Can’t Sleep? How to Treat Sleep Issues Without Medication

A man suffering from insomnia in bed

Sleep is vital to your health and well-being, but for some people, it’s elusive. According to the American Sleep Association, there are an estimated 50 to 70 million U.S. adults who experience some type of sleep loss or sleep disorder. Sleeping issues can interfere with the quality of your life, your physical health, and negatively affect your emotional balance, cognitive ability, and motor skills. If you suffer from sleeping issues, you understand that this disruption can cause problems in your home, work, and community life.

While sleep issues may be common, it doesn’t mean you have to accept them as a part of your everyday life. Take control of your well-being by understanding how sleep issues negatively impact your health and the best treatment options for long-term change.  

The Consequences of Sleep Loss and Sleep Disorders

While the amount of sleep a person needs can vary depending on age and other health factors, it seems that for optimal health, you should get seven to eight hours per night. This amount of sleep should be good quality and during the right times, so your body can restore and rejuvenate. When you don’t get enough quality sleep, you don’t wake up feeling rested. Outside of the normal fatigue, negative attitude, and fogginess that you may experience with lack of enough quality sleep, it has also been linked to a host of long-term health problems, including:

  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Mood disorders
  • Poor immune function
  • Alcohol dependence
  • Reduced life expectancy

The body functions by means of an “internal clock” that regulates the physiological processes in the body, including hormonal and metabolic cycles. This is known as your circadian rhythm. Research is beginning to shed light on the molecular mechanisms that control this biological clock. It functions automatically via “clock genes” in every cell of the body, and is also affected by external stimuli such as light, timing of meals, and emotions. To be the healthiest you can be, your waking and sleeping cycle should be aligned with this programmed biological clock. Chronic disruptions to the internal circadian control mechanisms predispose you to many health conditions.

The most commonly reported sleep disorder is insomnia, which occurs due to various biological, psychological, and social factors, including chronic stress. Insomnia can include issues with falling asleep, staying asleep, or quality of sleep. Diagnosable insomnia affects approximately 6 percent of the U.S. population, but, like other sleep disorders, can often go undiagnosed and untreated.

Treatment Options for Sleep Issues

There are many different treatment options available for sleep loss and sleep disorders. However, not all treatments are created equal. In today’s clinical culture, it’s easy to view sleep medication as an attractive option to treat sleep loss and sleep disorders because it’s common, easy to use, and readily available. While sleep medication, and even alcohol used to induce sleep, can offer short-term relief of your symptoms, they are not a long-term solution, and can lead to other health problems down the line.

Sleep medications and alcohol do not give you the same type of deep restful and restorative sleep as falling asleep naturally. In a recent study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, researchers discovered that certain hypnotic sleep aids—such as Ambien and Sonata—may interfere with sleep-related memory consolidation that occurs during natural sleep. Another study found that benzodiazepines—another widely used class of sleep medications—can suppress respiration and worsen symptoms of sleep apnea. 

To create lasting change, you need to adopt a holistic treatment regimen that allows the mind and body to settle and calm, and that re-connects you to your natural sleep mechanisms.

Pranayama: Foundation for Balance

Pranayama is a yogic practice that is foundational to help achieve healthy, restful sleep. This type of concentrated and deliberate breathing can help calm your central nervous system and "turn off" the stress response in the body while "turning on" the relaxation response.

If you take the stress of the day to bed with you, it will interfere with your body’s natural programming to relax and fall asleep. When you are in the stress response during sleep, although your eyes are closed, you may not be restoring and energizing the system because your body and mind are ready to deal with a threat at any minute. On the other hand, when the relaxation response is activated, you are more in sync with your natural circadian rhythm, and are more likely to fall asleep naturally and easily. Because the mind and body are calm, and not feeling threatened, they can do the job of healing and repairing what is necessary for longevity and healthy aging.

To help your body prepare for restorative sleep, use yogic breathing techniques. Before you go to bed, try practicing belly breathing for 5-10 minutes. This simple breathing technique will allow you to drift to sleep in a relaxed state, and you will be more likely to remain in a relaxed state during sleep. Here’s how to do it: 

  • Lie on your back, close your eyes, and bring awareness to your chest.
  • Without too much concentration, gently breath in and out through your nose while your belly gently rises on inhalation and falls with exhalation. 
  • As you inhale, bring in a positive emotion to the area of your heart, such as gratitude, compassion, and love. (You can simply repeat silently: “I am gratitude” “I am compassion” “I am love”)

Another yogic breathing technique you can try is alternating nostril breathing for 5-10 minutes. Follow these steps to learn the practice. This type of breathing calms the mind and allows you to detach from thoughts, which are often keeping you from sleeping. Note: If you are experiencing stuffiness, and find it difficult to breathe through your nose, try using a neti pot to clear your sinuses before practicing.

When you remove the things that are getting in the way of your natural sleep, such as the stress response, and bring in practices like these to align with your natural cycle, then healthy, natural sleep is possible. 

Preparing Your Mind for Sleep

A rested mind allows you to think through situations, make decisions, and even access your higher intuition and creativity. When it’s not cared for properly, your mind can become consumed by unnecessary stress that can wreak havoc on your health and negatively affect natural occurrences—like sleep.

You might find that thoughts are running endlessly through your mind as you try to fall asleep. This can be due to holding on to the stress of the day, worrying about the next day, or general anxiety.

In today’s constantly connected world, you experience a high level of stimuli throughout the day and into the night. Do yourself a favor and remove things that are causing your mind to stay “on.” Turn off anything that may be distracting at least one hour before heading to bed to allow your mind time to disconnect and slow down, including:

  • TV
  • Computer
  • Phone (at least put it on “Do Not Disturb”)
  • Lights

Another technique to quiet your mind is to journal for 2-3 minutes before going to bed. This type of light journaling releases the stress of the day and allows you to let go of your to-do list and anything else keeping you up. By writing it down, your mind is able to release anxiety and embrace stillness to help you sleep. Follow these steps:

  • Keep a small notebook and pen by your bed.
  • Write down the events of your day without any emotion, judgment, or analysis.
  • Record anything that you are repeating to yourself (recurring thoughts or list of “to-do’s”).
  • Finish by listing three things for which you are grateful.

Preparing Your Body for Sleep

Keeping your physical body in balance can do wonders for improving your sleep patterns. Adopt a healthy diet to ensure your body is getting the nutrients it needs to function properly. This includes a whole-food, plant-based diet full of organic fruits, vegetables, nuts/seeds, healthy grains, and healthy proteins and fats. To promote better sleep, try following these basic guidelines:

  • Avoid eating heavy meals in the evening (try not to eat after 7 p.m.). 
  • Stay away from caffeine after 2 p.m.
  • Steer clear of alcohol in the evening.
  • Drink herbal teas, such as chamomile, valerian, and lavender before bed.
  • Take a warm bath.
  • Perform a gentle oil self-massage before bed.

Periods of fasting overnight have been associated with better brain health, while natural herbal teas can induce natural sleep through their sedative effects (potentially due to how the flavonoids and other phytochemicals found within the teas bind to receptors in the brain).

Exercise can also be effective for better sleep. Try walking for 10-15 minutes at the end of the day, about two hours before you are planning to go to bed. To help reduce stress, you can also practice gentle yoga poses in the evening, such as:

  • Knee to chest
  • Supine twist
  • Forward bend
  • Child's Pose
  • Cat-Cow
  • Belly breathing in Savasana

Preparing Your Spirit for Sleep

Just as you need to take care of your mind and body to maintain balance in your life, you also need to take care of your spirit. A restless spirit has the power to disrupt your rhythm of sleep. To combat this, create a life of meaning and purpose, which can help you become more content and less stressed. You can further develop a strong sense of spiritual well-being by connecting to something beyond your individual self—like a community or support group, volunteer organization, friends or family, or connecting with nature.

A recent study found that higher spirituality scores were associated with better mood and sleep among patients with heart failure. In this study, participants kept a gratitude journal simply listing 10 things they were grateful for every day. To improve your spiritual well-being, bring awareness on a daily basis to:

  • Gratitude
  • Forgiveness
  • Empathy
  • Loving kindness

An easy and effective way to do this is to regularly practice meditation, which can alleviate stress, improve physical health, and create a sense of peace. Before you go to bed, try following this gratitude meditation:

  • Sit in a quiet room with your eyes closed.
  • Begin by expressing thankfulness and gratitude for yourself—your intelligence, talents, health, and other traits.
  • Then, move your feelings of gratitude toward the people you love and the things in your life that you care about.
  • Extend your thoughts of gratitude toward other things in the world that you have a tendency to take for granted. Whatever pops into your mind at this time, be grateful for it.
  • When you come out of this meditation, keep a heart of gratitude as you start your bedtime routine.

Herbal Support for Healthy Sleep

Although herbs are not the magic bullet to cure sleep issues, they can be an effective part of a holistic sleep routine. Herbs are often especially helpful when you are first re-setting your sleep routine. There are several herbs that are safe and effective, and have controlled clinical trials documenting their benefits for sleep. Here are a few you can try:

Ashwaganda

  • Effects may not be seen for several weeks; no reported toxicities
  • Especially effective for debilitated/exhausted patients

Valerian

  • Improves sleep latency and quality of sleep
  • Especially good for people with restlessness and insomnia

Passionflower (Passiflora)

  • Indicated for states of anxiety, restlessness, overwork, muscle tension/spasm
  • Combined with hops and valerian improves sleep time

Melatonin

  • Good for jet lag, shift-work disorder, and elderly persons

If you have questions about the best herbs or supplements for you, it is best to work with a health care professional who has experience guiding you, especially if you take other medications or have complex medical issues.

Sleep loss and sleep disorders should not be overlooked. If these practices do not help improve your sleep, you may need further testing to determine whether there is an underlying medical issue at play.  While there may be specific treatments for these medical issues, you will still benefit by incorporating these mind-body practices into your everyday life.

It might take some time to see a change in your sleep pattern, but know that you are taking important steps towards cultivating not just better sleep, but a healthier life overall. Rest assured, restorative sleep is just around the corner.


Create balance in both the mind and body so you can get back to a sound night’s sleep at our six-day Perfect Health retreat. Learn More.


 

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About the Author

Sheila Patel, M.D.

Medical Director
Dr. Sheila Patel is the Chopra Center’s Medical Director and a board-certified family physician who is passionate about bringing holistic healing practices into the Western medical system. She earned her M.D. at the University of Wisconsin Medical School and completed her residency in family medicine at the Ventura County Medical Center in Southern California. For more than a decade, she practiced full-spectrum family medicine, from prenatal care and deliveries to ER coverage and primary care for all ages. At the Chopra Center, Dr. Patel offers integrative medical consultations that combine the best in conventional medicine with the wisdom of Ayurveda. She also teaches at the Chopra Center’s 6-day...Read more