How's Your Sleep?

Mar 24, 2019

woman sleeping

If we're not sleeping, we're not healing! Sleep is essential for immune function, cellular repair and even cleaning our brain. Have you ever noticed how a good night's sleep leaves you feeling mentally refreshed, significantly less disturbed or emotionally stressed than the night before? Recent studies have shown that the cerebral spinal fluid surrounding your brain flushes out metabolic by-products that have accumulated throughout the day, and it's believed that getting at least 7-8 hours of sleep a night can significantly reduce the chance of Alzheimer's disease. So, if you're not sleeping well, having trouble falling asleep, waking often, or waking too early, we need to change that!

There are several possibilities why your sleep may be suffering, and it could be a combination of factors.

1. Cortisol. The ideal pattern of cortisol releasing from the adrenal glands (which sit on top of your kidneys) is to begin increasing in the very early hours of the morning, and elevate to a level that helps you wake up at your normal time. Ideally, cortisol will continue to increase throughout the morning, and then begin to gently decrease throughout the afternoon and evening, leading you to a restful state just in time for bedtime. When we are stressed, keyed up, and always in go mode, the adrenals are constantly being given the signal to continue pumping out cortisol. These are the people that feel tired all day (because they aren't sleeping well), and then lie in bed and stare at the ceiling all night. Or, these are the people that wake up in the middle of the night or early in the morning, wide awake, and can't get back to sleep. A possibly solution to regulating cortisol is an adrenal adaptogenic herb, such as Ashwaghanda, licorice root, or Eleuthero. My current favorite from Medi-Herb is Ashwaghanda Complex. An adaptogenic herb does just what it says, it assists the body into adapting to stress, and allows the adrenals to release cortisol in a more natural rhythm and amount.

2. Neurotransmitters. We've heard about tryptophan and how eating a big Thanksgiving dinner with lots of turkey will make us sleepy (the carb overload is certainly a factor too), and tryptophan is an amino acid that converts to serotonin, a feel good hormone that when low, can keep us from a satisfying nights sleep. For those on a lower carbohydrate diet that are having trouble falling asleep and feeling restless all night, consider that insulin helps shuttle tryptophan --> serotonin into the brain. Consider moving some of your allotted carbs closer to bedtime or increasing your overall carbohydrate intake. Since much of our serotonin is made in the gut, consider adding a probiotic to improve gut health and keep serotonin production as high as possible.

Melatonin is another chemical essential for sleep, is made from serotonin in the pineal gland, and naturally decreases as we age. Melatonin knows it's time to be released not only by circadian rhythm (like when you go to bed around the same time every night), but also by darkness. This is why looking at phones or electronics or having bright lights on can disrupt your sleep. I currently use blue light blocking glasses (they are not cute lol) at least an hour before sleep, and have on softer lamps in the evening. I don't recommend melatonin supplementation for younger patients, because the extra melatonin inhibits the release of human growth hormone (HGH) which is released in the second part of the night (another great reason to sleep long enough!). HGH is important for all ages as it plays an important role in healing and cellular regeneration, with effects on body composition and heart health. For patients 50's and older that have had a natural decrease in melatonin, melatonin supplementation may be a valid solution.

Melatonin is another chemical essential for sleep, is made from serotonin in the pineal gland, and naturally decreases as we age. Melatonin knows it's time to be released not only by circadian rhythm (like when you go to bed around the same time every night), but also by darkness. This is why looking at phones or electronics or having bright lights on can disrupt your sleep. I currently use blue light blocking glasses (they are not cute lol) at least an hour before sleep, and have on softer lamps in the evening. I don't recommend melatonin supplementation for younger patients, because the extra melatonin inhibits the release of human growth hormone (HGH) which is released in the second part of the night (another great reason to sleep long enough!). HGH is important for all ages as it plays an important role in healing and cellular regeneration, with effects on body composition and heart health. For patients 50's and older that have had a natural decrease in melatonin, melatonin supplementation may be a valid solution.

4. Minerals. Many of us are mineral deficient which has an effect on many parts of the body, but when it comes to sleep, calcium and magnesium play a big role on muscle tone and blood flow. Think of calcium to help you fall asleep, and magnesium to help you stay asleep. Sometimes a simple cal/mag combination can solve your sleep woes, like Cal-Ma Plus from Standard Process. For a solid dose of magnesium (which is best absorbed through skin), a warm epsom salt bath before bed can get the blood vessels dilated and muscles relaxed. Keep in mind that magnesium taken orally can also move the bowels along, so start with a smaller dose and work up from there to find your threshold.

5. Lifestyle/pre-sleep habits. We could supplement you until the cows come home, but if your habits and sleep hygiene are suffering, we are fighting an uphill battle! Most obviously, your stress levels are going to effect all of the factors listed above. Those that have high stress jobs and lives would benefit from finding ways to prioritize relaxation and sleep, whether that means some quiet time, meditation or light stretching before bed. Some other factors worth exploring are caffeine use, diet, looking at electronics within an hour or two of bedtime, creating a pre-bedtime routine (like a shower, herbal tea, softer lights, whatever works for you), going to bed at the same time every night, a dark and cool bedroom, or a white noise sound machine. I'm not going to go into much detail on these lifestyle factors, as there are a multitude of resources out there that discuss this in detail, and many of it comes down to trial and error and personal preference.

Finally, sleep needs to become a priority, which it most commonly is not in our culture. Those that stay up late and get up early are typically congratulated for their grit. Don't get me wrong, there are times to work hard, and there are times when life does not afford much sleep (for example having a new baby, starting a new job). But many times, we've made our daytime life so much more important than our nighttime life, when the foundation of our daily lives is our opportunity to recover, renew and rest through sleep.