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.
- 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).
- 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:
- Your waist measures more than half your height
- You have strong sugar cravings
- You have a history of dieting and yo-yo weight gain and loss
- 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.
- 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.
- Finally, if you are addressing sleep challenges, a few consistent rules apply:
- No caffeine after 1 p.m.
- Reduce alcohol to 1 small drink before dinner, or eliminate completely.
- Gentle exercise daily: walk, yoga, swim, dance.
- 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 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.