Alternative Therapies

Mainstream western medicine is good at fixing things, but for chronic conditions (which are by definition conditions that can’t be fixed), people seek out alternative therapies, where they find practitioners who take more time with them and who approach insomnia as though the body – our hormones, the foods we eat – plays a part in the problem.

I’ve tried (nearly) everything anyone has ever told me worked for them, and it’s taken me some strange ways: lathering myself in sesame oil, brewing a Chinese herbal tea so foul that my dog fled the kitchen when it steeped, concocting a magnesium supplement that hissed and spat like something out of Harry Potter. I’ve driven across two counties to a guru who claimed to have the secret of sleep. I’ve tried valerian, kava kava, chamomile, skullcap, passionflower, homeopathic concoctions, l-tryptophan, 5-HTP, GABA, melatonin… I took the talking cure with a psychiatrist and a psychologist, and though the psychologist helped me sort things out, she hadn’t a clue why I sleep so badly or what I should do about it. I’ve tried most of the benzodiazepines…all the non-benzodiazepines… I’ve tried acupuncture, biofeedback, meditation, hypnosis, self-hypnosis, relaxation tapes, ayurvedic medicine, adrenal support supplements, blackstrap molasses, wheat germ, bananas by the bunch, licorice root, SAME, St. John’s Wort, yoga positions, and at one point, I was swimming 3-4 miles a day. I’ve worn a magnet necklace. … I thought I’d tried everything there was to try, but when I started talking to insomniacs, I realized I’d missed a few: I have not consulted a psychic, hung in a flotation tank, done cranial electrical stimulation, slept with a cathode ion collector dish by the bed. I have not tried chelation treatment (getting the lead out), colostrom (don’t ask), sleeping with my head pointed north, or west, or Ordeal Therapy, unless you call vacuuming the house at 4 AM, which I used to do, “ordeal therapy.”

Vitamin therapies that have worked?
Herbal remedies?
Herbs which are known to help sleep include passionflower, also called helmet flower, hoodwort, and mad-dog weed; skullcap, a member of the mint family (mint also may have sedative properties); hops, rich in vitamin B; chamomile, kava-kava, lemon balm, Reishi mushroom, and valerian. These are often combined in supplements available in health food stores.

Traditional remedies, Ayurvedic and acupuncture?

People find help in odd and interesting places, so it’s good to keep an open mind.
I hear about success with aromatherapy, especially lavender and cedar. I hear about a gizmo that tickles your scalp and makes you yawn, a shower with hard pounding nozzles in your back, and a jacuzzi. I hear about what one woman delicately refers to as “self-organized orgasm.” I hear about Infra red sauna therapy, which raises the body temperature 3 degrees for at least 10 minutes… I hear of successes with Craniosacral Therapy (cranio meaning head, sacral meaning the base of the spine). This is a technique that is said to manipulate the sutures of the skull, where the bones meet, to ease pressure in the craniosacral system.

Transcranial magnet stimulation (TMS), which uses electromagnetic pulses to stimulate neural activity in specific parts of the brain,

cranial electrotherapy stimulation, a technique begun in the Soviet Union in the fifties, the so-called “sleep machine.”

Brain music is made with a special computer program and the patient’s EEG. The EEG patterns are converted into music recorded on a compact disk; some say it helps you sleep.

EMDR, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, is a fascinating therapy that originated in 1987 for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder. Therapists use hand movements or a flashing light to provide side-to-side stimulus for the eyes to follow; sometimes they use auditory stimuli, tones or tapping, that are made to alternate from ear to ear. While this is going on, the patient talks about the traumatic events, and somehow in the process, comes to see them in a less threatening light. Some say it’s worth months of talk therapy. Some say it helps sleep.

Mind machines, which provide goggles which flash lights and earphones which thrum and hum. Some say this is good for a racing mind.

Biofeedback devices give “feedback” through auditory tones or visual signals, on what’s going on in you physiologically, so you can learn to consciously regulate unconscious functions such as heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, muscle tension; they teach you to bring the autonomic nervous system under voluntary control.

Meditation techniques

I have heard insomniacs swear by hypnotherapy.

Brain music or other music therapies—anybody had any luck with these?
“Created to meet the needs of sleep sufferers, “Bedtime Beats®” was carefully programmed in accordance with research from Case Western Reserve University, which found that soothing music — specifically music with a tempo of 60-80 beats per minute (BPM) — resulted in significantly better perceived sleep quality, longer sleep duration, greater sleep efficiency, and more. The music featured in each set is specially sequenced and mastered to deliver a highly tranquil experience. People of all ages can benefit from the music, provided they listen daily for at least two weeks at the outset and begin listening to the CDs at least 15 minutes before bedtime.

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  1. I’ve discovered something that really works for me. No other herbal product i’ve ever tried has made much difference, so i’m delighted with MULUNGU (erythrina mulungu). I think its pretty new on the market. Its finely ground tree bark from the amazon. It’s description: for mental disorders, as a sedative for insomnia, restlessness, & sleep disorders, for liver disorders, high blood pressure & heart palpitations & drug and nicotine withdrawal. The mental conditions it is said to address include depression, anxiety, stress, hysteria, panic disorders, and compulsive disorders. You can buy it by the pound quite cheaply from or other companies on the web. The stuff i got is wild harvested. Just boil up about a teaspoon per cup, simmer for about 20 or 30 minutes and pour off the top leaving the dregs at the bottom. I make a bunch at a time and leave the rest in the fridge. Drink at least a cup. This stuff WORKS folks. Coming from someone who is very hard to tip over. I have an extremely busy, bi-polar flavored psyche, and have been almost devastated by sleeplessness for over 20 years. That its good for your liver and non-addictive is great good news. I add reishi mushroom to the brew which seems to synergize well, along with some cocoa, milk, and sweetener for taste. Almost delicious!

  2. amelia,

    I can only imagine how difficult insomnia has been for you for you to try such a non-mainstream drug. My own story is somewhat similar to Gayle’s as she described in the book. Right now, I just try to cope with a very occasional 5 mg Ambien (or CR), but I am sure not at my best sometimes. I drink 2 cups of coffee in the AM, 2 in the afternoon.

    The 2 other descriptions of mulungu I found online were both positive but, as a psychologist and former chem jock, I am cautious about prescribed stuff (tried most, which are poorly tested and minimally understood) and really nervous about something like mulungu. Did someone who knows a lot about meds suggest it? I am impressed by the Pubmed studies listed on Rainforest site but would like to see more data.

    Will stop here. Let us know if it keeps working for you and how you feel. Good luck.


  3. for what it’s worth… for years i’ve been using tibetan medicinal incense specifically formulated for stress relief & relaxation. as a sleep aid it works for me and most of my friends who are stressed out from turmoil in their lives (finals, relationships, deadline pressure). the two brands i use are “original healing incense” and “tara healing incense”, which can be ordered from
    the “original” is fragrant, the “tara” more musty, but they both work like a charm (for most folks anyway). i’d be very surprised if no one got results; the handicap is that you’ll drift off to sleep. over time i’ve accrued a bag of tricks composed of body positions, breathing and visualizations but they’re strictly secondary. it’s worth a try!

  4. Though I do not suffer from this myself, I know many people who have completely overcome this problem through the practice of chanting the mantra nam myho renge kyo. This ancient chant has the effect of putting one’s core life in better rhythm with the universe and more importantly in rhythm with one’s own personal environment which includes job, family, friends and associates. One can try chanting this six syllable mantra over and over for an hour a day and see themselves what begins to happen. Much more info on the levels of conciousness, ten worlds that lives go in and out of, translation of the chant and related chants, and concept of human revolution can be found at it is definitely worth a try for anyone undergoing such an obstacle!

  5. The most effective solution I’ve found is acupuncture and Chinese herbs, both administered by someone who was actually trained by the Chinese. Experience taught me that folks who have 90 days of training just to satisfy licensing requirements are worthless.

    No, this “solution” doesn’t solve the problem 100%, but it has made life far easier than it could have been.

    Yes, I have an Ambien prescription–I’m allowed 30 pills a year. I came to understand hoarding the first year I had the pills.

  6. For many people who have sleep deprivation, there may be a solution in their diet. Go to to find out if this may be the case with you. It will give information concerning gluten as a huge factor in people’s sleepliness.

  7. I’ve had nightly insomia for about 20 years, and have tried so many treatments, without lasting success. Pills either don’t work, or leave me too groggy to function well. A new doctor I’m seeing ran a full blood panel on me and discovered a significant vitamin D deficiency. (Apparently insomnia and fatigue can be symptoms of this deficiency.) So I’ve just begun, at his recommendation, taking 2,000 I.U. of vitamin D each day. I think it takes several weeks to build up vitamin D stores, but am hopeful. It would get at the root of the problem, rather than just slapping a pill on the symptom.

  8. This sounds so simplistic and naive, but along with many other sleep tricks, I have always used a fan on the nightstand in my bedroom. It makes a constant, soothing sound and drowns out any other noises. Plus it keeps the air moving which helps to keep me cool, especially my head and face. This last benefit is even more important now that I am post menopausal. Of course, I keep the room cool as well.

  9. I have been suffering from insomnia for about 20 years. It started at my work as a manager of an ecological Hare Krishna Farm project in Sweden. There my phone would ring from 3 a. m. to 11 p. m. And it was in general acute and emergency problems so this gave me a lot of anxiety, which in due course created insomnia. My kind of insomnia is that I wake up around 2 a. m. and I cannot fall asleep again. Sometimes it takes one hour, sometimes 4 hours and then it is time to get up.

    Last year I was at a clinic in India to treat my insomnia and besides the treatment itself (heavy medicated oil massages) they taught me a breathing system, which calms you down and makes you fall asleep. Breathing is used in ancient yoga systems to control ”hormones”, which in their turn control other bodily functions like digestion, the mind and sleep. The technique is complicated and difficult to explain here. First one has to breath deeply counting the seconds for inhalation, holding and exhaling. After that one has to breath alternately through the left and right nostrils and at last through the left nostril. It is sometimes difficult to do this exercises when you wake up in the middle of the night and is very tired, but every time I do them I fall asleep. If you want to learn this you should look for some teacher in pranayama (breathing technic in sanscrit) in your area. The benefit of this is also that lots of other bodily functions become regulated by the proper breathing. This breathing exercises provided a great relief after 20 years of almost daily suffering.

  10. Aside from Clonazepam and an SSRI, I have stuck to mostly natural remedies. I don’t like the feeling of giving up control when you chose to take a prescription sleep medication. In some cases it may be necessary, though. I have had insomnia for about 2 years. It seems to be gradually improving. I have tried most herbs valerian, orange blossom, chamomile, linden, passionflower, St. John’s Wort. I haven’t really found anything that is 100% effective everytime. While I have had most of these in teas I find that the aromas and flavors can be soothing and powerful. So far I find that taking a supplement of Omega 3 and Melatonin works the best for me. I don’t need too much of either since overdoing it especially on the Melatonin will have the opposite affect. I take only about 1mg, same with the Omega 3. These products are also really good for your brain and overall health. Melatonin is a strong anti-oxidant that is effective for treating insomnia, alzheimer’s, and headaches. Omega 3 is also good for improving brain function including improving memory and mood.

  11. I have used “brainwave entrainment” CDs for years but not by themselves. By using binaural beats, they entrain your brainwaves to move into alpha, beta, delta or theta brainwaves and this will influence how relaxed you get, or not. Beta is alert, waking state. Alpha is relaxed. Delta is deep sleep. Theta is relaxed but can also stimulate the mind. Anyway, I use CDs by Dr Jeffrey Thompson. The Relaxation Company sells his stuff and some are available on Amazon. (And by the way, your brainwaves don’t get stuck in one mode. Once the CD is over, your brain will do whatever it needs to do)
    I’ve had insomnia since age 16 (am now 58), to a greater or lesser degree, and it got much worse when I drank heavily. It stayed worse even after I quit drinking 20 years ago! I’ve tried various antidepressants but what works for me now is Ambien and Remeron, in relatively low doses along with the brainwave CDs. The CDs help me fall asleep and seem to improve the quality of my sleep. Since I’ve used them for so long, they seem to have a cumulative effect, so I only use the CDs when I start having trouble falling asleep. I take the meds every night, at about the same time and get 8-9 hours of good sleep.
    Oh, and one other thing, I also take Omega 3s and Calcium/Magnesium as well as other vitamins and they seem to be helpful as well. I tried melatonin a long time ago and it gave me heart palpitations.

  12. Edgar, above, had success with the vitamin cocktail in the book… I’m thrilled.

    And to Tori’s question (which I can’t find at the moment) about cranial electrical stimulation, here’s some info: Ray Smith, PhD has written a monograph on
    CES that is available on Amazon.Com.

    I haven’t tried either but I plan to…
    And I plan to check out those biurnal beats brainwaves, Katyanne.

    Thanks to all.

  13. I am new to this forum/site but I am undergoing sleep restriction therapy as we speak. I am not sure how alternative this is’s been around for a while but it seems to be an alternative approach for me in comparison to what I have been doing for the past several years. I too have had insomnia for 20 + years and have tried many different med’s prescription and natural/homeopathic. Have gone the whole nutritional approach as well. I exercise regularly and that has kept me pretty sane but I just decided recently that I cannot tolerate prescription drugs anymore. Especially Ambien and any of that class. Too many for too long and I feel like a prisoner to pills. So, here I am on day one with sleep restriction. I am seeing a Dr. who is overseeing this method and I am keeping a sleep diary. He claims this method is 80-85 % effective if you make the commitment.
    Has anyone else tried this? I am really curious as to any other experiences anyone has had. I slept one hour last night-
    Any comments are greatly appreciated 🙂

  14. i agree with builderlady I’ve found is acupuncture and Chinese herbs, helpful but a product called forcesleep really saved my life . i’ve been battling insomia for almost all my life till i tried forcesleep it’s a great sleep aid not dangerous or habit forming it’s just work great and to my surprise no hangover or that spaced out feeling the next morning .
    would really recommand it to anyone that suffers from sleep deprivation

  15. I have been taking homeopathic medicine since 1981 and since July of
    this year we’ve been testing some gemmotherapy remedies at home.
    These remedies are made by macerating tree buds (bio) and have no
    side effects. The company is called Herbalgem and is based in Belgium (EU).

    Among these remedies I found one called ‘Noctigem’ which I tested on
    my daughter (12) and my mother (83) who were both having acute
    sleeping problems. The result has been very positive and encouraging.
    My daughter sleeps from about 9.30pm until 7 in the morning without
    waking up once (my office is next to her bedroom and I work late at
    night) and she feels fine during the day. My mother tells me that she
    can now sleep until about 6 in the morning. Our GP who is also a
    homeopath had given me the green light.

    Noctigem is made with Linden tree buds and Fig tree buds (macerated in alcohol). No side effects.

  16. @ Sarah27: Thanks for recommending Forcesleep. I just looked at the website but I can’t find details about what the active ingredient is in this, (maybe I’m too tired to see that information). Do you know what’s in it?

  17. This is in response to Janet’s question about sleep restriction- I tried it about 3 years ago. I’d had insomnia for about 6 or 7 years at that point, tried just about everything Gayle mentioned, and ended up taking Ambien every night just to get through the day. So I went to the Stanford sleep clinic, where they had me take a behavioral modification class given by a psychologist, which included a sleep reduction program. At her suggestion, the first step was to get me off Ambien, then begin increasing the amount of sleep I was allowed.

    It seemed to work at first, but in the long run, never really amounted to anything. I had to keep a sleep log and follow a protocol of sleep hygiene. I was able to reduce my Ambien down to 2.5 mg every other night, at which point I was not able to achieve a sleep efficiency of 90% for more than an occasional night. I decided to back up a step, take 2.5 mg Ambien every night, and see if I could begin to increase the amount of time I was allowed to sleep. I never did get to 90% sleep efficiency more than occasionally, and after more than 6 months of sleep restriction, I was a basket case and gave it up. I hope you have had better luck.

  18. I didn’t see counting sheep on the list. I’m just kidding, did you try getting more sunlight during the day? Sunlight has something to do with the way your body operates as does your diet. I saw you included several herbs in your list but a simple change here or there in your diet may have a drastic change. Also, I didn’t see any mention of whether or not you had a television in your room. If you use your bed for something other than sleeping it may become difficult to fall asleep in bed as your body is being trained against sleeping in bed. Don’t read, don’t watch tv, don’t do anything other than sleep in your bed.

  19. In the book “What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Menopause” by John Lee and Virginia Hopkins (or possibly it was “What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Breast Cancer”) I read a brief mention of a connection between progesterone deficiency and insomnia. I tend to get insomnia in the last 2 weeks of my menstrual cycle. After reading this book, I had my progesterone levels tested, and got a prescription for natural progesterone, which I take in the form of a skin cream during the last part of my menstrual cycle, and it reduces my insomnia.

    “Natural progesterone” is the same molecule as the progesterone in our bodies, even if it’s actually manufactured synthetically. Birth control pills and I think much hormone replacement therapy use progestins instead, which are different molecules from natural progesterone and can have adverse side effects. From my personal experience, I suspect that progesterone works on a different part of the sleep system from melatonin. 5HTP seems to mostly help me get from a waking state to a half-asleep state (body asleep, mind awake), while progesterone seems to help me get from half-asleep to fully asleep (unconscious). When I forget to take the progesterone, I sometimes have an experience like this: I think “That’s strange. What happened? I seem to have gone through the stages of falling asleep — stages I’m normally not even aware of — yet here I am still awake. … Oh, I know what it is. I forgot to take my progesterone.” I think it helps me stay asleep, too. Taking progesterone as a skin cream has advantages: if you ingest it, it goes through the liver, which breaks down most of it or transforms it into different substances with different effects; but taken as a skin cream, it absorbs in without going through the liver first, so you get more actual progesterone in your system.

    Another alternative is wild yam skin cream. It contains diosgenin, if I remember right, which is a molecule similar to progesterone. As far as I know, it’s not known why diosgenin would help — it’s not clear whether our bodies convert it to progesterone — but apparently women tend to
    experience that the wild yam skin cream helps with such things as PMS symptoms. I’ve used it when I ran out of progesterone and it seemed to help with my insomnia — (not a statistically valid result). A Wikipedia article says: “Its [progesterone’s] effect as a neurosteroid works predominantly through the GSK-3 beta pathway, as an inhibitor. (Other GSK-3 beta inhibitors include bipolar mood stabilizers, lithium and valproic acid.)”

    The best thing I got from Gayle’s book was the description of “first sleep” and “second sleep”. Now when I lie in bed half-awake for a few hours in the middle of the night, instead of calling it “insomnia” I’m calling it the normal period between first and second sleep, and realizing I just need to schedule enough time in bed to allow the second sleep a chance to occur. Years ago another book (perhaps “Mothering Your Nursing Toddler” by Norma J. Bumgarner) suggested not thinking in terms of how much sleep you get, but how much rest. I then realized that if I’m lying in bed at night resting, the next day I’ll feel almost as rested as if I’d been asleep. Not quite; but much better than if I’d gotten up. (This may be different for different people. I’m usually in a half-asleep state when resting like that.)

    I think naps are good. Of course if you skip the nap you’ll sleep better at night, but that’s not the point: the goal is not to sleep better at night, but to get better rest and sleep over the whole 24 hour period, so if I function better after a nap maybe it’s better to take a nap. I do restrict naps in the later part of the day. Early afternoon usually seems to be an optimal time for me to nap. I haven’t seen any scientific data suggesting that people function better without naps than with regular naps at siesta time. I also haven’t seen any scientific data suggesting that people sleep better when avoiding using the bedroom for anything except sleep and sex; nor have I seen any explanation at all (let alone scientific data) as to why sex should be an exception. (If sex is an exception, why mightn’t there be some other exceptions?) I don’t see anything wrong with reading in bed before going to sleep, for example, especially if the reading seems to lead to less rather than more excitement and rumination. Stopping in the middle of a suspenseful novel isn’t the same thing as reading a bit of abstract non-fiction that distracts you from the excitement and worries of the day.

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  21. I have insomnia but I am not taking medication as I was afraid of the side effects. Been taking herbal teas like chamomile, valerian, and passion flower. These stuff make me fall asleep but the sleep is a light one as noises like dog barks, rainfall, and other loud noises can wake me up easily, and I can’t go back to sleep until morning. I’m curious about kava kava and mulungu, did it help improve your conditions?

  22. I’m taking supplement capsules to help me relax and sleep better. It’s a combination of several herbs including passionflower, mulungu, and chamomile. The supplement formula helps reduce blood pressure too.The effectiveness of the herbal ingredients is supported by various studies, that’s why I gave it a try. And I’m happy that I did. It might work on you too!

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