Insomnia - Sleeping Problems

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Finding a good herbalist

Most of what's written in this article is entirely suitable for a person to work through themselves but, especially if things are quite bad, or you just know that you need further help, then there may be a great deal of benefit to you to go to whatever lengths necessary to find a good herbalist or truly holistic practitioner to guide you on to a safe and strong treatment program. There's a short write-up to suggest how you might go about finding such a person here

Positive experience

Early in my first year of practice in 1989 a GP Doctor who worked in the city came to see me for her own rather severe insomnia. She knew what would happen if she took her own prescriptions for very long and was understandably averse to becoming addicted to what was at that time by far the main pharmaceutical treatment for insomnia i.e. benzodiazepines such as Valium in one form or another.

As it happens we got a 'hole-in-one'. A simple herbal formula to take at night before sleep worked like a charm for her from the first night she took it and kept working whenever she needed it. She moved on some years later but as a direct result of that experience she referred many of her patients who likewise had trouble sleeping which meant I got a lot of practice in this area early on in my work.

I have had a lot of positive experience treating insomnia since then and I can truthfully state that I have had a very high success rate in its treatment -- however! -- every case is different and you have to treat the cause of any problem to achieve its cure so there is usually a process that has to unfold along the way. That said I have found that there are several consistent strategies that reliably help and the following article aims to share those steps in a way that makes them as accessible as possible...

First step - Nature!

Whatever the cause of the sleeping problems and whatever else you do I think the first thing I would say is to let Nature take the first step and the first thing to get right with letting Nature take the first step generally has to do with dose! Herbs are basically natural drugs. They are not vitamins, they are not foods, they are a complex array of chemicals that we have worked with for at least 40, 000 years to find out what works, along with the crucial knowledge of how much to take for it to work. I say this because a lot of people have tried some kind of natural herbal sleeping aid only to find it of little value simply because they took a dose that is so much lower than what we would traditionally use.

Typical commercial preparation of herbs might use as little as a quarter, or an eighth, or even a tenth of the amount that we would use in traditional herbal practice. This is partly due to the economics of more herb costing more but it is also a lot to do with safety. If you give a small dose it is much less likely people will react badly to your product and the fact is that herbs are highly potent, especially when used in the kinds of doses we have learned to use over many millennia. Think of taking a quarter or even an eighth of an aspirin to cure a headache and you will get the idea...

Herbal sleep remedies

Valeriana officinalis (Valerian)



I have to top the list with this great remedy and it is indeed the herb I will use more than any other to help a person who is not sleeping well. I should however also say here that Valerian is n
ot a herb that will suit everyone and, especially if a person is a notable 'hot' constitution (this subject is introduced in more depth at the end of this article here) it might make them even more restless but when it is the right herb for the right person it is a superb ally and not to be missed. You can read about it in a lot more detail here


Skullcap is second on the list and again I have to emphasise how terribly important it is to use it in both a strong enough dose to really feel it working and, also in this particular case, to be sure to be getting fresh and potent Skullcap as there clearly some rather substandard products out there. Good quality Skullcap in a sufficient dose (quite easily achieved by tea or tincture) has a remarkably quietening effect on a busy mind and it can be used both as a sleep remedy in its own right or just as well as a medicine to take during the day where there is too much overall agitation and tension. Skullcap is written up in detail here.


I frequently use this alongside Skullcap because it is especially good for people with too much physical tension and the combination of the two works as a kind of overall mind-body sedative (incidentally these two herbs in combination were really the key ingredients for the doctor I met early in my work as I mentioned in the beginning).
Passionflower is remarkably relaxing when you take enough of it and the effects are long-lasting so it is highly conducive to helping through the night -- more here

Passiflora incarnata (Passionflower)



Kava is very similar to Skullcap in the regard to how well it can relax a person's overall tension and anxiety. It is an extremely well proven remedy to help sleep and not so long ago it was widely available for this exact purpose but, as you will see if you read its article, it is not going to be easy to get it in some parts of the world for reasons that do not do its true value justice. However, if you can get it, I warmly recommend you consider it one of the possible treatments that may turn this problem around for you - more here.


Lastly this herb is rather paradoxically one of the two top remedies I give to people who are tired and run down because it such a certain tonic to lift up energy levels! How such a substance might therefore also be on this list for the top sleep remedies should give anyone pause for thought but this is just how it is with some herbs - they are complex characters and you can't just reduce them to one action or if you do you miss most of what it is that they are about. Withania's Latin name is Withania somnifera and this second word 'somnifera' comes from what the ancients observed time and again which was the initial effect of Withania is to give a profoundly relaxing action to the whole person. To particularly harness that action in an immediate manner I recommend you try to obtain it in its cut and dried form and then make it as per the traditional recipe described at the bottom of its page here.

Withania somnifera


Second step - worry!

Remember to let Nature take the first step i.e. take strong herbs in strong doses. What follows, for many, is an effective second step and we are now getting into treating what may be at least a part of 'the cause' of the problem.

Many people who have trouble falling asleep have too much in their mental 'in-box'. They have not had time to think about their problems and their worries through the day so when they finally get to lay their head on the pillow, even if they are exhausted, they start to think. Another version of the same problem is falling asleep for just a few hours and waking up with an active mind which is already starting to chew over the problems of today, yesterday, or tomorrow.

The simply reality in the modern world is that many people do not have enough time to even simply think and as a result the mind finds the one piece of free time available to it to do what it has to do, and that is the night-time. Of course this has a disastrous effect on your health but such is the importance of being able to sufficiently work through that 'inbox' that your subconscious being will sacrifice the health of your body in order to try to achieve the peace of mind it so deeply craves.

Move when you do it

The only real solution that I see working for this in any kind of lasting manner is to make 'worry-time' during the day. Ideally this will be a time when you are moving your body in a way that does not require thought or attention. Walking works perfectly for many people in this regard but so does any kind of house-work or craft-work when you don't have to concentrate on what you are doing but you are free to think. The main thing is that you don't try to sit or lie still while you do the worry time!

When we actually work through the 'inbox' of all the things that are worrying us we do not turn into neurotic wrecks, quite the opposite. An inner calm and quiet comes to us when we work through the worst case scenarios one at a time. Our worst fears very rarely come to fruition but they are there nevertheless. It is far better to look at them when you are awake and alert than during the night when you need to sleep and relax. Moving your body helps you to not become stuck in an anxious frame of mind, you can move through the problems just as you are literally moving with your body.

Chew thoroughly

The method of what you actually do in the worry time is simple, and powerful. Take any subject at all and start thinking 'what is the worst thing that could happen?' Don't just pretend to do this exercise, really do it. Imagine the worst, of anything and everything, and then work through it, chew it thoroughly! I generally suggest you start with whatever is bothering you the most right now and go from there.

Ask yourself 'what would I do about that?' How would I deal with it, who might I ask for help if I really needed it, how would I survive... what would I do?'

Anxiety has an extremely important use to us and it has served us well throughout our evolutionary biology. Worrying about things helps us to prepare for the worst and so therefore we can generally avoid those things. The problem with worrying about things when you should be sleeping is that you get all of the emotional content (tension, agitation, sleeplessness) and none of the intellectual value (problem-solving, logical-thinking, resolution!)

At first I advise my patients to set 'worry-time' aside every day, at least until they are sleeping better and regularly. By then it is usually a good habit that they just use when they need and that sees them in much better mental health for the long term.

Scutellaria lateriflora (Skullcap)


Rule out physical causes

I've been focusing on the herbs the best relax the nervous system and the technique of worry-time to clear the mental inbox but there are also many people who are quite settled in their nerves but have physical reasons that they cannot sleep well and what follows are some suggestions as to how to approach the most common of these causes.


Any kind of chronic pain can hugely impact on sleep. Back pain is one of the most common issues and I have a detailed article specifically on back-pain that has some effective suggestions and strategies to help with it linked here. I also suggest you get one of the very best herbs for pain which is high-grade Californian poppy (a completely legal herb) and work with it as I describe in its article here. One further link that may be of help is a relaxation commentary that I have put together for people who have pain in my section on music and relaxation which you can find here. The approach I talk about in this commentary is quite like the 'worry-time' idea in the sense that it will seem counter-intuitive at first because I am encouraging a person to relax into their pain rather than to try to get away from it - but you will have to try for yourself to see what I mean.

Restless legs Syndrome

Restless legs are another major cause of insomnia and sleeping problems and as I have had a lot of experience with people with this syndrome I've been able to learn a lot about what helps it the most and those experiences are shared in an article specifically written on it here.

Hormonal imbalance

Many perimenopausal women are obviously greatly affected by hot sweats at night to the point of losing a great deal of sleep. This is truly an area where I suggest you will get a lot of benefit from working from someone in person who has had a lot of experience in its successful treatment but if that is just not possible then I can at least say that the herb Black Cohosh (written up here), or the herb Vitex (more info here) can be extremely helpful when they are the right herbs for the right woman!

Food allergy or intolerance

This is far more common than people realise and frequent experience has shown that it certainly has the potential to disrupt the nervous system to the point of repeatedly disturbing sleep. If food allergy or intolerance is an issue then you will almost certainly see some simultaneous chronic disturbance to digestion and you are likely see some chronic health problems such as eczema, asthma, migraines or sore and inflamed joints. Adverse reactions to food are a big subject with many misconceptions - I cover the subject in some depth here.


This is a chronic infection of the digestive system and once again it is far more common a cause of disturbed sleep and agitated nerves than many people realise until they finally deal with it and see how much better they sleep as a result. The main symptom that might point you towards this being an issue is a significantly swollen (bloated) belly. Another common symptom of dysbiosis is getting 'sweats' at night - much more info here.


In a sense I've already been touching on this issue at lot by recommending the most relaxing herbs as well as the 'worry-time' technique but there is more to this important subject than just those two areas and if you know that anxiety is at the heart of your own sleeping problems then I highly recommend you focus on this first and foremost and, as it is an area that I have had so much positive experience with helping, you will find that the article written on anxiety covers this ground in much practical depth - you can find it here.

Piper methysticum (Kava)

Constitutional Health Note

Finally, you might want to learn about your constitution to help better understand how insomnia has become an issue as well as what kinds of foods, herbs, exercises etc. may best help your health in general. Constitutional health is an old and fascinating way of understanding our differences and, if you go through the page to work out which of the four constitutions you are you will see that there is a different section on sleep & relaxation on each one of them that describes those differences in more detail. There is a brief introduction to this great subject here and a more detailed section on working out which constitution you are here.

Please understand that I cannot personally advise you without seeing you in my clinic.
This living 'book' is my labour of love so, wherever you are, I wish you peace & good health!



© 2011 R.J.Whelan Ltd