Tag Archives: sleep

Natural Approaches for Insomnia

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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:
Hormones
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
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.

Blood Sugar
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!

The Medicinal Value of Culinary Herbs (With a recipe for Tummy Soother Sleep Tea)

One of my favorite ways to help people connect with nature and health is to take them out on medicinal herb walks.  Often, as we walk around in a wild space, someone will point to something and say “is that an herb or a weed?”  Well, the difference is really just semantics: when we decide that a plant is valuable to us personally, we call it an herb.  When we decide we don’t like it, it’s in the way of something else we’d prefer to have in that spot, or we just don’t know what to do with it, it’s a weed.

The dividing line between medicinal and culinary herbs can also often be thin.  On a broad level, the differences are obvious: medicinal herbs serve a health promoting purpose and culinary herbs taste good.  Also, many medicinal herbs have potential toxicity so they must be taken in specific dosages to avoid causing problems.  However, on the other hand many culinary herbs have potent medicinal properties of which we are often unaware.  Often these herbs are dried, concentrated, or distilled to create medicines, but they also have value fresh from your backyard or the fridge.

For many culinary herbs, they are medicinal for the same reason that they are delicious.  Their flavoring properties come from volatile oils contained in the seeds or foliage of the plant.  Those oils can also be medicinal.  Oregano and thyme oils are quite good at killing yeasts, and lavender and garlic are useful for killing bacteria.  Rosemary oil has been found to be an excellent antioxidant and is actually used as a preservative in many natural foods.

Beyond this, we can find that almost all of our common culinary herbs can be of use to promote health.  Mint and lemon balm teas are quite good for soothing an upset stomach, and fennel is quite good at helping to dispel gas.  Parsley (most often the root) has traditionally been used to promote kidney health.  Cilantro is an excellent adjunct to a detoxification regimen as it helps to move toxins from the body.  And sorrel is a very cooling plant that can be eaten to reduce a fever (raspberries and mushrooms are good for this as well)!

Every parent is a nurse and a doctor at some point and it always helps to have some tricks up your sleeve when a little one is feeling yucky.  The recipe below is handy for babies, kids, and adults with a colicky or upset tummy and helps to promote restful sleep through the night.

Soothing Tummy Sleep Tea

In a glass jar, combine equal parts (start with ¼ oz or 3 Tbsp of each):
Peppermint
Lemon balm
Chamomile
Lavender
Put 1 tsp of the mixture in a tea ball or bag.  Pour 1 cup boiled water over the tea, steep 5-8 minutes (you don’t need to take the tea ball out when it’s done steeping).  For adults and kids over 12 months, add 1 tsp honey.  For babies over 4 months, add 1 oz apple juice and give them 1-2 oz of the mixture  in a bottle (can combine with breast milk or other milk without the sweetener).