Sleep problems are one of the most common modern complaint. Getting good sleep is key to maintaining good emotional and physical health and yet can be easily elusive. Most dietary and herbal strategies for insomnia are not going to work too well if the underlying structure of your life is really stressful. That has to be addressed first. Many of us are “in deficit” due to the pressures of modern life. Some things that lead to deficit include:
Excessive caffeine consumption
Swing and graveyard shifts
Getting to sleep too late (after 11)
Sleeping too little
A diet high in sugars, processed foods and “quick carbs”
Working too hard and too much
Family and relationship stressors
Heavy emotional issues
Excessive “screen time”
Medication side effects
Racism, Sexism, Oppression
As you can see some of these issues can be managed and some are very hard to change due to the structure of society. In essence many people don’t have a choice and have to work long hours working in tough conditions with little pay that is by its nature depleting. And many have experienced oppression and trauma that leave one feeling emotionally wounded and exhausted. Eventually that depletion can turn into long term health conditions such as insomnia. Addressing depletion by taking time to nourish and replenish oneself is a privilege that not all can afford. Examining these structural issues is beyond the scope of this article but its key to see this wider perspective; especially if we are health care givers who are trying to help people to heal.
The key to dealing with depletion at this level is to honor that we are pushing our bodies beyond their capacity and to give our bodies the needed rest, recuperation and nourishment to heal. If we have broken our leg we don’t focus on running the next marathon. We take the time to sit and rest and gently rehab our body to help our leg heal fully, even if that takes several months. Pushing our leg to work right away would cause further damage that would weaken it. The same goes for insomnia caused by chronic depletion. If we try and suppress our symptoms and “just push through” with caffeine, stimulants, medications and supplements we will further exhaust our body which then can lead to deeper illness.
So the key to healing sleep issues starts at the beginning of the day, and is not just something we take to get us to sleep as we get into bed. Really it requires us to slow down, nourish ourselves optimally, reduce the tendency of the body to move into a hyper-symapethetic fight or flight state and to reduce the stressors that may be contributing to our sleeplessness.
Some of the main ways to stop the cycle of depletion and heightened nervous system sensitivity include
– Slow deep breathing
– Gentle exercise in fresh air (walking, slow hikes, gardening)
– Eating meals that are easily digestible and nutrient rich (Soup made with bone broth, cooked meals)
– Going to sleep at the same time every night, Creating the space for 9 hours of sleep (10-7)
– Meditation, Qi Gong, Prayer
– Address sleep “hygiene.” Make sure you make your room the right temperature with little chance for being disturbed by noises and light. Take an hour before you go to sleep to “destim”. Take a warm bath, read a gentle book, turn off the screens and get quiet.
– Working through trauma/stress with a therapist
– Getting Body work
– Spending time in nature
– Group activities with loved ones
Insomnia Herbal Approaches
Herbal approaches differ according to culture. Here in the West sleep formulas often include a few categories of plants.
Gentle anxiolytics. These are plants that are calming. Some examples include lemon balm, rose, motherwort, chamomile, linden and passionflower.
Strong anxiolytics: These are sedatives. These include herbs such as kava, valerian, cramp bark and hops. Some of these plants have “antispasmodic properties” that also help with restlessness.
Nutritional Restoratives: These are tonic herbs for the nervous system and include plants such as oatstraw, hawthorn (heart tonic), skullcap and nettle seed (too stimulating at times.) For recipes on those restoratives, go here.
Adaptogens: Formulas for long term care can include tonic herbs known as adaptogens. Gentle adaptogens that are restorative include eleutherococcus, american ginseng and reishi mushroom. For adaptogenic recipes take a look here.
Herbalists generally take into account the temperature, specific health issues and constitution of a person as well. So for some people a more warming sleep formula (nutmeg, ashwaghanda, turmeric) might be helpful. Others might have digestive concerns that would call out for bitters or stomachic herbs that help soothe the tummy. Others might need to integrate analgesic herbs if pain is an aspect of their sleep issues. The whole thing becomes a tad complicated and is one of the reasons its helpful to see a good herbalist to get advice on specific ways of addressing unique sleep issues.
Take a look through some of these teas, tincture, powder and syrup recipes for some general ideas of how to help yourself get some good sleep at night.