The People's Perspective on Medicine

Can You Turn Off Your Brain to Get a Good Night’s Sleep?

When you can't get your brain to quiet down so you fall asleep, there are non-drug approaches that could help you get a good night's sleep.

Getting a good night’s sleep can be quite a challenge. Some people find it difficult to wind down and relax enough, even though they are tired, that they can finally drift off and get the rest they need. There may be some ways to help address this problem without sleeping pills.

Trouble Getting a Good Night’s Sleep:

Q. My brain will not turn off at night so I can’t get to sleep until 3 am or later. I wake up almost exactly five hours later. That’s almost enough rest to keep me going, but I’m becoming exhausted and now I’m sick. I’ve had trouble sleeping for many years but it has gotten worse in the last month. I have used a variety of natural supplements for sleeping. Some that used to work are no longer helpful. What do you suggest?

I’ve had trouble sleeping for many years but it has gotten worse in the last month. I have used a variety of natural supplements for sleeping. Some that used to work are no longer helpful. What do you suggest?

Ashwagandha to Help You Get a Good Night’s Sleep:

A. If you prefer a natural approach, you might consider the Indian plant Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera). According to Tieraona Low Dog, MD, an expert on botanical and integrative medicine, Ashwagandha is helpful for people who are “wired but tired.” It has an anti-anxiety effect that may help you stop ruminating from bedtime into the wee hours of the morning. Ashwagandha appears to exert this effect through its action on GABA receptors (Journal of Ethnopharmacology, Aug. 2, 2015).

Cognitive behavioral therapy is also recognized as an effective treatment for the kind of insomnia you are dealing with. To learn more about Ashwagandha, cognitive behavioral therapy and other natural approaches to insomnia, we offer our Guide to Getting a Good Night’s Sleep.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
Getting a Good Night’s Sleep

Tips for beating insomnia: foods to avoid, foods that help, herbal remedies, sleeping pills. Newly revised (November 2016), our online guide (too long to print) includes drugs that may cause insomnia. Learn about the latest medication, Belsomra.

Getting a Good Night’s Sleep
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I have a 3 day sleep cycle. My mind keeps me from sleeping for 2 days then on the third day my body crashed and basically shuts down forcing me to sleep. I read for about an hour before bed. I do breathing exercises, then muscle relaxation exercises where I relax every muscle one at a time from my head to my toes. My body will be completely relaxed and 100 percent comfortable. I then lay in bed the whole night in the dark with my eyes closed and my mind just racing. I’ve tried everything and Ambien is the only thing that helps me sleep!

When I enter my bed I say a short prayer to help me fall asleep and then I do the, 4,7,8 breathing exercises for ten times and I am usually sleeping sound in no time at all. The 4,7,8 breathing is taking 4 deep breaths through your nose and hold that breath for 7 counts (1 & 2, 2 & 3 etc.) and let out your breath strongly, through your mouth for 8 counts.

My husband is in the last stages of dementia, which creates it’s own levels of stress in his caregiving. I am very grateful for my chiropractor who has me on the Withania Complex from Standard Process. Yup – it works.

I’ve had trouble sleeping because of mind-racing, my whole life. Some of us are detail oriented and perfectionist in their daily lives and are constantly planning and reviewing. In my case, my belief in GOD has helped me more than anything else I’ve tried. And I’ve tried it all! But prayer is what finally calms my mind!

I used to feel guilty about falling asleep while praying, then I realized this was another of God’s gifts to me! I have also learned to “count my blessings” and maintain a positive and thankful view of life. An attitude of gratitude helps me pray as I should, giving God thanks.

A cup of hot chamomile tea, a little honey, lemon juice and an coloring book and colored pencils. Works most of the time for me.

I try to lay in the bed no more than an hour for I have found that the more you try to go to sleep, the more you wake everything up. I have taken most of the natural remedies above, as well as zolpidem and Xanax, which knock me out quickly and keep me asleep for as long as 8 to 9 hours.

However, as they are anti-cholinergic drugs and I am 79, with some mild cognitive impairment, I limit their usage. If all goes well, I may not take either for two to three weeks. If I need them, I rotate them and use each no more than once a week. On those other nights, going to the couch usually helps. I carry my pillow, blanket and eye mask with me, on my rollator (so it is a pain and not the first thing I think of) and pretend I cannot move and must lie still. I listen to the night noises and usually fall asleep for several hours. When I wake up, I carry it all back to the bed, where I can now fall quickly asleep. A friend calls it the magic couch!

RE: Can you turn off your brain to sleep.
I worked a 7PM to 8AM shift at a hospital where I was an R.N. in the ICU. If I worked 2 or 3 nights in a row, I had to get home and sleep quickly because what with driving home, getting something to eat and then getting up again to get ready for work, I might get 7 hours. I used a sleep mask (try a few to find one that’s comfortable) and then I wet a small piece of a cotton ball with warm water and used them as ear plugs. (you have to figure out the size that, after it’s wet, it sits comfortably in your ear. This is much more comfortable than the plugs you can buy OTC) You don’t have to push them in very far. They should be just enough to close off the canal and be easy to get out. After a few minutes, my brain just stopped listening to anything and off I went to sleep. After I started doing this, I could get to sleep and stay there, even with daytime activity going on in the house. The only problem was that I didn’t hear the alarm either and someone would have to wake me. Try it. Hope this helps.

I have had this problem before of my brain not shutting off to sleep. Through trial and error I found it is a reaction to specific foods, especially Eaten before bed. Bleached sugar is one (unbleached does not have this effect) and some preservatives that are in cottage cheese ( but not in daisy brand cottage cheese which has no insomnia effect) I have researched a lot and found others who say preservatives especially cause insomnia, specifically the brain being wired. I am now sleeping great since eliminating these items

I have found meditations and guided imagery talks that I can download on my iPhone or play on YouTube help me. I don’t like the light from the visuals for YouTube so I flip the phone upside down to block that. Anyway — having another voice to listen to and pay attention to keeps me from running things over and over in my head (and this helps to keep my tinnitus from interfering also). Talk a look at The Honest Guys (on YouTube and Roku), Jason Stephenson (YouTube) as well as Andrew Johnson from Wales — and his meditations you can download to an mp3 player or computer if you desire. These have saved me!!

I use a lot of different options here like magnesium (citrate) is excellent, 250 mg. before you go to bed or Epsom Salt bath works the same. Other alternatives include catnip, lemon balm (melissa) and passion flower. As far as the ashwaganda goes, I believe that can cause mood disruptions at least from my personal experience. I would try rhodiola instead!

I use homeopathics whenever I can. They usually come in tiny little pellets which you dissolve under the tongue. All my life I slept very poorly but, as I’ve noted in more than one past comment, I finally managed to “fix” all that with one Schiff “Knock-out,” one 100-mg 5-HTP, magnesium and tart-cherry extract before bed. Now my only problem is dragging myself out of bed in the mornings!

Homeopathics, BTW, are extremely safe with no side-effects.

Re your articles on getting a good night’s sleep. A friend told me about an interview with a sleep expert she’d recently heard on the radio. The expert recommended turning off everything with a screen 1 – 2 hours before getting into bed (TV, Ipads, Ebooks, etc.). Apparently our bodies react to light and think that it’s day time and we need to be awake. By cutting off light sources in our homes, we tell our bodies that it’s night time and we need to go to sleep. Then, at bed time, close all doors to stop light getting into the bedroom, get into bed and read a book or a magazine for about thirty minutes or so and then turn the light out. I’ve been doing this now for two weeks and I have had eight hours of really good sleep every night since then.

I have had the same problem for years. What allows my brain to stop thinking about things is listening to audio books on my mp3 player. Play it on the lowest volume you can hear and it will keep your mind off of other things while letting you relax and drift off to sleep.

Where does one get Ashwaghanda?

I have that always-on kind of mind. For decades – since Larry King was a radio show – I have listened to semi-engaging radio talk shows, and it works wonderfully. It’s been ESPN for quite a while now. Politics or something with a plot would keep me awake.

A recent tip I read was to listen to a book you have already read or listened to. I plan to try that if I am ever without wifi.

I do have a husband in the bed so use an earphone. One ear is usually enough, but listening with both ears is definitely a stronger engagement and is sometimes necessary.

To assist myself in going to sleep, I do a self-guided meditation for relaxing the body, starting with the toes and working my way up to my scalp. Or I mentally visualize practicing Chinese brush painting techniques or calligraphy — or sometimes I visualize my hands knitting. Works for me to get to sleep and I do believe the mental practice enhances my real world skills as well.

My sister has had good luck with tart cherry juice. She usually heats a cup of it to sip about an hour before bed.

I’m afraid for some us (post-menopausal women, in particular) sleep becomes a permanent impossibility. I’ve tried it all, and right now I take, with the advice of a doctor and licensed naturopath, 1,200 mg aswaghanda, Valerian, a massive dose (3,000 mg) of prescription tryptophan, oral progesterone, hops, passionflower, and most recently I added in 12 mg mirtazepine. That is all of those NIGHTLY. I’ve tried melatonin, but it has no effect. I get 3-4 hours of sleep. Once I wake up to go to the bathroom, that’s it for the night. If that happens to be an hour after I go to sleep, that’s it for the night.

Both my GP and ND are at a complete loss as to what to do. I practice very good sleep hygiene and eat a healthy diet. Nothing works. Not exercise, not meditation, not sleep restriction; none of the “acceptable” options do the trick’

The only thing that works is Ativan, but I think the medical profession would rather see post menopausal women go mad and suicidal with lack of sleep than prescribe these.

Interested in others experiences.

I can relate to the post menopausal “get up to pee and then can’t go back to sleep” problem. My simple problem solver is nothing to drink after 6 pm. A sip of water, etc., doesn’t seem to bother me, but really, nothing to drink after 6 pm, or several hours before you go to bed, whatever time of day that might be.

I used to have a problem getting to sleep on some nights, until I learned how to control my brain. It’s necessary to stop thinking!!! It’s not easy, but with practice it’s possible to put your mind in limbo and quickly fall asleep. It takes a lot of self control, but it works. You have to be determined, and once you achieve success the first time it become easier as you now know it works. Is it possible to think about nothing?, absolutely! The moment you begin to think about something you have to stop, as that’s what’s keeping you awake.

I could have written that question. And five hours of sleep in an undisturbed row is a what I call a success! However, when I can’t turn off my brain, I give up on trying to sleep and do crossword puzzles. Might take an hour, but at least I am not making matters worse by worrying about the age of that gouda cheese in the back of the refrigerator drawer or even real problems like my elderly mother. Crossword puzzles require no prescription and have no detrimental side-effects other than improving your vocabulary and your trivia cache. If you prefer numbers, do Sudoku. Do it on an iPad, or the old fashioned way with a pencil and a clip-board. Whatever your personal sleeping arrangements allow. Even when I get up and go into the den and curl up in a chair, I still manage get drowsy. I have no trouble tip-toeing back into bed and falling to sleep. Good luck!

Why on earth would you even mention Belsomra? Consumer Reports has rejected it as have other safety experts.

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