Sleep (Re)Training for Insomnia

What does falling asleep feel like? Good sleepers may never bother with the question. One minute they’re conscious and the next minute they’re out. But if you have chronic insomnia, falling asleep (or back to sleep) can feel like a tiresome slog.

Insomnia sufferers may actually lose touch with the feeling of falling asleep. So Sleep Technologist Michael Schwartz created a smartphone app to put people back in touch and increase their confidence and ease in falling asleep.

Insomnia sufferers relearn the feeling of falling asleepWhat does falling asleep feel like? Good sleepers may never bother with the question. One minute they’re conscious and the next minute they’re out. But if you have chronic insomnia, falling asleep (or back to sleep) can feel like a tiresome slog.

Insomnia sufferers may actually lose touch with the feeling of falling asleep, some have claimed. So Sleep Technologist Michael Schwartz created a smartphone app to put people back in touch and increase their confidence and ease in falling asleep.

Racing Thoughts and Brain Activity at Night

An independent study has found the smartphone app, called Sleep On Cue, to be accurate at detecting the start, or onset, of sleep. But let’s step back, for a moment, and imagine a typical insomniac night.

It’s after midnight and you’re obsessing about your deadlines tomorrow. Or you’re thinking about how to fight your way out from under all your student loans. The next thing you know the clock on your bedside table says it’s 2 a.m. In desperation, you stare at the clock face, willing time to stop. By 3 a.m. you’re still awake and hopping mad about it!

Maybe you have spent the last 4 hours with your entire brain spinning along in problem-solving mode. Chances are, though, that if on such a night you were undergoing a sleep study, your brain waves would tell a somewhat different story. Beta waves, fast wave activity commonly observed in people who are are thinking and solving problems, might be mixed in with alpha waves (slower waves linked to more relaxed states) and even slower theta waves, heralding the start of Stage 1 sleep.

Detecting the Lighter Stages of Sleep

But would it feel like you were actually sleeping? Research has shown that people woken up in Stage 1 sleep are often unaware that they’ve been asleep. In this liminal state, people can drift back and forth between sleep and wakefulness for quite some time before descending further into more sustained sleep, which is called Stage 2.

Stage 2 sleep is characterized by a predominance of theta waves and by features called sleep spindles and K complexes. Awoken in Stage 2 sleep, people are somewhat more likely to be able to sense that they were asleep.

But people with insomnia may not be as apt to report they were sleeping. Investigators have speculated that with all the nighttime baggage accompanying chronic insomnia—anxiety about sleep loss, lack of confidence in sleep ability, negative beliefs about sleep, increased beta wave activity during sleep—some insomniacs may simply lose touch with the feeling of falling asleep.

A Sleep Training Smartphone App

When a call went out for an inexpensive way to detect the start of sleep at home, Schwartz developed Sleep On Cue. A recent study comparing it to polysomnography (the test used in overnight sleep studies) found that Sleep On Cue was accurate at predicting the onset of Stage 2 sleep.

Why is this important? For one thing, the app (which costs $4.99) may prove to be useful in helping to administer intensive sleep retraining—an insomnia treatment developed in Australia—inexpensively in people’s homes.

But for readers of this blog, the immediate value of this app may lie in its potential to train or retrain insomnia sufferers to recognize what falling asleep feels like. This could alleviate some of the worry and anxiety about sleep and insomnia and thus make it easier to fall asleep and fall back to sleep.

Here’s How the App Works

Sleep On Cue works best, Schwartz says, if you conduct your training sessions when the pressure to sleep is high: late in the afternoon or early in the evening after a poor night’s sleep.

  1. Lie down and relax in bed, holding your smartphone in one hand. The phone will periodically emit a soft tone. Every time you hear the tone, give the phone a slight shake.
  2. When the app no longer detects movement, it assumes you’re asleep. Then, the phone vibrates to wake you up.
  3. The screen then displays this message: “Do you think you fell asleep?” Press “yes” or “no.”
  4. Next, you’re instructed to leave the bed for a few minutes. The phone will then vibrate to let you know when to return to bed for the next sleep trial. In this way, you begin to relearn what falling asleep feels like and gain confidence in your ability to do it.
  5. You decide when to end each training session. The screen then displays a graph with feedback about your sleep ability and your awareness of your sleep.

Here’s a link to the Sleep On Cue website. At $4.99, it’s not much of an investment and the payoff could be great.

If you’ve tried Sleep On Cue, did it improve your sleep and, if so, how?

How Much Melatonin Is Really in That Supplement?

Supplementary melatonin is the fourth most popular natural product used by adults in the United States and the second most popular given to children.

But supplements like melatonin are not subject to the same quality controls as prescription medications. A new study of melatonin sold over-the-counter shows that information on the label often does not reflect the content of the product.

Melatonin content may differ from amount listed on labelSupplementary melatonin is the fourth most popular natural product used by adults in the United States and the second most popular natural product given to children. It can change the timing of sleep, ease jet lag, and help night owls shift to an earlier sleep schedule. Occasionally it’s used to correct a melatonin deficiency, or for insomnia (although for insomnia it’s unlikely to yield much benefit).

But supplements like melatonin are not subject to the same quality controls as prescription medications. A new study of melatonin sold over-the-counter shows that information on the label often does not reflect the content of the product. Here are the details:

Testing for Melatonin and Serotonin

The researchers tested the contents of 30 different melatonin supplements sold in Canada (likely similar to melatonin sold in the United States). Among them were products with 16 different brand names (the names were not published), in 5 different strengths, and in 7 different formulations, some containing herbal additives and others without. They wanted to see how closely the amount of melatonin listed on the label matched the melatonin content of the actual supplement.

They also screened for serotonin. Serotonin is a precursor of melatonin found in the herbal extracts with which commercial melatonin is often combined.

Variation in Melatonin Content

Holy cow! The actual melatonin content of the supplements varied quite a lot from the content listed on the labels. Some labels overstated the amount of melatonin contained in the product. The worst offender here was a capsule listed as containing 3 mg of melatonin that actually contained about 0.5 mg.

Other labels greatly underrepresented the amount of melatonin in the product. The worst offender here was a chewable tablet listed as containing 1.5 mg of melatonin that actually contained nearly 9 mg. (This is particularly concerning since chewable tablets are most often taken by children.)

Not only was the melatonin content of the product off by more than 10% of the listed content in about 71% of the products tested. As shocking as this may seem, the melatonin content varied widely from lot to lot of the same product. While the first lot of the chewable tablets cited above contained nearly 9 mg of melatonin, the second lot contained only 1.3 mg. That’s a variation of 465%.

Variation Could Be a Problem

Does the dose of melatonin you take matter? To some extent, yes, say the authors of a commentary on the study. Suboptimal doses might be ineffective. Taking too low a dose might lead you to believe melatonin didn’t work when a higher dose would.

Higher-than-advisable doses could lead to undesirable side effects. Too high a dose would be risky for people taking medications that interact with melatonin, or those who are pregnant or have diabetes. And the long-term effects of supplementary melatonin on prepubertal children are still unknown.

Overall Conclusions

So what are we to do with this information in light of the fact that the researchers haven’t revealed the names of the products they studied? Here’s a summary of what they learned, which, if you take or are contemplating taking melatonin, is worth consideration.

  • The least variable products overall were those containing the simplest mix of ingredients: the tablets or sublingual tablets with melatonin added to a filler. Apparently, added herbal extracts tend to make products more variable.
  • Except for the chewable tablet cited above, capsules generally showed the greatest lot-to-lot variability in melatonin content. (However, the melatonin content of some capsules was within 10% of the content listed on the label).
  • Unexpectedly, the three liquid products tested showed fairly high stability and low lot-to-lot variability.
  • The melatonin content of products listed as containing 1 or 1.5 mg of melatonin was quite a bit more likely to diverge from what was claimed than were products listed as containing higher doses. Products purportedly containing 1.5 mg of melatonin were also quite a bit more variable from lot to lot.

Unlisted Serotonin

Eight of the 30 products tested contained unlisted serotonin. While the presence of serotonin is hard to explain in supplements containing just melatonin and a filler, it might be expected in supplements containing herbal extracts. In one such product, a capsule listed as containing 3 mg of melatonin plus lavender, chamomile, and lemon balm, the serotonin content was assessed at 74 micrograms.

Serotonin raises significant health concerns if taken in excess, the Canadian authors say. It can lead to a condition called serotonin syndrome, which can be mild or fatal and “exacerbated by interactions with other medications, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors and the analgesic tramadol.”

I’d like to see the content of supplementary melatonin sold in the U.S. tested and reviewed by brand and formulation. ConsumerLab? Otherwise for people using over-the-counter melatonin (or interested in trying it) it’s a kind of Wild West situation when it comes to knowing which brand to buy. Pharmacists and doctors who prescribe melatonin may be better informed. Comments?

Paradoxical Insomnia: A Second Look at Treatments

Paradoxical insomnia: a diagnosis given to people whose sleep studies show they sleep a normal amount but who perceive they sleep much, much less. When I wrote about it in 2015, the word was that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)—the gold standard in treatments for insomnia—might not be an effective treatment for it.

But a brief testimonial that recently appeared in American Family Physician argues otherwise. Here’s an update on this puzzling sleep disorder.

Paradoxical insomnia may respond to treatment with CBT & therapies lowering arousalParadoxical insomnia: a diagnosis given to people whose sleep studies show they sleep a normal amount but who perceive they sleep much, much less. When I wrote about it in 2015, the word was that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)—the gold standard in treatments for insomnia—might not be an effective treatment for it.

But a brief testimonial that recently appeared in American Family Physician argues otherwise. Here’s an update on this puzzling sleep disorder.

A Subjective-Objective Discrepancy

Time and again we hear that people with insomnia tend to underestimate sleep duration. Up to 50 percent of the time, the electroencephalograms (the graphic records of brain waves produced during overnight sleep studies) of insomnia sufferers reporting insufficient sleep look the same as those of normal sleepers, registering 7 or 8 hours of sleep.

But in people with paradoxical insomnia, the discrepancy between their sleep study results and their subjective assessment of their sleep is huge. The woman whose story appeared in American Family Physician perceived that she was routinely “awake all night.” Yet when she finally went in for an overnight sleep study, the record of her brain waves showed she’d slept a total of 7 hours and 18 minutes. She couldn’t believe it.

A Heavy Burden

You might think, since paradoxical insomniacs are getting a normal amount of sleep, that their insomnia symptoms would be less severe than those of “objective” insomniacs, whose sleep studies show they get less (sometimes considerably less) than 7 or 8 hours. Paradoxical insomnia may sound like “insomnia lite.”

Apparently it isn’t. Research has shown that paradoxical insomniacs tend to be more confused, tense, depressed, and angry than normal sleepers. They also have a higher metabolic rate, which suggests an overall higher level of arousal.

In-depth analyses of brain activity at night attest to this heightened arousal. Compared with objective insomniacs, paradoxical insomniacs experience more high-frequency activity, and less low-frequency activity, in the brain at night. Their sleep is light and vigilant.

Yet it’s often hard for people with paradoxical insomnia to convince others that anything is wrong. When the woman writing in American Family Physician complained about not having slept all night, her husband countered with insistence that she’d slept soundly the whole night. Her friends and colleagues were skeptical too, noting that she had a normal amount of energy and competence at work. She felt increasingly tormented—“not only because of the insomnia,” she wrote, “but also because of a loss of trust from my husband and friends. They said they wondered whether I was pretending just to get sympathy.”

What Could Be Wrong? What Can Be Done?

Scientists can’t explain exactly what the problem is. One hypothesis holds that paradoxical insomnia has something to do with sleep quality, and that treatments that train paradoxical insomniacs to perceive sleep when they’re objectively determined to be asleep may help. (See my other post about paradoxical insomnia here.) But adjusting people’s perceptions may not necessarily resolve all their insomnia symptoms or improve their long-term health.

Other researchers have proposed that paradoxical insomnia occurs due to heightened brain activity during sleep, a condition which is accurately perceived by those who experience it but will require more sophisticated measures to assess scientifically. If it’s true that in paradoxical insomnia the main barrier to satisfying sleep is excessive brain activity and vigilance at night, then therapies designed to lower arousal levels—exercise, yoga, meditation—may help.

How About CBT for Insomnia?

Some experts have expressed doubts about whether CBT for insomnia (CBT-I) has the potential to work as well for paradoxical insomnia as it does for the more common psychophysiologic insomnia. The main value of CBT-I is its ability to help people fall asleep more quickly and decrease nighttime wake-ups. At least when their sleep is assessed objectively, paradoxical insomniacs don’t usually have these particular problems.

But CBT-I also helps to dispel negative beliefs and excessive worry about sleep, which can make any type of insomnia worse. It was an effective insomnia treatment for the woman writing in American Family Physician. “After receiving cognitive behavior therapy,” she wrote, “I began to feel much better and now am able to sleep well most of the time.”

So if it feels like you’re hardly sleeping at all, consult a sleep doctor or a sleep therapist for a proper diagnosis and help in improving your sleep. There may be more insomnia treatment options than you think.

If you feel you’ve benefited from reading this post, please like and share on social media. Thanks!

Tips for Stressed-Out Caregivers Seeking Better Sleep

Occasionally I get emails from people with take-charge, type A personalities wondering what to do about insomnia. Full of self-reliance, they’ve often scoured the internet for remedies—and tried every one—or amassed a mountain of books about sleep—and read them all—to little avail. Can I suggest anything that might help?

Here is Geri’s story (abbreviated to save space) and my response.

Insomnia can be relieved by focusing on stress reduction and self-careOccasionally I get emails from people with take-charge, type A personalities wondering what to do about insomnia. Full of self-reliance, they’ve often scoured the internet for remedies—and tried every one—or amassed a mountain of books about sleep—and read them all—to little avail. Can I suggest anything that might help?

Here is Geri’s story (abbreviated to save space) and my response.

A Caregiver’s Hectic Life

I have had insomnia since 2005. I have four children (13, 10, 9 and 7) and at time of onset only had one. Triggered by changing jobs and trying to get pregnant—so stressful! I am a community mental health nurse. I have a caseload of 22 adults with psychosis and am their primary support. . . . [At night] it can take 2 hours for me to fall asleep and then I usually wake between 12 and 2 a.m. I do not go back to sleep. . . . I am naturally an over thinker, I do stress easily and worry a lot. . . . I’ve never been a great sleeper but yes I used to sleep. We are struggling financially so not working is not an option. . . . I have a library of books on sleep, have spent hundreds of pounds on various remedies and treatments—but alas nothing really seems to help. Can you suggest anything?

Geri had a lot on her plate. She was on the go all the time, caring for patients during the workday and children at night. Her busy schedule didn’t leave much time for self-care.

She knew what she needed: fewer responsibilities. If she won the lottery, she said, she’d resign from nursing, fix up her house, and be the mother and relaxed partner she’d like to be. But that was not in the cards.

Adding Things In, Cutting Things Out

Despite her time constraints, Geri was resourceful in looking for insomnia remedies. She’d also established some habits conducive to sound sleep: eating healthy foods, getting plenty of exercise by cycling to and from work and her patients’ homes, and practicing mindfulness.

But she’d also tried a raft of insomnia remedies that didn’t seem to help, from herbs and homeopathic insomnia cures to acupuncture and CDs with “odd sleep-inducing sounds.” When Geri wrote to me, she was planning to ramp up her efforts to improve her sleep by:

  • Adding high-intensity interval training to the cycling she did everyday (though it was a struggle to find the energy for this activity)
  • Cutting out alcohol completely (which, in times of desperation, she used to get to sleep)
  • Cutting out processed sugar, including the “crap biscuits” (cookies) she was prone to eat when super tired

What did I think?

Regimentation, Stress and Sleep

My immediate reaction on reading Geri’s story was that I could never do half of what she does and expect to sleep consistently well. With so many responsibilities I’d be popping Valiums every day!

Seriously, though, Geri’s sleep problem may have been related to chronic stress and the double duty she was doing as caregiver for her patients and her children (i.e., caregiver stress). Even so, her inclination was not to find ways to make her responsibilities more manageable. It was to do still more, adding high-intensity interval training to an already busy schedule and restricting an already healthy diet still further.

I wondered if the restrictive regimen she was about to impose upon herself would sooner or later become yet another source of stress. It’s true that exercise is beneficial to sleep. But nowhere has it been suggested that a person should have to cycle to and from work and do high-intensity interval training to get better sleep.

Dietary Choices and Sleep

It’s also true that what we eat can affect our sleep. But having a cookie now and then is probably not going to make a difference. There’s a lot of information now suggesting that overindulgence in simple carbohydrates is harmful to health. We shouldn’t routinely have Hostess cupcakes washed down with Pepsi for lunch. But cut out sugar completely? I follow the literature on insomnia and sleep pretty closely, and not one study I’ve seen has shown that cutting sugar out altogether from our diets will improve sleep.

Likewise, it’s smart to avoid using alcohol for sleep. But a glass of wine at happy hour is probably not going to have much impact on the night at all. It sounds punitive for Geri to try to regiment her life still more than it already is.

Reduce Stress With Better Self-Care

It could be that Geri would benefit from consulting a sleep doctor or a sleep therapist and that cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia, administered by a trained professional, might help. A sleep study might uncover an underlying sleep disorder (or show she was getting more sleep than she thought).

But I think Geri’s sleep would improve if she were to reduce her stress by engaging in more nurturing self-care. She’s got a head start on some of the ways to do this but other readers may not:

  • Take half an hour a day for yourself and do something purely for pleasure (gardening, reading a novel, playing the piano)
  • Learn and use stress reduction techniques such as meditation, yoga, or Tai Chi.
  • Stay current with your own healthcare needs.
  • Eat regular, healthy meals.
  • Exercise daily.
  • Take time off when you can.
  • Maintain ties with friends and supportive family members, and when possible seek and accept their support.
  • Seek counseling when you need it or reach out to friends

If you’re a full-time caregiver, what’s the best way you’ve found to take care of yourself?

Lifelong Insomnia? Don’t Give Up on It Yet

Have you had insomnia all your life? Have your parents said you were a poor sleeper even as a baby?

Trouble sleeping that starts early in life is called idiopathic insomnia. If insomnia is still the black box of sleep disorders, then idiopathic insomnia is the little black box inside the black box.

Here’s what is known about the disorder and options for management.

Lifelong insomnia can be treated by sleep specialist or therapistHave you had insomnia all your life? Have your parents said you were a poor sleeper even as a baby?

Trouble sleeping that starts early in life is called idiopathic insomnia. If insomnia is still the black box of sleep disorders, then idiopathic insomnia is the little black box inside the black box.

Here’s what is known about the disorder and options for management.

What Is Idiopathic Insomnia?

Idiopathic insomnia begins in childhood, sometimes at or soon after birth. Trouble falling or staying asleep or reduced sleep duration is pretty much a nightly affair regardless of situational changes. The disorder is uncommon, affecting less than 1% of the population.

There is no identifiable cause. The presumption is that idiopathic insomnia is driven mainly by biological factors, and at least some of them are probably inherited. Abnormalities in the circadian system or the homeostatic process may be involved and/or there may be a problem in the circuitry controlling sleep and waking in the brain.

A Chronic Sleep Disorder, but How Well Defined?

Idiopathic insomnia is a chronic sleep disorder with familiar insomnia symptoms:

  • Trouble falling or staying asleep, or sleeping long enough, for more than 3 months despite adequate sleep opportunity
  • Daytime distress and impairment, including reduced stamina, low mood, and trouble thinking and learning

Research on the defining features of idiopathic insomnia is mixed. On one hand are a few studies showing significant differences between people with idiopathic insomnia (IdI) and those with psychophysiological insomnia (PI), the garden-variety insomnia that typically develops later in adolescence or adulthood. PI is often triggered by a stressful event; situational factors do not figure in IdI. PI is said to persist mainly due to psychological and behavioral factors that develop in response to poor sleep: conditioned arousal in bed, poor sleep hygiene (going to bed early to catch up on sleep, for example), and anxiety about sleep. Psychological factors are less typical in IdI.

On the other hand is research showing no major differences between PI and IdI when assessed by polysomnography (the overnight test in the sleep lab) or by self-report of psychological symptoms. Research suggests that arousal levels are higher among people with IdI than in people with other kinds of insomnia, though, leading some sleep experts to speculate that IdI is simply a more severe manifestation of PI.

What Can Be Done?

Without scientific certainty about the causes of IdI or whether the disorder is distinct from other kinds of insomnia, IdI is best treated on a case-by-case basis by a sleep specialist. Following are options for treatment.

Especially if a person with IdI has misconceptions and/or anxiety about sleep,

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) may help. CBT-I typically consists of two behavioral components—stimulus control therapy and sleep restriction therapy—and a cognitive component designed to decrease psychological barriers to sleep. Sometimes just changing your attitude about sleep can bring about demonstrable sleep improvements.
  • Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) may help. ACT focuses on building mindfulness skills so that, rather than trying to suppress, manage, and control emotional experiences, people develop psychological flexibility and learn to behave in ways that reflect their values and increase well-being. This approach, too, can change the way you feel about sleep and in the process improve your sleep.

If round-the-clock hyperarousal is driving IdI, then therapies designed to decrease arousal may help.

  • Regular, moderate-to-vigorous exercise—activities such as aerobics, calisthenics, biking, running, and weight-lifting—has been shown in recent studies to increase total sleep time and decrease levels of cortisol (a stress hormone).
  • Yoga, too, has been shown to decrease feelings of arousal and promote stress tolerance.

Medication for Idiopathic Insomnia

The issue of sleeping pills for chronic insomnia is increasingly fraught. Many drugs approved for the treatment of insomnia, taken nightly over time, may degrade sleep quality and result in alarming side effects, especially in older adults.

That said, while the medication prescribed for IDI is usually a benzodiazepine or a Z-drug such as zolpidem or eszopiclone, a second pharmacological approach, according to a paper by Michael Perlis and Philip Gehrman, involves use of a melatonin agonist such as ramelteon (Rozerem). No studies of the effects of this sleeping pill on the sleep of adults with IdI have been conducted. But in two studies of children aged 6 to 12 years with chronic idiopathic childhood sleep-onset insomnia, melatonin put them to sleep significantly sooner—by 1 hour.

If you’re contemplating managing lifelong insomnia with drugs, get some professional advice. This is one place where you really need the help of a specialist knowledgeable in the medical treatment of chronic insomnia.

At what age did your trouble sleeping start? What kinds of treatments—if any—have helped?

Herbals for Insomnia? Now You Can Test Them at Home

Herbal remedies for insomnia are abundant online—valerian, hops, and chamomile, among the most common. Tested against placebo, none has been found to be definitively effective for insomnia. Yet some medicinal herbs have a long history as traditional calming, sleep-promoting agents. Might one work for you?

Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School have proposed a method you can use yourself to test herbal remedies via personalized therapeutic trials. Here’s more about herbals and how the trials work:

Insomnia may respond to treatment with herbal supplements and tincturesHerbal remedies for insomnia are abundant online—valerian, hops, and chamomile, among the most common. Tested against placebo, none has been found to be definitively effective for insomnia. Yet some medicinal herbs have a long history as traditional calming, sleep-promoting agents. Might one work for you?

Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School have proposed a method you can use yourself to test herbal remedies via personalized therapeutic trials. Here’s more about herbals and how the trials work:

Why Herbals for Sleep?

Interest in herbal and other alternative treatments for insomnia seems to be on the rise. About 5% of the participants in a national survey reported use of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) for insomnia in 2002. A recent analysis of the same national survey conducted in 2007 found that almost 50% of participants with insomnia symptoms used some form of CAM therapy.

Some insomniacs see alternative medicines as less risky than prescription sleeping pills, with fewer potentially harmful side effects. Because they are “natural,” they’re viewed as more appropriate for long-term use than many sleeping pills, which, if used nightly, tend eventually to degrade sleep quality.

Scant Testing, Mixed Results

Most herbal remedies for sleep have not undergone as much testing as prescription sleeping pills (one reason may be that there’s relatively little money to be made on them). But as with sleeping pills, tests that have been conducted on herbals often show subjective sleep improvements that exceed objective measures.

The perception that herbal supplements improve sleep could be due to a placebo effect. Or, say the Massachusetts researchers, it could be attributable to basic differences among trial participants, including different insomnia symptoms. It could be that, just as a particular sleeping pill works for some insomniacs and not others, a particular herb may relieve insomnia in some people and not others.

Herbals That May Relieve Insomnia

Since the overall efficacy of herbal preparations for insomnia is still unknown and may differ from person to person, the researchers opted to consult six authoritative resources in their search for herbal and supplement remedies of potential relevance for insomnia, including reference books such as the Physician’s Desk Reference for Herbal Medicines (PDR) and online sources such as Medline Plus. In all, they came up with a list of over 70 herbal agents of possible benefit to sleep.

These 15 medicinal herbs were listed by 4 or more resources as a remedy for insomnia or another condition indirectly related to sleep, such as anxiety or nervousness:

  1. Ashwagandha
  2. Bitter Orange (Neroli)
  3. Catnip (Nepeta)
  4. Chamomile (German)
  5. Hops
  6. Kava
  7. Lavender (English)
  8. Lemon Balm
  9. Linden
  10. Nutmeg (and Mace)
  11. Oats (Avena sativa)
  12. Passion Flower
  13. Schisandra (Wu-Wei-Zi)
  14. St. John’s Wort
  15. Valerian

Safety of Herbal Supplements

Natural substances are not necessarily safe for unrestricted use. The PDR for Herbal Medicines cautions against using several during pregnancy. Some herbs may be harmful to the liver. And, as herbal supplements are unregulated in the United States, the contents of a supplement do not necessarily reflect what appears on the label. In fact, a majority of herbal remedies evaluated in a recent study had contamination, substitution, or use of fillers not listed on the label.

For safety concerns associated with herbs used for insomnia, see these sources:

Find Out If a Sedating Herb Works for You

Let’s say you’re a sleep maintenance insomniac, awakening at least twice a night to feelings of anxiety. You’ve heard that passion flower is good for sleep and anxiety, and you’d like to try it to see if it cuts down on your nighttime wake-ups. But how long should you try it? Two nights, three nights or more?

Many insomniacs experience quite a bit of night-to-night variability in their sleep. When you’re stressed out you might sleep poorly for 4 or 5 nights in a row before you get a decent night’s sleep. If you tried taking a passion flower supplement for just 2 or 3 nights during a time of stress, the results you obtained wouldn’t be reliable. You might obtain a different result if you tested the passion flower during a 3-day period when your life was moving along on an even keel.

I’ll skip the authors’ discussion of statistical power and cut to the chase: you need to test a substance for 10 nights in a row to have reasonable certainty that the result you obtain is repeatable and you’ve got enough data to answer the question of whether passion flower improves your sleep.

Self-Testing Flow Chart

Follow these 5 steps to determine whether an herbal insomnia remedy works for you:

  1. Simplify sleep. For you, does “good sleep” mean falling asleep sooner, sleeping longer, waking up feeling more rested, or waking up less at night? Choose the one thing that for you would most improve your sleep.
  2. Set a goal. Choose your target “good night” value and a percentage of nights for which this target value must occur. Let’s say you decide that a good night is a night when you awaken just 1 time or less (and on a bad night you awaken 2 times or more). Let’s say you set your goal at awakening 1 time or less on at least 70% (7 out of 10) of the nights.
  3. Choose a therapy. Try one intervention at a time. Starting a passion flower supplement and a yoga class at the same time will muddle the results.
  4. Do the 10-day test. Every day, record good nights and bad nights in a diary.
  5. Calculate the outcome. Did you achieve your goal? If so, you can conclude that passion flower improves your sleep. If you didn’t achieve your goal, clearly the passion flower did not work. Choose another therapy, starting the process at #3. If your results are borderline, continue testing for another 10 days. Then recalculate to ascertain whether you’ve met your goal of awakening 1 time or less on 70% of all 20 nights.

Insomniacs are big experimenters, I learned as I was conducting research for my book, The Savvy Insomniac. Several expressed interest in herbal and other alternative treatments. If you’re going to experiment, you need a systematic way to assess whether the remedy you’re trying improves your sleep or not. These Massachusetts researchers have given us a goal-oriented algorithm for doing exactly that.

15 Tips for Better Sleep in the Summer

I love warm weather and long summer days. Birds singing, trees leafed out, garden thriving. Me, outside in shorts and a tee-shirt, able to appreciate the natural beauty till almost 10 p.m. What’s not to like?

Insomnia, in a word. On long, hot days I’m just not sleepy at my usual bedtime. I’m up later and later till—oops—I’m in the insomnia trap again.

You’d think I’d know by now: heat and light may boost my spirits but, in too big a dose, they’re a bane to sleep. So now it’s time to knuckle down and observe the rules for better sleep in the summer. Here they are:

Manage insomnia in the summer by cooling off & darkening the house
Here I am planting coleus in the iris bed.

I love warm weather and long summer days. Birds singing, trees leafed out, garden thriving. Me, outside in shorts and a tee-shirt, able to appreciate the natural beauty till almost 10 p.m. What’s not to like?

Insomnia, in a word. On long, hot days I’m just not sleepy at my usual bedtime. I’m up later and later till—oops—I’m in the insomnia trap again.

You’d think I’d know by now: heat and light may boost my spirits but, in too big a dose, they’re a bane to sleep. So now it’s time to knuckle down and observe the rules for better sleep in the summer. Here they are:

Reduce Exposure to Late Evening Light

I love the late evening light but it does not love me. One effect of light on sleep—especially light containing lots of blue light, such as sunlight and the light from devices with screens—is that it blocks release of the hormone melatonin. Melatonin secretion typically starts some two hours before bedtime. Exposure to daylight late in the evening may delay secretion, altering circadian rhythms and keeping us awake later than usual. If you’re light sensitive and looking for insomnia relief,

  1. Wear dark glasses if you’re out for an evening stroll.
  2. Don’t wait until the sun sets to darken your windows. Lower shades and close drapes by 8:30 p.m.
  3. Start your pre-sleep routine at the same time as usual—even if it’s still light outside.
  4. An hour or two before bedtime, get off computers, tablets and and smart phones. Blue-blocker glasses and apps that filter out blue wavelengths are supposed to make light less harmful at night. But I installed f.lux software on my computer and I still think looking at the screen after 9:30 or so has a negative effect on my sleep.

Reduce Exposure to Early Morning Light

Especially if you live at the eastern edge of a time zone, your problem may have to do with the early sunrise at this time of year. Sunlight may start streaming in the bedroom window and wake you up as early as 4:30 a.m. What a lousy start to a summer day! If early awakening is a problem and you’re after insomnia relief,

  1. Invest in a lightweight, light blocking eye mask.
  2. Install light blocking window treatments on bedroom windows and keep them drawn at night.
  3. Consider sleeping in a room with fewer windows around the time of the summer solstice.

Cool Your Bedroom Down in Advance

People with insomnia may have greater temperature sensitivity than good sleepers, or less ability to recognize what a comfortable ambient sleeping temperature is. Summer heat may be the cause of your trouble sleeping now—I know it’s a factor for me. If it feels too hot to sleep,

  1. Keep shades and drapes drawn during the daytime to block out heat from the sun.
  2. If you have air conditioning and want to save on energy during the daytime, turn the thermostat down a degree or two about a half hour before bedtime.
  3. In the absence of air conditioning, use a window fan. But don’t wait till bedtime to turn it on. Keep tabs on the temperature outside and, when it starts to drop, turn on the fan.
  4. If A/C and fans don’t do the trick, try sleeping on a lower level of the house.

Cool Yourself Down

People tend to fall asleep more easily when their core body temperature is falling, which normally it does at night. But research suggests that compared with good sleepers, people with insomnia may have more trouble downregulating internal temperature. If this is true, then especially in the summertime, it’s important to take measures to cool your body down before you go to bed. Research has shown that when done late in the afternoon or early in the evening,

  1. Exercise heats your body up, triggering an internal cooling mechanism that may later help you fall asleep.
  2. You can achieve the same delayed cooling effect by indulging in a warm shower, bath or sauna early in the evening.

But if at 11 p.m. you return to a hot house expecting to take a quick shower and hop into bed, it’s time for emergency measures:

  1. Turn on the A/C and/or fans full blast and take a cool shower.
  2. Place a cool, wet washcloth on your forehead when you finally turn in.

If you have trouble sleeping in the summer, what do you think is the cause of the problem?

Use OTC Sleep Aids With Caution

The sleeping pill of choice for many Americans with insomnia can be purchased over the counter at drug and grocery stores. But a new study shows that many older adults who use OTC sleep aids know little about them and may be using them in ways that do more harm than good.

Sleeping pill users should read the label of OTC sleep medicationsIt annoys me when people dismiss sleeping pills as categorically harmful. Yes, they can be used inappropriately and it’s important to be informed about their downsides. But the existence of downsides doesn’t necessarily mean the risks associated with using them outweigh the benefits.

The sleeping pill of choice for many Americans with insomnia can be purchased over the counter at drug and grocery stores. But a new study shows that many older adults who use OTC sleep aids know little about them and may be using them in ways that do more harm than good.

Older Americans Use Them and Like Them

Participants in the new study were adults in the United States aged 60 and older who were managing their sleep problems with nonprescription sleep aids. University of Pittsburgh investigators interviewed 116 by telephone and found that well over half were satisfied with their medication and felt it improved their sleep.

Asked about her satisfaction with one such drug, an interviewee replied that she was “pretty satisfied. It does help me fall asleep and stay asleep, and go back to sleep when I invariably get up once or twice a night.”

“There is a dramatic difference when I use it versus when I don’t,” another explained.

This jibes with the results of other, quantitative research. The prevalence of insomnia and other sleep problems among older adults is high and OTC sleep aids are widely available. About 17% of older adults in the United States turn for relief to antihistamine-containing sleep aids like Unisom and Simply Sleep.

How OTC Sleep Aids Work

Diphenhydramine and doxylamine are the active ingredients in antihistamine sleep aids. They block the action of histamine neurons, which are generally active when we’re awake and inactive when we’re asleep.

“Marked drowsiness may occur,” is the type of warning that usually appears on the label. This propensity to cause sedation is likely why, despite few controlled trials supporting their efficacy for insomnia, these drugs are seen as effective by many older adults. The trials that have been conducted suggest these antihistamine sleep aids may have more to offer sleep maintenance insomniacs than people who need help falling asleep at the beginning of the night.

Side Effects of OTC Sleep Aids

But like most prescription medications, OTC sleep aids are not intended for nightly or long-term use. Continuous use has been found to lead to the development of tolerance, tempting users to take more of the drug to get the same sedative effect. Yet in the Pittsburgh study, nearly half of the participants reported using OTC sleep meds daily or very often. Over half reported using them for more than a year.

Fewer than a quarter of the study participants had studied the label on their medication to find out about the recommended dosage or about warnings and possible side effects.

“I never really paid any attention to the directions,” an interviewee said. “I take a couple before I go to bed, about twenty minutes before I go to sleep, I go upstairs and go to bed. That’s it.”

Common side effects to be aware of are morning grogginess (our bodies process drugs more slowly as we age) and blurred vision, constipation, and trouble urinating (for more on this, see my post on OTC sleep aids and anticholinergic effects).

Drug-Drug Interactions

Possible drug-drug interactions is another factor to take into account, given that almost 40% of older Americans are taking five or more prescription medications. Studies have shown that diphenhydramine (the main ingredient in many OTC sleep aids, including Benadryl, Sominex, Nytol, ZzzQuil, and Simply Sleep) interferes with the body’s metabolizing of at least three commonly prescribed drugs:

  1. tamoxifen, an anti-estrogen drug used to treat breast cancer and lower breast cancer risk
  2. metoprolol (Lopressor), a beta blocker used to treat high blood pressure and heart problems
  3. venlafaxine (Effexor), a selective serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor (SSNRI) used to treat depression

Reducing the effectiveness of a drug taken to manage a serious health condition isn’t something most of us would want to do. But information about all possible drug-drug interactions isn’t necessarily listed on the label of OTC sleep aids.

Americans seem to have the attitude that OTC meds are harmless—but that isn’t necessarily true. If you’re going to use an OTC sleeping pill, read the label for information about the proper dosage and potential side effects. Take concerns about possible drug-drug interactions to your doctor or pharmacist.