Holistic Therapies and Sleep Disorders

For many people, alternatives to traditional Western medical practice are becoming increasingly popular. Some of the positive aspects of using holistic therapies are that they are all natural and offer treatment without side effects or drug dependency.

Among the many alternative therapies you may find suitable in the fight against insomnia and other sleep-related disorders are aromatherapy, homeopathy, acupressure, acupuncture and Western medical herbalism.

When choosing any form of treatment, however, you must always make sure your practitioner is aware of any health-related factors, such as kidney or liver disease, pregnancy, Alzheimer’s disease, or other medication you may be using to help with your condition, such as antidepressants.

Natural, alternative treatments are not entirely innocuous and could affect, or be detrimentally affected by, any of these factors, or indeed by taking another homeopathic remedy. Make sure you find a registered professional to practice these treatments; details are listed. And do be cautious of the many homeopathic remedies on the market advertised as natural – always buy from a well-respected source and follow the manufacturer’s advice fully.

Looking for new natural ways to improve your sleep will help you counteract the feelings of helpless that can accompany insomnia.


Before moving on to look at the various treatments that professionals can offer, here are a few simple, no-expense ways you can try to improve your sleep yourself.

  • Make sure you go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. This helps programmed the body and lets it prepare for the hour when you will want to retire.
  • Switch on your answer phone and switch off your telephones at least 45 minutes before you go to bed. This will make sure you don’t end up caught in a lengthy chat with a long-distance friend.
  • Have a milky drink, herbal tea or sleepy snack before you go to bed, and practice other pre-sleep rituals
  • Don’t toss and turn if you cannot sleep, as this can have a stimulating effect on the body and mind, working you up into even more of an agitated state. Try lying on your back and – working upwards from your feet – tense and release every muscle in your body while breathing deeply. Repeat this for as long as you need to.
  • Zone your time and manage it. If you haven’t finished a chore, set it aside and learn to move on to the next thing. Stress management is essential for good rest.
  • Rather than lying there and getting frustrated, if you can’t sleep, get up. Catch up with the ironing, do the washing up, anything as long as it’s boring – avoid re-stimulating your brain, however, by reading or watching TV.
  • If random noises are disturbing you, put on a radio on low level to make soft monotonous noise that drowns the other noises out.
  • Exercise is great for promoting sleep, but don’t do it too close to bedtime as it will increase your metabolism and over stimulate your brain.
  • If you still haven’t slept well, resist the urge to sleep in longer than normal. Getting up on schedule keeps your body in its normal wake-up routine.
  • Keep a sleep diary to stop you from obsessing. This will help you to spot whether there is a pattern emerging. For example, do you find yourself unable to sleep the night before important meetings or after working very late? Sleep diaries often show that although the diarist feels as if they have been awake all night, this is rarely true and the journal will help give you a more hopeful perspective.
  • If you still have trouble falling asleep night after night, or constantly suffer from daytime tiredness, you might have a serious sleep disorder. At this point it is advisable to seek more advice from your doctor.

A sleep diary is an excellent way of spotting potential causes of restlessness, such as drinking coffee or exercising too late in the day. It also enables you to write down your worries and release them from your mind.


For sleep problems, your GP may have offered a prescription sleeping drug. Most of the drugs will belong to a group known as benzodiazepines, which came into use in the 1960s and include the now-famous Valium.

They can lower anxiety levels, a major cause of sleeplessness, by inhibiting the chemical action of the neurotransmitters. This slows the flow of information from one cell in the brain to another and quells the anxiety that speeds this process up.

These drugs come in short-, medium- and long-acting forms and can have an effect from a few hours to a few days. All of them reduce the amount of time it takes to fall asleep and can reduce the number of night-time waking.

Unfortunately, they lose their potency with continued use so doses must be increased, and they are highly addictive. Side effects can include dependency (with withdrawal symptoms), impaired reactions and nightmares.

There is a new generation of drugs that were introduced in the 1990s, the most common of which are Zaleplon and Zolpidem, which are much safer to use. These speed the onset of sleep, but have a short life of up to four hours’ Headaches and drowsiness can still occur as side effects.


Acupuncture has evolved over thousands of years. Like all forms of Chinese healing traditions, it is based on the concept of maintaining balance and harmony within the body. Studies have reported that it is helpful for insomnia, showing that those who have received it fell asleep faster and slept more soundly. It can also relieve insomnia by addressing other issues, such as illness or anxiety that can disturb sleep patterns.

Acupuncture approaches the body as a whole, treating the possible causes of insomnia as well as relieving the symptoms.

Advances in traditional drug therapy offer safer alternatives to early sleeping pills, which were addictive, increased tolerance and left users with a hung over feeling the next morning.

Acupuncture works on the principle that illness and disease are a result of the disruption, or blockage of the flow of chi or qi (life energy). Qi consists of equal and opposite qualities – yin and yang – and when these become unbalanced illness may result. By inserting fine needles into the channels of energy, an acupuncturist can stimulate the body’s own healing response.

The flow of qi can be disturbed by a number of factors. These include emotional states such as anxiety, stress, anger, fear or grief, poor nutrition, weather conditions, poisons, infections, hereditary factors and trauma. To release the flow, needles are inserted into points along the meridians (energetic pathways) of the body.

There are more than 350 points on the meridians of the body, so the acupuncturist will determine which to use by questioning and examining the patient. This method ensures that the cause of the sleeplessness, and not just the effect, is treated.

Acupressure works on the same principles, but is noninvasive. It works to relieve, calm and enliven the body and mind and its most frequently found form is shiatsu massage. Zero-balancing is a newer addition to the acupressure arts, but this also encourages harmony within the body.

Reflexology works on a similar principle and dates back to ancient Egypt, India and China. It concentrates on massaging specific points of the feet, which correspond to organs and systems in the body, thus encouraging the body to rebalance – it can be particularly soothing for those with sleep difficulties.

Each therapy tends to last about an hour, and you should talk through the resulting sensations; for example, some patients may feel weepy, tired or faintly nauseous after reflexology or energy work, but this a perfectly natural indicator that the treatment is working and changes are occurring.

The powerful techniques involved in massage and shiatsu – a form of acupressure – can create a profound feeling of restfulness and calm, reducing the tension in the muscles and the mind.


Herbalism has its roots in the indigenous practices of the British Isles, Europe and North America. A significant proportion of orthodox Western medicines were originally derived from herbal medicines, but Western herbal medicine also has a holistic attitude to health. The patient, rather than the disease or condition, is the focus here. The background to the patient’s condition is assessed through family and health history and lifestyle, and therapy is directed at the causes, not just the presenting symptoms. The practitioner then uses this information to assess the vitality and constitution of the patient, using this for the choice of herbs in the prescription.

Prescriptions may vary substantially between individual patients with apparently similar conditions, and the herbal treatment is used as part of a bigger approach to understanding effects such as lifestyle and nutrition. There are a huge number of conventional over-the-counter sleep medications. These have their side effects and price to pay, not least of which is dependency. One of the key advantages of herbal medicines is that they are not believed to interfere with the sleep stages, something that can occur with conventional, chemical ones.

Various plants are said to have sedative effects, such as hops, skullcap and black cohosh, and the effectiveness of these plants is very much down to the individual – a degree of experimentation can bring about the right blend for you, but most herbal supplements carry a mix of them, usually in conjunction with the most effective, which is valerian. A well-known hypnotic and sedative, it comes from the root of the heliotrope (Valerian officinalis) plant. It appears to improve sleep gradually, although it is also effective when taken for occasional insomnia.

It is one of the most potent natural treatments available and can be taken alone, although many over-the-counter preparations mix it with a combination of other sedatives such as hops, passionflower and lemon balm. A good example of this is the tincture avena sativa compound, an effective sleep medicine comprising a number of the herbs, including passionflower, valerian and hops. It should be taken in water just before going to bed.


Flower remedies were originally the brainchild of Dr Edward Bach, who studied medicine at the University College Hospital, London. In the 1930s, after developing an interest in alternative health, he gave up his lucrative Harley Street practice and left London, deciding to devote the rest of his life to a new system of medicine that he believed could be sourced from nature.

Bach found that when he treated the feelings and personalities of his patients, their unhappiness and physical distress was alleviated. This ‘unlocked’ the natural healing potential already in their bodies, allowing them to recover. His system is composed of 38 tinctures. Each is aimed at a particular mental state or emotion and all have a specific ‘vibration’, which can be used alone or together to treat different states of mind from panic to forgetfulness.

The natural world is our greatest resource for curing our illnesses and ailments, contributing to herbal medicines, flower remedies and beauty and spa salves and treatments.

The emotions described are often quite specific; listed below are three recommendations for dealing with insomnia.

White Chestnut

When your mind is so cluttered with thoughts that you are unable to fall asleep properly and deeply.


When you get irritated and impatient with yourself as you start counting the hours until the alarm clock goes off.


When your mind is too wound up with plans and excitement to sleep.

If you are unsure which remedies are best for you, an alternative health practitioner can help you decide. You can then combine them in a single bottle, or use them individually and as you need. Each bottle has a pipette (dropper) to allow you to administer them exactly. They can also be added to water or the bath – you need to soak for 30 minutes if this is your preferred method

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