One of the most common concerns I run across with my clients is insomnia – the inability to sleep altogether, or trouble falling or staying asleep. Sleep is vital to good health! And well being! Everyone knows that frazzled and fatigued feeling you get when you haven’t had a good night’s rest. I’ll share some strategies for getting a good eight hours’ worth.
We function according to daily circadian rhythms that tell us when to sleep and when to wake, in accordance with the rise and fall of the sun. Cortisol levels peak in the early morning hours to get us out of bed as the sun rises and taper off as the sun sets, reaching their lowest levels three hours after dark. This daily rhythm of cortisol dictates when we should be our most active and when we should rest. Cortisol not only dictates our sleep and wake states: it is also the primary hormone involved in directing immune system functioning.
One reason why good sleep is so vital is because that is when the immune system does the majority of its work. As cortisol drops at night, we enter into rest and recovery, physical repair and psychic regeneration, and immune cells become more active. Our immune system will function optimally if we to go to sleep by 10 p.m: Physical repair takes place between 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. when immune cells patrol our bodies, eliminating cancer cells, bacteria, viruses and other harmful agents. If your circadian rhythm is disrupted and cortisol is elevated at night, this immune function is compromised, and you probably aren’t getting restful sleep. You may feel run down or susceptible to illness.
Most people need a good solid eight hours. I feel best with nine. But too much sleep can be detrimental as well. More than ten hours could signal a problem like depression or chronic fatigue from depleted cortisol levels and burned out adrenal glands. When you go to sleep makes a difference too: if you wait too late past 10pm, you’re missing out on vital immune system repair.
The best way to ensure restful sleep is to practice good sleep hygiene. Make sure your bedroom is as uncluttered as possible, is the proper temperature, and is very dark at night. Your body produces the important antioxidant melatonin at night, and production is stimulated by darkness. This is one reason why people who work the night shift have higher rates of cancer than those with regular schedules. Also, some people are sensitive to the EMFs of alarm clocks and other electronics like tvs and stereos, so it’s best to keep these out of the bedroom altogether, save for an alarm clock that should not be directly next to your head.
Enhance sleep by taking time to wind down before bed. Try a hot bath with epsom salts and lavender essential oil. Drink herbal teas or try tinctures with chamomile, passion flower, valerian. These are nervine herbs that relax the nervous system. Also try tinctures or herbal supplements with adaptogenic herbs such as rhodiola, ashwaganda, or siberian ginseng. Get to bed at the same time every night to establish a regular schedule. If you tend to wake frequently throughout the night, a snack with protein and complex carbs shortly before bed can help stabilize your blood sugar. When your blood sugar drops too low at night, your brain tells you to wake up because it needs fuel! Yogurt is great because it has both protein and tryptophan, an essential amino acid that aids sleep. Other good sources are eggs, nuts and seeds, poultry, and bananas (eat with a protein like dairy or nuts to avoid a blood sugar crash – bananas are high in sugar). Alcohol can adversely affect sleep due to its sugar content and overburden placed on the liver. Avoid heavy meals at night too.
When clients come to me with sleep disturbances, I give them the adrenal stress hormone saliva test to assess cortisol levels. If you have high cortisol at night, you’re not going to sleep well, or at all. Also, low progesterone in women can affect sleep; some women notice they don’t sleep as well later on in their cycles. It is easy to correct hormonal imbalances with bio-identical hormones once I know the results, and people often see improvements right away.
Aside from herbs, also try a mineral complex in the evenings – calcium and magnesium are especially necessary for sleep. Try up to 500mg of both after dinner. Taking 5-htp, the precursor to serotonin, can help. Inositol enhances REM sleep. Take 100 mg daily, at bedtime. Try a B complex during the day to reduce stress (not at night, it can be stimulating). Also try melatonin, 1.5 mg an hour or so before bed. Gradually increase the dose if this doesn’t work, up to 5mg.
Finally, it doesn’t hurt to have a good quality mattress. Organic bedding is all the rage right not and for good reason: some folks are so chemically sensitive that chemicals used for mattress processing can affect them.
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