Although most of us know what insomnia is, few seek medical advice, and many people remain unaware of the behavioural and medical options available to them.
Insufficient sleep is a public health epidemic, linked to motorcar accidents, industrial disasters and occupational errors. The demands of modern lifestyles force many people to soldier on despite getting less than the recommended amount of sleep, but sleep disorders can arise even in cases when there is no obvious explanation for it.
What is insomnia?
The NHS describes insomnia as “difficulty getting to sleep or staying asleep for long enough to feel refreshed the next morning.” It’a a sleep disorder that affects millions of people worldwide, and although most of us know what insomnia is, few seek medical advice. Many people remain unaware of the behavioural and medical options available to them.
According to The South African Society of Sleep Medicine, sleep difficulty that lasts between one night and a few weeks is classified as acute insomnia, while chronic insomnia refers to sleep difficulty that occurs at least three nights per week for one month or more.
The following factors can cause or contribute to insomnia:
- Psychiatric disorders such as depression or anxiety can contribute to insomnia, although these account for less than 50 percent of cases overall.
- Medical disorders can contribute to insomnia, especially since many worsen during sleep.
- Environmental disruptions such as noise, light, and temperature.
- Disruptions to the circadian rhythm such as jet lag.
- Hormonal shifts, such as that which occurs during menstruation, can contribute to insomnia.
- Medications sometimes have side-effects that cause insomnia.
- Lifestyle issues such as stress, lack of exercise and irregular sleeping patterns.
If the patient’s insomnia is related to an underlying medical condition, obviously the aim will be to diagnose and treat that condition. Prescription sleeping pills are available for treating insomnia directly, although they are usually a last resort.
The best recourse is attempt to improve one’s quality of sleep through natural methods.
How to treat insomnia naturally (without medication)
Cathy Wong, a certified nutrition specialist, recommends the following methods for treating insomnia naturally:
- Lifestyle changes: Daily exercise and regular sleep patterns can help improve sleep quality, as it does with health in general. In terms of diet, sleep can benefit from magnesium-rich foods such as dark leafy green vegetables, legumes and seeds, and wheat bran; as well as foods rich in vitamin B6, such as bananas.
- Cut down on caffeine, alcohol sugar: One should especially try to avoid consuming caffeine before sleep. Note that cough medicine contains caffeine, and thus could be a contributing factor.
- Quit smoking: Considered one of the best things you can do for your health in general. Nicotine affects sleep quality in similar ways to caffeine.
- Melatonin supplements: The hormone melatonin is produced from serotonin, and helps regulate sleep cycles in the brain. Supplements are often used to treat low-melatonin levels, that may result from depression, aging, and jet lag.
- Cognitive-behavioural therapy: This is a type of talk therapy that aims to help people change negative thought patterns. It has been proven effective in addressing depression and anxiety issues, and by extension, sleep disorders.
- Mindfulness: A word coined by Jon Kabat-Zinn, “mindfulness” is defined as paying attention on purpose, fully in the present moment, and entirely without judgment. There’s a wealth of scientific research that shows the physical and psychological benefits of practicing meditation techniques.
- Yoga: As with mindfulness, yoga helps achieve relaxation, though it does so with various stretching as well as breathing exercises.
- Light therapy: Light plays a significant role in regulating the body’s sleep cycles, but in the modern world, the many unnatural sources of light exposure can confuse the body’s biological functioning. Exposure to daylight, or special therapeutic light-boxes that generate specific waves of light, for a prescribed amount of time per day can help reset the body’s biological clock.
- Herbal supplements: Lemon balm and other such herbal remedies can help relax the nerves, and thereby improve sleep quality.
The importance of quality sleep
Getting the right amount of sleep is extremely important for good mental health. Restful sleep boosts energy and alertness during the day, improves general mood and lowers the risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and dementia.
If you’re interested in learning more about the link between physical and mental health, you should consider studying psychology at SACAP. The South African College of Applied Psychology offers a range of psychology courses, including part-time and full-time as well as online options. For more information, enquire now.