The Demon: Insomnia
To discover deep sleep again it is important understand- insomnia is a symptom.
About half the people I see as a herbalist struggle with insomnia. Many people miss two, maybe three nights sleep every week. In the worse cases, sleep is elusive every night for months and months. To sleep, I recommend you discover the underlying cause of your sleeplessness.
Let’s explore some of the underlying causes of insomnia and a few herbs that can help ease the cause of your sleeplessness.
Coffee is one of my favourite herbs! A cup of coffee is high in anti-oxidants, gently laxative and can be part of a liver cleanse. Coffee carries strong medicine. Like every plant that has strong medicine, it needs to be used with care and caution. The coffee bean’s medicine teaches us health is found with moderation.
Coffee is often a contributing factor to restless sleep. But before coffee is a challenge, usually there are multiple demands being made. To meet many demand on time and energy, coffee is a reasonable for a short period of time. When multiple cups of coffee become a way of coping with life for an extended period of time, caffeinism begins to take your body/mind on a journey of poor health.
Caffeinism is a clinical condition associated with being jacked up on energy drinks and/or coffee for an extended period of time! Caffeinism is premature aging. The list of symptoms associated with caffienism includes greying or loss of hair, headaches, irritation, thinning skin, loss of appetite, increase sensitivity to pain, etc. Caffeinism fires up adrenal glands sending out sparks of adrenaline which eventually causes burned out nerves. This results in sleeplessness. If tossing and turning is a nightly ritual and you are drinking coffee all day, quit coffee.
There are a number of herbs you can use to rebalance your adrenal glands and nervous system after extended use of coffee. One of my favourites is Gotu kola (Centella asiatic). This gentle herb soothes frayed nerves, quiet down adrenal glands and helps your body/mind rediscover relaxation.
There are many herbs that can formulate into a tea to help combat the fatigue when reducing coffee. One tea blend I frequently use contains: rosemary (Rosmarius off.), peppermint (Menthe piperita), damiana (Turnera diffusa) and ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba).
The Monkey Mind
I like the expression, what happens during the day, is what happens at night. Sleep is time to let go of worry, planning, hopes and fears. During sleep dreams sorts out difficult emotions and unusual moments during the day. If a day is spent with thoughts racing from one subject to another, rewinding thoughts and picking apart the previous moment or conversation, these endless thoughts will continue into the night.
If this is the case, practice letting thoughts go during the day. This is not trying to shut off thoughts. That will create more thoughts and stress. You want to learn to reduce the speed of your thoughts and to enjoy the moment such grass on bare feet in the morning, or the sweetness of watermelon, or the sun’s kiss on skin, or the thirst quenching clarity of water. Using the senses to ground oneself in the present moment takes care of those pesky repetitive thoughts that feed stress and interfere with sleep. This takes practice!
Sipping a calming cup of tea offers a perfect opportunity to allow thoughts to settle and gather oneself into the present moment. I recommend a blend of chamomile (Matricaria recutita) and lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) tp help you settle into the quiet moments during the chaos of daily life. Those quiet moments when we practice letting go will help you sleep once darkness falls.
Pain can be difficult to treat because like insomnia it is like insomnia a symptom. Also the really good herbal pain relievers are still illegal or have been patented and are synthetically manufactured. But there are still a few plants in the herbalist’s medicine bag that reduce pain. To use them effectively, it is important to understand the cause of the pain.
For those suffering with chronic back, neck or joint pain a topical ointment which contains a small amount of aconite (Akoniton aconite) can be enough to numb the pain long enough for sleep to take hold. Aconite is a very powerful herb and I do not recommend using it without proper guidance.
Other herbs that can be used to ease pain are: California poppy (Eschscholzia californica), Oat seed (Avena sativa) and Willow (Salix alba).
When pain is aggravated by muscular tension a warm epsom salt baths before bed can help relax tension in the body associated with pain (or a busy, busy mind). I recommend adding ten drops of lavender (Lavendula angustifolia) essential oil in the bath.
If pain is eating away at your peace of mind scenting the pillows with lavender will also help calm the mind and body in preparation for sleep. There was study done in a prison where 3 drops of lavender was placed on each inmates’ pillow. The aggression and agitation in the prison drop significantly.
A balanced supplement of calcium/magnesium relaxes muscle tension and reduces pain. Once the body relaxes, often it is easier to let go of thoughts and ease into sleep. Choosing effective supplements is a bit of an art. Look for ones with few fillers and high bioavailablity.
More than once I have discovered the underlying cause of insomnia is sluggish digestion. It could be said that during sleep we digest our day. Bloating, a grumbling gall bladder or even constipation can be effecting your ability to sleep.
Again tools to ease stress in your life need to be used. Digestion is very sensitive on going tension in your day.
There is a class of herbs called carminative that reduce the effects of stress on the digestion and many of them are also used in sleep teas. These herbs include Chamomile and lemon balm which have already been mentioned. Other such plants are catnep (Nepeta cataria) and dill (Anethum graveolens). Dill is a favoured plant to give to infants and young children suffering with sluggish digestion and poor sleep.
To ease gall bladder pain and help bring on sleep, dietary changes are needed. I also offer hops (Hummulus lupus) to relax the gallbladder/liver and calm digestion and the mind.
Many woman struggle with insomnia during hormonal changes. Easing insomnia during menopause can be complex. Hormonal balance is profoundly affected by stress and as I have already mentioned there are many plants that can used to help ease stress.
There are also many plants that support the body in balancing hormones. I use these within individual formulas specific to the woman’s health challenges.
The one universal recommendation I make for easing night sweats is a cold tea made with Sage (Salvia officinalis) before bed. Sage (yes the plant used to season poultry) when taken as cold tea closes sweat glands and thereby reduces sweating. It is important to remember the body is sweating for a reason and cold sage tea is symptomatic relief. However, the tea will offer the woman a couple of weeks a good dry sleep while using plant medicine to help resolve the underlying reason for the dramatic hormonal swings.
If you are suffering with insomnia, it can be helpful to talk to someone who uses medicines that do not only treat symptoms but also supports you in discovering and relieving the underlying causes.