Life events can result in short term insomnia whereas chronic insomnia is defined as occurring on at least three nights a week for more than one month.
Causes of insomnia range from sleep disrupting behaviour such as exercise or drinking caffeine just before bedtime to alterations in the biological clock such as jetlag. Psychological disorders such as depression and medical conditions such as arthritis and asthma can become troublesome at night.
Sleep deprivation can harm health. Effects on mental health include a decrease in thinking ability and memory, and an increase in low mood and anxiety. Poor sleep quality increases the likelihood of being overweight or obese. Sleep increases the production of leptin, an appetite suppressing hormone, so decreased levels of leptin result in increased appetite. Reduced hours of sleep increase the risk of diabetes, hypertension and reduced immune function.
Dr Mark Porter (Times 2, Dec 17th 2013 £) writes that drugs used to treat insomnia can be taken for a few days to alleviate short term insomnia resulting from stressful events. These drugs should not, however, be taken long term as they result in the symptoms of tolerance and addiction. In fact, according to a BMJ study, the benefits of drug treatment are limited: they result in only 25 minutes extra sleep but cause problems of day time fatigue and impaired thinking.
A much more attractive option is to take Herbal Medicine together with making lifestyle changes to improve sleep hygiene. Herbs which have sedative, hypnotic, antispasmodic, nervine and adaptogenic actions can be taken in combination to provide a gentle, effective and non-addictive treatment for insomnia.
The combination of herbs selected reflects the entire range of presenting symptoms and is tailored for each individual. Some of the herbs which have been shown to be effective include chamomile (Matricaria recutita), lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), passion flower (Passiflora incarnate), skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora), hops (Humulus lupus), valerian (Valeriana officinalis), St John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum), and ashwaganda (Withania somnifera).