Sleeping problems are a common complaint and insomnia affects millions of people all over the world.  Insomnia is classified into three categories based on how long it lasts.  If it lasts under a few weeks, it is called transient insomnia.  If it lasts up to six months, it is called acute insomnia.  If it lasts any longer than that, it is usually classified as chronic insomnia.  Insomnia presents itself in varying patterns.  People can have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, waking up at healthy times, or all of these in combination.

Like with many disorders, the cause of insomnia differs between individuals.  It can be caused by drug use, pain, hormone changes, psychological problems, sleep hygiene problems, or other medical conditions.  For optimal treatment, it is important to seek advice from a health-care provider who can properly assess the cause of sleeping problems.  Insomnia is not a disorder than can be easily identified by a blood test.  Rather, it is commonly diagnosed by symptom presentation.  Sleep studies can sometimes be used to further elucidate the cause.

If left untreated, insomnia can cause further disturbances.  It can cause fatigue that has implications in other aspects of life.  If the cause of insomnia is due to an underlying medical condition, that condition may worsen as well.  Conventional treatment of insomnia involves a combination of sleep hygiene and pharmacological therapy.  Sleep hygiene measures are lifestyle changes that promote healthy sleep patterns.  For example, getting out of bed at the same time everyday, or keeping the bedroom quiet and dark.

Pharmacological therapies are prescribed in 95 per cent of cases and include sedative drugs, antidepressant drugs, pain suppressors, and antipsychotic drugs.  Many people will often self-medicate with alcohol, and though alcohol may help people fall asleep, it disturbs sleep patterns.  The pharmacological route oftentimes suppresses the cause of insomnia rather than treating it.  It also carries the risk of causing dependence, where individuals cannot fall asleep without the drug.  Chronic use of these types of drugs for insomnia is not encouraged.

Naturopathic doctors conduct thorough intakes and physical exams to help determine the cause of a patient’s insomnia.  They create comprehensive treatment plans that combine nutrition, lifestyle counselling, botanicals, and traditional Chinese medicine, to name a few.  From a nutritional perspective, melatonin can be prescribed.  Melatonin is a natural substance that is produced by the body at night.  When people are deficient in melatonin, they may have trouble falling asleep and supplementing melatonin may correct for this.

Using lifestyle counselling, naturopathic doctors are able to teach their patients how to apply sleep hygiene techniques.  Naturopathic doctors spend time talking to patients to help them overcome obstacles to healthy habits.  Botanical therapies that are used include herbs like Passiflora incarnata, which acts by promoting relaxation and decreasing anxiety.  Other herbs like Valeriana officinalis have a sedative effect, and are less likely to lead to dependence and abuse like some medications.

Finally, naturopathic doctors may utilize traditional Chinese medicine to treat insomnia.  Acupuncture is a therapy that is commonly used.  Many acupuncture points help promote healthy sleep, but the best approach is usually one that treats the whole person, rather than only one aspect of their health.  Naturopathic doctors perform in-depth assessments and provide targeted comprehensive plans to treat sleeping problems.

Chris is a clinic supervisor at the RSNC.