6 ways to cure insomnia and improve sleep

In the latest in our series on sleep and insomnia, discover the six things that finally sorted my insomnia. Try each of these one at a time and make a note of the things that help you get a better quality of rest.

1. Foods that help with sleep

First, I ate less for supper at night which, although depressing as it was the high point of my evening, worked wonders. Eating a heavy meal late in the day takes all the body's energy to digest, and going to sleep shortly afterwards interrupts that process. The result is often insomnia or poor quality sleep and digestion. I stuck to easily digestible fresh salads and lightly grilled vegetables and slept better than I had in ages.

Bananas make you sleepy and a banana before bed will trigger the production of melatonin; personally I don't like bananas, so I tried small quantities of oatcakes, honey and marmite, all said to be equally good and seemed to help a little. Hot milk (if you eat dairy) has tryptophan in it, which raises melatonin levels, ‘the sleep’ chemical: not for me either since I gave it up completely a couple of years ago. A recent study by scientists at Oxford University found that after three months of Omega 3 Fish oil taken at night, children slept on average an extra hour and had fewer sleep disturbances.

2. L-tryptophan for insomnia

My 'magic' pill - the one that helped me overcome my insomnia, breaking my sleep patterns once and for all and returned me to a good nights sleep - is tryptophan. L-tryptophan is the precursor to melatonin and the secret is to drink it with a quarter glass of orange juice 20 mins before you want to go to sleep. I take 3x 500mg capsules each night though I rotate and have a week on and a week off now. You can buy it in natural health stores, (best I have found is from healthrecovery.com ) and there is something about the chemical combinations in the two natural products that creates a knock-out formula. I sleep entirely uninterrupted for seven hours or more each time I take it. If I had to choose one sleep aid only, this would definitely be it. 

3. Magnesium and potassium

Almost everyone is deficient in magnesium and as it acts as a relaxant it's one that's best to take at night. There are lots of different types but Magnesium Glycinate is said to be best for sleep. Potassium works alongside magnesium and alleviates those annoying leg cramps that can keep you awake at night. Start with 100mg and work up to 400mg. I personally prefer the liquid form of both and take about 30 drops of each in a glass of water each night before bed.

4. Acupuncture for insomnia

I know from the work we do at the Haven how powerful acupuncture can be for resolving sleep difficulties. Apart from individual sessions we regularly hold group sessions for ear acupuncture and although one session alone rarely helps, a series of treatments needling the specific sleep points, makes a huge difference.

I found the best acupuncturist I have ever come across in a clinic in Montenegro. Not only was she so skilled with the needles that there was no pain at all when she positioned them, but after a week of daily 30 minute appointments, I was sleeping better than I ever had before. Easier in Montenegro than in the U.K. because each session only costs the equivalent of £15. Problem is you have to fly there to find her... but if you are passing through?

5. Herbal teas for insomnia 

A warming cup of tea at night sounds ineffective enough, but camomile tea really does help to fight insomnia. I tried infusing camomile essential oil in my room at night too, having read the International Journal of Aromatherapy's research paper in 2006 on the calming and sedative effects of roman chamomile. It definitely helped, but again, I was taking tryptophan, so it's hard to say which one worked best. Sometimes it's just a question of finding what works for you and experimenting. As long as you get your regular sleep back, who cares?

6. Valerian root: a secret weapon against insomnia

Lavender oil is an oft-quoted remedy for those of us who suffer with insomnia, but I couldn't find any science behind the claim, and when I tried it myself, it didn't seem to make any difference at all. I splashed it liberally on my pillow the first night, and diffused it around the room the second, much to my husband’s irritation. Neither approach worked.

What did send me off successfully was a sleep remedy called Botanicalm. I took two capsules about an hour before I wanted to drift off, and drift off I definitely did, waking up in the morning refreshed, with none of the usual waking up in the night sessions.

The capsules include valerian root, which is a herb used to help with sleep-related issues and relax the mind and body, as well as passionflower and jujube which help calm overstimulated thoughts. L-theanine, an amino acid found in green tea, is added to increase alpha brain wave activity, which again puts you in a calm state and is the dominant brain wave activity when your body and mind are able to relax.

A note about Melatonin 

Everyone recommends melatonin for insomnia, though it has never seemed to work for me.  I finally understood why this was when I came across a research paper that showed melatonin works better for men than women and that tryptophan works far more effectively for women than men, which would bear out my own family's experience exactly. My husband swears by melatonin and sleeps like a log shortly after swallowing the pills.

Time release melatonin will carry you calmly throughout the whole night and is also available as a liposomal spray that you can squirt under your tongue. It's not available as a supplement in the UK, but you can easily order it off the internet or buy some over the counter next time you or a friend are travelling in the States.

Be careful if you have thyroid problems as there is a warning on some melatonin bottles telling people with Hashimoto’s thyroid not to take it. An effective dosage is 150 mcg for men and 100mcg for women. Try not to take it every night - once or twice a week should be sufficient after a while.

For me, at any rate, the combination above worked a treat allowing me to sleep better than I have in years. So long insomnia!

Written by health advocate Sara Davenport, who founded one of the UK's largest breast cancer charities, The Haven, twenty years ago. With Reboot Health, Sara aims to bring the best preventative and curative health solutions ranging from nutrition, alternative therapies, fitness and conventional medicine.

More from our series on sleep