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I’ve written about sleep before, but sleep is critical to good health. Just ask anyone who isn’t getting any! Let’s have a refresher.

Poor sleep means waking frequently throughout the night, difficulty falling asleep, or waking up and not being able to get back to sleep. This affects every area of your life: you feel foggy, irritable, unable to concentrate, and you may experience cravings or increased hunger due to imbalanced blood sugar.

While we sleep, our immune systems are most active, scavenging through the body for abnormal cells, kind of like the night cleaning crew. Organs detoxify and repair and regeneration occurs. Lack of sleep means you’re robbing your body of this crucial process, and you may notice accelerated aging and higher susceptibility to illness.

Insomnia or poor sleep can be caused by a number of factors. A very common culprit is high cortisol. Cortisol is your main stress hormone, and it is high during times of stress to sharpen senses and increase chances of survival (if you were, say, outrunning a tiger). After the stress passes, cortisol should lower, but if you remain stressed out for long periods of time and cortisol stays high, it affects your overall hormonal balance.

Other than acute periods of stress, cortisol should be highest first thing in the morning to wake you, and lowest at night so you can fall asleep. If your cortisol levels do not fall naturally during the day because you are constantly under stress, you will have trouble falling asleep, or wake throughout the night. Ever have that wired feeling at night when you should be tired? Likely due to high stress hormones.

Get your cortisol levels tested. We offer a very easy take-home saliva test, and it is easy to correct imbalanced stress hormone levels. Lifestyle changes along with a treatment plan are critical to rebalance stress hormones.

For everyone that has trouble sleeping, practicing good sleep hygiene can make all the difference. Here are some tips:

*First, check your bedroom. Make it as dark as possible (think cave). Remove electric appliances, save for an alarm clock that is not directly next to your head. That means no tv, no stereo, and absolutely NO computers or cell phones. Consider a white noise machine to drown out street noise, and get blackout curtains. They work great!

*Create a sleep ritual and get your body on a schedule. Plan to go to bed at 10:30 or 11pm every night. What’s important is to get to bed at the same time every night. Start an hour before you hit the sack: stop watching tv, put down the computer, and start winding down with a cup of herbal tea (chamomile, skullcap, valerian, passion flower, lemon balm). Take an epsom salt bath–the magnesium will help you sleep. Then get in bed and read for 30 minutes til you fall asleep. Do this every night.

*Take the minerals magnesium and calcium in the evening to relax your nervous system. Natural Calm works well.

*Taking 50mg of 5HTP in the evenings can also help. 5HTP is the precursor to serotonin, which regulates sleep, mood, and appetite.

*Stop drinking so much coffee! Even if you drink in the mornings, it can affect sleep at night (caffeine has a long half life). Stop drinking caffeinated herbal teas after 3pm and absolutely no coffee after noon!

*If you toss and turn and can’t fall asleep after 30 minutes, pick up a book and read, or do another relaxing activity, then try again.

*If you wake up around 3 or 4am feeling wired and can’t get back to sleep, the culprit might be blood sugar. Nocturnal hypoglycemia means your blood sugar drops too low at night, signaling to your brain that you need food, so your brain signals to your body to wake you. Eat a small snack about 30 minutes before bed if you’re prone to hypoglycemia. Try 1/2 a sweet potato. Potatoes increase serotonin. But NO sugar or refined carbs, which will exacerbate the problem.

*Avoid alcohol, which affects blood sugar and interferes with nighttime liver detox. If you wake between 1am and 3am, especially take this under consideration.

*Stop eating three hours before bed.

*Consider kicking your snoring partner out into the guest bedroom. Better yet, figure out why he/she is snoring.