep Disorder Questionnaire
Here's a few questions that will help you determine if you're dealing with a case of insomnia, or another type of sleep disorder:
Sourced from University of Maryland Medical Center.
Common Causes For Insomnia – Chronic And/Or Acute Stress
Too much stress can cause our body to go into a state of hyperarousal. Hyperarousal has been correlated with sleep disorders, including of course insomnia . The obvious question that one might need to ask if they suspect hyperarousal is a part of their insomnia problem, is “what's causing hyperarousal for me?”. Often this will come down to the inability to manage stress in some form or other.
For some people this may be a long term lower level of stress and an overall unsatisfactory set of coping mechanisms, and additional life stressors may act as the proverbial straw that breaks the camel's back, and you end up in a state of hyperarousal. This was basically the case for myself, and it took some time, whilst taking away a lot of the situational stressors, for my body and nervous system to come back into a better balance and my sleep to normalize.
For people who are dealing with Hyperarousal, which is hyperarousal of their sympathetic nervous system, it may be very beneficial to begin regularly practicing some types of relaxation techniques, which will train you how to activate the “rest and digest” part of your nervous system – the Parasympathetic Nervous system, there's a good introduction into ways you can learn how to do this in this article here.
Incorrectly Timed Circadian Rhythm
Correctly timed and well functioning circadian biology is hugely important if you want to have a great sleep routine. This is a sensitive system that's evolved to affect multiple other bodily systems, and in someways acts as the “master clock”, telling the body when to release hormones, change body temperature and other important biological functions .
This system evolved along with the rest of our intricate human biology, and has been finely tweaked over a period of millions of years. As you can see by this simple diagram, timing is crucial to our proper functioning:
We're seeing a growing problem in more and more people suffering from sleep disorders, and I believe this is largely due to the ever increasing amount of toxicity in our environment, and a large part of that toxicity being in the form of electromagnetic pollution (EMPs).
I'll probably look at this in much closer detail in another article on this site, but you can find some interesting studies they are doing on the EMF/EMP and the melatonin connection, for example see this pubmed published study here .
The circadian rhythm is set via our intake of light, and there is some interesting work is being done on the connection between blue light (which we're exposed to all the time these days via our screens and endless electronic devices such as phones, tablets, etc, etc) – check out this particular study here for example.
Just quickly on that study, one of the conclusions was “Humans have altered the natural light-dark cycle contrast by increasing light at night and spending most of their time indoors, with low light intensity exposure during the daytime.” This is exactly the problem in my view, and why we're seeing such an increase in sleep disorders.
You can see an illustration of the increases in sleep related disorders from this period of approximately 10 years (I would bet that this trend has continued, if not even increased since that time period) here (taken from a PDF by sleephealthfoundation.org.au which you can find here – page 44):
Of course, this is only one cause, and as this page illustrates, there can be many, but I think it's something that a lot of people are not aware can have such a huge impact on their sleep, and health in general.
Common Causes For Insomnia – Mental Health Issues
Underlying mental health issues such as anxiety and depression are very common causes for insomnia. It's well known that depression and disrupted sleep/wake cycles (insomnia with too short duration or early morning awakening) are often linked. Interestingly depression can actually not only be the cause of a case of insomnia, but it can lead to developing chronic insomnia too, so there's a cyclical relationship between the two .
Anxiety is very similar if not basically the same thing as hyperarousal of the nervous system, which we discussed above. Again, learning to manage the anxiety may indeed be the critical thing for overcoming your insomnia if this is what's causing it. Again, learning to relax more in a way that directly positively impacts your nervous system and puts you into a state that's more parasympathetic dominant can make a big difference with this.
Obviously other mental health issues can all play a part in causing insomnia, and work in a similar cyclical relationship as with depression and anxiety. These are the most common types of mental health problems that interplay with insomnia though, and they affect a large part of the population with just anxiety disorders alone being recognized as affecting 18% of the US population according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America .
Sleep Specific Disorders
This one may be the most obvious of them all, but still needs to be discussed. Sleep disorders such as sleep apnea, obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) and restless legs syndrome (RLS) have a tight link with chronic insomnia as they intefere with the biological functioning of a person during their sleep cycle, and cause them to wake unnaturally.
If you suspect any of the below as being a significant possible factor in your personal case, then it's important to look into what you can do about these specific issues if you want to overcome your insomnia.
This sleep disorder category list was taken from sleepeducation.org – click here to see the more specific lists of sleep disorders along with the symptoms of each .
- Hyper Insomnias
- Sleep Related Breathing Disorders
- Sleep Movement Disorders
- Circadian Rhythm Sleep-Wake Disorders
Medications And Supplements
When looking at the causes for insomnia in terms of inputs (anything that you have some relationship with in your life, whether it be diet, lifestyle or other), then it's reasonably obvious to suspect that new medications and supplements that you might have started taking could powerfully impact your sleep.
For example everyone knows that caffeine is a stimulant and greatly impacts are ability to sleep. But what about other medications and supplements that people are not usually so aware of, and that might be negatively impacting their sleep cycle.
Here's a couple of introductory lists, if you think a medication or supplement might be a causative factor in your insomnia based on the timing of your sleep problems along with starting a new medication or supplement, then you may want to look into this as a major cause.
Medications That Can Cause Insomnia
- Anti-depressants such as fluoxetine and bupropion
- Beta-blockers like Sectral or Zebeta
Supplements That Can Cause Insomnia
While this information doesn't have any studies that I could find backing it up, and may be purely anecdotal, here's some supplements that have been listed by others as potentially causing insomnia, I'm sure there are many more, but it's very likely to be a personal thing based on your particular biology as well:
- Co Q10
- St John's Wort
- Vitamin D
- Garlic (supplemental not dietary)
Physical pain issues or other medical issues are a more obvious cause of insomnia. This would be the cause of what's classed as co-morbid insomnia. In these cases the insomnia is a symptom of a more fundamental health issue, and if the core issue could be improved then it's quite likely the insomnia would also diminish .
Examples of medical conditions that can create co-morbid insomnia are:
- Nasal/sinus allergies
- Breathing issues and asthma
- Chronic pain such as fibromyalgia
- Parkinson's disease and other neurological conditions
- Back pain
- Endocrine issues like hyperthyroidism
- Gastrointestinal issues like reflux
Another reasonably obvious place to look if you're experiencing insomnia is at your stimulant intake. It's a big part of western culture especially these days, to consume large amounts of coffee, which obviously hypes us up and keeps us awake.
I've personally found that even a little more sugar than I usually include in my diet (which is already very minimal these days) can have a really big impact on my ability to fall asleep and stay asleep.
Here's a list of common, and not so common stimulants that are well known to cause issues with the sleep cycle, and keep you up staring at the ceiling all night :
- Cocoa (caffeine)
Age Related Factors
It's well known that both our need, and ability to sleep changes depending on which phase of life we're currently living in. Generally as we get older, our sleep detioriates. As we've all seen, babies sleep all the time, children generally sleep well, and it's usually only when we age into early adulthood, mid life, and into old age, that our sleep quality becomes more consistently diminished.
For some they simply will feel they require less sleep, whereas for others it's simply not as easy to get to sleep, or to stay asleep as it once was in younger years. However, sleep is just as important as we're going through older age, and insomnia doesn't have to be a natural accompaniment to growing into your later years.
So if you were previously resigned to losing your quality of sleep as you age, you may find some of the tips in part 2 and part 3 of this series useful, where solutions to insomnia will be discussed at length. In the 2 next parts of this series, I really hope to share some powerful ideas, hopefully many of which you've never heard of and will make a big positive impact on the quality of your sleep.
I really love the diagram with the cycles. It says that at 6:45 the sharpest rise in blood pressure occurs. That’s actually my normal waking time, so I wonder if there’s a correlation there!
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Sleep is so important, yet sometimes we let our schedules take over, and our sleep gets second priority. I liked the section about the circadian rythm — really shed some light on why i feel so tired after making large shifts in my sleep or wake time. Also reiterates how humans are “creatures of habit”. Thanks for the post!
I have suffered from sleep problems for years and the supplements that I have found most effective are Melatonin and GABA. Also going to bed at the same time every night helps me a lot. I still suffer from the annoying problem of waking up too early though. I’m alway awake by 5AM, which means I have to go to bed early to get enough sleep.
Have you tried anything like PEMF therapy for sleep? (link gives an intro into what it is if you don’t know)
Other than that, I have kind of the same issue, except I wake at around 2-3 am and my brain is awake, and it’s difficult to go back to sleep.
I have found generally that a small amount of healthy carbs, like a piece of fruit, and something like either Magnesium or a GABA activator like passion flower extract can really help.
Then again, my sleep still has a long way to go, whilst I can generally get back to sleep, I would still like to get it back to the place where I’m sleeping all the way through except for what seems the inevitable 2-3 pee breaks. (though I’ve read some information saying that if your sleep cycle is working properly then your body should inhibit urination, which is very interesting).
Next thing to try is the Magnetico sleep pad, better start saving though..
Also Martin, how long have you been using Melatonin? Have you studied long term usage? From what I’ve researched, it’s not good to take it for more than 3 months as you can affect your bodies natural ability to synthesize it later on. Not trying to freak you out or anything, but just wondered if you had looked at that side of it?
I’ve dealt with a lack of sleep issue for a number of years. Your article brings up a couple of things that I can look further into. I do know that by stopping my caffeine and sugar intake right after lunchtime has helped me regain some of that sleep time that I’d been losing.
It’s amazing to know how long caffeine affects the body — up to 10 hours! Even a cup of decaf has minute amount of caffeine in it and will still cause problems.
Thanks Nic for this excellent article. I also suffer from intermittent insomnia. I always wake up 3 – 4 times a night. Sometimes I find it really hard to get back to sleep. My most important supplement is magnesium as I find it really calming. I definitely have to avoid coffee, or green tea – even chocolate past lunch. I have tried passionflower, GABA, taurine, phosphatidylserine, and these help to a certain extent. Definitely having a low inflammatory diet helps and I have trained myself to meditate if I cannot sleep, so at least if I cannot sleep it isn’t such a negative. I found the article on the PEMF intriguing so I am thinking about giving it a go.
Hey Judy! Sorry for the late reply! Thanks for your comment on the site. RE overcoming insomnia, I will soon be trialling a new PEMF device called the Deltasleeper, and there will be a full review on this website regarding that device. It’s designed specifically to help people overcome sleep problems, so it may improve my sleep a lot. We’ll see anyway.
Thanks Nic – I will be very interested in your trialling of the Deltasleeper. Looking forward to it.
Nick what can you say about using garlic under the pillow to enhance sleep?
Not sure about that, I’ve not researched it, but it sounds a little fanciful.
Very good! Sleep much better
I personally drink turmeric before going to bed. It really helped me ever since.