Sleep is critical to good health. Just ask anyone who isn’t getting any! Insomnia is one of the most common complaints I hear from my clients, and aside from feeling tired, it can speed the aging process, lead to weight gain, and contribute to hormone imbalance. It can be a vicious cycle because menopause, high cortisol, hormone imbalance, blood sugar imbalance, and stress are the top causes of insomnia.
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 and higher than normal cortisol levels. To further the vicious cycle, sleep is the number one thing I recommend to support healing. And sometimes those who need sleep the worst have to most trouble due to adrenal fatigue or neuro-endocrine imbalance.
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–including your brain!– 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 unstable blood sugar levels. If you start out your day with coffee and a pastry, you skip lunch, and then have a huge dinner OR if you eat erratically, your blood sugar is likely all over the map. It should remain steady during the day for optimal energy and the most restful sleep at night.
Another culprit is high cortisol. Cortisol is your main stress hormone (think fight or flight response) secreted by your adrenal glands, 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 your adrenals are constantly churning out cortisol, it affects your overall hormonal balance. Even your estrogen, testosterone and progesterone levels!
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 are high at night when they should be low, 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 cortisol.
High cortisol causes inflammation and high blood sugar, increased appetite, and fat storage. No Bueno. Ever notice how you’re hungrier or craving more carbs or comfort food when you don’t sleep well or are tired? Lack of sleep raises cortisol and blood sugar because your body interprets it as a stress. You’re basically running on fumes. And you’re hungrier and more likely to overeat because of it. High blood sugar and too many carbs contribute to insomnia. A vicious cycle.
On the other hand, LOW cortisol from adrenal fatigue can lead to waking around 3am. Your body has to maintain stable blood glucose levels while you sleep, and if blood sugar crashes during the night, the liver releases stored glycogen to be converted into glucose. Cortisol is necessary for this conversion, and if you don’t have enough, you’ll experience nocturnal hypoglycemia, which is a fancy way of saying low blood sugar is waking you up at night due to tired adrenals not producing proper amounts of cortisol.
Melatonin is another hormone that contributes to good sleep. It’s produced by the pineal gland in the brain and is also a powerful anti-aging antioxidant. It’s produced in response to darkness, so make sure you sleep in a very dark room, and try dimming or cutting the lights an hour before bed. Adequate serotonin is required for melatonin, so serotonin deficiency can cause insomnia. If you have an inflamed gut, you likely have problems with serotonin production, because 90% of your serotonin is produced in the gut. An anti-inflammatory diet helps.
For everyone that has trouble sleeping, practicing good sleep hygiene can make all the difference.
10 Secrets for Sound Sleep
1) First, check your bedroom. Make it as dark as possible (think cave). Remove electric appliances, save for an alarm clock (if needed) that is not directly next to your head. That means no tv, no stereo, and absolutely NO computers or iPhones (put on airplane mode at least). Consider a white noise machine to drown out street noise, and get blackout curtains. They work great! If you must sleep with your phone near the bed, put it in airplane mode and do NOT look at it when you wake up in the middle of the night.
2) 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. I like Yogi Bedtime tea best) and a good book. 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.
3) Take the minerals magnesium and calcium in the evening to relax your nervous system. Natural Calm works well.
4) SLEEP HACK: Taking 50mg-100mg of 5HTP in the evenings may also help. 5HTP is the precursor to serotonin, which regulates sleep, mood, and appetite. Click here to get it. Serotonin is needed for melatonin production. Pair it with inositol, which supports overall relaxation and helps maintain the proper serotonin metabolism. It’s also used for nutritional support of brain wellness and female hormonal health.
5) 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 12pm and absolutely no coffee after noon!
6) 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.
7) If you wake up between 2am and 4am feeling wired and can’t get back to sleep, the culprit might be dropping blood sugar or adrenal fatigue. SLEEP HACK: Eat a small snack or a spoonful of honey about 30 minutes before bed if you’re prone to hypoglycemia. Honey really helps keep blood sugar stable at night. Or try 1/2 a sweet potato. Potatoes increase serotonin. Avoid protein, which gives you energy. Also try herbal support for tired adrenals. I like the Gaia adaptogenic herb blend.
8) Passion flower tincture may help you fall asleep, and you can keep it on your nightstand and use it during the night if you wake frequently. It encourages GABA production.
9) Avoid alcohol, which affects blood sugar and interferes with nighttime liver detox. If you wake between 1am and 3am, especially take this under consideration.
10) Consider kicking your snoring partner out into the guest bedroom. Better yet, figure out why he/she is snoring.
Mary Vance is a Certified Nutrition Consultant and author specializing in digestive health. She combines a science-based approach with natural therapies to rebalance the body. In addition to her 1:1 coaching, she offers courses to help you heal your gut and improve your health. Mary lives in San Francisco and Lake Tahoe in Northern California. Read more about her coaching practice here and her background here.