San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Natural Care for Insomnia

How is your sleep? Do you usually feel rested when you wake in the morning? If not, maybe you are suffering from insomnia – transient sleeplessness for less than one week, or recurrent or chronic if occurring most nights for longer than one month.

Sleep is necessary for survival. Just like food, without enough of it we die. Most people find they need eight to nine hours of sleep per night on a consistent basis to feel refreshed. Anyone with a substantial sleep debt is at risk for an episode of sudden and uncontrollable sleep, potentially fatal if driving.

Insufficient sleep disrupts the body’s repair process and opens the door to chronic illness, frequent colds, immune-system dysfunction, fatigue, anxiety, depression, poor mental acuity and inability to cope. Events that would normally be of little concern when we are rested can become insurmountable obstacles when we are tired.

By day we are awake, active, engaged and communicative. Daylight inhibits the secretion of melatonin, a hormone synthesized in the pineal gland deep within the brain. As day turns to night, darkness stimulates the release of melatonin, our circadian regulator, and our body shifts into a relaxed state. We become sleepy.

Melatonin is the strongest antioxidant known. Some doctors believe a buildup of free radicals during our waking hours is what determines our need for sleep. When melatonin has reduced this high level of free radicals during sleep, we awake in the morning refreshed and ready to go again.

Insomnia is often caused by underlying health problems. Physical ailments and metabolic abnormalities such as restless leg syndrome, muscular tension, pain, menopause, thyroid disorders and sleep apnea may cause insomnia.

Sleep apnea affects about 5% of the population, and many do not know that they have this condition. It occurs when the breathing passage in the throat closes off. Snoring is pronounced until breathing stops for a spell, to be resumed with a loud gasp. The spells fragment sleep, causing extreme daytime fatigue. Consult your physician if you think you have sleep apnea.

Psychological origins for insomnia include emotional disturbance, anxiety, depression, phobias and stress. Disordered circadian rhythms from erratic lifestyle habits, aging and environmental factors such as excess light, noise or strong odors may undermine a good night’s sleep.

Regular physical activity 20-30 minutes daily, several hours before bedtime, enhances sleep. For some, a regular sleep schedule is all that’s needed to overcome insomnia. Other factors for insomniacs to consider are the quality of their mattresses and pillows and the activity level of their bedmates.

Avoid stimulants, including caffeinated products (most sodas, chocolate, tea, coffee), nicotine, alcohol and excess salt. For some, a light snack near bedtime will help stabilize blood sugar, which, if fluctuating, can cause insomnia.Usually a little carbohydrate is better than a little protein.

Avoid large meals within three to four hours of bedtime. A large meal close to bedtime not only disrupts sleep but also can lead to unwanted weight gain and stress on the digestive system. Drink no or minimal liquids after dinner to avoid frequent waking to urinate.

Also avoid late-night stimulants such as disturbing TV or divisive reading material. Create a bedtime ritual. The mind needs to know that when we lie down in bed it is time to sleep, not time to engage in other activities such as rehashing daytime events. Highstress activity will cause increased metabolic synthesis of cortisol, a hormonal stimulant that inhibits deep sleep. If you engage in daily high-stress activities, you need to slow down well before bedtime.

A breathing exercise conducive to sleep requires mental focus on the movement of air in and out of your nostrils. Your mind will drift, but each time you notice it has strayed, bring your mind back to breathing in and out. The more you bring your mind back to this awareness, the more you will relax, let go of worries and allow the door to sleep to open.

If the above interventions aren’t working, consider the following for adults:

–Calcium citrate: 400 milligrams during the day and 600-800 mg near bedtime. Magnesium: 200 mg during the day and 200 mg with calcium near bedtime.

–Herbs to look for in insomnia formulas include chamomile, oat straw (avena), valerian, lemon balm (melissa), passionflower, hops, skullcap and catnip.

–Herbs that are particularly beneficial (if taken during the day) in aiding sleep patterns include Siberian ginseng, skullcap, oat straw, lemon balm and chamomile.

–Melatonin: 0.5-3 mg near bedtime. I don’t recommend using this for more than a few days at a time. Melatonin is a very potent hormone that is not yet well understood with regard to long-term use.

–Insomnia and stress deplete the body of B vitamins. Supplement with a B-vitamin complex, 50-75 mg daily.

Jon Dunn is a naturopathic physician living in Nosara, on the northern Pacific coast. E-mail questions or comments to, or visit


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