Sleep is fundamental to good health; it is the time during which our body repairs itself and recuperates from day-to-day wear and tear. However, according to Statistics Canada, one in every seven Canadian aged 15 or older (about 3.3 million people!) have trouble going to sleep or staying asleep.
A lack of sleep puts you at a greater risk for anxiety, heart disease, lowered immunity, high blood sugar levels and obesity, and causes the body’s stress hormones to become unbalanced.
The #1 culprit: stress
You’re probably not surprised to learn that insomnia often comes with times of stress. Under stress, our bodies produce more stress hormones including cortisol, which increases alertness and helps us get through stressful situations. Cortisol levels normally are higher in the morning to help us get up and going, and lowest in the evening, allowing us to relax and sleep.
However, under high stress conditions (common in modern society) people get stuck in the high cortisol mode. This is a major factor with sleep difficulties - we’re too alert and on guard to fall into a proper, recuperative deep sleep.
Other causes of insomnia
Stress is by far the most common cause I see in my practice, but there are other underlying medical conditions you should be aware of if you’re having sleep problems.
The following have been known to majorly disrupt sleep: menopause, hormone imbalances, substance abuse, chronic pain, acid reflux/digestive disorders, sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, allergies, blood sugar imbalances, and even some medications prescribed to treat other conditions.
There are also lifestyle and mental health causes for insomnia: if you’re a shift worker, for instance, your circadian rhythm can be thrown out of whack, and anxiety and depression can be huge contributors to restless nights.
How to treat insomnia
Insomnia is a complex problem and needs to be treated as such, through careful evaluation of its causes and a holistic approach to healing.
Due to the role stress plays, stress management techniques are a great place to start - try deep breathing, meditation and mindfulness.
Sleep hygiene is also an incredibly important component of restful sleeps. If you’ve never heard this term before, it refers to the care we take before actually going to sleep. Sleep hygiene can look different for everyone, but some recommended practices across the board include: turning off all screens at LEAST an hour before bed, eliminating caffeine too late in the day, having a consistent bedtime, leaving the phone on airplane mode overnight, and ensuring your room is dark and quiet enough for a proper sleep.
There are also a series of natural supplements and herbs I recommend to my patients with sleep problems, including:
Adrenal support such as Adaptogens – Rhodiola, Ashwagandha, and Siberian ginseng provide stress reduction to help prevent the overproduction of stress hormones that can keep you wired even though you are exhausted from lack of sleep. Adrenal regulation is necessary in order to stop the viscious cycle of stress and insomnia. Stress is a very real factor for many people with insomnia.
Passionflower (Passiflora incarnate) has been used traditionally for anxiety disorders, general nervousness, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and insomnia.
5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) may prove to be better than melatonin at treating insomnia in some cases. In many cases, insomnia has been associated with a tryptophan deficiency in the tissues of the brain. Tryptophan is the precursor to 5-HTP, which is converted into serotonin and then into melatonin.
Melatonin helps maintain the body’s circadian rhythm, an internal 24-hour clock that plays a critical role when we fall asleep and when we wake up. The body produces more melatonin when it is dark and less when it is light. Being exposed to bright lights too late in the evening can disrupt melatonin production. Older people typically exhibit poor sleep due to reduced melatonin levels. A double-blind placebo-controlled study examined the effects of melatonin in doses ranging from 1-3 mg in subjects over 50 years of age. Both doses improved sleep.
Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) has been proven beneficial for sleep disorders, especially those associated with stress and anxiety.
PharmaGABA contains GABA, the most important inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain. It acts like a brake in times of increased stress, eliciting a sense of calm. Low levels of GABA have been linked to anxiety, depression, and insomnia. GABA increases the production of alpha brainwaves characterized by being relaxed, as well as greater mental focus and alertness. In addition, it has been shown to produce relaxation by reducing stress markers such as heart rate, cortisol levels, and pupil diameter.
Magnesium has been found to be effective for treating depression and anxiety, insomnia, short-term memory loss, irritability, and agitation. People suffering from headaches also benefit from magnesium supplementation.
If you’ve employed all of these tactics and are still struggling to get a peaceful night’s sleep, it may be time to visit an ND or your family physician. Sleep is so incredibly important to our good health, and sometimes a more integrated approach is necessary to truly catch the Zs your body needs!
Dr. Marita Schauch, Bsc, ND
Tall Tree Integrated Health Centre
5325 Cordova Bay Rd.
Victoria, BC V8Y 2L3