sleepy woman with alarm clock, sleep without zolpidem

Nobody feels good after a sleepless night. Persistent insomnia can affect blood pressure, blood sugar regulation and, of course, mood. Sometimes insomnia sets off a vicious circle in which sleep deprivation makes a person depressed and depression interferes with sleep. Is there a natural sleep treatment that can help?

Overcoming Depression and Sleep Loss:

Q. My wife suffers from depression and sleep deprivation. She refuses to see a doctor or take any drugs. Are there any supplements or remedies that could help with her depression and sleep problems?

A. Sleeping problems and depression may be linked and often seem to intensify each other. The natural sleep treatment that is considered most often is melatonin. Several studies suggest benefit, although the research is not definitive (Current Treatment Options in Neurology, Sept. 2009; European Heart Journal. Cardiovascular Pharmacology, Oct., 2016). One controlled trial of 3 mg melatonin or placebo for cancer patients with insomnia found that melatonin helped them fall asleep faster and sleep better (Indian Journal of Palliative Care, Jul-Sep., 2016).

Could Melatonin Help Depression?

If melatonin could help a person re-establish good sleep patterns, it might help alleviate depression. It is considered a possible treatment for seasonal affective disorder, a form of depression linked to body clock disturbance (Psychiatria Danubina, March, 2016). A review showed that bipolar disorder, particularly the depression aspect, is also linked to body clock disruption (Sleep Medicine Reviews, online July 1, 2016). It is not clear whether using melatonin to reset the body clock would improve bipolar disorder.

Looking for Another Natural Sleep Treatment?

There are several natural sleep treatments that can be helpful without medication. One is exposure to outdoor light during the daytime. Such daytime bright light exposure even counteracts evening exposure to the blue light of a tablet (Sleep Medicine, online July 25, 2016). Adjusting sleep times and lighting also helped older subjects stay alert during simulated night shifts (Occupational and Environmental Medicine, online Aug. 25, 2016). Making such adjustments to your wife’s schedule would probably help her sleep better. She might need to consult a sleep expert to get the timing right, though.

Cognitive Behavior Therapy:

If she were willing to see a counselor, cognitive behavior therapy could help with both of her problems. Cognitive behavior therapy can alleviate depression (Behavioral Research and Therapy, online Aug. 18, 2016). It is also an effective treatment for insomnia and does not carry the risks of drug side effects (Drug Development Research, online Sept. 4, 2016).

Our Guide to Getting a Good Night’s Sleep offers many suggestions for non-drug approaches to overcoming insomnia, as well as a discussion of melatonin and other treatments.

A Reader Was Helped by Light Therapy:

One reader offered this experience:

“My doctor, a sleep specialist, told me to put four daylight lights in my bedroom. (They are also called ‘happy lights.’) Go to bed at the same time each night and get up at the same time every morning. Set the alarm, then turn the clock around so you can’t see it. (I used to look at the clock every hour.)

“When the alarm goes off, get up, no matter how tired you are. Turn on the daylight lamps and spend half an hour in the room. You don’t have to look at them, just be in the room with them.

“After following that regimen for two weeks, I started waking up refreshed and ready to go. I had been desperate, like a zombie during the day and dreading bedtime. This worked for me!”

You may also want to get the information about resetting the body clock that we discussed in our interview with Dr. Russell Foster.

Revised 9/8/2016

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  1. Dave

    About 4am my body has increased to a temperature which awakens me and I cannot go back to sleep without taking a sleep aid. I have the air and fan on all night. Fall asleep without problems in a cool room at about 10pm. Suggestions?

    • Brenda

      I have the same. There is a mattress cover called the climsom it keeps your body temperature constant all night. If I awake early I use the intense pad which instantly cools me and I am off to sleep again immediately. Like you I would lie awake until I cooked again. This is great.
      The mattress cover uses pipes and it sends whatever temperature of water you want through it…

  2. Becky

    I did cognitive behavioral therapy and got off sleep med. Now, I do melatonin and triptophan and vitamin d. Then I do the 478 breaths. Still wake 3-4 times a night, but most nights I go back to sleep. Oh yes, I rub magnesium oil on my legs too. It seems to help restless legs. This is after 15 years of no sleep without sleeping pill.

  3. Carol

    I haven’t heard of 4-7-8, but I do a similar breathing “technique,” which is simply breathing in through my nose and out through my mouth very slowly. What this does, I believe, is force me to concentrate on one specific thing (the breathing process) and not allow my mind to hop from one subject to another, which is what keeps me awake. I have to do this even after taking a sleep aid. I’m going to try to get back on Melatonin. Tired of waking up feeling groggy (even though I’ve slept well).

  4. Joanna
    North Carolina

    I cannot take Melatonin. It causes me to have extremely stressful dreams and nightmares! After waking up with pounding chest, gasping with fear for a couple of nights, I finally realized Melatonin is not for me.

    The herbal Valerian does help but sometimes brings on Restless Leg Syndrome, which, needless to say does not contribute to a restful night’s sleep.

  5. Judy Z

    Recently at the suggestion of my sister in Switzerland, I started taking Chinese Skullcap (Scuttelaria baicalensis). It serves to relax me and I fall asleep and stay asleep. Has anyone else tried it? I assume it is better known in Europe.

  6. DB

    By daylights, do they mean the UV or Blue lights? I read somewhere that those can cause damage to your eyes. Is this true? It would be nice to have more information on how these lights work and if there is any concerns with using them.

  7. Troubled Teens

    Sleeping disorder is the major problem of adolescents suffering from drug alcohol addiction and psychological problems. Sleeping problem also causes behavioral, emotional and sex problems in people. Counseling programs are effective in dealing with stressing issues that cause insomnia in teenagers. Teenage sleeping disorder hampers academic, social, professional and sexual life of people hence it is required to be treated properly.

  8. JK

    As Robert suggested, I have found Melatonin to be the answer for me. There are no issues the next morning such as dizziness, etc. I take it only when I need it. I shut off all the lights, take it with water and I am off to sleep within 20 minutes! I could not get to sleep for hours, so thanks to this miracle pill, it works for me! It also comes in liquid form, besides 1, 3, and 5 mg. tabs. I take only 1 mg.

    • Mary

      I have read that lower doses of melatonin can be more effective than higher doses.
      Your experience with 1 mg would certainly back that up.

  9. Kathleen

    4-7-8 follows:
    breath in slowly for 4 seconds…hold for 7 seconds and release slowly for 8 seconds. As far as I know that is what 4-7-8 means.
    There may be other answers but that is what I understand it to mean.
    Hope that helps

  10. pmm

    Please advise what 4-7-8 breathing is, exactly, and what it is supposed to do to aid in sleep. Thank you

  11. DCE

    You must eliminate as many sources of light as possible in the room where you sleep, including all the light from sources such as night lights, clocks, radios, video recorders, tvs, illuminated light switches, the glowing smoke alarm light, etc. Light suppresses your natural melatonin. If necessary put a cloth or blanket or tape over them. Use black out curtains.

  12. Brent B.

    I would like to see a future story or discussion on the specific lights used in this solution — like the full-spectrum ones I’ve heard of. Definitely it helps to experience outdoor sunlight, to restore your vitamin D and melatonin levels, so that’s probably the best option to reset your “sun cycle.” Also try to minimize the EMF fields around you that are caused by electric appliances, cell phones, etc.
    Altogether it is not so surprising that sleep deficiencies are common. The necessity for physical labor has been minimized, and so many people are spending too much time indoors (especially because of the cold weather now). So let’s all look forward to spring and help it get here sooner by spending more time outside!

  13. SDW

    Have your Vitamin D level checked by a blood test. Although I was taking vitamin D with my calcium, my Vitamin D was very low (I live in the NW). Once I started taking Vit D drops and got my level up to normal, I started having less sleep problems and less ‘blue’ days.

  14. Robert

    I like melatonin. It relaxes me and allows me to get to sleep without making me feel groggy the next morning. It’s fantastic.

  15. Kathleen

    Usually sleep deprivation is the result of anxiety. Anxiety causes depression. I know because I have been there. My sleep problems all started after anxiety became overwhelming. The only relief I have found was seeing the doctor and being prescribed cipralex which is a new SRRI. I finally have wonderful sleep and no more anxiety. The doctor prescribed clonazapam as well but I didn’t need it once the Cipralex was helping me. General Anxiety Disorder is a common mental illness and once I recognized that I had this problem then I was able to get help. I sleep well now and wake up fully refreshed.
    Taking a medication for a mental condition is as normal as taking a pill for thyroid disease or osteoporosis. I have both of those conditions as well. Life goes on and we do what we have to do to feel better.
    Avoiding medications to help depression is not wise. I tried that route and it didn’t work. All the natural products I tried did not stop my anxiety.
    I would rather take a medication and feel better than go all night without sleep and feel terrible all day long.

  16. BPM

    I sleep on the kind of electric bed which enables the head of the bed to be raised and the knees to be elevated. After developing a pattern of waking up around 3:30 or 4:00 A.M. and not being able to go back to sleep, I discovered by accident a remedy. For some unknown reason, I go back to sleep–even into a deep sleep–by raising the head and the knee/foot. Then I sleep solidly and soundly until the alarm goes off. This pattern has now been going on for several years.
    Is this purely anecdotal or is there some scientific explanation (i.e., circulation) of this phenomenon?

  17. Jean H.

    Re: Sleep Deprivation
    At the times when I am having trouble getting back to sleep during the night, I have been using 4-7-8 breathing (with tongue on upper part of mouth near teeth) technique and am really surprised at how it helps. I do 20 breaths but may not need that many. I just want to be sure of results and it probably just helps relaxation even more. What a surprise to me. Thanks to you and thanks to Dr. Lowdog.

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