Insomnia is America's most widespread sleep disorder. According to the National Institutes of Health, 30 to 40 percent of adults report symptoms of insomnia during a given year. Fortunately, many alternatives exist between the extremes of counting sheep and swallowing pills.
"Insomnia is usually a symptom of an underlying medical condition. It can be as simple as diet, lifestyle or side effects of medication," says Lissa McNiel, a naturopathic physician in Medford.
Dr. McNiel, who sees many sleep-deprived patients, says her first step is to perform an individual sleep assessment to get to the root of the problem. The solution is often to remove what she calls "obstacles to good sleep hygiene."
"Common obstacles are stress, coffee, lack of exercise, television. Watching a computer screen or television one to two hours before bedtime stimulates the brain and can interfere with sleep," McNiel cautions.
Good sleep hygiene starts with a reliable mattress, one that has not broken down with age and use. Both mattress and bed frame should be without metal parts. The metal not only can create uncomfortable pressure points, but can facilitate electromagnetic field interference, as can any nearby electrical devices left on overnight, such as a cell phone or digital alarm clock.
McNiel recommends mattresses made with organic cotton, wool and latex foam rubber: materials that repel dust mites. Sleeping in a dark room to avoid light pollution is another tip McNiel recommends to her patients.
Eating and drinking before going to bed also can be a problem.
"For those people with a history of hypoglycemia, drinking alcohol late at night can cause blood sugar to crash after spiking while they're asleep and cause them to wake up. This is true for other sugary things, as well," McNiel explains.
After removing lifestyle obstacles, McNiel will often recommend an herbal remedy, amino acids or vitamin supplements. She hesitates to give specifics, because the specific sleep diagnosis will determine the precise treatment.
"The individualized approaches are more rewarding; it's not always an easy fix. Also, some medications can interfere with herbal remedies, especially meds that affect neurotransmitters — antidepressants, anti-anxiety and anti-psychotics, for example," McNiel says.
The easiest and gentlest approach to treating insomnia can be helping people to relax.
Aromatherapy is becoming a common approach to treating insomnia, according to Caryn Gehlmann, owner of Essential 3, a company in Talent that sells therapeutic-grade essential oils to health care professionals.
"Essential oil is a tool to bring your body back into balance and homeostasis. Essential oils can be used in many ways: drops on a tissue or cotton inside a pillow case, in your bath, or in a lotion or body rub," Gehlmann says.
Although lavender oil is known and used widely, Gehlmann uses other oils, individually or in a blend, to help patients relax and sleep better. The selection of oil(s) is made according to the results of a client assessment.
"Lavender is a good general essential oil. If in doubt, grab lavender. If you're too tired to sleep, marjoram can help. If your mind is racing, try frankincense, coriander or cypress. For emotional upset: rose. For anxiety: mandarin or neroli (from orange blossoms)," Gehlman explains.
Like any other health care product, essential oils should be used with care.
"I do NOT recommend internal use of essential oils. When using (oils) on the skin or inhaling, make sure oils are of high quality — no pesticides or other adulterations," Gehlmann cautions.
Essential oils are especially helpful for relaxation when used in massage.
"I see a lot of clients with stress and anxiety. Stress and relaxation are linked. I often use essential oils mixed into the lotions I use in aromatherapy massage," says Ginger Gartlan, massage therapist and owner of Salus in Medford.
Gartlan also recommends a late-night bath to relax, adding a blend of relaxing essential oils, along with milk to make sure the oils mix instead of floating on the water surface. Placing a hot compress on the eyes or chest right before sleeping also can help.
"These (techniques) will not work for everyone, but it's worth trying. People nowadays are trying to find other options, something other than a pill," says Gartlan.