I have battled insomnia off and on for the last three years. At first I tried sleep medication (Lunesta and a few others) but they made me more depressed and anxious, so I have experimented with all kinds of natural remedies, many of them suggestions from fellow friends with sleep problems. Here are a few of them.


1. Herbal Teas

Many of my friends who suffer from sleep problems have benefitted from drinking different kinds of herbal teas an hour or two before they go to bed at night. You can make your own from dried herbs—put a teaspoon of your mix into a tea ball or tea bag and add to hot water—or try some trusted boxes. You want to include or look for ingredients such as lavender, valerian, chamomile, passionflower, lemon balm, ashwagandha, holy basil, rosemary leaf, and dill seed. Some popular brands of teas include Sleepytime, Yogi Tea (I like their Stress Relief Honey Lavender tea and their Calming tea) and Traditional Medicinals (especially their Organic Nighty Night tea and Cup of Calm tea). Make sure and consult your doctor first, though, as certain herbs, like valerian, can interact with medications.

2. Essential Oils

For nearly 6,000 years essential oils have been used for therapeutic purposes—sleep issues included. Several people in my online depression community use lavender oil to help them relax before bed and help them to sleep. They either apply a few drops to their temples before going to bed at night or spray a lavender mist on their pillow. I have used lavender oil for about a year now and I do think it’s helpful. Other calming essential oils include valerian, vetiver, roman chamomile, and marjoram.

3. Meditation and Relaxation Tapes

A few years ago when my daughter couldn’t sleep, we would listen to calming meditations by Lori Lite designed for children. They were very effective in helping her to relax her body and mind enough to drift off to sleep. There are all kinds of sleep meditations and apps on the market today. Mashable published a good list awhile back. Personally, I like the meditations by Jon Kabat-Zinn, founding director of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness and Medicine. His voice sooths me more than any other meditation guide. A friend of mine swears by the meditations found on the free app CALM. Of course you don’t need a guide to meditate. Sometimes just paying attention to your breath on your own—concentrating on your belly as it rises with each in-breath and lowers with each outbreath–or concentrating on a bodily sensation is a great way of calming yourself down.

4. Soothing Music and White Noise

Many of the apps listed above come with soothing music and white noise. Some nights I’m not up for listening to instructions on how to relax each of my muscles or reminders to pay attention to my breath. I simply visualize myself lying by the ocean, listening to the waves on the shore, or I concentrate on my breath as I listen to nature sounds. Therefore, I have a few apps and sound tracks of just ocean waves and rain and water streams, which are helpful to unwind. Other people I know like to listen to soothing music, instrumental melodies, or simple white noise.

5. Cooler Temperatures

According to California-based clinical psychologist Arlene K. Unger, Ph.D., becoming overly heated is a common cause of sleeplessness. As one of her many helpful hints in her book Sleep: 50 Mindfulness and Relaxation Exercises for a Restful Night, she advises wearing lighter pajamas, keeping the window slightly open, and possibly ditching the heavy covers. I know people who sleep much better with a fan. The breeze and white noise creates a conducive sleeping environment.

6. Melatonin and Other Natural Supplements

There are several natural supplements that can help relax the nervous system and assist sleep. The most common are melatonin, which regulates the sleep-wake cycle, and the amino acid l-theanine, typically found in teas. Valerian, GABA, kava, and 5 HTP are others. I have found the combination of magnesium and calcium to be effective at times. Some natural sleep aids that combine various supplements include Neuroscience’s Kavinance Ultra PM, Genestra’s Calm-Gen, and Nature Made’s Sleep supplement. Again, check with your doctor to make sure none of the ingredients interact with your medications.

7. Epsom Salt Baths

Taking an Epsom salt bath in the evening has been one of the more effective pieces of my sleep hygiene routine. Epsom salts are a mineral compound containing magnesium, sulfur, and oxygen. When used in a warm bath, they allow magnesium to be easily absorbed into the skin, which promotes a feeling of calm and relaxation. According to a 2012 study in the journal Neuropharmacology, magnesium deficiencies induce anxiety, which is why the mineral is known as the original chill pill. I simply add two cups of the lavender-scented Epsom salt with added potassium and zinc to my bath water. I turn off the bathroom lights and use a lavender candle.

8. Prayer Beads and Mantras

You need not be a devout Catholic to use prayer beads. They are employed in all of the world’s religions as part of meditative practices. The process of repeating a prayer or mantra over and over again while thumbing the beads can be very relaxing and soothing. Personally, I have slept with a rosary since I first experienced insomnia two years ago. The prayer beads have become my safety item, much like a child’s blankie, and give me comfort in the middle of the night when I wake.

9. Yoga

Any kind of yoga primes the parasympathetic system and promotes relaxation, taming the stress responses that cause insomnia. I have found hot yoga to be especially beneficial for sleep because, in addition to doing the healing postures, your sweating releases stored toxins that is very cleansing. Certain postures like these 19 listed in Yoga Journal are especially helpful for sleep. Doing them in the evening or even when you wake at night, can sooth your central nervous system. Practicing Savasana (Corpse Pose), in particular, before sleeping can promote deep rest according to yoga instructors I know. There are also some apps you can download like Yoga for Insomnia that will help guide you through the postures.

10. Audiotapes and Free Lectures

Reading in periods of sleeplessness helps many folks I know doze off into slumber. As a highly sensitive person, the light wakes me up. According to some Harvard research, all light-emitting ebooks and screens negatively affect our sleep, even the Kindle. Therefore, I prefer to listen to audiotapes. Lately, I’ve been listening to the book Wherever You Go There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn. It is a collection of small chapters about mindfulness that is effective at calming me down. Since audiobooks can be experience, you might consider downloading university lectures, which are free content, from iTunes U, the section of Apple’s iTunes music store devoted to higher education.

Join Project Beyond Blue, the new depression community.

Originally published on Sanity Break.

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Therese Borchard
I am a writer and chaplain trying to live a simple life in Annapolis, Maryland.

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3 Responses
  1. Being able to fall asleep involves having or creating a sense of safety. After all, we are letting go of “ego” control of the world. Our culture celebrates ego control and fears lack of it. That prevalent bias can lead to contentious days. That’s why we need to “wash-up” at night, to get the day’s emotional and physical grime away from “in our face.” But we also need to cleanse our thoughts. We need to find some way to stop grappling with physical life, right up until bedtime. Most of us need a time to transition.
    Sleep is special and much more than not being awake. Yes, medical science describes sleep as restorative and signaled by certain brain waves. But the Ancients believed, as I do myself, that the soul leaves the body during sleep. This is a time to honor whatever reverence we have for this life and this universe and for whatever sense we have of a creative intelligence that gave us the Universe.
    Yes, many forms of relaxation are helpful. I personally find applying essential oils to the soles of my feet effective. My choice now is diluted blends of vetiver and frankincense for grounding with a little rosemary to keep up the circulation. Teas to stimulate liver energy and blood flow can be helpful…I like fresh lime and ginger with honey.
    The methods we choose are less crucial than setting our intention to make this time special. My need “to do” battles with my need “to be.” I turn to Biblical texts to deliver me from my absorption and wish my Soul a safe journey and return flight back.

  2. Hey Therese,

    THANK YOU for this. I’ve suffered from insomnia for the past 15 years…and at one point I thought it was going to kill me (through depression, and also literally when I nearly crashed my car while driving half-asleep).
    I’ll be printing off this list and stocking up my ‘just in case’ supplies for the next, inevitable bout.

    Maybe I’ll even keep you updated about what works best? 😛

    Fliss x