Alternative Treatments for Insomnia

A guide to natural alternative treatments and the different methods you can practice to get your best night's sleep.

By Ally Hadfield

Mar 25th, 2021

Sleep is vital to our health and wellbeing. But when sleep is compromised, it can take a toll on our physical, emotional and mental health. In addition to sleeping on a natural mattress, taking a holistic approach to managing your sleep can provide healthy and all-natural long-term solutions. 

Holistic means to take the whole person into account, rather than just the issue at hand. It involves addressing not only the physical aspect of your condition, but also the mental, emotional and spiritual considerations. When it comes to getting your best sleep, holistic practices can help strengthen the connection between your mind and body to reduce stress and even physical pain which in turn can help you sleep better.

Yoga

Yoga is a mind and body practice rooted in ancient Indian philosophy. It combines physical postures, breathing techniques and meditation or relaxation. A national study found that people who regularly practice yoga report sleeping better and feeling less stressed.

Yoga Poses

If you are unfamiliar with yoga, consider attending a class or watching some instructional videos to be sure you have the right form. Many, however, are pretty straightforward, including these that also help you sleep.

LEGS UP THE WALL

This yoga pose is not only relaxing, it also relieves lower back tension and increases circulation. As the name implies, this pose is achieved by lying on your back and pushing your bottom against the wall. Then walking your legs up the wall so that you are in an L-shaped position. Rest here for several seconds or minutes. 

CHILD’S POSE

The child’s pose provides a sense of calm and stability. Start by kneeling on the floor and bringing your toes together. Separate your knees and lean forward so that your torso rests on your thighs. Place your forehead on the ground and let your hands relax beside you, palms facing up next to your feet. You can also reach your hands forward, palms down, to ease tension in your shoulders.

RECLINED BUTTERFLY

The reclined butterfly pose also reduces stress and calms the mind. Start by sitting on the floor with your legs extended. Then bend your knees out and bring the soles of the feet together so that your legs make a diamond shape. Then lie back on the floor or on a bolster or pillow. Place your hands by your side and ease into the stretch. 

CORPSE POSE

Often used at the end of a yoga session, the corpse pose allows your body and your mind to process your workout and relax. It’s also used sometimes in meditation. To achieve this pose, simply lie on your back with legs slightly separated and arms by your sides. Face your palms upwards but don’t force your fingers to stay open. Relax your whole body and breathe naturally. 

LOCUST POSE

This pose is a bit more challenging but helps strengthen muscles and relieve stress which can help you sleep better. Start by lying on your belly with your arms at your sides, palms up, and forehead on the floor. Then exhale as you lift your head, upper torso, and arms up off the floor in a flattened U-shape.

What The Experts Say

Ravi Kathuria, Happy Soul Hungry Mind

“Yoga is the process of quieting the mind. Yoga is the original Sanskrit word, it is mispronounced as yoga. Yoga is the union with the life-energy in us. It happens when the mind is quiet. Yoga helps regulate breathing and slows the mind. The reason people find it difficult to sleep — because their mind is hyper-active or disturbed. Calming the mind allows the body to relax and allows sleep to take over.”

Dr. Pietro Luca Ratti, What Sleep

“Any activity like yoga that encourages a calming of the mind & body can drastically improve sleep quality. It reduces the stress you’re feeling inside of you which allows you to sleep with a clear head. Yoga can divide you from your work and reconnect you with how you are feeling. Once you’ve completed your yoga session and feel separated from what was happening during the rest of your day, you’ll feel more prepared to get a good night’s sleep.”

Jennifer Elis, Life Enlightenment

The physical and breathwork components of yoga are in my opinion the perfect combination to improve sleep quality. It helps set the seed and atmosphere for sleep (rather than going from computer/phone/tv to bed). And the relaxation of the nervous systems through a yoga practice supports a more peaceful sleep.”

Shabbir Noor, Recycle Studio

“There are many positive effects yoga can have on wellness, including improved mental and emotional health and stress, relief of some types of pain, weight loss, and improved sleep. So I believe practicing yoga before bedtime is a terrific way to release everything you’re holding onto mentally or physically before sinking into a peaceful night of deep sleep.”

Acupuncture

Acupuncture is a 3,000-year-old healing technique of Traditional Chinese Medicine. In recent years, the practice has become much more accepted in the Western World as a form of alternative medicine. In fact, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has documented and published several studies that show acupuncture as both safe and effective in treating a range of conditions. 

Acupuncture involves the insertion of very thin, sterile needles into the skin at strategic points on the body, called acupoints. Most people feel no pain or, if anything, minimal discomfort when the needles are gently placed. Acupuncture is used to release blocked energy in the body, called “qi” (pronounced chee). 

Practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine believe qi flows along the pathways, or meridians, within the body that connect the acupoints and helps keep the opposing forces of yin and yang in balance. When yin and yang are in balance, it is a sign of good health. When qi is blocked, it knocks the yin and yang out of balance. This can create or accentuate pain, impede the body’s natural ability to heal itself and, as a result, interfere with sleep. 

Acupuncture is most commonly used to treat pain, but it is also used to treat a variety of diseases, symptoms, or conditions including nausea, migraines, anxiety, depression, infertility, and insomnia.

Acupressure points

Acupressure is similar to acupuncture but instead of using needles on acupoints, it involves applying firm pressure to acupoints instead. This practice can be done on yourself in the convenience of your own home. 

Some researchers believe that acupuncture and acupressure can improve sleep by influencing changes in neurotransmitters involved in emotional regulation. There are specific acupressure points that can help you relax and promote sleep. By targeting specific acupoints on the body, you can ward off insomnia and improve your sleep. 

THREE YIN INTERSECTION

This acupoint is located about four finger-widths above the inner ankle, just behind your tibia bone. Applying deep pressure at the three yin intersection can relieve insomnia as well as menstrual cramps. But avoid applying pressure here if you’re pregnant because doing so may trigger labor. 

BUBBLING SPRING

The bubbling spring acupoint is located on the bottom of your foot just below the crease between the big toe and second toe. Massaging this point for a few minutes is believed to help induce sleep.

INNER FRONTIER GATE

This acupoint may be easier to reach. It’s located on your inner forearm about three finger widths from your wrist, between the two tendons. Massaging this spot can ease headaches and stomach pain as well as help lull you to sleep. 

AN MIAN

An mian literally translates to “peaceful sleep. This point is not located on a meridian as most acupoints are. It is found just behind the depression behind your earlobe. Massaging it can also help headaches and palpitations.  

TAI CHONG

The tai chong acupoint is located on the top of the foot about three finger widths below the crease between the big toe and second toe. Massaging this point is believed to ease anxiety which can help you sleep. 

What The Experts Say

David Goldstein, Acupuncture Healthcare of Leominster

“The goal of Chinese medicine is not simply to treat the disease as separate from health, but rather to re-balance the individual back to health. When there is an imbalance with the Heart, the person will have difficulty falling asleep (the Shen is disturbed), but will stay asleep through the night. When there is an imbalance with the Liver, the person will easily fall asleep but have difficulty either staying asleep or have intense dreams resulting in restless sleep (the Hun is “unrooted” and wandering at night).”

Natalie Mich, OC Family ACU

“When our hormones are out of balance, we can experience mood swings, hot flashes, increased stress, and – insomnia. Acupuncture is helpful for balancing hormones and restoring balance – without the use of birth control pills or hormone patches. Acupuncture is special in that it not only addresses both physical and emotional causes of insomnia, it can also be completely personalized to the patient’s unique needs and imbalances.”

Bianca Beldini, Sundala Wellness

“My favorite acupuncture/pressure point for sleep is the Third eye point (between the eyes) and is known as Yintang. It is used in Chinese medicine as a point to calm the shen, or a point to calm the spirit. When the spirit is too active at night, it can keep you up with an overactive mind. This point, when gently stroked or tapped can stimulate a relaxation response. “

Meditation

The benefits of meditation are far reaching. By taking time out to train your attention and awareness to achieve a mentally clear and emotionally calm stable state, you can benefit from reduced stress and anxiety as well as a better night’s sleep. Science has shown that meditation prompts the parasympathetic nervous system which lowers heart rate and respiration readying the body for a good night’s sleep.

Cryotherapy

Cryotherapy, also known as cold therapy, is a technique that involves exposing the body to extremely cold temperatures. Cryotherapy can be localized to a particular part of the body using ice packs, coolant sprays, or involve the entire body by using ice baths or cryotherapy chambers. 

Cryotherapy chambers are large units that expose the body to extremely low temperatures for a very short amount of time. Not only does cryotherapy help reduce pain and inflammation, it can also improve sleep. Some gyms, spas and healthcare centers offer cryotherapy sessions.

What The Experts Say

Ben Tanner, Fasting Well

Like a sauna, cryotherapy also activates certain genes (i.e. an epigenetic effect), which then go on to produce “heat shock proteins”.  (I know it’s confusing, but these heat shock proteins can be increased by heat or by cold.)  Heat shock proteins increase resilience to various types of environmental insults, and generally promote wellness and longer life.”

Massage Therapy

Massage therapy has been used throughout history in Eastern and Western cultures to improve circulation, strengthen the immune system, and ease pain. These attributes can improve sleep. But massage can also influence the body’s production of serotonin (which induces sleep), boost the creation of melatonin (the body’s natural sleep hormone) and reduce cortisol (a hormone linked to stress and insomnia).

What The Experts Say

Amber O’Brien, Mango Clinic

‘Massage therapy can improve sleep by creating a soothing effect, improving circadian rhythms, and improving blood circulation. Massage therapy has a soothing effect on your brain and body. So, when your brain and body will be at peace, you will automatically be able to sleep easily.’

Carrie Jeroslow, Awaken Truth Connections

“The slower and longer the strokes, the more relaxing the massage will be.  It will help to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system.  When we are overstressed, our sympathetic nervous system goes into overdrive (this is the fight or flight instinct).  And if we are continually in this state, our parasympathetic system forgets how to activate, leaving us in a constant state of stress. So massage will help the parasympathetic nervous system relearn how to activate by responding to the slow, long strokes from the massage therapist.  This will help with sleep, anxiety and stress.”

Tsao-Lin Moy, Integrative Healing Arts

“Massage helps to elicit the rest and digest response in the body, helping the body to shift from sympathetic (fight or flight) adrenal charged to parasympathetic (rest and digest). This is important for getting deep and restorative sleep. By helping to remove metabolic waste, inflammation. pain and stress holding patterns sleep can go uninterrupted.”

Herbal Supplements

Herbs and plant extracts have been an instrumental part of traditional Chinese medicine for more than 8,000 years. The plant parts used in herbal therapy include seeds, berries, roots, leaves, fruit, bark, flowers, and even the whole plant. Western culture has been slow to embrace the benefits of herbal supplements, but consumers around the world use them to improve their mental and physical health as well as their sleep.    

Herbal Supplements

VALERIAN ROOT

Valerian root is a perennial flowering plant indigenious to Europe and Asia. It’s known for its ability to relax the body and regulate sleep cycles and as a result is found in many sleep aids. In fact, it’s often referred to as “nature’s valium.”

PASSION FLOWER

Passion flower is a fast-growing perennial vine native to the southeastern United States and Central and South America. As an herbal supplement, passion flower supplements can tame anxious minds to help you sleep more peacefully. 

CHAMOMILE

Chamomile is a daisy-like flowering plant. It has been used for centuries to calm anxiety and soothe upset stomachs. But it can also act as a mild tranquilizer and sleep inducer. It’s often used in teas.

Aromatherapy

Our sense of smell is highly emotive. In fact, the perfume industry has capitalized on this fact concocting fragrances that seek to conjure a variety of feelings from desire and passion to vitality and relaxation. Aromatherapy is a holistic healing treatment that uses fragrance specifically from natural plant extracts to promote a sense of wellbeing and, in turn, improve sleep. A study published in the journal Critical Care Nurse found that aromatherapy—specifically lavender essence—reduced anxiety and increased quality of sleep.

Essential Oils

Essential oils are similar to aromatherapy, but they contain higher concentrations of plant extracts and as such their fragrances are stronger and longer lasting. They are obtained through distillation using water or steam or through cold pressing. Some essential oils are specifically designed to help you relax and sleep better.

LAVENDAR

As mentioned previously, lavender is widely credited for inducing sleep. A study involving 31 young, healthy individuals found that when participants were exposed to lavender essential oil as they slept their slow- and deep-wave sleep was increased and they woke feeling more

YLANG YLANG

The exotic and tropical ylang-ylang tree is native to Asian and South Pacific Island rainforests. It has a supremely fragrant blossom with a sweet, romantic aroma. Ylang ylang essential oil promotes relaxation, alleviates stress, and eases tension so you sleep better.

FRANKINCENSE

Frankincense is the resin that comes from the cuts made into the trunk of the Boswellia sacra tree. It’s used in some cultures to treat pain and swelling, which can help you sleep. Its fragrance varies from a musty pine to a citrusy spice.

VALERIAN

Valerian is a tall, flowering herb native to Europe and parts of Asia. It’s root is often used to treat insomnia and can be found in many sleep aids. Essential oils made from valerian root have a very strong, earthy fragrance.

BERGAMOT

Bergamot is a plant that produces a type of citrus fruit that looks like a round, lumpy lime but smells sweet and bright. Oil from the fruit’s peel and extract from the juice are used to make medicine to treat high cholesterol. It can also slow heart rate and lower blood pressure which signals your body that it’s time to go to sleep.

Hypnosis

Hypnosis is a trancelike state of focused attention, reduced peripheral awareness, and an enhanced capacity to respond to suggestions. It is usually done with the help of a therapist as part of cognitive-behavioral therapy using verbal repetition and mental images. But a person can also hypnotize by themselves. Hypnosis is a very relaxed state, and some studies suggest that practicing hypnosis before sleeping can increase deep sleep. Other studies suggest it can help you fall asleep faster as well.

Sensory Deprivation Tank

A sensory deprivation tank, sometimes called an isolation tank, is a dark, soundproof tank with a low level of salt water specifically designed for restricted environmental stimulation therapy (REST), also called float therapy. The therapy was first used in the 1950s to investigate the origins of consciousness by blocking outside stimuli, including light, sound and gravity. During float therapy, the brain is said to enter a deeply relaxed state.   

In recent years, more sensory deprivation tanks and floating centers have started popping up in spas around the world. One reason may be recent studies that suggest float therapy can help relax tense muscles, relieve pain, decrease stress and anxiety, and improve sleep.