Resolving Insomnia Naturally: What to Do Now

by Dr. Deborah Gordon MD April 30, 2014

sleep

By Dr. Deborah Gordon MD

If someone could squeeze 8 hours of sleep into a vitamin pill, that scientist would surely win a Nobel Prize!

Restful sleep arises at the intersection of a wide range of hormonal influences and effects. If your metabolism, brain, and sex hormones are functioning well in balance with each other, you will sleep well. If you sleep well, you are more likely to enjoy a perfect balance of finely tuned metabolism, brain, and sex hormones!

There is no known dietary change or supplement that supports good health as well as a good night’s sleep. And nothing more elusive than a good night’s sleep to someone with insomnia.

Ultimately our sleep quality and quantity result from the balance of activities deep in the brain that stimulate wakefulness (characterized by rapid thought sequence and responsiveness to external stimuli) or allow sleep (withdrawal from the world of lights and sounds, just over a small barrier into a state characterized by sleep-stage-specific brain waves). Good sleepers are sure that it can’t be that complicated; chronic insomniacs can’t figure out what piece of the multi-layered puzzle is missing or crooked. I have been an intermittent insomniac during many times of my life, and have to report that there is hope, sleep can be remedied, under one condition:

If you have sleep troubles, make solving your sleep troubles a high priority. Once you are sleeping well, trust me, all your other troubles and priorities will flow more smoothly when you have more of your creative mind and sturdy body to help you!

Overcoming Insomnia by Simplifying Sleep

The pharmaceutical industry has come up with several categories of medications to help insomniacs. Unfortunately, they do not induce sleep (no characteristic brain wave patterns) but rather simple unconsciousness. Even worse, almost every kind of sleep aid, including over the counter anti-histamines, are associated with an increased risk of death among med users when compared to non-users.

Luckily, there are lifestyle measures that are often helpful for anyone challenged by insomnia.

  1. Sleep hygiene is more complicated than it used to be. We know more and we do more than we did 20 years ago, so there are more details to a sleep-inducing room than we once thought. In addition to blackout curtains, and silence (or white noise) as best you can manage, you would be wise to avoid any screen (iPad, computers or TV; Kindles are NOT backlit so they are not a problem) gazing in the 2-3 hours before bed. (The emitted blue wave length of light effectively convinces your brain that it’s morning and time to make cortisol and stop making melatonin: a good idea for morning, not so good at bedtime. The effect lasts 2-3 hours. Blue-blocking orange lens sunglasses are a 2nd choice, not as good as avoidance.) I encourage people to have minimal electric and electronic circuitry in their bedroom, to reduce EMF surges and exposures to which some are sensitive. (A recent study found that children with televisions in their bedroom slept less than others, even if they didn’t watch the tv’s in their bedroom.) Absolutely no cell phones or other wireless technology. Some people sleep better if they actually turn off the electric circuit to their bedroom at the breaker box.

A trickier part of sleep hygiene is timing: keep the same bedtime and, most important, same rising time every day of the week. Pick a time you can stick with (for me it’s 6:30 a.m.) and don’t vary by more than 30 minutes in each direction (up at 6 on days I go rowing, sleep ‘til 7 one morning a week just for indulgence).

  1. Insomniacs, particularly those who wake in the middle of the night after falling readily asleep, are encouraged to “balance blood sugar”. What does that mean? Your blood sugars are likely out of balance if you have any of the following issues:
    1. Your waist measures more than half your height
    2. You have strong sugar cravings
    3. You have a history of dieting and yo-yo weight gain and loss
    4. You get frequent infections of any kind, particularly yeast infections

Any of these issues would likely yield an elevated fasting blood sugar, fasting insulin or elevated serum triglycerides on laboratory testing, but you can infer that you might be “carbohydrate sensitive” if you have any of the above problems. Carb-sensitive insomniacs might benefit from following a high nutrient, low carbohydrate eating plan that includes abundant healthy fats (butter, avocado, coconut oil, animal fats, and fish or fermented cod liver oil), meat and organ meat from grass-fed animals, shellfish and fish, as well as a wide variety of vegetables, with limited fruits and no grains or added sugars.

A particularly useful food – almost a medicinal one for insomnia – might be bone broth which is high in glycine, an amino acid known to help induce and maintain the restorative stage of sleep known as deep sleep.

  1. Hormone balancing often requires the assistance of a skilled practitioner, but a few self-healing steps one can take include an honest self-assessment of whether your lifestyle supports good hormonal health. As an example, consider cortisol, one of the hormones made by the adrenal gland. Cortisol levels rise in any setting of perceived danger, which these days might include a near-miss at a stop sign, excessive and prolonged exercise, or a busy life balancing many duties at work and at home. Cortisol should rise in our blood stream dawn to noon and subside from noon til the following dawn. If you wake before dawn, wide awake!, on a regular basis, you might have early and inappropriate cortisol surges.

Our whole system works best if our cortisol “spikes” are infrequent and transient, not when they are repeated and sustained. We all know that stress, like love, “is in the eye of the beholder”: a missed flight means two different things if your forced non-travel day is added to a vacation or subtracted from a vacation! You can serve yourself well by cultivating a relaxed response to stress, through gentle exercise, meditation, or finding ways to laugh and relax in the midst of a busy life.

And exercise? Get some outdoor exercise every day if you can, even a gentle walk. This alone can do a world of good for insomnia troubles. Get outside in the morning to enhance falling asleep at bedtime; spend sometime outdoors in the pre-sunset hours to help maintain sleep through the night. No vigorous exercise in the 2-3 hours before bed, and consider no vigorous exercise at all for three months if an elevated stress response is waking you up brightly and regularly between 2-4 a.m.

Our other hormones sense and respond to our lives as well: our thyroid hormones and sex hormones regulate the “reproductive” area of our lives. Well-regulated hormones in women result in regular cycles and gentle aging with continued strength in menopause. For both men and women, good balance is reflected in appropriate fertility and a healthy sex life. If life’s demands have short-changed this area of your life, I encourage you to think about what you might do (in addition to eating well, and general de-stressing) to restore vitality and balance.

  1. Finally, if you are addressing sleep challenges, a few consistent rules apply:
    1. No caffeine after 1 p.m.
    2. Reduce alcohol to 1 small drink before dinner, or eliminate completely.
    3. Gentle exercise daily: walk, yoga, swim, dance.
    4. Most people are deficient in magnesium: eat plenty of leafy greens, nuts, and take supplemental magnesium if you have any magnesium deficiency symptoms (headaches, anxiety, high blood pressure or heart palpitations).

Supplements for overcoming insomnia and promotion of restful sleep can include simple vitamins and minerals (adequate vitamin D, calcium and magnesium, etc.), to herbs (valerian, passion flower, ashwaganda, and more), homeopathic remedies and actual hormonal treatments, such as properly timed melatonin, estrogen, progesterone, and DHEA. In general I would recommend working with a knowledgeable practitioner because the “minimal dose” principle should direct choice in all these areas.

Happily, many insomniacs respond well to gentle lifestyle measures.

You will be tempted to just try one or two and if you are a resilient insomniac, rather than a stubborn one, you will be sleeping again like a baby. If that doesn’t happen, I strongly encourage you to put you and your good sleep as a central priority in your life, and address as many of the lifestyle issues as are relevant to your situation.

You should see definite improvement in insomnia woes within 3-4 weeks, and expect solid good sleeping habits within three months. Stubborn insomniacs beyond that time, please consider consulting someone knowledgeable and gentle with sleep interventions!

About the Author

Dr. Deborah Gordon_mini

Dr. Deborah Gordon MD has a degree in English Literature from UC Berkeley and graduated from medical school at the University of California at San Francisco. With residency training in Family Practice, Dr. Deborah specializes in assisting her patients resolve chronic disease and illness via modification of lifestyle choices instead of the typical drug based conventional route with its plethora of side effects.

In her practice, she offers nutritional advice, food-based and other supplements, as well as homeopathic remedies and a limited number of herbs.

Those interested in an office or phone consultation may contact her office manager, Anne Meck at 541-482-8333. Dr. Deborah’s office is located at 1607 Siskiyou Boulevard, in the office of Madrona Health Care, in Ashland, Oregon.

She blogs at http://www.drdeborahmd.com.  You can also connect with her via Facebook by clicking here.

Picture Credit

 

Comments (48)

  1. Pingback: Monday Morsels 6.23.14 | Swallows from my Kitchen Window

  2. I find that if I have a teaspoon of honey with a sprinkle of salt before bed, I fall asleep right away. Also works for 2-4 am wakings! Got this tip from a biologist Ray Peat who writes a lot about hormone balance.
    Sometimes, I also dissolve a teaspoon of gelatine in water and drink it, helps with sleep as well as to keep the skin smooth!
    mb\’s last post: Selenium benefits and sources

    Reply
  3. Sue Lux Moreno via Facebook May 4, 2014 at 1:29 am

    I have been taking it and just talked my husband into taking it it has dropped his blood numbers 30 points.

    Reply
  4. Karen Hosack Bowden via Facebook May 3, 2014 at 7:36 am

    Or take a bath with Epsom Salts and your body will absorb the magnesium naturally.

    Reply
  5. Kim Snook Klingele via Facebook May 3, 2014 at 1:12 am

    Magnesium is a natural muscle relaxer & works great to relax you for sleeping well at night! I take 400 mg of Magnesium Citrate every night & have been sleeping like a baby for months now.

    Reply
  6. I struggled with sleep for 13 years despite a healthy, real food, gluten free diet and exercise. I used every natural treatment out there. Went to several doctors. Nothing worked so I finally gave in to using Temazepam in the largest dose possible. About 4 months ago my NP tested me for MTHFR. Turns out I’m a mutant – but not the fun kind like Storm. I now take B12 and Folate in special form, something about methylation issues. I’m sleeping about 6.5 consecutive hours using natural supplements like melatonin, valerian, and Kavinace. It’s been life changing.

    Reply
  7. I’ve had poor sleep all my life (I’m now 56). Recently I started taking desiccated thyroid gland after diagnosing myself with low thyroid function. (Doctors only wanted to go by the blood tests, which in my case were not revealing. My basal body temp of 96.2 was much more indicative of what was going on.) What a difference it has made for me. I sleep so much better at night and have much more energy during the day. I have been eating a WAPF diet for a couple of years. And I think that was an excellent decision for me. But the one change with the single biggest impact was desiccated thyroid gland.

    Reply
  8. Very good article!
    However I would like to know how to address Circadian rhythm sleep disorders successfully. In my case I am somehow unable to go to bed before 2AM even if I am really exhausted. I do not know what to do to fix this naturally (and the idea of forcing myself to go to bed earlier will not work, I tried that and I will not sleep). Thank you!

    Reply
    • Hi Maria, you are RIGHT, it’s very difficult to make yourself go to bed earlier unless you are so so tired from being up SO long, that it happens naturally. In sleep clinics, they address this problem by getting you up earlier and earlier. If you sleep from 2-10 a.m., start getting up at 9 for a few days… then 8. By then you should be able to go to bed by 1 a.m. Slowly march yourself back to more normal hours, but start by changing your rising time.

      Reply
      • I already tried that Deborah. First days I was even more tired but even so I was unable to sleep before 3AM as usual. I gave up as I could not function *at all* in the mornings. This is a huge issue for me, sort of a snowball effect. Very frustrating.

        Reply
  9. Elizabeth Barber LeDoux via Facebook May 1, 2014 at 1:55 am

    Reading at 2:00 am. More exercise. Bone broth. Quit going to bed at 8 with the “baby”.

    Reply
  10. Aurelie Cous via Facebook May 1, 2014 at 12:58 am

    Please guys stop writing your mate’s names on the thread to share with them! just click the share bottom~

    Reply
  11. Anna Grillo via Facebook May 1, 2014 at 12:13 am

    Same here Amanda! I just make sure I get to bed early, 8.30-9, to get as much sleep as I can. Not much else we can do at this stage hey?!

    Reply
  12. Amanda Martin via Facebook April 30, 2014 at 11:54 pm

    I sleep great … The baby not so much. It kills me seeing all of these sleep articles – I would if I could, but it doesn’t seem like that will occur during my child bearing years.

    Reply
  13. Pingback: Resolving Insomnia Naturally: What to Do Now » Nourishing News

  14. I find that a half cup or glass of homemade Kefir really relaxes me, mentally and physically and I sleep wonderfully.

    Reply
  15. Hi Alan Santana ahah, you and I think the same, but I have a different intonation in my voice, so let me re-phrase the sentence you noticed:

    There is no known dietary change or supplement that IS AS IMPORTANT TO MAINTAINING GOOD health as a good night’s sleep” … meaning, you can eat all the fantastic food and take great supplements but if your sleep is terrible, you are not reaping the benefits. That good health has to be built on a foundation of good sleep.

    Does that make sense?

    Reply
    • Thanks for the clarification. It’s one of those funny sentences that can be interpreted in multiple ways.

      There is no known dietary change or supplement that supports good health as well as (as effectively as) a good night’s sleep.

      Reply
  16. Thank you for this article!

    I would be interested in your thoughts on smart meters as I understand they disturb the pituitary and circadian rhythms with their constant pulsing of radiation.

    Unfortunately, my mom had to return her Kindle because it disturbed her circadian rhythms causing severe insomnia. I believe it was the Paperwhite, though.

    Reply
    • Hi Beth, smart meters can emit a strong and irritating electromagnetic field and definitely disrupt good sleep. And although Kindles are usually better tolerated, your mother’s experience is instructive: even if someone tells you that blue-blocking glasses or Kindles make electronic readers safe, they may not make them safe for YOU. Your own experience prevails.

      Reply
  17. Did I read this correctly?

    “There is no known dietary change or supplement that supports good health as well as a good night’s sleep. And nothing more elusive than a good night’s sleep to someone with insomnia.”

    Is it just me or this statement is completely wrong.
    I can think about many dietary changes and/or supplements that will support both, good health and good sleep. In fact if a dietary change supports your health in general then it will also improve your sleep.
    Alan Santana\’s last post: ¿Qué son los Radicales Libres?

    Reply
    • I think that may be a typo. Many people report better health and better sleep after transitioning to a Weston Price, traditional style diet, and there are various known supplements like certain herbs, bioidentical hormones and amino acids that support good health and sleep, as she discusses.

      Reply

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