Insomnia is the inability to get a good night's sleep. The condition has more to do with quality of sleep than quantity; in fact, some people need as little as four hours per night. The causes of insomnia include mental anguish, breathing problems, uncomfortable or erratic sleeping arrangements, drug and alcohol misuse, digestive disorders, and depression, among many others.

Several alternative approaches stress the importance of identifying the cause of insomnia before deciding on a treatment. Whenever possible, the cause -- which can range from depression and diabetes to restless legs -- requires its own treatment. In the meantime, or if the cause is not readily apparent, several alternative therapies offer effective choices that go beyond sleeping pills and their side effects.

Nutritional Therapy for Insomnia

According to nutritional therapists, taking supplements of certain hormones or nutrients -- or adding them to the diet in food form, if possible -- can effectively treat insomnia.

Perhaps the most exciting news about insomnia concerns melatonin, a hormone that's produced by the pineal gland in the brain. Researchers have found that supplementation with this hormone can help the body reset its internal clock (circadian rhythms) if it is out of pace, which results in sounder, longer sleep. However, melatonin should not be used for long-term sleep disorders. Because it can interact with hormones in the body, it should not be taken without the supervision of a naturopathic or other qualified health care practitioner.

Serotonin, a chemical messenger in the brain, plays a role in bringing on sleep and requires the presence of the amino acid tryptophan to work. Therefore, tryptophan supplements are ideal for people with insomnia, but they're unavailable in some countries. (The U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned the supplements after contaminated batches hit the streets and were linked to causing serious injury.) Eating foods high in tryptophan, such as soybeans, eggs, and turkey, may not be the best way to get the amino acid. Instead, high-carbohydrate foods can make it easier for any tryptophan in the body to travel to the brain.

Other supplements that may be helpful include magnesium, calcium, and vitamin B6. Of course, good sleeping also depends on a sound diet and regular exercise. Avoid heavy meals, sugar, alcohol, and stimulants such as caffeine in the evening.

Acupuncture for Insomnia

Acupuncture views illness as an imbalance in the body's vital energy force, or qi. One possible explanation for insomnia is that it results from a deficiency of yin in the kidney system, which is causing fire in the heart system. (Together, yin and yang create harmony in the body.) There are many other explanations, all of which depend on the particular patient.

Acupuncture works to correct these qi imbalances with the use of tiny needles inserted in specific points on the body. Manual pressure (acupressure) can also be applied to these points. Auriculotherapy -- a form of acupuncture that treats the entire body through specific corresponding points on the ears -- is particularly recommended for insomnia.

One Chinese clinical study tested treatments on 160 people with insomnia. Eighty patients were instructed to apply pressure to certain auricular points nightly, and the other 80 took sleeping pills (diazepam). After one month, 65 of the acupuncture patients were cured or improved their sleeping patterns, while only 11 of the drug therapy patients improved.

Acupuncture treatment for insomnia may also be paired with herbal therapy, dietary changes, relaxation techniques, and certain exercises. An acupuncturist may recommend the following measures to people with insomnia:

  • Eat small, light, easily digestible dinners.
  • Avoid exciting pre-bedtime activities (such as reading a thrilling book or watching an action film).
  • Wash feet in warm water just before going to bed.

An acupuncturist, traditional Chinese physician, or naturopathic physician can perform acupuncture. For your first visit, be prepared to discuss the details of your insomnia, as well as your general health, diet, and lifestyle.

Wave Therapy for Insomnia

Wave therapy employs different forms of light and sound in the treatment of insomnia.

Light therapy aims to reset the body's internal clock, or circadian rhythms, by exposing the patient to very bright lights in the morning and during the day and dimmed lights and darkened eyeglasses to reduce light exposure in the evening. So far, research has shown that measures like these can have a significant positive effect on people with insomnia. Sound therapy can also be helpful. This therapy uses certain types of music -- often natural sounds like waves on a beach or wind rustling leaves -- to ease tension and anxiety before bedtime.

Here is some light therapy to use at home:

  • Sit outside in the morning to soak up some sun.
  • Turn on very bright lights at the breakfast table.

Other Insomnia Therapies

  • Biofeedback Training for Insomnia -- Electromyographic and thermal biofeedback, together with relaxation exercises, are useful in treating insomnia.
  • Guided Imagery and Creative Visualization for Insomnia -- Various techniques can bring on relaxation and deep sleep.
  • Herbal Medicine for Insomnia -- Valerian, passionflower, chamomile, lavender, and St. John's wort may be effective.
  • Homeopathy for Insomnia -- Specific remedies must be tailored to the individual, but common prescriptions include aconitum napellus, coffea cruda, nux vomica, and sulphur.
  • Hypnotherapy for Insomnia -- Treatments, including self-hypnosis, can reduce anxiety and make falling asleep easier.
  • Qigong for Insomnia -- The exercises and meditations can balance the flow of vital energy, or qi, and encourage relaxation.

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