Did you know that your body only heals when it is deeply relaxed, or sleeping? Inadequate sleep is a very common problem. In fact, 40% of American adults say they experience occassional insomnia, and 20% have severe insomnia. Severe insomnia is defined as having difficulty falling asleep and maintaining sleep at least 3x a week for a month or more, causing fatigue during the day or impaired function. Of course women are 30% more likely to report insomnia than men. For people over 65, 50% of them report chronic sleep problems. But don't just reach for those sleeping pills!
Discovering the source of insomnia can be a challenge for practitioners. Medical conditions and issues can contribute, such as hormone imbalances, adrenal stress or fatigue, medications, headaches, respiratory problems, arthritis, fibromyalgia, psychiatric and mood disorders, congestive heart failure, GERD, restless leg syndrome, anxiety, nocturnal hypoglycemia, chronic or intermittent pain, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, sleep apnea, and peripheral vascular diseases. Be sure to discuss these health conditions with your practitioner to help determine the best course of action to restore healthier sleep cycles.
A number of herbs, nutrients, and neuro-transmitters can be excellent for helping calm the nervous system, relax the excitability of the nerves, strengthen the adrenals, and help get us back to restorative sleep patterns. Herbs such as valerian, hops, and passion flower have been tested in double-blind studies with a cumulative effect in 2 weeks. They can help reduce the time it takes to fall asleep from 84 minutes to 23 minutes, and lengthen the sleep duration from 3.4 to 5.9 hours!
Adaptogens can also have a significant role in sleep problems. Adaptogens are natural plant substances that increase the body's non-specific resistance and normalize the functions of the body.Ashwagandha is an excellent choice to include. It has been shown to reduce corticosteroids, a glucocorticoid hormone structurally similar to cortisol. Ashwagandha is also excellent for reducing stess, enhancing mood, reducing anxiety and increasing energy. When cortisol levels are out of balance,Magnolia is another herb that can be used. It can help improve mood, increase relaxation, induce a restful sleep, and enhance stress reduction.
Rhodiola is another potent adaptogen. It is thought to strengthen the nervous system, fight depression, enhance immunity, elevate the capacity for exercise, enhance memory, aid weight reduction, increase sexual function and improve energy levels. It has been shown to shorten recovery time after prolonged workouts, to increase attention span, memory, strength, and anti-toxic action. Rhodiola has been found to improve hearing, to regulate blood sugar levels for diabetics and protect the liver from environmental toxins. It can also enhance thyroid function, improve adrenal gland reserves, and enhance thymus gland function.
L-theanine is an amino acid present only in the tea plant and certain mushrooms. Its structure is similar to that of L-tryptophan, a precursor to the neurotransmitter serotonin. L-theanine reduces stress and relaxes your brain by increasing alpha wave activity. It also has stress reducing effects at higher doses than you get with a cup of tea. It can be used during the day as well for stress reduction because it does not cause drowsiness, but relaxes the busy, stressed mind.
Magnesium is a mineral found in low levels in many foods. It is a component of more than 325 different enzymes in the human body. It plays an important role in hydration, muscle relaxation, energy production and, crucially, the deactivation of adrenaline. Having sufficient magnesium in your body does not necessarily guarantee that you will go into a deep sleep quickly and stay there, but insufficient stores of the mineral guarantee that you won't! Almost everyone I see is short of magnesium. How can you tell if you need more magnesium? If you're having difficulty in going to sleep, find that you wake easily or wake before the alarm, have too much adrenal strees, or hormone imbalances, you most likely need magnesium. Magnesium is vital for the function of GABA receptors.
Have a busy, active mind at night? GABA is a calming neuro-transmitter than functions in the nervous system reducing anxiety and stress. Without it, we remain tense, our thoughts race and we lie in bed staring at the ceiling. It means 'Gamma Amino Butyric Acid', and it occupies the nerve receptor sites for anxiety or stress related messages so that these are restrained from reaching the brain, which helps in the reduction of stress. It has a tranquilizing effects that calms the brain and also has been shown to reduce seizures and hypertension.
Melatonin is a natural hormone that is produced in the pineal gland for sleep regulation as it regulates our transition from daytime to night. A key factor in how human sleep is regulated is exposure to light or to darkness. Exposure to light stimulates a nerve pathway from the retina in the eye to an area in the brain called the hypothalamus. It is advised to avoid exposure to computer and tablets screens at least a couple of hours before bed as it can stimulate daylight with artifical blue light, which inhibits melatonin production. Taking a typical dose (1 to 3 mg) may elevate your blood melatonin levels to 1 to 20 times normal. It also needs to be taken at the correct time of day, such as an hour before you plan to go to sleep. Some studies show promise for the use of melatonin in shortening the time it takes to fall asleep and reducing the number of awakenings, but not necessarily total sleep time.
Developing good sleep habits is also essential! Be sure your bedroom is completely dark at night, with NO electronics in the room. Do NOT keep an LED alarm clock next to your bed. If you need one at all, keep it on the other side of the room. Cell phones should not be in the room but can be nearby, with the ringer turned off. Eliminate the use of any caffeine at least 6 hours before, or limit it to only mornings. Don't use your bed for watching TV at night, like the nightly news! Drink water or fluids at least 1 hour before going to sleep. Try meditation, deep breathing techniques, or inspirational reading before retiring for the night. Once you get back into healthy restorative sleep, you will find you have more energy, wake up refreshed, and your mood and irritability improve greatly. I know I need at least 7-9 hours of sleep every night!
Jane Smolnik is a Naturopathic doctor and Iridologist with a holistic health practice in Asheville, NC. She is also the owner of the web based health site 'AdrenalMasters.com'. Please visit her site, or www.ultimatehealing.com for more info. You will find several excellent natural sleep remedies in the online store on either site.