Along with food, poor sleep is one of the most important contributor to chronic diseases that people are not talking about. It’s easy to blame excess weight on what you are eating, or lack of exercise, but good quality sleep has everything to do with your hormones and may have an impact on your food choices too.
So let’s look at sleep. What happens to induce sleep?
You have probably heard about a hormone called Melatonin – this is the sleep hormone, and is mainly made in the brain in a place called Pineal Gland. Melatonin production starts ramping up in the early evening and peaks at around 9-10pm for most people. Melatonin production is under the influence of so many factors in the body. It is made from an amino acid called tryptophan which is converted to 5-Hydroxytryptophan (5HTP), which is converted to serotonin, which is then converted to melatonin. This is why people with depression (who usually have a low serotonin level) also have poor quality sleep because their melatonin production is affected. Nutritional deficiency e.g. B6, low tryptophan, may influence melatonin levels as well as other factors such as artificial light (including light from your electronic devices or reading light), a high cortisol (stress hormone – cortisol normally spikes in the morning, and then tails off towards the end of the day. However, some people have a reverse pattern where they have a high level at night). Also, if there are issue with your pineal gland e.g. heavy metals, trauma, your melatonin production may be limited.
Having suffered with insomnia in the past, I can tell you there is no one quick cure. However, the good news is that, if you dig deep to find out the REASON why you cannot sleep (e.g. by assessing the above factors I listed with your practitioner), you can fix it. Just as not one diet fits all, there is no one magic cure. You need to get to the bottom of why you are not sleeping and tackle that.
Here are some of my top tips – a multi-pronged approach is usually what is needed as there is usually multiple factors contributing to poor sleep:
No electronics at least 1-2 hours before bed (SORRY!) – if you read, read a paper book. If you really cannot avoid electronics then consider blue light blocking glasses (I cannot vouch for their efficacy though no studies done yet, but for what it’s worth I do use them when I cannot help but use electronics beyond 9pm)
Find out your sleep Chronotype here – we are all very different and it has been shown that we have different biological clocks – some of us really are night owls whereas others are larks. Find out what you are and try to work out a routine that works with your individual biological body type e.g. if you a lark try to get to bed early rather than staying up and getting that second wind (powered by cortisol, which will then impact on your quality of sleep)
Watch out for caffeine – caffeine binds to receptors in the brain which may reduce melatonin production. Some people metabolise caffeine very slowly, and so it is a good idea to avoid caffeine after mid-day.
Stick to the same bedtime (give or take 30 minutes0 – this trains your body to set up a regular circadian rhythm and maximise the melatonin production
As soon as you wake up – go and get some sunlight exposure – get outside, go to the window and let day light SHUT OFF melatonin production. In order to have good melatonin production at night, you need to ensure it is SHUT OFF during the day. Exposure to sun light as soon as you wake up helps reset the circadian rhythm by switching off melatonin during day time hours. As we move into winter now, it might be hard to expose yourself to sunlight as it may still be dark outside – if that’s the case, try to maximise your daylight exposure during the day e.g. take a walk in the sun during the day. Get outdoors.
Hormonal balance – estrogen and progesterone has effects on serotonin (and therefore melatonin) synthesis – therefore, if you are deficient in estrogen, or if you are estrogen dominant, you may also have sleep issues. Work with a practitioner who can test/assess this for you.
Some foods may naturally raise melatonin e.g. tart cherries (or tart cherry juice) – look for unsweetened. It is also important that you have adequate tryptophan in your diet e.g. chickpea, pumpkin seeds, soy products like tofu. Melatonin or sometimes 5HTP supplementation may help however you must check with your practitioner before starting this because there are serious interactions (particularly of 5HTP) with other medications or medical conditions.
There are some herbs which may help with sleep too: Valerian, passiflora, Skullcap – make sure you consult a practitioner before taking these.
Stress management – I cannot emphasize meditation enough. It is not a practice you use ONLY on the night that you cannot sleep. Think of it as going to the gym – you don’t say to yourself “I need some muscles so let me do 3 reps of these weights now” and expect to see gains straight away right? The same goes for meditation. Daily practice is key to building neuronal pathways that, over time, will help you manage stress and reduce cortisol (and a high cortisol level interferes with sleep)
Along the same lines as stress management – useful things which may help to relax you and to incorporate into your pre-bed routine are:
Essential oil – Lavender, vetiver, and blends like Serenity by Doterra* can relax you and thereby reducing the sympathetic drive and promote a more parasympathetic state more conducive to sleep. Diffuse these oils at bed time, or add to your bath, and always make sure you dilute in some carrier oil and use the highest quality, unadulterated oil (and check they do not interact with your medications).
Epsom salt bath – Epsom salt contains magnesium, and magnesium can induce relaxation/help with sleep. You can also supplement with magnesium (either as magnesium citrate or glycinate, but always check with your physician before supplementing, and beware that if you already have loose stools magnesium citrate might make it worse)
Melatonin supplements – you might want to consider using a melatonin supplement (liposomal preparations may reach the brain faster) – this may be particularly helpful if you are jet-lagged, however, if you are having to use these on a daily basis then you should take a step back and reassess why it is that you are needing to supplement with melatonin, because your body should be able to synthesize this by itself.
If high cortisol is an issue – you may consider a supplement that calms this in the evening e.g. L-theanine, Ashwaganda, phosphatidylserine (consult a practitioner before starting) and ideally, test and know what your cortisol is doing before you start supplementing.
CBD – I am not an expert on this but there are reports that this helps some people with sleep by calming down the nervous system, however, i don’t really know enough to make a recommendation, except to say that it may not be legal in your locality and also make sure the quality and formulation is ideal.
Finally, sleeping pills may be necessary as short term aids but they can be habit-forming, and studies have shown long term use associated with cognitive impairment for some so make sure you are fixing the underlying root causes of why you are not sleeping so you don’t need to become dependent on sleeping pills, always follow medical advice given by your practitioner as this post serves as an educational tool and does not replace/represent medical advice.