One of the most common problems my patients report is difficulty with sleep. Whether they have trouble getting to sleep, staying asleep, or waking frequently, not getting the rest our bodies need is frustrating and significantly impacts the severity of other ailments. Poor sleep or insufficient is linked to weight gain, cardiovascular disease, decreased immunity and poor healing. The reasons for insomnia are varied, so natural treatments need to address whatever it is that is out of balance. When thinking about insomnia, we have to make sure that three different systems are ready for sleep; the hormones, the nervous system, and the muscles. Having good bedtime habits such as stopping screen time one hour before bed, stretching, yoga, or meditation before bed, and a cup of herbal tea are all great first steps, but if sleep remains a problem, the primary places I look to regain balance are Hormones, Neurotransmitters, Blood sugar, Muscle tension, and pain. Here is how I approach this issue:
In my practice, the most common reason I see for persistent insomnia is an imbalance in the hormones. There are several hormones that can be out of balance that will contribute to poor sleep. Often we will have to test to see which of these is the culprit:
Estrogen/Progesterone: Especially after childbirth and during menopause, when these reproductive hormones are not produced in balance with each other, sleep can be effected. Most commonly, this imbalance is accompanied by hot flashes and night sweats.
Thyroid: When thyroid function gets too low or too high it can impact the sleep. If thyroid levels are too high, often there are heart palpitations or agitation along with the insomnia. When thyroid is too low, people often will wake feeling insufficiently rested no matter how long they have slept.
Cortisol: This is our primary hormone that tells us we are awake. It is a stress hormone that helps the body to mobilize blood sugar for fight or flight situations (aka, so we can run from a bear). If we have too much stress over a prolonged period of time, though, the body will sometimes start making cortisol in the middle of the night–when this is the culprit people often will wake at 3-4am and won’t be able to go back to sleep.
Neurotransmitters are amino-acid based chemicals produced by our nervous system that tell our brain and nerves how we feel–sleepy, awake, excited,happy, sad, etc. The three neurotransmitters that are most associated with deep, relaxing sleep are melatonin, serotonin, and GABA. GABA is derived from the amino acids glutamine or glutamate, and serotonin and melatonin are made from tryptophan. For people who are experiencing persistent or severe sleep difficulties, we can test to see what your levels are and if the more excitatory neurotransmitters are too high to allow your brain to calm down. Many of our best natural sleep aids are made from these neurotransmitters or contain precursors to them.
This category is directly related to the discussion on cortisol, above. For people who have difficulty keeping their blood sugar stable (either from hypoglycemia, metabolic syndrome, or diabetes), and especially for people who do not eat regularly, eat dinner very early, or eat sweets after dinner, this can impact sleep. For instance, if you eat dinner at 6pm, by 3am it has been 9 hours since you last ate. Although cortisol is primarily a stress hormone, its other function is to mobilize glucose from storage when the blood sugar gets too low. When cortisol spikes at 3am, then the brain wakes up and it becomes difficult to go back to sleep. In this case, a light protein snack right before bed such as an apple with peanut butter will greatly improve sleep.
Muscle tension and Pain
For people with chronic pain, it isn’t sleep itself that is the problem, but the pain that keeps them up. If there is chronic pain we have to get to the root of it and fix this issue. Often, however, there can be muscle tension that causes pain or headaches and leads to poor sleep. Tight muscles also may just keep the body so tense that sleep is difficult regardless of pain. The simplest options for helping the muscles relax before bed are stretching, deep breathing, hot baths and hydrating during the day (not so it keeps you up having to use the restroom). Other very effective options are taking some minerals such as Calcium or magnesium or drinking coconut water which is high in potassium before bed.
Insomnia can be a brief, transitory concern that is related to a specific event or a problem that can last many years. Persistent insomnia can lead to or exacerbate a host of other health concerns. By narrowing down the causes, we can individualize a plan to help put you back to sleep!