The world seems to never stop spinning.  The brain can't stop thinking or worrying about the day just spent or the day ahead.  So how can one possibly fall asleep and get a good night's sleep?  Insomnia is the broad term that encompasses one or all of the difficulties with sleep, including the ability to fall sleep and to stay asleep.

Around the globe, approximately 50 percent of humans experience insomnia on a regular basis.  Many rely on prescription sedatives to help them fall asleep.


Most people who sleep less than eight hours in a 24-hour period end up experiencing a wide variety of negative symptoms.  These can include mental confusion, headaches, malaise, irritability, depression, immune deficiencies and fatigue.  A complete deprivation of sleep can result in hallucinations and a total mental collapse.

Insomnia has several different forms.  For instance, some people simply have trouble falling asleep, while others have a hard time remaining asleep.  Other individuals suffer with both problems. 

Recent research shows that many Americans suffer from this sleep disorder.  About one-third of Americans experience a sleepless night once in awhile, but about one in 10 suffer from recurring insomnia.

This condition can be either acute or chronic.  Acute insomnia happens only occasionally.  It lasts for only a night or two (or up to a month, at most).  Acute insomnia is usually associated with some type of excitement or emotional stress.    When the stress is removed, the body quickly returns to a normal sleep pattern.  Physical discomfort due to illness or injury can also cause temporary insomnia.

Chronic insomnia is very different.  This condition persists for more than a month or can last for years.  While it is rare for someone to have trouble sleeping every night, among chronic sufferers insomnia can strike about three times per week.

This type of insomnia can be the result of an underlying physical problem, such as breathing disorders, arthritis or long-term emotional stress.  Environmental or lifestyle factors can also contribute to sleep disorders.

Older people tend to be affected more by sleep disorders than younger individuals.  While most people assume chronic insomnia is caused by depression, most of the people with chronic insomnia do not have mood disorders.

Symptoms of Insomnia

There are several signs that insomnia may be present in a person's life.  These questions can be asked:

  • Do you have trouble falling asleep?

  • Does it take you more than 20 minutes to fall asleep?

  • Do you awaken during the night and have trouble falling back to sleep?

  • Do you worry about getting a good night's sleep?

  • Do you feel refreshed when you wake in the morning?

  • Do you feel sleepy or fatigued during the day?

  • Do you use stimulants such as caffeine to stay alert during the day?

Causes of Insomnia

There are several causes typical to both types of insomnia.

Acute Insomnia Causes

  • Excessive use of alcohol, tobacco or caffeine

  • Short-term emotional stress

  • Disturbances in the environment, such as noise, light or extremes in temperature

  • Side effects from medications such as cold and allergy remedies, painkillers or antidepressants

  • Sleep cycle disturbances such as jet lag

Chronic Insomnia Causes

  • Medical  conditions, such as gastro-esophageal reflux

  • Prolonged emotional stress

  • Sleep disorders such as restless leg syndrome or sleep apnea
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  • Long-term use of caffeine, tobacco or alcohol

  • Poor sleep habits

  • Sleep/wake cycle disturbances such as shift work

  • Use of long-term medications such as antidepressants and decongestants

Insomnia Treatment

Insufficient physical activity is known to contribute to insomnia.  Regular daily exercise, such as a 30-minute walk, can help to promote restful sleep at night.  The amount of food you eat and when can also affect sleep patterns.  Do not eat too close to bedtime.  However, eating too little during the day can lead to insomnia due to a nighttime drop in blood sugar.

Several natural supplements can be useful in alleviating the symptoms of insomnia.  They include:

  • Valerian - Drink a tea made with one to two teaspoons of dried valerian root shortly before bedtime.  In the UK, more than 80 over-the-counter sleep aids contain valerian.

  • Lemon balm - This product is also known as "melissa" and is used as both a sedative and a stomach soother.  Lemon balm's active ingredient is a group of chemicals called terpenes, which are also found in ginger, basil, clove and juniper.

  • Lavender - Numerous British hospitals use lavender oil to help patients sleep at night.  The oil is used in a warm bath or is sprinkled on bedclothes.

  • Camomile - This herb used in a tea has been a popular bedtime beverage for centuries.  The sedative effect of camomile was only proven in recent years.

  • Passionflower - Respected herbalists around the world agree about the mild sedative effect of the passionflower.

  • Rooibos - A shrubby African legume, the rooibos is available in most herb or health food shops.  Try a tea made with this herb for improving sleep, reducing nervous tension and soothing the digestive tract.

  • Hops - Hops have been used for more than 1,000 years to treat insomnia, anxiety and restlessness.


  1. Lack, L. et al.(2003). Insomnia : how to sleep easy. Double Bay, N.S.W. : Media 21 Publishing.
  2. Servan-Schreiber, D. (2006). The Duke encyclopedia of new medicine : conventional and alternative medicine for all ages. London : Rodale.
  3. Vukovic, L. (2005). Overcoming sleep disorders naturally. Laguna Beach, CA : Basic Health.
  4. Wilfred, P. (2010). Sleepmanual : how to achieve the perfect night's sleep. London : New Holland.

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