Insomnia, or prolonged periods of sleeplessness, is not categorized as a disease; but if it were, there’s no doubt we’d consider it an epidemic.
Medically speaking, the state of sleeplessness is a symptom of a physical or psychological problem and, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human services, approximately 60 million people are sufferers each year. For the better part of the last century traditional treatment protocols have focused on drugs, talk therapy, or some combination of the two. But pills can potentially be habit-forming (more than 500,000 people are addicted to the sleeping pill, per Addiction Center) and talk is actually not cheap. So, over the last two decades, an increasing number of insomniacs have sought, and eventually found relief, in one or more complementary or alternative medicines (CAMs). In fact, Nearly 1.6 million Americans have attempted to treat their insomnia with some type of CAM therapy, according to the National Center for Complementary or Alternative Medicines.
CAMs are characterized as “complementary” and “alternative” because they can be used in combination (complementary) with traditional medical therapies or in place of them (alternative). Most have been imported from India or Asia, originating from traditional religious and cultural practices. As such, most CAMs are highly individualistic — meaning that what works for one person may not work for another. This is why it’s important to note that although hundreds of CAMs exist, only a relative handful have ever been subjected to the kind of rigorous medical testing that’s customary for approval as a standard of care by the American Medical Association, let alone for use in treating insomnia.
There are, however, a big three of alternative therapies that are supported by solid medical data, easy to follow and safe for people of most ages to try.
Meditation, of course, has to do with the ancient art of focusing on breathing technique as a means to alter consciousness. The most basic point of the practice is to relax and reenergize, which both lead to better sleep. In 2009 researchers from the Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Evanston, IL. found that those who suffered from insomnia and were taught to mediate saw significant improvements in subjective sleep quality.
There are a variety of methods and schools of thought about meditation but one that’s recently gained ground among initiates is “mindfulness meditation.” Unlike traditional varieties, mindfulness meditation has to do with focusing on the present moment and allowing your thoughts to flow absent of any judgment. This technique, it seems, is easier for some to achieve than the traditional approach of clearing the mind, which can take a good deal of practice. A study published in Journal of the American Medical Association, Internal Medicine noted that participants who practiced just 20 minutes a day of mindfulness meditation saw significant improvements related to conditions such as insomnia, fatigue and depression. Why? Well, it's suggested that the process of meditation helps settle the brain’s arousal systems.
Contrary to popular belief, yoga is a mind-body technique and not a religion; as such, the goal is to combine breathing technique, physical movements and meditation to impose control over both. Copious research has shown that all that downward dogging can improve strength, flexibility, balance and concentration. It’s also an especially effective method stress reduction and for treating insomnia: In a study designed specifically to measure how following a daily yoga regime might improve sleep for insomniacs, Harvard Medical School researchers found that participants who were taught yoga and followed the practice for eight weeks showed significant improvements in the amount of time it takes to fall asleep, total sleep time and total quality of sleep. Likewise, the results of the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health’s recently published national survey found that 55 percent of those who did yoga said it helped them get better sleep. That’s a pretty big return for such a low-impact exercise, so grab that yoga mat.
Although stage magicians and old movies waving pocket watches may have us believing that hypnosis is a form of sleep, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Those placed under hypnosis are in state of hyper focus that is utilized to implant therapeutic suggestions that can change a given behavior. During this state of altered consciousness, therapists can even teach subjects to hypnotize themselves. Research has shown that hypnosis can, in addition to helping with weight loss, pain reduction, smoking cessation, stress reduction, also aids insomnia. One recent study from the Psychological Institute of the University of Zurich showed that those who underwent hypnosis experienced an 80 percent increase in that oh-so-restorative slow wave sleep. During SWS the body secrets key hormones, repairs cells and regulates immunity.
Experts believe that the results associated with each of the above techniques have to do with training the mind and the nervous system to simply “let go.” It’s the equivalent of creating a neural highway that the brain learns to travel along on its way to slumberland.
It’s important to note that insomnia has been linked to all manner of negative conditions – anxiety, depression, obesity, heart disease, diminished memory, lowered immunity, decreased libido and fertility issues, to name just a few. Given that kind of critical fall out, you have nothing to lose – and a lot to gain – by attempting to incorporate any one of these CAM techniques into your lifestyle. Consult your physician first, then start slow and keep at it.