There is nothing like a good night’s sleep. It gives us the feeling of being refreshed and ready for the new day. Poor sleeping patterns contribute to depression and wide spread chronic diseases like diabetes, obesity and hypertension. Insomnia robs us of our ability to replenish our reserves so that we can remain resilient in the face of stress. Our body repairs and replenishes itself every night while asleep. We require a restful night’s sleep in order to build reserves to tackle the tasks of the day and to keep our immune system strong.
Many of us occasionally suffer from a restless night. We toss and turn or wake early unable to return to sleep again. Some of us are losing sleep on a regular basis. If we are not able to have restful sleep it can lead to exhaustion, anxiety or depression and a feeling of being ‘wired and tired’. Problems with sleep can include not being able to fall asleep, waking many times during the night, and simply waking too early.
There are many reasons for poor sleep. They include stress and anxiety, the use of stimulants like caffeine and nicotine, and poor sleep hygiene. Watching the evening news before going to bed is not helpful. Medical causes of insomnia include depression, hormonal imbalance, COPD, congestive heart failure, sleep apnea and chronic pain. Many medications that people are on can also lead to insomnia. High levels of cortisol or norepinephrine will prevent sleep. These are hormones produced by the adrenal glands. Stress can cause the adrenals to become over stimulated and produce too many hormones. Food allergies, such as to dairy, wheat and eggs, can also elevate levels of cortisol. If we have poor digestion or hidden infections we may have high levels of acetaldehyde or lactic acid in our blood which can act as irritants to the nervous system.
With all these causes it is no wonder that approximately one in eight of us complains of sleeping difficulties. No matter what the cause, we need to ensure that we are getting restful sleep on a regular basis. This cycle can be helped by lifestyle and diet changes as well as using appropriate supplementation. Although many suffering from insomnia end up taking sleeping pills it is not a good long term solution since it can lead to dependence as well as to disturbed sleep architecture.
Checking sleep hygiene is the first step. Bedtime should be at a regular established hour. The bed should be used only for sleeping. Many experts feel that high levels of electronic equipment in the bedroom, such as TV’s and computers, also disturb sleep. The room should be totally dark. If that is not possible with curtains a sleep mask should be used. Relaxation techniques such as breathing and yoga can be useful. Regular exercise during the day can also help promote relaxation at night. A hot bath with Epsom salts, which contains magnesium is also sleep promoting. Many people also find sleep tapes which use various hypnotic techniques to work well.
If sleep hygiene changes aren’t successful enough, supplementation may be used. Magnesium is a trace mineral needed by the body for such things as enzyme activity. Magnesium deficiency can cause nervous system irritability, high blood pressure, tremor, insomnia and depression. It is required for the proper activity of many enzymes within the brain cells, and has been shown to be critical for memory, learning and depression as we age. Magnesium is also a useful treatment for constipation and the usual recommendation is to take as much as the bowel tolerates.
Homeopathy is also worth trying. Caffea crudea (coffee) and chamomilla can be useful. Health food stores often have a combination of homeopathic remedies for insomnia that work quite well for some people. Herbs can also be useful. Valarian, hops and passion flower either singly or in combination, work extremely well for many people. High cortisol levels from stress and anxiety, which can be measured clinically also excite the brain and prevent restful sleep. Phosphatidylserine can quiet high cortisol and help promote restful sleep.
Next we come to melatonin, a hormone that regulates our sleep cycle. Melatonin is made from serotonin and stored in the pineal. It is quite useful, especially for those who work different shift cycles or suffer from jet lag. Finally, amino acid supplementation can also help. Neurotransmitter levels of serotonin and GABA may be too low as a result of nutritional deficiencies or stress. Tryptophan and 5 HTP, the precursors of serotonin can often be helpful as is GABA, an inhibitory neurotransmitter that quiets brain activity. Theanine, an amino acid found in tea, can increase GABA levels and has been shown to enhance relaxation and improve mood.
Because sleep deprivation can have serious debilitating effects it is important to find ways to ensure a restful night. Taking drugs or chemicals as sleep aids just adds to the total body burden of toxins and may create more problems than they solve. However, natural approaches to sleep including exercise, diet, relaxation and breathing therapies and supplements can go a long way to promoting one of the most healthful activities of all – a restful night’s sleep.
Mary Ackerley MD, MD(H), ABIHM is a board certified psychiatrist specializing in hormone replacement, depression, anxiety and natural weight loss.
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