Beat Insomnia

Are you struggling to get a good night’s sleep? At the end of a long day, most of us look forward to curling up in bed and getting a restful night’s sleep. But for people who have trouble sleeping, bedtime can be a waking nightmare. Insomnia is defined as a prolonged inability to get adequate sleep, it can vary from difficulty falling asleep despite being tired, to waking up in the middle of the night or waking too early. It can be a temporary, occasional, or chronic problem. But whatever form it takes, a lack of good quality sleep can wreak havoc on your health. There are many reasons why sleep patterns get out of kilter. The most common causes are stress and anxiety, depression and physical pain. Women tend to suffer from insomnia more than men, particularly as they get older. Although older women may have less pressure from work and childcare, factors like the ageing process, the menopause, and changes in domestic relationships such as divorce and widowhood can all have detrimental effects on sleep.

If you’re having trouble sleeping it’s always best to consult your GP
to ascertain the cause.  In many cases, diet and lifestyle changes can
help resolve the problem and your doctor should be able to advise you
on these.  Insomnia can be overcome without the use of sleeping pills.


Sleep Facts

  • An average night’s sleep is 7.04 hours
  • 36 per cent of people have trouble getting to sleep
  • 20 per cent have trouble getting up on time
  • 5 per cent sleep less than five hours
  • 6 per cent sleep more than nine hours

This post is dedicated to my blogging friends, Grannymar and Baino who could each use a good night’s sleep. These following tips may help to break the cycle of insomnia.

1. Cut the caffeine

Caffeine, present in coffee, black tea, green tea, chocolate, some soft drinks and many over-the-counter pharmaceuticals, is a stimulant and it’s effects can last up to 20 hours in the body. Some people will have disturbed sleep patterns even when their last cup of coffee was in the morning. So the sensible option is to avoid caffeine completely.

2. Say yes to carbs

Nutritional therapists often recommend a high-carbohydrate snack before bed, such as a banana, slice of bread or bowl of cereal. Eating complex carbohydrates can increase levels of a neurotransmitter (chemical messenger) called serotonin, which is known to reduce anxiety and promote sleep.

3. Be careful what you eat

Avoid protein-rich foods before going to bed, as these can be hard to digest. Spicy or fatty foods can also cause heartburn, while tyramine containing foods increase the release of noradrenaline, a brain stimulant. Tyramine is found in red wine, bacon, cheese, ham, soya sauce and nuts.

4. Get out and about

The natural sleep and wake cycle, commonly referred to as the biological clock, is influenced by melatonin, a hormone that responds to light. Melatonin is made by the pineal gland, a pea-sized gland located in the brain. During the day the pineal is inactive. As darkness falls it is “turned on” and begins to produce melatonin, which is released into the blood. As a result, melatonin levels rise and you begin to feel sleepy. Melatonin levels remain elevated through the night and start to decline again when the sun rises. To help keep your biological clock in balance it’s important to get sufficient daylight exposure. A brisk 20–30 minute walk every day is sufficient to do this. As the sun begins to set, use a dimmer switch indoors for lower level lighting. Also, draw your curtains before going to bed to keep out bright street lighting.

Getting out during the day will not only help reset your biological clock but will provide regular exercise, which is a great stress-buster. But avoid vigorous exercise up to three hours before retiring, as this can stimulate your mind and body.

5. Soak it up

To aid sleep, add six to eight drops of pure lavender oil to a bath and soak in it for 20 minutes. The aroma of the oil is known to be calming and contains many medicinal components including linalool, geraniol and perillyl alcohol. One trial of elderly people with sleeping troubles found that inhaling lavender oil was as effective as tranquillisers.

6. Have a nightcap

Some people reach for alcohol, and a nightcap means a dash of brandy, a whisky or a glass of wine. Although it may induce drowsiness initially, alcohol is not the answer for deep, continuous sleep. Opt for warm, soothing drinks like hot milk (use soya if dairy intolerant) with honey, or herbal tea like camomile or limeflower. Camomile has been shown in studies to contain a substance that has calming and pain-relieving effects.

7. Create the right setting

Bedrooms are for sleeping, not for electronic entertainment, so keep computers and TVs confined to other areas. Also, the room should be decorated in pastel colours, as bright shades or bold patterns can be over-stimulating.

Make sure your bedroom is quiet, well ventilated and is at a comfortable temperature. A good quality bed and pillow are essential. Generally, it’s recommended that you change your mattress every 10 years or so.

8. Switch off!

One of the biggest obstacles in getting to sleep is an over-active mind, so developing a winding down routine can be beneficial. Stop any intense mental and physical activity at least one hour before bedtime. Put those office files away and leave unfinished housework until the morning. Avoid late night films and listen to relaxing music instead. It’s also a good idea to go to bed at the same time every night to establish a regular routine.

Once in bed, a tactic that works for many people is whole body relaxation. Lie flat on your back and starting with your toes and feet, stretch and tense each muscle, holding and letting go. Tense your calf muscles, let go, tense your buttocks, let go, tense your stomach, let go, hunch your shoulders, let go… The chances are that by the time you’ve reached your face area you’ll feel more relaxed.

If you can’t go to sleep after 30 minutes of trying, don’t stay in bed hoping you’ll nod off. Get up and involve yourself in a relaxing activity, such as reading or meditation, until you feel sleepy.

9. Mineral magic

Muscle cramps, back and neck pain, eye twitches and insomnia can be a direct result of a magnesium and/or calcium deficiency. As these minerals have a relaxing effect on the body, try taking a magnesium supplement on its own or magnesium and calcium in a 2:1 ratio.

10. Try a natural remedy

Besides camomile, there are many other herbs that aid sleep. Probably the most popular is valerian, which makes getting to sleep easier and increases deep sleep and dreaming. In a double-blind trial, valerian extract (600 mg 30 minutes before bedtime for 28 days) was found to be on a par with a common prescription drug for insomnia. However, valerian does not cause a morning “hangover”, a side effect common to prescription sleep drugs. Other herbs that may be helpful include passiflora, hops, lemon balm and skullcap.

Information Source:  Autumn 2005 issue of Optimum Nutrition Magazine.

14 Responses to Beat Insomnia

  1. roy says:

    You forgot one…….drive a taxi!

  2. Charlie says:

    My partner has suffered from insomnia for all her adult life. It hasn’t been helped by menopause, but that appears to be just about over now.

    Her doctor has given her a one month sleep retraining program, which I’m following as well to be supportive although I have no trouble sleeping. We used to go to bed at 9:30 – 10:00 pm, and I would get up at dawn (which is a bit after 6 am at the moment) while she would get up about 8:30 am.

    The program is as follows:

    For the first week, go to bed at 1 am and get up at 6 am. Five hours sleep a night creates a mild condition of sleep-deprivation.

    For each subsequent week, go to bed half an hour earlier, but still get up at 6 am. In the fourth week, bedtime is 11:30 pm.

    At the end of the program, go to bed at 11 pm, and get up when you wake up.

    Anyone considering such a program should talk to their doctor about it first.

    We’re in the second week now. The sleep deprivation has been reasonably easy to cope with. We’re making allowances for each other being a little distracted or forgetful at times, and lots of hugs whenever one of us feels grumpy. For the most part, we’re both falling asleep very quickly after going to bed, and being woken by the alarm. It’s been a real struggle sometimes to stay awake until bedtime, but getting up at 6 is fine for me and she’s found it okay.

  3. Annb says:

    I have only recently regained my sleeping mojo after nearly 4 year of getting up at 4.30 am for thrice weekly dialysis trips. I took almost a year to retrain my body to sleep through the night. Stress was also a factor it has to be said. But I can confirm that your excellent tips really work – I’ve used them ALL! Lemon balm tea is a personal favourite. Another tip for an over active mind: while relaxing in bed try naming 3 cities from anywhere in the world with each letter of the alphabet starting at A: Amsterdam, Ankara Ankorage etc- I guarantee you’ll be asleep by H! It’s a great way to redirect the mind away from whatever’s bothering you.

  4. Baino says:

    I guess I’m not too bad then. I sleep about 6 hours per night providing it’s not too hot but often wake about 3 and always up by 6am. No carbs before bedtime for moi . . I’m on the weight loss trail. Generally, I have no problem getting to sleep, it’s staying in that luxurious state that can be a challenge. Although I have to say, since I’m not drinking alcohol, things have been much, much better. Thanks for the tips Steph.

  5. Grannymar says:

    I have tried everything except sleeping pills and refuse to go there! I have enough problems with the meds I need to keep me alive.

    The last time I had a full nights sleep was Dec 1991. Three consecutive hours is a good nights sleep for me.

    I might just have to give in and get myself a toyboy! 🙄

  6. Steph says:

    Roy – With all the night shifts/duty that must go on in your house, I’d say it can be pretty hard at times to get a good night’s sleep!

    Charlie – Hello Cousin!

    I’m not sure when you left a comment here if you realised you were writing to your Irish cousin, Steph? I’m delighted to hear from you whatever 😀

    Your sleep retraining programme sounds fascinating and you sound remarkably cheerful for someone who’s presently sleep deprived. I’m sending you both a big hug and hope that the programme brings marked success!

    Annb – I know what you mean about the difficulty of re-establishing a sleep pattern. It must have been very hard for you coping with 2 nights per week disrupted rather than 1 week on/1 week off, like nurses.

    My sleep pattern is usually banjaxed after a stay in hospital and I always dread this aspect of recovering from surgery. However, it’s only temporary and usually reverts to normal fairly quickly (with the help of a few sleeping tablets!).

    Baino – Six hours sounds okay. I’m lucky in that I’m generally a good sleeper (approx 7 hours/night) and on the very odd occasion when I go back to bed after feeding animals etc, I usually regret it as it makes me feel groggy for rest of the day. Alcohol definitely disrupts my sleep and I’ve been known to wake in the middle of the night with gout-like symptoms in my big toe after too much booze.

    Grannymar – I do sympathise. I hate to think what it’s like for you all alone while you try to fill the hours of darkness and especially in winter time.

    Did you ever try a sleep retraining programme like the one Charlie has described above? And no, I’m not volunteering to chat to you on IM to help keep you awake until 1am 😉

  7. Charlie says:

    Steph – yes, Jeanie mentioned your blog to me some months ago, and I’ve been reading it regularly. Just haven’t posted here before because I haven’t had anything relevant to say.

  8. Steph says:

    Charlie – Thanks! It seems you are the only family member brave enough to admit to reading my stuff.

    Love to all, Steph 😀

  9. Grannymar says:


    I never heard of a sleep retraining programme like the one Charlie has described. My GP knows and has known of my lack of sleep over the years, she is more intent is dealing with more serious issues.

    I have tried staying awake for hours beyond normal, alas to no avail. I have noticed that if I have company staying overnight I will sleep more heavily for those three hours!

  10. Steph says:

    GM – I think your GP has her priorities right. I reckon ‘sleep deprivation’ is definitely preferable to having an ‘everlasting sleep’ 😉

    Charlie quite rightly advised that you should always consult your doctor before trying the sleep retraining programme. I liked Annb’s suggestion of naming cities alphabetically. I shall try that the next time I find myself unable to sleep because of stressing out over something.

    Sounds like a Toyboy is the answer for you! 😀

  11. Charlie says:

    Anyone interested in the sleep retraining can google for “Sleep Restriction Therapy”. The exact details seem to vary a bit. gives a reasonable overview.

  12. Steph says:

    Charlie – Thanks for the link.

    Some interesting reading there.

  13. Dr.JaneDoe says:

    You forgot one-don’t be an NCHD!

  14. Steph says:

    Jane – Good to see you back and with your finger on the pulse, as always.

    I remember reading about the difficulties you had trying to adjust your body clock when alternating between night duty and normal working hours. The CAO application procedure for medicine should display the following health warning…

    “Sleep deprivation will damage your health”

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