When was the last time you got a good night’s sleep? If you’re working back through your memory, and can’t remember, or maybe even forget what you were doing halfway through, that’s a good sign that you’re chronically sleep deprived. It’s a very common problem these days with nearly one quarter of Americans saying they experience insomnia on a regular basis.
Even one night of lost sleep can affect your memory, mood, metabolism, reaction time and ability to make decisions.
Chronic insomnia that lasts months or even years has dire consequences. Studies show that sleep loss over time contributes to an increased risk of developing practically every major chronic illness, including diabetes, heart disease and Alzheimer’s. Inadequate sleep also leaves you with a higher likelihood of becoming obese and developing cancer.
As you can see, proper sleep is vital to long-term health. It may even save your life. A 14-year Norwegian study with more than 54 thousand participants found that 34 percent of motor vehicle deaths could have been prevented if those involved weren’t deprived of sleep. Another study done at the University of Laval in Quebec found that the dangers associated with sleep deprivation could be the result of the way attention span is negatively affected.
So what is behind this epidemic of poor sleep? It’s quite a complex problem that could be tied to many factors.
Medications: Some prescription and over-the-counter drugs contain caffeine to keep you awake. Others may disrupt various bodily mechanisms, which are vital for falling and staying asleep. A partial list of drugs that may contribute to insomnia includes corticosteroids, statins, alpha- and beta-blockers, antidepressants, ACE inhibitors, dementia and Alzheimer’s drugs, allergy treatments, and arthritis supplements such as glucosamine and chondroitin.
The ridiculous thing is, lack of sleep causes many of the conditions that these drugs may be treating, including anxiety, depression, heart disease, high blood pressure and arthritis. Therefore, covering up chronic illness with medications often initiates a vicious cycle of side effects, disease and further drug use.
Parasites: This is a bit of a squeamish one — nasty creatures living in your gut or blood stream could actually be keeping you awake at night. Experts point out that many parasites are most active at inopportune hours such as 3 or 4 a.m. Functional medicine practitioners can diagnose and treat parasitic infections without doing damage to your fragile friendly gut bacteria.
Circadian rhythm disruption: You’ve probably heard about the inner clock that is controlled by a tiny section of the brain called the pineal gland. The circadian rhythm is extremely sensitive to disruption. By sticking to a regular waking and sleeping routine, you train your brain to sleep at night and be awake during the day. Ideally, get bright sunlight for at least 15 to 20 minutes as soon as possible after waking, and avoid blue light (like the type from electronic devices) at night. An easy way to prevent blue light exposure is to wear orange or yellow-lensed glasses after sundown. This might look goofy, but it encourages your brain to produce melatonin, a brain chemical that is vital for deep, healing sleep.
Blood sugar: If your blood sugar levels fluctuate too much during the night, you will have trouble staying asleep. Eating an evening meal rich in proteins and fats will help keep blood sugar stable. Fluctuating blood sugar levels can induce night-time cortisol production — a stress-related hormone that keeps you alert and awake.
Food sensitivities: The gut and brain are intimately connected, so eating foods that irritate your digestive system is a sure way to lose sleep. Gluten is particularly dangerous, since it affects blood flow to the brain. Have a holistic healthcare practitioner complete IgG and IgA panels. These tests will determine which foods cause inflammatory reactions in your body. Cutting out problem foods can improve sleep quantity and quality.
Besides removing foods that may be causing a sensitivity reaction, other substances can also disrupt your sleep. Caffeine is an obvious one, although just cutting down on cups of coffee isn’t enough. Soda and energy drinks can also be major contributors to anxiety and excessive wakefulness.
Neurotransmitter imbalance: Brain chemicals are used to stimulate or calm your state of mind — if they are out of balance, you might be unable to sleep soundly. Serotonin and GABA need to be adequately high to induce a state of rest, while dopamine, glutamate and adrenaline must be sufficiently low. Inflammation and hormone levels are usually to blame for neurotransmitter fluctuations; these problems can be corrected with exercise and a real food diet.
Allergies: A 2006 study suggested that sleep disorders and allergies may be interlinked, since people with allergies were found to be more than twice as likely to suffer from a sleep disorder like insomnia. Certainly a stuffy nose and itchy eyes never helped anyone sleep better. Visiting a trusted medical practitioner can help decode your personal allergy triggers so that you can avoid them. Rectifying leaky gut syndrome with an appropriate change in diet can also banish allergies.
Toxic bed environment: Unfortunately, the very things you rely on for that comfortable nighttime sanctum may be sabotaging your sleep. Mattresses are notorious for containing formaldehyde and other industrial toxins from the manufacturing process. Those made with springs can conduct electromagnetic fields into your body, which is a problem for those with high sensitivity. Sheets, pillows and upholstered headboards often contain chemical fire retardants, which are required by law for safety, but might be triggering a low-grade reaction that is keeping you awake. Invest in a natural, nontoxic sleep setup made with materials such as organic wool and cotton to eliminate chemicals which might be destroying your beauty sleep.
Natural remedies for insomnia
Luckily all of these insidious causes of insomnia are largely within your control. Besides removing the contributing factors discussed above, you can incorporate sleep-promoting lifestyle practices and herbal remedies into your routine.
Meditation is one simple way to calm the mind in preparation for sleep. While it may currently seem impossible to quiet anxious thoughts and sit still for a few minutes, the ability to meditate is a “muscle” that needs to be flexed in order to grow strong. Just like any other skill, start slowly — just a minute or two at first. Training your mind to meditate improves your ability to focus on tasks and control impulses. This results in increased cortical thickness, a structural change in the brain which can be seen in medical imaging. Essentially, you develop a quiet place in your mind. Each time you practice meditation you will be able to return to this place faster and stay longer. In relation to insomnia, meditation will allow you to switch off those racing thoughts that often keep people awake.
One way to prepare for effective meditation is to commit, before entering the bedroom at night, to spend five minutes writing down everything that is on your mind — including to-dos for the next day. By leaving your worries at the door, you maintain the sanctity of the bedroom as a place of rest. When you’re lying in bed trying to fall asleep, you can dismiss the worries and obligations running through your mind because you know you’ve transferred everything onto paper. An easy way to facilitate this healthy habit is to keep a notebook, diary or planner in a visible spot in your home so that you remember to make your list each night and avoid going to bed with a racing mind.
Another natural insomnia-fighting strategy is to use supplements that encourage restfulness. Magnesium is a major nutrient required for good sleep — one that is deficient in up to 80 percent of the population. Using a transdermal magnesium supplement (one that is applied to the skin) is the best way to increase your magnesium stores. Most forms of oral magnesium are not well absorbed in the digestive system.
Herbs such as passionflower, anise seed and valerian are time-tested ways to knock yourself out naturally, although they should not form the core of your better-sleep strategy. Using these herbs initially while you work on addressing the root cause(s) of your insomnia is fine in the short term.
These strategies are a great way to promote better sleep gently and naturally without toxic medications or the risk of side effects.
If you’re wondering about taking melatonin, we believe that this is best avoided. Melatonin supplements induce sleepiness by decreasing blood flow (and therefore oxygen supply) to the brain and internal organs. A better strategy is to increase your natural internal melatonin production by avoiding blue light as discussed previously.
While changing your routine is a challenge, improved sleep is a worthwhile investment for your long-term health. Try addressing these possible causes of insomnia so you can feel like yourself again!
—The Alternative Daily