14 Natural Remedies to Beat Insomnia
Plus Tips to Get a Better Night’s Rest
Although it’s common to have the occasional sleepless night, insomnia is the inability to sleep or excessive wakening in the night that impairs daily functioning. Of natural remedies, three have been shown to be useful, and others have some preliminary but inconclusive evidence.1Volume 90%1:17
Watch Now: Natural Remedies to Beat Insomnia
Since chronic lack of sleep may be linked to a number of health problems (such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and depression), it’s important to consult your physician and avoid self-treating with alternative medicine. While you might be tempted to turn to an over-the-counter sleep aid, there are numerous natural remedies to consider, such as the 14 below.
Melatonin supplements are widely recommended for various sleep conditions, but the best evidence is for help with sleep problems caused by shift work or jet lag.2 Melatonin is a naturally-occurring hormone that regulates the sleep-wake cycle in the brain. It is produced from serotonin when exposure to light decreases at night.3
It is used in conditions where sleep is disordered due to low levels of melatonin at night such as aging, affective disorders (e.g. depression), delayed sleep-phase disorder, or jet lag. Melatonin supplements may improve sleep quality and morning alertness in older adults with insomnia.4
Timed-release melatonin is used to treat primary insomnia in people over age 55 in the European Union and elsewhere. In most studies on melatonin for insomnia in older adults, melatonin was taken up to two hours before bedtime for up to 13 weeks.5
The timing is important—when melatonin is taken in the morning, it delays circadian rhythms but advances them when taken in the afternoon or early evening.
Light therapy is used as part of sleep treatment plans.6 If you have trouble falling asleep at night or have delayed sleep-phase syndrome, you may need more light in the morning.
Light exposure plays a key role in telling the body when to go to sleep (by increasing melatonin production) and when to wake up. A walk outdoors first thing in the morning or light therapy for 30 minutes may help.
On the other hand, if you find you’re waking up too early in the morning or have advanced sleep-phase syndrome, you may need more light late afternoon and could try taking a walk outdoors or light therapy for two to three hours in the evening.7
Home light therapy units are available and may be recommended by your doctor or sleep specialist to use in conjunction with your sleep therapy.
Meditation and Relaxation Techniques
A regular meditation practice may help to promote sleep by slowing breathing and reducing stress hormone levels.8 Meditation is a technique that involves consciously directing one’s attention to an object of focus (such as breathing or a sound or word) in order to increase awareness, relax the body, and calm the mind.
Some types of meditation include guided meditation, vipassana meditation, yoga nidra, or body scan. Also try:
- Visualization: Visualization involves actively imagining a relaxing scene.9 You can try it in bed for 20 minutes before falling asleep. Involve all your senses. If you’re imagining yourself on a tropical island, think of the way the warm breeze feels against your skin. Imagine the sweet scent of the flowers, look at the water and listen to the waves. The more vivid the visualization and the more senses you involve, the more effective it will be.
- Relaxation response: This is a mind/body response that occurs after following specific instructions patterned closely after Transcendental Meditation.
- Mindfulness: This type of meditation essentially involves focusing on your mind on the present.
Early evidence suggests that meditation techniques may improve sleep.10 The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health says relaxation techniques have enough evidence to say they can be helpful for insomnia. But further research is still needed.
A system of relaxation, breathing, exercise, and healing with origins in Indian philosophy, yoga has been described as the union of mind, body, and spirit. A 2017 review study cited evidence that yoga (as well as mindfulness-based stress management and tai chi) can relieve insomnia symptoms.11
Hypnosis is a state in which a person is more focused, aware, and open to suggestion. Although how it works is not understood, hypnosis may bring about physiological changes in the body such as decreased heart rate, blood pressure, and alpha wave brain patterns, similar to meditation and other types of deep relaxation.
Hypnosis may be helpful in enhancing the effectiveness of cognitive-behavioral therapy and relaxation techniques. But the studies done so far are not well-designed.12
Acupuncture and acupressure may help with insomnia. Studies have shown some evidence that acupressure can help, and mixed evidence for the effectiveness of acupuncture.13
A 2011 analysis found no studies that are rigorous enough to provide good evidence for aromatherapy for assisting sleep.13 However, English lavender aromatherapy oil has long been used as a folk remedy to help people fall asleep. It is one of the most soothing essential oils.
Try putting a lavender sachet under your pillow or place one to two drops of lavender essential oil in a handkerchief.14 Or add several drops of lavender oil to a bath—the drop in body temperature after a warm bath also helps with sleep.
Other aromatherapy oils believed to help with sleep are chamomile, patchouli, and ylang-ylang.15
Food and Diet
What you eat and what you don’t can have an effect on your ability to get to sleep and stay asleep.16
- Limit your intake of caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine. Caffeine and nicotine can have a pronounced effect on sleep, causing insomnia and restlessness.17 In addition to coffee, tea, and soft drinks, look for hidden sources of caffeine such as chocolate, cough and cold medicine, and other over-the-counter medicine. Alcohol consumption can result in nighttime wakefulness.
- Cut back on sugar. Although sugar can give a burst of energy, it’s short-lived and can cause uneven blood sugar levels. This can disrupt sleep 18 in the middle of the night as blood sugar levels fall.
- Eat foods that help you sleep. Tryptophan is a naturally-occurring amino acid that is a precursor to serotonin, which is then converted to melatonin. Research shows mixed evidence for the effectiveness of L-tryptophan.13 Eat carbohydrate snacks such as whole-grain crackers before bedtime. Also include foods rich in vitamin B6, found in wheat germ, sunflower seeds, and bananas, which enhances the body’s conversion of tryptophan. Note that L-tryptophan supplements are not recommended as they have been linked to eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome.19
- Eat magnesium-rich foods. The mineral magnesium is a natural sedative, and some research shows that supplements can help with insomnia.20 Magnesium deficiency can result in difficulty sleeping, constipation, muscle tremors or cramps, anxiety, irritability, and pain. Foods rich in magnesium are legumes and seeds, dark leafy green vegetables, wheat bran, almonds, cashews, blackstrap molasses, brewer’s yeast, and whole grains. In addition to including these whole foods in your diet, you can also try juicing dark leafy green vegetables.
Vitex Agnus Castus
The herb Vitex agnus castus (chaste tree) may help insomnia and sleep disturbances associated with menstrual periods and menopause. In one study, women were treated with a combination of vitex agnus castus and magnolia extracts combined with soy isoflavones and lactobacilli and followed for one year. This treatment was found to be safe and effective.21
However, chaste-berry should not be used by anyone on birth control pills, hormone replacement therapy, or dopamine-related medications, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.22
Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) is a herbal home remedy, brewed as a tea or taken as a supplement, that is commonly used to reduce anxiety, improve sleep quality, and act as a sedative. Clinical trials of valerian have had inconsistent results for insomnia.
Studies measuring sleep quality have found no difference between people taking valerian and those taking a placebo. However, a sizable number of people in the studies anecdotally reported that their sleep quality improved with valerian.23
Valerian is thought to affect levels of one of the calming neurotransmitters in the body, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). It also relieves muscle spasms and is thought to help alleviate menstrual period pain.
Valerian is typically taken an hour before bed. A standard dose is 450 milligrams (mg). If taken during the day, valerian may result in drowsiness—it is often taken in two to three 300 mg doses with meals.
Melissa officinalis (Lemon balm) is a tea and herbal supplement that is said to relieve anxiety and calm the nerves. It may be seen in supplements that also include valerian.
While one 2013 study found it to be helpful, reviews of studies have not found any evidence for lemon balm or other herbal “sleep formula” supplements.
Traditional Chinese Medicine
In traditional Chinese medicine, insomnia often stems from kidney energy weakness. This syndrome is not necessarily related to kidney disease in Western medicine.
A few signs of kidney energy weakness are a low backache, tiredness and fatigue, and a burst of energy at about 11:00 in the evening. Women in menopause often experience this type of insomnia.
People who are taking anti-estrogenic drugs such as tamoxifen also experience this type of insomnia, however, they should not take herbal combinations such as the herbal formula liu wei di huang that may increase estrogen levels.25
In Ayurvedic medicine, insomnia is often associated with a vata imbalance.26 Vata regulates breathing and circulation. People with a vata imbalance often notice irritability, anxiety, and fear with insomnia.
One Ayurvedic treatment is the application of oil on the head and feet. For the pitta type, room temperature coconut oil is used, for the vata type, warm sesame oil is applied, and for the kapha type, warm mustard oil is often applied.
Clinical trials have not proven chamomile to be helpful for insomnia.27 Chamomile is an herb traditionally used to reduce muscle tension, soothe digestion, and reduce anxiety, which may help induce sleep.
Sip a cup of hot chamomile tea after dinner. But don’t drink it too close to the bed or you may have to get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom.
Hops, passionflower, and kava are other herbs that are often used for insomnia. As with chamomile, they have not proven their effectiveness in studies.
Other Natural Remedies
- For hot flashes, a thin, flat foam pillow insert, called a Chillow, can help to cool the head throughout the night.29
- Gentle, slow music is another remedy that can help to improve sleep. Music therapy has been found to improve sleep quality, decrease nightly awakenings, lengthen sleep time, and increase satisfaction with sleep.
- Although kava is sometimes recommended for anxiety-related insomnia, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued an advisory to consumers about the potential risk of severe liver injury resulting from the use of dietary supplements containing kava.1
- Lack of exercise can contribute to poor sleep. Muscle tension and stress build in the body. Exercise can promote deep sleep that night. However, intense exercise too close to bed can increase adrenaline levels, leading to insomnia.
Improve Your Bedroom Feng Shui
Feng shui, which originates in the Chinese philosophy of Taoism, instructs on how to arrange rooms, furniture, offices, houses, and other arrangements to maximize favorable energy flow throughout living spaces. You can use feng shui tips for your bedroom.
Before starting any natural remedies, consult your doctor. Chronic insomnia can be a symptom of another condition, such as depression, heart disease, sleep apnea, lung disease, hot flashes, or diabetes.
Think of insomnia as a “wake-up call” and ensure that you get early treatment for potentially serious conditions. The Doctor Discussion Guide can help you start that conversation with your doctor.