Natural Sleep Aids


Aromatherapy is one of several natural sleep aids that can help you get a good night's sleep.

Natural sleep aids, along with "alternative remedies," are viewed by many people with skepticism. They bring to mind images of witch doctors, shamans, tonic peddlers, and those "miracle" vitamins and gadgets that are hawked on late-night TV ads. We are justified in being skeptical of products that promise cures and carry no proof of effectiveness other than testimonials from people who refer to the pricey product as "magical" or "miraculous." Most of the magic is in the form of smoke and mirrors designed to sucker you into spending your hard-earned cash.

­Such scams, unfortunately, can mask the fact that there are a few alternative approaches that may very well help you manage your health and, in particular, your sleep. Some of these alternatives may be less expensive and may be easier on the body than pharmaceutical options. That's not to say that all alternative remedies are necessarily effective, are less costly than medication, or are free of side effects.

Nor should they be relied on to combat serious sleep disorders or insomnia that causes severe daytime fatigue; such conditions require medical intervention. But some alternative therapies may help in combating insomnia caused by stress. Indeed, nearly all the remedies discussed in this article are aimed at helping you to relax so that sleep comes more easily.

On the next page, learn about how acupuncture works, along with the benefit of acupuncture on sleep.

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Acupuncture and Sleep Disorders

Acupuncture, a form of alternative medicine, is becoming an increasingly popular method to treat many medical conditions, including sleep disorders. Acupuncture dates back thousands of years and is rooted in Eastern healing practices. It's based on a concept that all disease, including sleep problems, is the result of an imbalance of subtle energy moving throughout the body. This energy moves along 14 pathways in the body called meridians. Through the ages, practitioners have identified and charted these meridians. Treatment by an acupuncturist involves inserting very fine needles at various points along these meridians to increase, decrease, or balance the energy flow.

In the Western scientific community, there is a great deal of skepticism about the use of acupuncture, mainly because there have not been a lot of well-designed, well-controlled studies proving its effectiveness. The National Institutes of Health, however, has recently stated that there is enough evidence to indicate that acupuncture can be helpful in controlling nausea and certain types of pain.

Acupuncture has also been suggested -- and in the East, used -- as a remedy for insomnia, although scientific proof of this particular benefit is lacking. Still, acupuncture might be worth a try, especially for people suffering from chronic pain that affects their ability to get enough restful sleep.

Most people have heard about someone who has been helped by acupuncture but are reluctant to try it themselves because they fear having needles inserted into their body. But the consensus of most people who have used acupuncture is that the procedure causes little or no discomfort, and many swear by the benefits they've received. Side effects from acupuncture are also rare and appear to result mostly from treatment by unqualified practitioners.

If you decide to try acupuncture for your sleep problems, seek out a licensed practitioner, if your state governs this profession, or one certified by the National Commission for the Certification of Acupuncturists. In addition, check to be sure the acupuncturist uses sterile, disposable needles, to decrease any risk of transmission of blood-borne infectious organisms.

A close cousin of acupuncture is acupressure. Acupressure relies on the same meridian points as acupuncture, but finger pressure, rather than a needle, is used to stimulate points along the meridians to increase, decrease, or balance the energy running through the body.

On the next page, earn about how aromatherapy works, along with the benefit of aromatherapy on sleep.For more information on sleep and sleep disorders, see:

 

Aromatherapy and Sleep Disorders

Aromatherapy is commonly used to alleviate stress, but it's also useful in treating sleep disorders. Aromatherapy is the therapeutic use of essential oils to comfort and heal, and it is one of the fastest growing complementary therapies in the Western world. In aromatherapy, the essential oils are used topically rather than taken internally. The essential oils are said to stimulate an area of the brain, known as the limbic system, that controls mood and emotion. Solid scientific backing for aromatherapy is lacking, but there's no doubt that many people find it a soothing complement to other self-help measures to ease tension, promote relaxation, and aid in sleep as part of their bedtime preparations. So you may want to give it a try.

To help restore restful sleep, you can try using essential oils singly or in combination. The essential oils are generally available at health food stores, although these days many drugstores also carry a variety of the oils. The most commonly recommended oil for promoting sleep is lavender, but there are several others that may have a calming effect.

Try adding a few drops of essential oil to warm water for a relaxing bath or footbath, or spritz the oil onto a handkerchief or small pillow. You can also apply a few drops to a heat diffuser near your bed to spread the scent through the room or use a specially made ring that can be placed on the lightbulb of a bedside lamp; the heat of the bulb diffuses the scent.

You might also want to try combining the relaxing benefits of aromatherapy and massage by creating your own scented massage oil. Dilute one to three drops of essential oil per teaspoon of an unscented carrier oil, such as almond or grape-seed oil. (Do not apply undiluted essential oil directly to your skin.) Since some people are more sensitive to the oils than others, start with the smallest amount, and experiment until you find the combination that works best for you.

On the next page, learn about how biofeedback works, along with the benefit of biofeedback on sleep.

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Biofeedback and Sleep Disorders

Biofeedback is not yet a widely recognized method to address sleep disorders; however, it can help you get in tune with your body and its rhythms, ultimately aiding sleep. As we've said before, stress can put a major dent in your ability to sleep. And since no one can completely escape stress, the best way to keep it from stealing your shut-eye is to learn to manage your response to it. Toward that end, you may want to give a technique called biofeedback a try.

Biofeedback training can help you learn to consciously control certain physical responses to stress. It begins with the use of a simple electronic device that monitors your heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, and/or muscle tension through electrodes that are placed on your skin. These electrodes give "feedback" about what your body is doing under certain conditions. You can then use this feedback to retrain your responses.

For instance, when you are in a stressful situation -- or even when you are just thinking about one -- your heart rate tends to speed up, your breathing quickens, your blood pressure increases, and your muscles tense up. Conversely, by shifting your thoughts to calming scenes or situations or by consciously taking slow, deep breaths, you can slow your heart rate, lower your blood pressure, and ease muscle tension. The biofeedback machine makes these reactions easier to recognize. For example, the machine may be set to beep at every heartbeat, so you can hear when your heart is racing or when it's slowing.

The combination of this feedback with training in relaxation techniques, such as visualization, meditation, or even simple breathing exercises, can thus help you to notice when stress is negatively affecting your body and actively take steps to reverse those effects. With practice, you become better able to recognize stress responses so that eventually you no longer need the biofeedback machine. In this way, biofeedback can help individuals whose sleep problems stem from poor stress management, anxiety, or obsessive thoughts.

Most people who decide to try biofeedback visit a clinic where a trained professional in biofeedback can guide them through the process. If you take this route, look for a biofeedback practitioner who is certified by the Biofeedback Certification Institute of America. The option of purchasing inexpensive biofeedback equipment to use on your own is also available. These home units typically come with detailed instructions for proper use.

On the next page, learn about how massage works, along with the benefit of massage on sleep.

For more information on sleep and sleep disorders, see:

Massage and Sleep Disorders

Massage is often used to help babies sleep, and it can be useful in treating sleep disorders in adults. Massage is one of several hands-on strategies known collectively as bodywork. And if you've ever had a good, thorough massage, you know the feeling of being "worked over." But you also know how relaxing it can be.

The benefits of massage are many. It is regularly used in sports clinics and rehabilitation centers to loosen or soothe sore, aching muscles. Massage also helps to reduce stress, improve circulation, release tension, lower heart rate and blood pressure, and possibly even strengthen the immune system. These relaxing effects may therefore make massage a helpful aid in restoring restful sleep. Massage may be especially beneficial in treating sleeping problems that stem from stress, migraine headache, pain, and muscle and joint stiffness.

You might want to spring for a massage from a professional. One session may be all it takes to get you hooked. If you do opt for a professional massage, be sure to tell the practitioner if you have any particular illness or injury that they should be aware of, such as arthritis or fibromyalgia.

One of the good things about massage, of course, is that you don't have to visit a professional to capture its benefits. You can ask your partner, friend, or family member for a soothing rubdown. You can also give yourself a mini massage, focusing on the muscle groups that are within reach. Using small, circular movements with your fingers and hands, you can massage your scalp, forehead, face, neck and upper shoulders, lower back, arms, legs, and feet. There are also a variety of massaging devices available in various price ranges that can help extend your reach or provide soothing heat as well as relaxing vibrations.

On the next page, learn about how meditation works, along with the benefit of meditation on sleep.

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Meditation and Sleep Disorders

Meditation can be an effective way to calm the mind before bedtime and to alleviate sleep disorders. Ever had a night, or a string of nights, when you couldn't sleep because of troublesome thoughts or worries? Of course, we all have. Meditation is an excellent way to control those thoughts and is a safe and simple way to balance your physical, emotional, and mental states. Meditation can help you pull your mind away from concerns about the past or future and focus on the present moment.

Meditation is not so much an emptying of the mind as it is a calming of the mind. One of the first things people realize when they begin meditating is how fast and furious their thoughts bombard them when they try to be still.

One novice meditator found this to be the case when he signed up for a local class on meditation. On the first night of instruction, he was told to lie on the floor and simply pay attention to his breathing for ten minutes. He thought to himself, "That's it? That'll be easy." He closed his eyes and, within seconds, it was like someone had pushed the play button on his mental VCR. Work hassles, bills, errands, plots from TV programs, and more ran through his mind like an old silent film set on fast-forward. By the time the ten minutes had elapsed, he felt more tense than when he started.

But the experience gave him a clue about why he was having so much trouble falling asleep at night and why he felt so uptight and hurried all the time. After several weeks of participating in the class and practicing what he learned, he was gradually able to start roping in some of his worrisome thoughts and found that he could fall asleep much easier when he slipped into bed at night.

During meditation, the pulse rate slows, blood pressure falls, blood supply to the arms and legs increases, levels of stress hormones drop, and brain waves resemble a state of relaxation found in the early stages of sleep. These are all physical changes that can be brought about by learning to clear your mind of clutter and focus your thoughts. You can use meditation to clear and refresh your mind during the day or help you relax at night in preparation for sleep.

Although meditation sounds easy, it takes some practice to be most effective. Perhaps the hardest part is being able to block out intruding thoughts that threaten the peacefulness you seek. But if you practice every day, it will become easier, and you're likely to find that you look forward to these respites from your busy life. You're also likely to discover that sleep comes much more easily to a quiet, relaxed mind.

On the next page, learn about how hypnosis works, along with the benefit of hypnosis on sleep.

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Hypnosis and Sleep Disorders

Hypnosis, a method by which to induce extreme relaxation, can be employed to treat sleep disorders. Some people associate hypnosis with stage acts or television programs they've seen where people who were supposedly hypnotized acted like chickens or did other bizarre things simply because they were told to do them by the hypnotist. This stereotype conveys the impression that hypnosis is about losing control. But actually, it is about gaining control.

A person who is truly hypnotized is in a deep state of relaxation and is fully aware of what is going on around them. For this very reason, self-hypnosis may prove helpful in relieving sleep problems associated with stress. It provides a tool that you can use to induce a deep state of relaxation whenever you want to.

There are many methods of self-hypnosis. Here's one that's fairly easy. Choose a positive statement that expresses a desire. For instance, "Each breath makes me feel more relaxed." Once you have the statement in mind, lie down and take three slow, deep breaths. Close your eyes and, starting at your head, begin using your affirmation statement on different parts of your body. "Each breath makes my forehead more relaxed." As you breathe, imagine releasing any tension in that part of your body when you exhale. Move to the next part: "Each breath makes my jaw more relaxed." Continue using the same affirmative statement with various parts of your body until you finish with your toes.

Continue regular, slow, deep breaths throughout. Then count backward from 100 to 95 and immediately imagine yourself being taken to a serene setting that you would like to visit. It could be indoors or outdoors, as long as it is peaceful and inviting to you. Once there, repeat your affirmation statement three times. Stay and enjoy the place for as long as you like. When you feel ready to leave, say good-bye to your special place. Then, before opening your eyes, tell yourself that you will slowly count from one to three and that by the time you reach three and open your eyes, you will feel fully relaxed and ready to enjoy peaceful sleep.

On the next page, learn about how yoga works, along with the benefit of yoga on sleep.

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Yoga and Sleep Disorders

Yoga, which deals with the energy of the mind and body, can help alleviate sleep disorders. Most people have heard of yoga, but relatively few in the United States have ever practiced this ancient self-healing art. Although often associated with Eastern religions and practices, it is increasingly being adopted by Westerners for its numerous benefits. The most notable of these are increased circulation, better flexibility of muscles and joints, relaxation, and improved sleep.

Yoga is based on the principle that the mind, body, and spirit work in unison. If the body is sick, it affects the mind and spirit. If the mind is chronically restless and agitated, the health of the body and spirit will be affected. And if the spirit is depleted, the mind and body will suffer. There are many forms of yoga, many of which use various poses that incorporate stretching and breathing exercises to integrate mind, body, and spirit. (Don't worry: You don't have to lay on a bed of nails or twist your body into a pretzel shape to achieve yoga's benefits.)

Yoga can help with sleep problems by loosening tight muscles, releasing tension, and putting you into a deep state of relaxation. But it's a type of relaxation that requires fixed attention to work well. The breathing and stretching exercises are designed to slow down your racing thoughts and pull you into the present moment. The practice of yoga helps stem the flow of stress hormones that your body produces when you are under stress. Indeed, when your body, mind, and spirit are connected and relaxed, you are more resilient to stress. You will also undoubtedly sleep better.

Try one of these exercises before getting into bed to enhance relaxation:

  • Lie on the floor or a bed with your arms near your sides and your legs slightly parted. Relax your entire body by letting it sink into the floor or bed. Breathe in slowly through your nose, and pull the air deeply into your lungs until you feel your abdomen rise. Slowly exhale. Be attentive to how your body feels as you breathe in and out. Repeat with as many breaths as you need to feel calm.
  • Sitting comfortably in a straight-backed chair, with your back supported and legs uncrossed, practice the same breathing technique mentioned in the previous exercise. After two or three deep breaths, raise your hands above your head and stretch as if you were trying to touch the ceiling. Continue breathing while you stretch. Be attentive to how your body and your mind feel as you breathe. Repeat until you feel more relaxed and ready to sleep.
  • Standing, with your feet shoulder-width apart, inhale deeply, clasp your hands together and raise them above your head, and gently raise up on your toes. Stretch your whole body upward. Exhale slowly as you bring your arms back down to your sides and lower your heels to the floor. Repeat one or two more times.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Virgil D. Wooten, M.D., is the medical director of the TriHealth Sleep Centers at Good Samaritan and Bethesda North hospitals in Cincinnati. He is also a diplomat of the American Board of Sleep Medicine, a fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, and a consultant, writer, and speaker on sleep-related subjects. Dr. Wooten has more than 25 years of research, clinical and teaching experience.