We are a sleep-deprived, over-stimulated society. You can see it in the billions of dollars being made on sleep medications and energy drinks, and these numbers are increasing every year. Whether you have difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or simply don’t feel well-rested when you awaken in the morning, sleep problems can have a profound effect on your health and well-being. In fact, chronically insufficient sleep has been shown to promote clinical depression, obesity, diabetes, arthritis, and numerous other degenerative conditions.
As a health professional, I am very concerned with sleep issues and make it a primary focus early on with every client. The way I see it most commonly manifested is in energy levels and weight management issues. As a result, I have made it a priority to explore the causes and solutions of this complicated issue.
So what causes sleep problems and what can we do about them? Well, there are several different causes of sleep disorders and many are related. Likewise, there are many different solutions…many of them natural. Although there are plenty of over-the-counter and prescription medications that provide simple solutions, their benefits are generally short-lived. Opting for medication as a long-term solution ignores the fact that sleep disorders are merely a symptom of a greater problem. This means you will need more and more of the medication for it to remain effective. And drugs typically come with disruptive and often harmful side effects. These side effects can range from prolonged drowsiness to dizziness, diarrhea, memory problems, and chemical addiction. In some cases, the long-term effect of these drugs can be hormonal imbalance, which is ironically one of the most common causes of sleep problems in the first place. This may be why some of these medications actually make the problem worse in many people.
Here is a summary of the various causes of sleep issues along with some more natural, non-drug solutions. These items appear in order of most to least common. Similarly, the recommendations are listed in order of most to least likely to be effective for the majority of people. If the first one doesn’t work, go to the next, and so on. If you are currently taking prescription medications, check with your physician before trying any of the supplements recommended here.
The Cause: Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) – The hypothalamus gland is responsible for, among other things, controlling the body’s clock. It is largely responsible for establishing our circadian rhythm—the 24-hour cycle of light and darkness. The pineal gland works with the hypothalamus as the body’s light meter and is stimulated to produce serotonin, a mood-elevating hormone, when we are exposed to the ultra-violet rays of the sun. Conversely, more melatonin—the “hibernation hormone”— is secreted with decreased sunlight exposure, allowing us to enjoy more restful sleep. Consequently, serotonin/melatonin imbalances occur more commonly in the colder months when we spend less time in the serotonin-producing rays of the sun. But they can also occur in people who rarely get outside, even in the warmer months. And once sleep becomes a problem, this rhythm is disrupted and a vicious cycle of fatigue and insomnia begins.
1. Full Spectrum Lamp or Sun Lamp – these lights replicate the infrared (IR) and ultraviolet (UV) wavelengths of the sun. This is a way of supplementing natural sunlight indoors and thereby stimulating more optimal serotonin/melatonin production.
2. Sleep in Total Darkness – Sleep in total darkness or as close as possible to promote more melatonin production. This includes removing any LED display clocks from view.
3. Get to Bed Early and Consistently – Try to get to bed by 10:30-11:00 p.m. and keep your bedtime consistent to allow your body to establish a rhythm and reset your biological clock.
4. L-Tryptophan – This amino acid is a precursor to serotonin/melatonin. It is found in meat proteins and some people, especially vegetarians, are quite deficient in this essential amino acid. Supplementally, it can be found in capsule form and should be taken in 500-1000mg doses within one hour of bedtime for optimal results.
5. 5-HTP – This nutrient is what L-Tryptophan converts into. It is always best to supplement as close to the beginning of the hormonal chain as possible to increase the chance that your body will eventually learn how to make these conversions on its own. So if L-Tryptophan does not work, try the 5-HTP in 50-100mg doses within one hour of bedtime.
6. Vitamin D – There is a plethora of recent research on this nutrient, which is technically a hormone. It plays a key role in the production of other hormones, including serotonin and melatonin. Although vitamin D is fat soluble, the research indicates most of us are deficient and the minimum daily needs is much higher than the 400 IU’s suggested by the RDA. In fact, the recommended minimum dose is 3,000 IU’s daily with food. For peace of mind, get your levels checked through a blood test. The proper test is 25 (OH) D and the optimum reference range is 45-60 ng/ml.
7. Melatonin – When the above steps are not enough, the melatonin hormone can be taken as a supplement. Hormones are always a last resort because there is always the risk of becoming dependent for life. 3mg of melatonin taken near bedtime is usually sufficient.
The Cause: Adrenal Fatigue/Chronic Stress – The adrenal glands are essentially our stress glands. Their activity level is directly related to the level of stress we are under. Stress of any kind—be it physical, mental, or emotional—triggers the same response from the adrenals. The adrenals are responsible for the production of many hormones and work with the hypothalamus in maintaining our circadian rhythm—our body clock. The adrenal hormones we are concerned most with when it comes to sleep are cortisol and DHEA. When these two hormones are out of balance, our bodies cannot relax and sleep is disturbed. Cortisol is released at decreasing levels as the day wears on, but it spikes under periods of stress. When cortisol is high, the body cannot relax. And when stress is chronic, the adrenals get fatigued. Repeatedly elevated night-time cortisol levels are the first stage of adrenal fatigue and a common cause of insomnia or interrupted sleep. The most reliable test for adrenal fatigue is a saliva test, which measures tissue levels of the relevant hormones and tracks the 24-hour cycle of the adrenal glands.
1. Phosphorylated Serine – This nutrient is the activated form of phosphatidyl serine, which can be found in the fatty tissue of animal based foods, such as egg yolks. This is essential in regulated cortisol levels, and actually has a cortisol dampening effect in cases of elevated cortisol. The best source of this nutrient in supplemental form is in a product called Seriphos, which provides 1000mg of phosphorylated serine per capsule. If elevated night-time cortisol is suspected or confirmed through a saliva test, take 1000-2000mg of phosphorylated serine before dinner and/or within one hour of bedtime.
2. Electrolytes – The adrenals are nourished by essential minerals like sodium, magnesium, potassium, and calcium. When you are under stress (physical or emotional), these are some of the first nutrients your body uses up. Likewise, when these minerals are out of balance, it puts strain on the adrenals. This is why iodized (table) salt can create problems. A good source of sodium and the other electrolytes is Celtic raw sea salt, which naturally contains over 80 different minerals.
3. B Vitamins – Specifically, B5, B6, and Biotin. More fuel for the adrenals. Good doses are 250mg of B5, 25mg of B6, and 1,000mcg of Biotin.
4. Vitamin C – It’s difficult to do too much vitamin C. One way to find your body’s need is to do a vitamin C flush for bowel tolerance. Get the ascorbic acid powder form and take a tsp in water every hour until diarrhea occurs. Then back off by ½ tsp and calculate the dose.
5. Herbs – There is a family of herbs referred to as adaptogens because of there therapeutic effect on the adrenals, such as Rhodiola (100mg), Licorice (20mg), Ashwaganda (100mg), Siberian Ginseng (250mg), and American Ginseng (100mg). There are products that contain combinations two or more of these herbs. Because these herbs are intended to address the overall problem of adrenal fatigue, they do not directly induce sleep, so they should not be taken after 3:00 pm.
6. Keep Room Temperature between 65-70 degrees – Body temperature also impacts hormonal levels. Use blankets and air temperature control to regulate this one.
The Cause: Hypoglycemia – This is directly related to the adrenal issue. When blood sugar drops to low, the body can sense it as a stress on the system and cortisol can kick in. As explained above, this can interfere with sleep. This is why it’s essential to maintain a balanced blood sugar level throughout the day by eating small balanced meals every 3-4 hours. The theory that eating close to bedtime will promote fat storage is a myth. If you go to bed hungry, you are setting yourself up for that blood sugar-cortisol reaction which will not only keep you from getting a good night’s sleep, it will promote fat storage. If your problem is waking up in the middle of the night and you are hungry at that time, low blood sugar is certainly one of the factors contributing to your problem.
1. Exercise – Exercising daily promotes proper glucose and insulin regulation. This includes both cardiovascular and resistance/strength training. If you are suffering from adrenal fatigue, just keep the exercise intensity to a moderate level to avoid exacerbating the problem.
2. Eat small, frequent, balanced meals throughout the day – Eat every 3-4 hours and make sure each meal contains protein, fat and carbs, including snacks. This will promote proper blood sugar regulation throughout the day and make you less likely to have drops at night.
3. Don’t go to bed hungry – If you are hungry, have a small protein snack within an hour of bedtime, such a handful of raw walnuts or almonds, an egg, or even a small protein shake. If your pre-bedtime snack is high-glycemic or predominantly carbs, you are more likely to promote a blood sugar spike followed by a blood sugar drop.
4. Chromium – This nutrient play a key role in regulating glucose utilization. Specifically, chromium picolinate or chromium GTF at 800-1,000mcg per day with meals.
5. B Vitamins – Specifically, B1 (50mg), B2 (25mg), and B6 (30mg).
6. Omega-3’s – These essential fats effect blood sugar levels indirectly by promoting proper hormone production, such as insulin. Omega-3’s are rich in free range eggs, raw walnuts, flax seed oil, fatty fish like salmon, and organ meats. Cod liver oil is probably the best source because it also contains naturally occurring vitamins D & A. Start with 1 Tbsp daily.
7. Other nutrients – Some other nutrients to consider in supplement form: Garcinia Combogia, Bitter melon, Fenugreek, and Vanadium.