A Natural Approach to Insomnia
I have a 11 month old. I have an 11 month old who up until about a month ago - was a terrible sleeper! (He apparently doesn’t love sleep as much as I do!) If you knew me before I had my son Walker - you would know how much I valued my sleep. 10 hours of undisturbed sleep per night and no problem napping for an hour in the afternoon on a Saturday…. Well all of that has changed and up until recently I was lucky to get 3 hours in a row. I know what it’s like to wake up in the morning and still not feel rested… relying too heavily on caffeine to get me through the day. I also know about how important sleep is for our overall health and wellbeing.
While you might not have an adorable 11 month old waking you up every 3 hours (or maybe you do!), difficulty falling or staying asleep is a relatively common concern.
Sleep is important to our bodies in more ways than one. A lot is happening to our bodies while we sleep. During sleep - the body’s major organs and systems are working hard on healing and regenerating. The body needs 7-9 hours each night in order to accomplish this task. Getting less than 6 hours of sleep has been associated with health problems such as - poor memory, depression, elevated blood pressure, headaches, irritability, depressed immune function, low libido, and weight gain (just to name a few!).
Needless to say - sleep is important!
When treating insomnia, it’s important to start with the basics. Occasionally it’s as simple as making a few lifestyle changes that can result in drastic changes to sleep quality.
Try making the following changes to your daily routine to allow for a more restful sleep:
- Avoid stimulants (especially caffeine)
- although 1-2 cups of coffee a day may be okay for many people, the ability to detoxify caffeine from the body differs dramatically from person to person (due to genetic differences that alter liver function). In some people it may take 12 hours to detoxify caffeine from a single cup of coffee! If you are having trouble sleeping - try completely avoiding caffeine (coffee, tea, chocolate, energy drinks) for 7 to 10 days.
- Ensure a “cool” bedroom temperature
- a bedroom that is either too hot or too cold can impair sleep quality. The ideal temperature for your bedroom is 18 degrees celsius.
- Go to bed at the same time each night
- your body thrives on routine! When you establish a sleep and wake routine, the circadian rhythm of cortisol and melatonin release is consistent (yay hormone balance!) Try going to bed and waking up at the same time each night (even on weekends).
- studies consistently show that people who exercise throughout the day get better sleep at night. It’s important not to exercise too late in the day in order to get the sleep-promoting benefits. Aim for at least 20 minutes of aerobic exercise in the morning or early evening.
- Dim the lights in your house an hour before bed
- melatonin, the sleep hormone, is secreted in response to light (or lack thereof) cues. As it gets darker, melatonin levels start to rise to make us sleepy. This process can be inhibited by bright lights in your home. To ensure proper melatonin secretion, use dim lights in the last hour before bed.
- On that note - no screen time up to 2 hours before bed
- electronics should be avoided in the evenings as well. The blue light emitted by electronics suppresses melatonin production and negatively interferes with circadian rhythms. Turn off those TVs, iPads, iPhones, iMacs… you get the idea!
- Don’t sleep with your phone beside your bed
- phones can be distracting for many reasons - first of all, those constant notifications can obviously interfere with sleep. Secondly - the frequencies emitted by cellphones have the ability to interfere with the brain’s ability to get a restful sleep. Either keep your phone out of the bedroom or, at the very least, turn it onto airplane mode each night.
Now what happens if you’ve been doing ALL of the above for weeks and you STILL can’t get a good nights sleep? It might be a good idea to consider exploring whether there is an underlying condition or imbalance that's preventing you from getting a good nights rest!
The hormone system in the body is complex and is made up of many different hormones that all communicate with each other to carry out the daily job of running your body! A few of these hormones - when they are not functioning well - can lead to sleep disturbances.
If you’ve read my article on stress and adrenal fatigue (check it out here if you haven’t) - then you know all about how the adrenal glands are responsible for dealing with day to day stressors. They release cortisol which is a hormone that is released when we are under prolonged stress, but it is also released in a cyclical nature throughout the day as well. Cortisol levels should be highest in the morning and should gradually decrease throughout the rest of the day. This is what allows us to feel energized when we wake up (at least we should be!) and sleepy at bedtime.
If you have been under a lot of stress - your adrenals may be to blame for your insomnia. Stress interferes with the natural rhythm of cortisol release in the body. Not only that - but an imbalance in cortisol levels can interfere with proper melatonin release (more to come on melatonin).
Sleep disorders are especially common in peri-menopausal women, one major reason for this is that progesterone levels start to decline. Similarly, many women have hormone imbalances where progesterone level are low (stay tuned for a post ALLL about progesterone deficiency - as it doesn’t just interfere with sleep!) For peri-menopausal women - hot flashes and night sweats compound the problem further by interfering with sleep. Increasing progesterone through herbs and by ensuring adequate nutrients can improve sleep for a lot of these women.
When the thyroid gland is overactive (hyperthyroidism) - insomnia is a common symptom. If you have been experiencing sensations of heat, frequent sweating, heart palpitations, weight loss - it may be important to have some blood work done to check out your thyroid function.
Melatonin is a hormone that is secreted by the brain and is crucial for regulating the sleep-wake cycle. Normally, melatonin levels are low during the day and significantly increase at night. As mentioned above - there are a number of things that can interfere with proper melatonin function (stress, electronics, bright lights, shift work…) Melatonin supplements may help regulate sleep in those who are deficient - it’s important to always start a low dose and talk with your ND or MD to see if its right for you.
As you can see - there are SO many factors to consider when it comes to sleep (and I didn’t even touch on shift work, snoring partners, babies or pets in the bed, etc.) The treatment of insomnia can’t be a one size fits all approach. If treatment hasn’t worked for you - it may mean that you need to dig a little bit deeper and treat the root cause of your insomnia.
Hormones are a crazy (and sometimes confusing) network. That's exactly why I wrote "A Naturopathic Doctor's Guide to Hormone Testing" - to hopefully make things a little bit more clear for you.