How to Treat Insomnia: 10 Medication-Free Tips

Difficulty with sleep is one of the most common medical complaints. That's why today, House Call Doctor has 10 medication-free tips to help you catch your Z's. In Part 2 of this series, she'll provide prescription and over-the-counter alternatives.

Sanaz Majd, MD
6-minute read
Episode #158

Difficulty with sleep is one of the most common patient complaints that presents in a primary care doctor's office. 

Chances are, you will suffer troubles with sleep at some point in your lifetime. It can be distressing and cause difficulty with functioning during your wake hours. That's why I'm dedicating my next two episodes to the topic of insomnia treatment.  Today, we will discuss 10 medication-free tips to help you catch your Z's, and next week we'll review the prescription and over-the-counter medication alternatives.

The first thing you may want to do is run to the doctor for a prescription medication to help you sleep. However, you don’t always need to rely on medications. In fact, insomnia can often be managed on your own by simply changing your lifestyle and routines. Resist the temptation to head for the medicine cabinet right away, and instead take steps to treat your insomnia naturally.  Let's find out how in today's episode.


What Is Insomnia?

Defining what exactly contitutes a good night’s rest is really subjective and it varies from person to person. 

However, patients with insomnia say that they either have difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or awaken too early and are unable to return to sleep.  It’s only considered a significant medical condition when patients have a difficult time functioning throughout their day as a result of poor sleep. When insomnia diminishes quality of life, that's a real problem.

What Causes Insomnia?

If you suffer from insomnia, you really need to ask yourself this one question:  Why can’t I sleep? 

The first step is to examine your lifestyle, environmental stressors, and mental well-being carefully.  Although insomnia can occur in patients without any other underlying health conditions, it is often accompanied or exacerbated by other medical factors.  It’s very important to consider other untreated health conditions that can interfere with sleep, because once you manage the underlying culprit, the insomnia improves or even resolves entirely. 

I’ve discussed many of these at length in prior episodes. So if you haven't heard or read them, please be sure to take a few minutes to check each one out before you move on. 

Here are 8 potential medical issues that can interfere with a good night’s sleep:

1.     Restless Legs Syndrome:  This is characterized by an urge to move or a “creepy-crawly” sensation in the legs that stimulates movement and interferes with sleep.

2.     Sleep Apnea:  Moments of oxygen deprivation to the brain during sleep. Apnea affects those who snore.

3.     Illicit drugs:  Drugs that are activating, such as methamphetamines, can cause insomnia.

4.     Medications:  Certain over-the-counter drugs (such as decongestants) and prescription drugs (such as some antidepressants and weight-loss drugs) can cause sleep problems.

5.     PainHand pain or numbness keeping you up at night?  Heel pain after a long day at work? Back pain from picking up the heavy kiddos? Uncontrolled pain can be the source of your insomnia. 

6.      Mental health conditionsAnxiety disorders, depression, bipolar disorder, all can interfere with sleep.  In general, those with anxiety tend to have trouble falling asleep, and those with depression tend to have more early morning awakenings.  Treat the underlying mental health condition and the insomnia typically resolves or improves.

7.     Bladder issues:  Prostate enlargements, uncontrolled diabetes, and overactive bladders are some of the potential causes of increased frequency of urination at night time.  And if you are waking up to urinate at night, it can take a toll on your sleep.

8.     Stress:  Life stressors are often mind-consuming and, not surprisingly are often barriers to getting a good night’s sleep.  Even positive life changes, such as moving or getting married, can be stressful.  If you’ve tried planning a wedding, you know what I mean.

Addressing these health issues may be all that you really need sleep well again.  However, if you’re still not able feel refreshed in the mornings, it may be time to consider active treatment for insomnia.

Treating Insomnia:  Lifestyle and Behavioral Therapy

Next week, I’ll discuss some of the most common over-the-counter and prescription medications used to treat insomnia.  But before you consider medication, I really try to encourage my patients to work on some rather simple lifestyle and behavioral changes that can often aid in managing insomnia. 

For many patients, adopting a good “sleep hygiene” using the following 10 tips is really all they need in order to re-catch their Z’s:


Please note that all content here is strictly for informational purposes only. This content does not substitute any medical advice, and does not replace any medical judgment or reasoning by your own personal health provider. Please always seek a licensed physician in your area regarding all health related questions and issues.

About the Author

Sanaz Majd, MD

Dr. Sanaz Majd is a board-certified Family Medicine physician who graduated from Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia. Her special interests are women's health and patient education.