Insomnia affects various areas of one’s life and health
Sleep is important for good health. Inadequate sleep is a major stressor on the body and has been implicated in obesity, insulin resistance, heart disease, impaired cognitive function, and numerous other health complaints. Staying awake for just one night is enough to make you act as though you’re legally intoxicated if you get behind the wheel.
Too little sleep impacts your levels of thyroid and stress hormones, which in turn can affect your memory and immune system, your heart and metabolism, and much more. Over time, lack of sleep can lead to:
- Accelerated aging
- High blood sugar levels and an increased risk of diabetes
- Brain damage
There are many different reasons why a person may suffer from insomnia
A common reason that people cite for not being able to fall asleep at night is that their “brain won’t shut down”. Most of us live very busy lives, and so this comes as no surprise.
The sympathetic nervous system (flight or fight mode) is activated throughout the day. In order to fall asleep, one needs to activate the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest); the transition from one to the other is not as simple as resting your head on a pillow. Shifting the balance in favour of parasympathetic activation during the day by managing stress, makes it much easier to fall asleep at night.
Hormones play a role in sleep, for example, low progesterone and high cortisol could contribute to insomnia. Low blood sugar is also a common reason for poor sleep, and can often be remedied with something as simple as a banana. When struggling to fall asleep and/or waking up at night, eat a banana -they are high in the amino acid L-tryptophan, which gets converted to 5-HTP in the brain. The 5-HTP in turn is converted to serotonin (relaxing neurotransmitter) and melatonin (necessary for sleep). Bananas are also high in potassium and magnesium, both being muscle relaxants. If struggling with insomnia, don’t have a high-protein meal late at night. Best to have a carbohydrate-rich snack before bedtime and eat your main protein meal before 6pm.
Excessive inflammation in the body will cause insomnia. Many people struggle to sleep when they are following an antimicrobial regimen. As the pathogenic micro-organisms die-off, they release more biotoxins in the system, increasing inflammation, which interferes with the synthesis and metabolism of neurotransmitters and disrupts sleep. Waking between 1am and 3am is an indication that the liver is probably overburdened with toxins and 3am waking could mean that blood sugar levels are very low. Struggle to sleep around full moon? This is the time parasite eggs hatch, causing more inflammation and activity in the colon.
While many of the reasons for insomnia can be helped with a bit of discipline and good sleep hygiene practices, there are more serious conditions that can underlie insomnia. Sleep apnea, nasal/sinus allergies, gastrointestinal problems, endocrine imbalances such as hyperthyroidism, arthritis, asthma, neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, chronic pain, restless legs syndrome and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder have been shown to interfere with sleep and may require medical intervention.
Ways to help
There are many things that one can do to help improve sleep. One is to create rituals around the rhythms of activity and rest, for example, try to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. This helps to regulate your circadian rhythm, which is basically a 24-hour internal clock that is running in the background of your brain and cycles between sleepiness and alertness at regular intervals. It's also known as your sleep/wake cycle. A study has found that chronic disruption of this sleep/wake cycle leads to weight gain, impulsivity, slower thinking, and other physiological and behavioral changes in mice, similar to those observed in people who experience shift work or jet lag.
Several studies have found exercise to be effective at reducing symptoms of insomnia, and some evidence indicates that exercise may be as effective as sleeping pills.
Stress management throughout the day is important in order to help you to activate your parasympathetic nervous system - take the time to rest and manage your stress during the day - be that through deep breathing, walking barefoot in nature, reading a book, taking a short 20 minute nap, or whatever works best to calm you.
Natural light entering the eyes is very important in regulating the circadian rhythm, as is darkness at night. Night time, should be devoid of electronics, lights should be dimmed and a generally soothing atmosphere is most conducive to relaxing the body. Light, and particularly blue light—has been shown to disrupt the production of melatonin, which is the primary hormone involved in sleep regulation. Total darkness is ideal for a good night’s sleep. You should not be able to see your hand when held in front of your eyes.
Instead of watching television, or scrolling on your cell phone at night, working late or doing anything else stimulating, try reading a good book, take a warm bath or listen to relaxing music.
It is important to switch off your cell phone when going to bed and not charge it in the bedroom during the night. Avoid electric clocks, turn off the wifi, and all electronic and wire-less devices, in order to minimise the presence of EMF (electromagnetic fields), which have been shown to affect sleep quality and health.
Once in the bedroom, some people find the sound of white noise or nature sounds, such as the ocean or forest, to be soothing for sleep. You’ll also want to adjust the temperature in your bedroom to a cool setting (most people find they sleep best at temperatures no higher than 21 degrees Celsius and perhaps even a bit lower than that).
Also, ensure that you have a good quality mattress and pillow that is comfortable for you.
It is best to avoid, or at the very least minimise caffeine, sugary foods, cocoa, excessive alcohol and other stimulants, particularly from the afternoon onward, as these have all been shown to interfere with sleep.
Most importantly avoid sleeping pills! Taking powerful sleeping medication can be compared with crash dieting. It might be a short-term solution, but will not result in long-term healthy sleeping habits. Most sleeping pills are extremely difficult to come off. They might address the symptom, but in general exacerbate the underlying causes that lead to insomnia in the first place.
Supplements to help
There are a few supplements that may help with sleep - do consult your healthcare practitioner for advice and dosages.
Magnesium: Magnesium has calming effects on the nervous system.
L-Theanine: This is an amino acid that has been shown to have a calming effect on the brain.
L-Taurine: An amino acid that reduces cortisol levels and increases the production of GABA, which is a major inhibitory neurotransmitter - our bodies’ natural “off” switch.
5-HTP: This is the precursor to melatonin, and should not be taken if you are taking SSRIs or other antidepressants.
Melatonin: If 5-HTP doesn’t work, you might consider taking melatonin itself. It’s more likely to be effective if your melatonin levels are low.
Acetylcholine: Acetylcholine is the chief neurotransmitter in the brain responsible for learning, memory, thought and synaptic plasticity. Increasing levels of acetylcholine can result in improved perception, concentration, memory recall, verbal fluency and better overall cognitive function. Choline is a chemical precursor to Acetylcholine, and can be supplemented.
Herbs: Herbs such as valerian, Passiflora incarnata and Lavender might be helpful.
Progesterone: Low levels of the hormone progesterone has been linked with insomnia. Bioidentical progesterone cream is highly recommended, not synthetic progestin.
Lithium orotate: The mineral lithium supports methylation, which is necessary for the production of melatonin and healthy balance of neurotransmitters. People with mutations of the COMT enzyme, especially benefit from supplementing with low-dose natural lithium orotate.
Homeopathic: There are numerous homeopathic sleep remedies, but we find ‘Sleep’ from Pegasus most effective.
It is clear that sleep is very important to physical and mental health. Beating insomnia requires a disciplined, multi-faceted approach, with lasting lifestyle changes. It cannot simply be cured overnight with a pill.
There are many different approaches, and no one-size-fits all solution. It is best to experiment with different methods until you find an approach that works best for you. While the path to a restful night may not be exactly clear, one thing is for certain, that insomnia needs to be resolved.
By Justine Priday and Heidi du Preez
Author: Heidi du Preez, Pr.Sci.Nat
Heidi du Preez is a registered Professional Natural Scientist. She holds a master degree in Science and specialises in Precision Medicine and Nutritional Biochemistry. Heidi is co-founder of myHealing and practices in Cape Town, South Africa and online.
Author: Justine Priday
Justine Priday is a Health Coach. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Physiology, Psychology and Genetics, as well as a honours degree in Psychology. She is passionate about all aspects of health and practises in Cape Town, South Africa.