When was the last time you got a good night’s sleep? If you’re working back through your memory, and can’t remember, or maybe even forget what you were doing halfway through, that’s a good sign that you’re chronically sleep deprived. It’s a very common problem these days with nearly one quarter of Americans saying they experience insomnia on a regular basis.
Even one night of lost sleep can affect your memory, mood, metabolism, reaction time and ability to make decisions.
insomnia that lasts months or even years has dire consequences. Studies
show that sleep loss over time contributes to an increased risk of
developing practically every major chronic illness,
including diabetes, heart disease and Alzheimer’s. Inadequate sleep
also leaves you with a higher likelihood of becoming obese and
As you can see, proper sleep is vital
to long-term health. It may even save your life. A 14-year Norwegian
study with more than 54 thousand participants found that 34 percent of
motor vehicle deaths could have been prevented if those involved weren’t
deprived of sleep. Another study done at the University of Laval in
Quebec found that the dangers associated with sleep deprivation could be
the result of the way attention span is negatively affected.
So what is behind this epidemic of poor sleep? It’s quite a complex problem that could be tied to many factors.
Medications: Some prescription and over-the-counter
drugs contain caffeine to keep you awake. Others may disrupt various
bodily mechanisms, which are vital for falling and staying asleep. A
partial list of drugs that may contribute to insomnia includes
corticosteroids, statins, alpha- and beta-blockers, antidepressants, ACE
inhibitors, dementia and Alzheimer’s drugs, allergy treatments, and
arthritis supplements such as glucosamine and chondroitin.
The ridiculous thing is, lack of
sleep causes many of the conditions that these drugs may be treating,
including anxiety, depression, heart disease, high blood pressure and
arthritis. Therefore, covering up chronic illness with medications often
initiates a vicious cycle of side effects, disease and further drug
Parasites: This is a bit of a squeamish one — nasty
creatures living in your gut or blood stream could actually be keeping
you awake at night. Experts point out that many parasites are most
active at inopportune hours such as 3 or 4 a.m. Functional medicine
practitioners can diagnose and treat parasitic infections without doing
damage to your fragile friendly gut bacteria.
Circadian rhythm disruption: You’ve probably heard
about the inner clock that is controlled by a tiny section of the brain
called the pineal gland. The circadian rhythm is extremely sensitive to
disruption. By sticking to a regular waking and sleeping routine, you
train your brain to sleep at night and be awake during the day. Ideally,
get bright sunlight for at least 15 to 20 minutes as soon as possible
after waking, and avoid blue light (like the type from electronic
devices) at night. An easy way to prevent blue light exposure is to wear
orange or yellow-lensed glasses after sundown. This might look goofy,
but it encourages your brain to produce melatonin, a brain chemical that
is vital for deep, healing sleep.
Blood sugar: If your blood sugar levels fluctuate
too much during the night, you will have trouble staying asleep. Eating
an evening meal rich in proteins and fats will help keep blood sugar
stable. Fluctuating blood sugar levels can induce night-time cortisol
production — a stress-related hormone that keeps you alert and awake.
Food sensitivities: The gut and brain are intimately
connected, so eating foods that irritate your digestive system is a
sure way to lose sleep. Gluten is particularly dangerous, since it
affects blood flow to the brain. Have a holistic healthcare practitioner
complete IgG and IgA panels. These tests will determine which foods
cause inflammatory reactions in your body. Cutting out problem foods can
improve sleep quantity and quality.
Besides removing foods that may be
causing a sensitivity reaction, other substances can also disrupt your
sleep. Caffeine is an obvious one, although just cutting down on cups of
coffee isn’t enough. Soda and energy drinks can also be major contributors to anxiety and excessive wakefulness.
Neurotransmitter imbalance: Brain chemicals are used
to stimulate or calm your state of mind — if they are out of balance,
you might be unable to sleep soundly. Serotonin and GABA need to be
adequately high to induce a state of rest, while dopamine, glutamate and
adrenaline must be sufficiently low. Inflammation and hormone levels
are usually to blame for neurotransmitter fluctuations; these problems
can be corrected with exercise and a real food diet.
Allergies: A 2006 study suggested that sleep
disorders and allergies may be interlinked, since people with allergies
were found to be more than twice as likely to suffer from a sleep
disorder like insomnia. Certainly a stuffy nose and itchy eyes never
helped anyone sleep better. Visiting a trusted medical practitioner can
help decode your personal allergy triggers so that you can avoid them.
Rectifying leaky gut syndrome with an appropriate change in diet can
also banish allergies.
Toxic bed environment: Unfortunately, the very
things you rely on for that comfortable nighttime sanctum may be
sabotaging your sleep. Mattresses are notorious for containing
formaldehyde and other industrial toxins from the manufacturing process.
Those made with springs can conduct electromagnetic fields into your
body, which is a problem for those with high sensitivity. Sheets,
pillows and upholstered headboards often contain chemical fire
retardants, which are required by law for safety, but might be
triggering a low-grade reaction that is keeping you awake. Invest in a
natural, nontoxic sleep setup made with materials such as organic wool
and cotton to eliminate chemicals which might be destroying your beauty
Natural remedies for insomnia
Luckily all of these insidious causes
of insomnia are largely within your control. Besides removing the
contributing factors discussed above, you can incorporate
sleep-promoting lifestyle practices and herbal remedies into your
is one simple way to calm the mind in preparation for sleep. While it
may currently seem impossible to quiet anxious thoughts and sit still
for a few minutes, the ability to meditate is a “muscle” that needs to
be flexed in order to grow strong. Just like any other skill, start
slowly — just a minute or two at first. Training your mind to meditate
improves your ability to focus on tasks and control impulses. This
results in increased cortical thickness, a structural change in the
brain which can be seen in medical imaging. Essentially, you develop a
quiet place in your mind. Each time you practice meditation you will be
able to return to this place faster and stay longer. In relation to
insomnia, meditation will allow you to switch off those racing thoughts
that often keep people awake.
way to prepare for effective meditation is to commit, before entering
the bedroom at night, to spend five minutes writing down everything that
is on your mind — including to-dos for the next day. By leaving your
worries at the door, you maintain the sanctity of the bedroom as a place
of rest. When you’re lying in bed trying to fall asleep, you can
dismiss the worries and obligations running through your mind because
you know you’ve transferred everything onto paper. An easy way to
facilitate this healthy habit is to keep a notebook, diary or planner in
a visible spot in your home so that you remember to make your list each
night and avoid going to bed with a racing mind.
Another natural insomnia-fighting
strategy is to use supplements that encourage restfulness. Magnesium is a
major nutrient required for good sleep — one that is deficient in up to
80 percent of the population. Using a transdermal magnesium supplement
(one that is applied to the skin) is the best way to increase your
magnesium stores. Most forms of oral magnesium are not well absorbed in
the digestive system.
Herbs such as passionflower, anise seed
and valerian are time-tested ways to knock yourself out naturally,
although they should not form the core of your better-sleep strategy.
Using these herbs initially while you work on addressing the root
cause(s) of your insomnia is fine in the short term.
These strategies are a great way to
promote better sleep gently and naturally without toxic medications or
the risk of side effects.
If you’re wondering about taking
melatonin, we believe that this is best avoided. Melatonin supplements
induce sleepiness by decreasing blood flow (and therefore oxygen supply)
to the brain and internal organs. A better strategy is to increase your
natural internal melatonin production by avoiding blue light as
While changing your routine is a
challenge, improved sleep is a worthwhile investment for your long-term
health. Try addressing these possible causes of insomnia so you can feel
like yourself again!
—The Alternative Daily