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Natural Health
Tips for Insomnia


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My insomnia improved when I changed my diet dramatically, took up yoga and made some other holistic health changes. I suspect that in my case a main cause of my sleeplessness was nutritional deficiencies and tight muscles which kept me from relaxing enough to fall asleep. Listed below are some of the tips that helped me to get a good night's sleep.

woman sitting at side of bed
  A lack of magnesium is one possible cause of insomnia.

1. Diet - Insomnia in women seems to be linked at least partly to lower estrogen levels, which I think is why women often tend to develop insomnia during the menopause years. Estrogen helps with the uptake of magnesium into the soft tissues, and magnesium is the main nutrient needed to relax muscles and turn off the "flight or fright" response. So when estrogen levels are lowered, as they are during menopause, magnesium deficiencies and conditions they can cause such as insomnia, heart palpitations, anxiety and fibromyalgia may become more problematic.

I had trouble with insomnia when I was exercising a lot, underweight and on a low fat, high fiber, semi-vegetarian diet. In hindsight, I suspect this type of diet probably reduced my estrogen levels too low. A low fat, high fiber diet can be healthy for some people, especially women who are overweight and at risk for breast cancer, but in my case with my body type at that time, it was probably not the most healthy choice for me.

My insomnia improved as I added more fat to my diet, more magnesium rich vegetables, more red meat and less high fiber, whole grain foods. I've found that I sleep best when I eat a moderately low carb diet with lots of homemade vegetable and meat soup with lots of leafy green vegetables. For more on the diet changes I found helpful, see my fibromyalgia diet section.

After I put on weight, I could eat whole grains and drink coffee and still sleep at night. Eating more and exercising less vigorously may not have been great for my waistline, but it did improve my ability to fall asleep and to sleep for longer periods.

An article in the Townsend Letter for Doctors and Patients by Melvyn R. Werbach noted that "a high magnesium, low aluminum diet has been found to be associated with high-quality sleep time and few nighttime awakenings, and magnesium supplementation has been reported to reduce sleep latency and result in uninterrupted sleep."

I am aware of a few other people, either friends or people who have emailed me about my site, who have also reported developing insomnia from eating whole wheat bread and were able to sleep better when they removed the whole wheat from their diets. The other night one of my children and I both had trouble getting to sleep, so I went over all of the ingredients in the foods we had for dinner. Sure enough, a "healthy" pizza I had bought had whole wheat in the crust. Interestingly, two other family members had the same pizza and noticed no ill effects. So I think for some people who are on the borderline of nutritional deficiencies, high fiber can be problematic.

Click here for a study on that found magnesium helped people suffering from insomnia related to periodic limb movements during sleep (PLMS), with or without symptoms of a restless legs syndrome (RLS),

According to researchers at the United States Department of Agriculture's Grand Forks Human Nutrition Center (GFNHC), among many maladies, magnesium deficiency can cause migraines, sleeplessness, and heart attacks. The GFNHC web page on magnesium deficiency notes that a diet inadequate in magnesium can cause brain wave changes, sleep disturbances, agitated sleep and frequent periods of awakenings.

2. Avoid caffeine. If I even have one cup of coffee in the morning, I don't sleep as well at night. I'm realizing now that this is because my liver isn't functioning really well and can't breakdown the chemicals in the coffee. Lately I've been experimenting with no grain and liver support diets and it is working out well. For the first time that I can remember I can actually have a cup of coffee in the morning and sleep at night, too.

I know quite a few people who drink several cups of coffee in the morning and then wonder why they have trouble sleeping at night. Yet, I've noticed that I sleep a little bit less with just a half a cup of coffee, even if I drink it early in the morning.

Take a tip from the past on how to sleep better -

"If we therefore wish for a refreshing slumber, we must begin by avoiding care and anxiety and take sufficient bodily exercise to induce the necessary muscle exhaustion."

Except from: Home Comforts: Or, Things Worth Knowing in Every Household, edited by By Edwin T. (Edwin Troxell) Freedley, 1878

3. Exercise - but very carefully. I think I was over exercising in the past which caused my muscles to be too tight, which in turn made it hard to relax and fall asleep. When my insomnia was at its worst, I was exercising for a couple of hours a day. This was based on recommendations from a physical therapist for my TMJ and fibromyalgia, but I was only getting stiff and sore from all of this exercise and not sleeping well at all. In hindsight, that physical therapist had me doing way too much strengthening and repetitive weight bearing exercises which just caused repetitive stress injuries and overly tight muscles.

"Aye, I suppose I could stay up that late."

James Clerk Maxwell, Scottish mathematical physicist, on being told on his arrival at Cambridge University that there would be a compulsory six o'clock a.m. church service.

My muscles relaxed and my insomnia improved when I found a better physical therapist who focused more on stretches, posture correction, massage and yoga type exercises rather than weight bearing ones. For exercise these days I try to focus on activities that don't tighten my muscles too much -- like walking outside and yoga. I try to only walk or do gentle yoga in the evenings so I don't get too wound up right before bed time.

A Harvard Medical School study found that yoga improved the study participants overall quality of sleep, including helping people to fall asleep easier and stay sleeping for longer periods.

person doing tai chi

A study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found that elderly adults with moderate sleep complaints improved self-rated sleep quality through a low to moderate intensity Tai chi program conducted for six months.

If you are interested in yoga, books and videos on yin yoga tend to have the most relaxing poses.

4. Trigger Point Therapy. I've noticed that I fall asleep easier if I do my trigger point therapy right before bedtime. This releases my muscles and helps me to relax. Trigger point therapy is a kind of self massage that loosens trigger points, small muscle contractions, all over your body.

5. Yoga. Yoga can help me fall asleep, but I have to pick and choose which postures to do. Some yoga postures can be quite strenuous. I've noticed that if I do some of the standing poses too vigorously during the day my leg muscles will get overly tight and I'll have more trouble falling asleep at night. The yoga postures I find most relaxing are the ones you can do lying down like the knee squeeze and spinal twist. If I have trouble sleeping and wake up during the night, usually I'll do yoga floor postures until I get sleepy again and can fall asleep.

6. Listen to soft music. Lullabies really do work to make me sleepy. There are lullabies and songs made especially to fall asleep available. I made a CD from some lullabies on iTunes. We would play it at night for one of our sons when he was little, and would have trouble staying awake ourselves trying to put our son to bed listening to the songs.

7. Get sunshine. Try to get out and get some midday sun each day to get your body clock set appropriately.

8. Do you really need 8 hours of sleep? I personally think it is a myth that everyone needs 7 - 8 hours of sleep a night. I think how much sleep you need depends in large part on how tired out you get during the day. I think people who have physically taxing jobs like construction workers or farmers would need more sleep than someone who is a receptionist. I know on days when I don't have time to exercise I simply don't need as much sleep at night.

9. Reconsider the "warm glass of milk" remedy. Milk is very high in calcium which is a magnesium antagonist. As noted above, magnesium is needed to relax muscles and helps to improve sleep quality.

10. Use organic cotton bedding. Permanent press bedding can give off low grade chemical fumes while you sleep. Your body can deplete nutrients such as zinc and magnesium trying to detoxify these types of chemicals.

11. Open your bedroom windows when you can to let the fresh air in. Sealed up houses can be major sources of indoor air pollution. Fresh air puts less stress on your body by decreasing the amount if irritants and airborne particles your body has to detoxify.

12. Chamomile and peppermint tea taken right before bed time can induce a state of sleepiness. We keep a stock of these teas in the cupboard and use them if we are having nights where we feel too wound up to fall asleep on our own.


eye mask for sleeping






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