How to treat insomnia

The good news is insomnia is treatable and a good night’s sleep is possible. Recognising that there is a problem is the first step on the path towards better sleep. 

It’s time to make friends with sleep again!

Insomnia treatments

Insomnia is treated in different ways depending on the type, the cause and the severity.

Everyone is different so it can take time and a little bit of patience to find what works for you. Some people find setting good sleep habits enable them to get the quality sleep they need so they feel energised and ready to face the day. Others use relaxation or home remedies to manage insomnia symptoms. But if you’re at your wits end you may need some extra help from a sleep therapist.

Improving your sleep hygiene

As a first step towards resolving your insomnia, sleep experts recommend adopting habits that can help you get a good night’s sleep. They call this ‘sleep hygiene’1. Over the years, you may have adopted bad habits that are now making it more difficult for you to sleep well. Good habits to make include:

Listen to your body’s natural clock

This begins with getting up at the same time every day. Do this regularly and you should find that you’re feeling sleepy at the same time every night. Go out in the sun in the early morning. The morning light will also help to set your body clock.

If you feel tired go to bed
If you feel tired, go to bed

Listen to your body when it tells you it’s time to sleep. Sleepiness is your cue to get ready for your night’s sleep. But don’t try and sleep if you’re not feeling tired. You’ll sleep better if you wait until you feel sleepy before heading for bed.

Set up room for success
Set up your bedroom for sleeping success

Invest in a good mattress that feels comfortable. Sleep at the right temperature. Your room and bedding should be not too hot or too cold. A dark, quiet environment makes it easier to get a good night’s sleep.

Block out noise and light
Block out noise and light

Try wearing earplugs if noise is bothering you or get a white noise machine. Make sure the room is dark, using block-out window furnishings if necessary.

use your bedroom for two things only
Use your bedroom for two things only

Your bedroom is a sanctuary. Use it only for sleeping and sex. So that your mind associates your bedroom with sleep, don’t watch TV, use your phone, do work or play with electronic equipment.

dont smoke or drink
Don’t smoke or drink alcohol before bed

While these substances may make you feel relaxed, tobacco is actually a stimulant and alcohol can disrupt your natural sleep cycles. It can also result in frequent waking for bathroom visits.

practice relaxing your mind
Practice relaxing your mind

Relaxation exercises before bed can help you wind down so you’re ready to fall asleep. Mindfulness meditation is a technique that has a number of health benefits including relieving stress,  boosting immunity and improving concentration.2

dont just lie there
If you can’t get to sleep, don’t just lie there

Get up, leave the room and find a relaxing activity such as reading or listening to music. Don’t use any screens for entertainment as the blue light they give off can interfere with your body’s clock.3
When you feel sleepy, go back to bed and try again to sleep.

Home remedies

Various foods and natural sleep remedies4 have been known to help treat insomnia. They include:
  • Magnesium which is a mineral that is believed to help with stress relief and muscle relaxation
  • Lavender oil is a natural oil that may help improve your mood and make you feel relaxed and sleepy. You can add it to a diffuser or spray a small amount onto your pillow
  • Valerian, the root of a herb, can be taken as a supplement, although its effectiveness has not been definitely proven5
  • Passion flower tea is another home remedy for insomnia, also without solid clinical evidence to back it up5
  • Glycine, an amino acid your body needs, is thought to play a role in improving sleep. This one does have some evidence behind it. Foods that are rich in glycine include bone broth, meat, eggs, fish and a number of vegetables including cabbage, beans and kale. Kiwi fruit and bananas are also sources of glycine. You can also take glycine as a supplement5

Professional and pharmaceutical remedies

Professional insomnia diagnosis
Cognitive behavioural therapy
Prescription medications
Pharmacy medications
Professional insomnia diagnosis

Insomnia is one of the most common complaints people talk to their doctors about.

To diagnose insomnia, your doctor will ask you a number of questions to determine the severity and type of insomnia you’re experiencing.10 The doctor may ask you about things like snoring, any recent weight gain, your current stress level and mood. These can all play a role in reducing your ability to sleep soundly.

Several medical tests may be needed so your doctor can pinpoint the cause of your insomnia.

  • Tracking your sleep using a sleep diary may help establish your sleep patterns
  • A home sleep test can help to eliminate the possibility that you have sleep apnea, a serious sleep disorder that requires treatment
  • A questionnaire measuring your daytime sleepiness can help assess the impact insomnia is having on your day
  • A mental health questionnaire can help your doctor to understand whether previously undiagnosed psychological problems are contributing to your insomnia
Cognitive behavioural therapy

Cognitive behavioural therapy6 (or CBT-i) is an insomnia treatment which has proven to be effective in the long term, especially if there’s no identifiable medical cause for your insomnia.7

The role of CBT-i is to change the way you think about your sleep problem.8 If you can replace negative thoughts about your sleep with more positive ones, it can ‘reframe the brain’ with the result that you find it easier to fall asleep and go back to sleep if you wake in the night. CBT-i insomnia treatment is offered by psychologists and you may need 4 to 6 sessions to make a good impact. There’s also homework to do between sessions which is essential to the process.9

Prescription medication
Your doctor may recommend prescription medication for your insomnia. It’s very important to use this only as directed. Prolonged use of some sleeping medication may lead to them becoming less effective with time as your body gets used to them. If this happens, they will become less effective with time. Prescription medications may have side effects and some can interact with alcohol or other medications.
Pharmacy medications

In addition to natural remedies and supplements, your pharmacist may recommend medication for the short-term treatment of insomnia symptoms. You will need to discuss with your pharmacist any other medications you are taking as they could interact with an over-the-counter insomnia treatment.

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Source: Pidgeon WR. J Clin Psychol. 2010 Nov; 66(11): 1148–1160


Source: Matthews EE et al. Sleep Med Rev. 2013 Dec; 17(6): 10.1016