Lack of sleep tends to be a very common problem with many people these days and yet it is so fundamentally important for healthy living. In the short term it can make you feel tired, grumpy, short tempered and unable to think straight. However, if you constantly don’t get enough sleep it can lower your immune system, have an aging effect on your body and can even make you gain weight. All in all not getting enough sleep makes you very miserable and unable to function.
There are many causes of sleep disturbances and there will be a time in most people’s lives when they have problems sleeping. You may have trouble getting to sleep, maintaining sleep or both. When looking at people’s sleep issues there are three main areas that I look at, so these are the ones that are covered below.
The adrenal glands can affect sleep when they are out of balance and generally tend to wake people around 3 am, when you feel alert and start thinking and you may have night sweats too. Menopausal women will know all about this as the adrenal glands get over worked producing hormones when the ovaries cut down production. Also any of us that have been under long term stress are in danger of wearing out the adrenal glands. This is due to their role in producing chemicals released by the body as an automatic stress response.
When we are looking to support the adrenals to improve our sleep there are a number of herbs that can be used. Some herbs are classed as “adaptogens”, which means they help our bodies adapt to stress. Many species of the ginseng family (Siberian, Korean, American) fall into this category, as well as plants like withania, astragalus and rhodiola. Also vitamin C is important, so much so that a large proportion of our vitamin C stores can be found in the adrenal glands.
Serotonin and Melatonin
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter (chemical messenger) that is released during the day in response to light and is important for positive mood. When it starts getting dark serotonin starts converting to melatonin, which helps induce sleep. So if we are low in serotonin we will not have enough melatonin, which could lead to poor sleep. When we are stressed we release more serotonin than normal, which could lead to low levels. Also in order to make serotonin you need an adequate intake of protein and enough vitamin B6, B3 and magnesium. Deficiencies in any of these nutrients could be addressed when trying to improve sleep. Herbs like St John’s Wort and SSRI antidepressants work to retain serotonin in the body, whereas substances like 5HTP provide the building blocks to make serotonin.
Blue light interferes with melatonin production, so don’t stay up all night working on the computer and have some relaxing time away from the TV before bed.
Calcium and Magnesium
Being deficient in either of these minerals can affect sleep quality. Magnesium seems to be most deficient in people, as the cells shed magnesium when we are stressed. Symptoms of magnesium deficiency include restless legs, facial twitching, cramps and waking in the night. Calcium seems to be more associated with difficulties getting to sleep. If you are going to take these supplements then it is good to take them in the evening.
Looking at other things to help
- Start relaxing at least an hour before you want to go to bed. Lots of people I speak to are “potterers” and say they do lots of little jobs in the evening and suddenly find it’s late
- Have a relaxing cup of chamomile or lemon balm tea in the evening. Also passionflower is a very relaxing herb to make you sleepy. Conversely avoid coffee in the evening and be aware how many cups you are drinking in the day. Any caffeinated drinks should be avoided in the evening along with stimulants late a night like alcohol. [Note- it takes 6-8 hours to metabolise 1 coffee]
- Start exercising as it increases serotonin
- Sleep in a dark quiet room
- Avoid bright overhead lights during the evening this suppresses sleep hormone release (Melatonin)
- Increase foods high in tryptophan the key amino acid from protein that helps increases serotonin. For example bananas, spirulina, soy, chicken, turkey, milk, seafood, nuts, seeds and legumes
By Clinicians Naturopath