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The Neurotherapy Clinic Victoria

Yarra Ranges Counselling

Getting your Best Sleep: Overcoming Insomnia

Those who suffer with insomnia may have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or getting good quality sleep.

It’s a fast-paced life and there is so much to do and so little time! Managing multiple roles at home and work and community can lead to stress and anxiety. Sleep may appear to be unimportant but quality sleep in sufficient amounts is essential for our health and wellbeing. Without sleep we can develop illness and disorders including fybromyalgia, chronic fatigue, heart disease and diabetes, and increased risk of death/injury at work or on the road.

Why sleep is important:

  • Sleep regulates our mood and gives our brain a chance to rest. In addition, our blood pressure drops while we sleep to decrease pressure on heart and blood vessels and detoxification of toxins that build up in the brain during the day are ‘cleaned up’.
  • The brain processes experiences from the day during sleep and consolidates learning.
  • The hormones that control hunger and satiation (leptin and ghrelin) are regulated during sleep. When sleep is dysregulated Ghrelin (hunger hormone) becomes more predominant increasing the desire to snack (can lead to weight fluctuations).
  • Sleep aids the body to fight viruses and infections by producing defences such as T-cells and proteins. Human Growth hormone is also released during sleep which help repair damaged cells and strengthens muscle and bone.
  • Antioxidants are also released which aid the repair of cells, skin damage and reduces inflammation.

Sleep Hygiene

  • Reduce high stress (physical and mental) activities well before retiring to bed to allow the body and mind to quieten.
  • Turning off technology and dimming lights prior to bedtime can send the message to the brain that it is time to sleep.
  • Go to bed at the same time each night and get up at the same time each day(routines help).
  • Dont sleep with technology (iphones, iPads etc) near you. If you use them as alarms move them as far away from you as possible.
  • Avoid foods and substances that wil adversely impact sleep.
  • Avoid long naps during the afternoon – a short 30 minute nap should be sufficient if needed.
  • If you wake up during the night and cannot go back to sleep read a book or a quiet activity but avoid engaging with screen activities eg computes phones etc.

Foods that can enhance quality of sleep

  • Foods that contain Melatonin such as eggs, fish (esp. fatty fish with vit D and omega 3) nuts, brown mushrooms, cereals, seeds, (i.e. flaxseeds or sunflower seeds). Natural melatonin is far more beneficial than pharmaceuticals.  
  • Foods high in Tryptophan which turns into melatonin, such as warm milk/soymilk, cottage cheese; plain yoghurt, tofu, oats, cashew nuts, lean chicken, turkey, lamb, bananas, chickpeas.
  • Magnesium relaxes muscles and nerves to aid sleep and is affective for some restless leg syndrome and nocturnal cramps: green leafy vegetables (Kale, spinach, bok choy) nuts (almonds, pistachios) peanut butter, wholegrains, and bananas.
  • Fibre: Wholegrains, oats, asparagus, broccoli
  • Carbohydrates: some non-sugary carbohydrates such as potatoes give an energy burst then cause a rash. These make tryptophan more assessable to the brain.
  • Serotonin and antioxidants: the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin help us to feel happy. Foods with high levels of this plus antioxidants, such as kiwi fruit aids sleep latency, duration and efficiency.

Substances that adversely affect quality of sleep

  • Avoid caffeine because it is a stimulant and triggers the release of adrenalin and gives a burst of energy when it enters our system. Caffeine also interferes with the way the brain responds to the chemical adenosine, which slows down our central nervous system and builds the urge to sleep. Caffeine bines to the same cell receptors that adenosine does blocking the receptors and the urge to sleep. Besides coffee, Caffeine is found in energy drinks, some foods and green tea! It takes a long time for caffeine to leave the body so after 6 hours you will still have caffeine in your system.
  • Alcohol triggers the release of endorphins (pleasure) when it first enters the system, then becomes a sedative slowing brain function and leads to sleepiness. However, that sleep that comes reaches stage N3 deep sleep more quickly it bypasses the REM restorative sleep until the alcohol is processed and the body tries to catch up REM sleep interfering with the process of waking up (unrefreshed).

Vitamins and Supplements

While we tend to think of Vitamins and Supplements as healthy – some are beneficial to sleep and others are not:

Vitamin C: Oxidative stress is a common cause of insomnia. Pollution, sun radiation, lack of exercise and poor diet create free radicals (oxidation). Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that neutralises the free radicals. In high doses vitamin C can also help reduce restless leg syndrome. Vitamin C is also necessary for production of dopamine and serotonin which influences mood.

Vitamin D: Produced by sun exposure on the skin. Melatonin sets the circadian rhythm and helps the onset of sleep. Too much Vitamin D is thought to disrupt the production of Melatonin however too little is also thought to disrupt sleep. If taking pharmaceutical supplement of VitaminD it is better to take it during the day rather than later in the day.

Vitamin B6 & B12: In response to sunlight Vitamin B6 triggers serotonin production which is then converted to melatonin which is produced in response to night. If taken before bed Vitamin B6 can throw the circadian rhythm out of synch. Excessive Vitamin B12 has been linked to insomnia.

Multivitamins are often a go to when we are feeling weary or run down. Some people take multivitamins routinely to supplement their diet. However these multivitamins may have one or more vitamins like the ones above (Vitamins D, B6 and B12) that can prove disruptive to sleep. It is important to discuss over the counter vitamins and also natural herbal medicines with your health care provider to identify if they are a cause for insomnia or disrupted sleep.

Weight loss products – typically contain stimulants such as caffeine or methylphenethylamine  which activate the nervous system and increases metabolism, but also disrupt duration and quality of sleep.

Botanicals versus pharmaceuticals

Herbs which have been used by most cultures for thousands of years are usually much safe and well tolerated by the body. Pharmaceuticals are often synthetic and more difficult for the body to detoxify from our organs, and often have adverse side-effects. Pharmaceuticals to aid sleep should only be use as a last resort and after careful consideration of the risks and benefits.  

Alternative Therapy and Herbal Supplements

Alternative therapies and herbal medicines are not always harmless and should be used with the same amount of precaution as any medication or treatment.

If you are taking other medications or have allergies always discuss the herb with your pharmacist. They are a wealth of information about side effects and contraindications. Always obtain your herbs and teas from reputable companies and read the labels to ensure there are no other ingredients included that can cause you harm.

Herbal Supplements and teas helpful for insomnia

  • Chamomile is a commonly used herb (is a tea) for insomnia and has no known side-effects. Do not take it if you have an allergy to daisies or sunflowers or members of the compositae family of plants.
  • Valerian root may assist in the process of falling asleep. It can interfere with some medications so discuss with your pharmacist or GP. Not suitable for small children or during pregnancy.
  • Ashwagandha leaf – thought to assist falling asleep and improve REM sleep.
  • Lemon Balm is a member of the mint family. It is a herb with many benefits including  calming  stress and anxiety, and promoting sleep.    
  • Passion Flower is believed by scientists to work by increasing levels of a chemical called gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain which lowers the activity of some brain cells inducing relaxation.

Alternative Therapies:

  • Acupuncture is used in traditional Chinese Medicine for the treatment of insomnia.
  • Relaxation, Meditation and mindfulness use techniques to reduce muscle tension and quiet the mind to aid sleep onset. Studies demonstrate that regular meditation practice can result in higher levels of melatonin.
  • Exercise: studies show that even low levels of tai-chi and yoga and enhance sleep quality. Exercise in the 3 hours before bedtime is not recommended.
  • Hypnosis can help reduce anxiety about sleep difficulties and help establish better sleep hygiene.


Where insomnia is a product of an irritable brain caused by inflammation, gut issues, trauma, medications, or other disorders, Neurofeedback can help calm and stabilise the brain activity and improve quality and duration of sleep. Read more about Neurofeedback here