Natural Solutions for Insomnia

Every night 5% to 10% of us wrestle with problems like this, usually followed by an inability to stay awake and alert the next day. Pharmaceutical options may seem easy, but they also come with side effects and the risk of dependency.

Fortunately humans have been sleeping soundly for thousands of years, long before pharmaceuticals came onto the scene. This means nature offers a wide range of safe and simple strategies to help us achieve sound sleep night after night.

Sleep Basics

There are two general types: NREM (non-rapid eye-movement) and REM or (rapid-eye-movement) sleep. NREM prevails, especially in the beginning, while precious REM stage sleep increases with each cycle. A full night’s sleep typically stacks four about-ninety minute cycles of increasingly deeper sleep. REM sleep is critical to mental and physical well-being, as it facilitates healing processes and memory consolidation. A complete four-cycle night’s sleep gives us that magic six-to-eight hour envelope research has linked to longer and healthier lives.

Our body clocks are not irreversibly ‘set’ to be “evening people” or “morning people.” In a recent study of 1572 children from 4th to 8th grades, those claiming to be “evening people” simply drank more coffee, had less parental monitoring, had more environmental disturbances, and tended to be older than did self-determined “morning people.”

Biochemical Rhythms

Sleep is an intrinsic biorhythm, and our bodies secrete biochemicals periodically to stimulate energy and relaxation alternatively. Four decades of sleep research confirms that sleep directly relates to environmental rhythms of light, diet, mood, body temperature, activity, and stress. When light strikes the pineal gland first thing in the morning, it stimulates biochemicals that either orchestrate relaxation (namely melatonin, serotonin, dopamine and GABA), or drive heightened activity and alertness (cortisol, adrenaline, thyroxine and insulin). Melatonin is the central sleep biochemical, while cortisol is pivotal for our active cycles. Melatonin levels rise slowly after nightfall, peaking around midnight, and falling thereafter. As melatonin rises, core temperature drops and metabolism slows. Melatonin levels fall to a low point at about three a.m., just as cortisol levels begin to rise in anticipation of our body’s awakening. During the day, cortisol levels rise and fall through the afternoon and early evening, ushering melatonin’s slow rise after dark. Supporting melatonin’s functions are serotonin, dopamine and GABA—biochemicals that help relax the body and nerves, and help us submerge into the depths of sleep. As these biochemical messengers connect with receptors lying on cell membranes, the cells slow down and cool off.

Melatonin levels slow with age. Reduced melatonin is tied not only to insomnia, but also to a number of degenerative diseases including cancer and arthritis. This means that higher melatonin levels are critical to the body’s well-being. We might conclude that supplemental melatonin is the solution. Not so fast, Sherlock. Recent studies have confirmed that endogenous (produced by the body) melatonin is necessary for falling asleep, but exogenous (supplemental—not produced by the body) melatonin is not much better than placebo—although it can sometimes help in delayed sleep phase syndrome. Indeed, like other non-bioidentical hormone replacement, the long-term safety of exogenous melatonin use remains unclear.

Sleepy Foods

A number of foods stimulate the body to produce these biochemicals, and thus promote sleep. Foods containing the amino acid L-trytophan are used by the body to produce serotonin, a hormone that promotes positive moods and relaxation. Serotonin also happens to convert to melatonin. Foods that contain tryptophan include milk, cheese, whole grains, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, soy foods, cottage cheese, cooked beans, rice, peanuts, hazelnuts, spinach, pumpkin seeds, wheat germ and encourage insulin release by reducing amino acids in the bloodstream competitive to tryptophan. Calcium-containing foods increase conversion of tryptophan to serotonin and melatonin.

Eating tryptophan-rich foods early in the day can dramatically affect sleep quality. In a randomized study of seventeen healthy adults, a lack of dietary tryptophan during the mid-morning caused a drop of 71% serum serotonin at three p.m. and a 44% drop at nine p.m., resulting in falling asleep an average of 26 minutes later, and a 58% increase in waking episodes during the night.

A number of foods also contain phytomelatonin, which increases endogenous melatonin. Montmorency tart cherries have some of the highest levels, along with oats, sweet corn, rice, ginger, tomatoes, bananas and barley.

Nutrients that help maintain proper levels of serotonin and melatonin include B vitamins, calcium and magnesium. A calcium/magnesium supplement prior to bedtime has been known to almost immediately relax the body. Magnesium deficiency, on the other hand, stimulates brain neurons—increasing our tendency to overthink things when we should be sleeping. Magnesium-rich foods include bananas, barley, milk, oats and beans.

Foods and drinks that disturb sleep include refined sugar and carbohydrates, chocolate, coffee, black tea, carbonated drinks, and eating too much too late. Caffeine takes several hours to clear the bloodstream so should not be taken in the evening. Despite alcohol being a central nervous system depressant, it can cause rebound insomnia.

Herbs to Sleep By

A number of well-researched herbs effectively promote sleep. Research has shown that the phytonutrients in these plants work variously to stimulate particular biochemicals and receptors, soothe nerves, cool body temperature, and safely slow metabolism. Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) has been used for thousands of years. Numerous controlled studies have illustrated its effectiveness for many sleep issues. It was included in the U.S. National Formulary as a sleep aid and anxiolytic agent for many years until being bumped by pharmaceuticals. Over 150 active constituents have been identified in valerian. Passiflora (Passiflora incarnate) has been found to elevate mood and decrease anxiety and overthinking. Its relaxant effects have been observed over thousands of years of use, and research has confirmed its ability to increase sleep quality. Hops (Humulus lupulus) has been recognized to relieve tension and anxiety-related sleeplessness. Research has shown subjective sleep quality improvements and quality of life improvements comparable to pharmaceutical benzodiazepines, without their side effects and dependency issues. Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora) has been used traditionally as an antispasmodic, sedative and anticonvulsant. Its leaves and blue flowers also stimulate a cooling of the body.

A number of other herbs support sleep by relaxing the body and nerves, and reducing pain and inflammation. These include wild lettuce (Lacuca virosa), known traditionally for its mild sedative, antispasmodic, bitter and stomachic effects. Asafoetida (Ferula asafetida L.) has also been used traditionally for its antispasmodic, carminative, nervine, and sedative properties. California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) contains natural alkaloids known for muscle relaxing and pain relief. Poppy seeds from Papaver somniferum contain small amounts of the alkaloids codeine and morphine but not enough to influence dependency or other effects known from restricted extracts. Poppy seeds provide sedative, hypnotic and anodyne effects, used frequently in traditional herbology as a tincture. Lavender (L. angustifolia or L. officinalis) is well known for its sedative effects in tinctures, infusions and aromatherapy applications. Kava (Piper methysticum) has been used traditionally for its sedative, psychotropic and nervine effects. The raw powder (mixed with water, by tincture or capsule) relaxes and calms muscles, soothes tensions, and improves moods. Wild oats (Avena fatua) has been used traditionally as a nervine, tonic, sedative and demulcent to strengthen and soothe nervous exhaustion insomnia. Catnip (Nepeta cateria) has been used traditionally for its antispasmodic, sedative, diaphoretic and cooling properties, to relax muscles and slow metabolism. Sage (Salvia officinalis) contains volatile oils known for their cooling effects upon the body.

These can be taken as tinctures, hot teas, tablets or capsules. Combinations of three to five are recommended—with at least two of the first group above—as they tend to synergize each other in the right combinations. A number of herbalist-formulated combinations of these can be found in health food shops.

Light Therapy

Our body’s sleep patterns can be adjusted naturally through light therapy. The easiest form of light therapy is to stand, sit or walk in direct sunlight early in the day—preferably just after sunrise—for 10-15 minutes each day for a few weeks. This resets the pineal-driven body clock, and alters our cortisol and melatonin cycles, helping us become sleepier earlier in the evening.

Another form of light therapy is rotational therapy. This is done by going to sleep later and later on progressive days until we cycle into the next evening. Sleep researchers typically recommend falling asleep three hours later each day to accomplish this. This effectively rotates the body clock forward a few hours a day until we reach our desired bedtime. This can be exhausting and difficult to do without being on a week’s vacation.

Other Sleep Strategies

Sleep research has revealed a number of simple lifestyle changes to increase our sleep quality. Vigorous daytime exercise tend

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Dr. Case Adams

Case Adams is a California Naturopath with a PhD in natural health sciences and a DSc in integrative health. He has authored more than twenty books on natural health and numerous published health articles.



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  1. Anonymous says

    I use both melatonin & valerian & have found both very helpful. Warm milk before bed also helps to relax me. Love this newsletter!

  2. Anonymous says

    My number one tip would be – take your computer or TV out of the bedroom! No one wants to, but it makes a difference. Falling asleep to the TV produces the worst quality of sleep you can get. Create a room conducive to sleep (dark, not too hot, clear of clutter) and you are halfway there.

  3. Anonymous says

    I agree 100% with 2nd anonymous…any amount of marijuana about 1-2 hours before going to sleep is THE BEST sleep aid

  4. Anonymous says

    Yeah, I was going to say “hey they forgot cannabis!” But of course they wouldn’t be writing about that… Quite sad, considering how very well it works. Its a perfectly healthy plant to use and so many people are still misled to think its some horrible drug.

  5. jjtakala says

    For years I didn’t sleep, I could get away with as little as four hours per night.

    Now, I sleep as long as I want to.

    All I did was changed my diet.

    I ended a 44 yr old bipolar manic disorder when I changed my diet.

    No more racing thoughts and sleepless nights.

    See my article entitled “The story of how I discovered the cause of Autism!”

    It’s in there!

  6. Anonymous says

    I am taking SagaPro sold by SagaMedica USA
    I take one pill every night before bed and get a full 7 or 8 hours without waking up for bathroom visits etc.
    I feel better because I am getting a good night sleep.
    Is anyone on this site getting the same results?

  7. Anonymous says

    i agree cannabis works wonders…and if you live in the right states it’s only marginally illegal…

  8. Anonymous says

    hello all! I work at a busy daycare with 12 one year olds. That for me means never a dull moment and never a sleepless night! lol…good luck!
    from Char :)

  9. Anonymous says

    You know what really bugs me as an insomniac?

    The inability of people to comprehend that many insomniacs may simply have faulty sleep circuitry in the brain.

    I’ve never seen someone end an article by saying:
    “Science is just beginning to understand the brain circuitry involved in sleep. No one knows how many people have faulty sleep circuitry and are in a state of constant sleep deprivation, the symptoms of which can be interpreted as depression, ADD,…. etc. If YOU have faulty sleep circuitry there is no cure for you right now and your life may be extremely painful while you wait.”

    “Your depression is causing the insomnia.”
    I hear this repeated by doctors/people over and over again. And it is belittling to millions of us who can’t sleep normally, suffer severe mental effects because of it, and are then fed a series of utterly ineffective and expensive anti-depressants. Depression is a category that people are put in. It is not an identification of biological disregulation, and cannot be the CAUSE of anything. The psychiatric categories (especially depression) have become a dumping ground for all patients who have problems that science doesn’t yet understand.

    For someone to be diagnosed with primary insomnia under its current definition (sleeplessness that cannot be attributed to a medical, psychiatric, or environmental cause), they’d have to be experiencing severe sleep problems and have NO mood problems whatsoever. Not only that, if we assume someone DOES have shoddy sleep regulation as a first cause, they will NOT be diagnosed with primary insomnia, because of course they will be exhibiting all sorts of psychiatric symptoms.

    So what we have here is a definition created solely as a way for the industry to conceal medical ignorance regarding people who’s brains won’t sleep properly. If the orexin blockers are effective when they hit the market I guarantee you that suddenly everyone will be diagnosed with primary insomnia, and the definition will magically change.

    Psychiatrist tell us that Primary Insomnia is “very rare”. And by their strange definition it is. But malfunctioning sleep circuitry in the brain as a root cause of a patient’s problems may be extremely common.

    While lifestyle tips are fine for regular people, lifestyle tips are an absolute joke for someone who’s own brain isn’t letting them sleep. It’s like telling an asthmatic who’s choking to death that they should practice breathing more deeply.

  10. Anonymous says

    I would like to know what amounts of valerian and melatonin is helpful and where and in what form one can purchase it.

  11. Anonymous says

    I agree with 13, but also 12. 13 because I would like to know, and 12 because both me and my dad have insomnia. I’m 16 for heaven’s sake! Rather infuriating when you have a test for the next four days and you don’t get a wink of sleep because your brain won’t shut up and let you sleep. No to mention you’ve tried everything you could afford to prevent it. So I’m just waiting for what 12 said to come true.

  12. Anonymous says

    Mr Jorma Takala, I would love to read what you recommend but how to I find it. I tried to check out your profile but found nothing. Please let me know. My husband is bipolar also and I would love to read your treatment.

  13. Marlys says

    When I was 18 I had terrible insomnia. The thing I tried was 45 minutes of yoga done to a tape of someone taking me through it so I didn’t have to stop and look at a book or a video. It worked within a month! By that time I began to feel my body and brain almost literally hum, and the minute I hit the pillow I’d be asleep. It may not work for all, but it’s certainly a healthier possibility than taking pills! I did this for a year and I haven’t had insomnia since! Perhaps it even would help those of you who have brain circuitry problems! It may help to smooth the circuits! Worth a try!

  14. Anonymous says

    well i think those who have gone thru this can only really is very painfull………especiallly in xam daz…when u hv to sleep cz u hv nxt day to study…turns dayz nd nite into hell

  15. Anonymous says

    I can only agree with the brain circuitry argument, but for some of us, we go through periods of enforced sleep deprivation – known as babies. It always amuses me how people talk about post-natal depression without linking it to the lack of sleep!

    It then sets up habits of sleep disturbance which can last for decades. Good to see this article.

  16. Lori says

    Lots of great ideas and comments. And just a couple more. If you try tryptophan in supplement form, take it with carbs, not other amino acids (protein). They compete for uptake. For the brain that makes the mountain out of the molehill and won’t turn off, try GABA in supplement form.

  17. Anonymous says

    I agree with 12. I’ve had insomnia for years and I have tried everything to cure it. I’m constantly reading websites such as this, to learn how to correct this problem. Recently I read that taking a cold shower before going to bed helps one sleep.

    One website suggested to start a shower with warm or hot water, get the body warm for 2 or 3 minutes, then gradually lower the temp. Rinse off with the coldest you can stand. With practice you can extend the time. Try it. I just started doing this and it’s helped me so far.

    Cold showers have a lot of benefits for the body and brain. It kind of shocks the system, which has benefits. But be careful, take it slow. Insomnia is awful. I’ve know what you’re going through. I hope it helps.

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