As our schedules get busier with work and school, our sleep routine is the first to go. Unfortunately, research demonstrates that sleeping 6 hours or less a night, increases your risk of developing a chronic disease, such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity and chronic infections.
Furthermore, insomnia can be secondary to chronic disease or medications, like hypothyroidism, obesity, congestive heart failure, anxiety and antidepressants, beta-blockers, and decongestants–the very disease and its medication can be caused and made worse by a lack of sleep.
On average, you should get 7-8 hours of sleep per night, consistently. Your body wants routine so sleep should occur at the same time every night. This is due to the pattern of melatonin, our sleep hormone and its relationship with cortisol, our stress hormone.
Ideally melatonin release starts around 7-8 pm in response to decreasing light, and this prepares you for bed at 10 pm. When you stay up later and your body doesn’t follow this pattern, your melatonin secretion never reaches optimal levels. Due to its inverse relationship with your stress hormone, cortisol levels remain high because there is insufficient melatonin to depress it. Despite eventually falling asleep, reduced melatonin levels prevent a deep and recovery stage of rest.
When you are continuously stressed your cortisol is constantly released, leading to anxiety, restlessness and over-thinking at bedtime. Chronic high levels of cortisol prevent melatonin from peaking, causing insomnia. It is a vicious cycle–stress makes it more difficult to sleep and sleep disturbances prevent recovery from stress. This is the simplified link between stress, impaired sleep and chronic disease.
Many people turn to pharmaceutical sleep agents. Most of the OTC sleeping pills contain antihistamines (allergy medication), which lose effect with chronic use and can leave you feeling groggy in the morning. Prescription benzodiazepines (eg. Ativan) and similar drugs (the “Z” drugs) have an affinity for nervous system receptors that are inhibitory and cause subsequent relaxation. These drugs are very powerful but they are notorious for causing dependence and severe withdrawal symptoms when stopped.
Armed with this knowledge, many people seek alternatives that are just as effective and without serious side-effects.
- Keep household lighting dim starting at dinnertime
- Make a to-do list or write in a journal
- Exercise at the right time–no less than 3 hours before bed
- Avoid bedtime snacks that are high in sugar or simple carbohydrates
- Try to avoid fluids in the 2 hours before bedtime
- Go easy on the alcohol
- Complete your meditation or visualizations in the evening
- Make sure your room is as dark as possible
- Keep electronics minimum 3 feet away
- Turn off the TV
- Use your bed for sleeping and sex only
- Remove clutter from bedroom
- Sleep nude (or as close to it as possible)
- If you cannot sleep, get out of bed and do something else until you feel the urge to sleep
- See light first thing in the morning
Melatonin: Supplements with melatonin can help you fall asleep especially if you are stress and burned out. Taking 1.5-5 mg between 7-8 pm mimics the ideal natural pattern of release. Melatonin can cause grogginess in the morning if too much is consumed. Start with 1.5 mg and titrate up to find your best dose.
Magnesium: Many natural sleep aids contain magnesium because it is a natural relaxant. Then combined with specific amino acids, magnesium can help you stay asleep.
Sleep Aid Teas: A warm cup of tea at night works wonders to calm you down, especially of you experience anxiety. Passionflower, Valerian and Skullcap are widely used herbs for sleep and relaxation.
Supplements can be a safe and effective way to fall and stay asleep. Minerals, amino acids and herbs can calm your anxiety and reset your sleep cycle. While it is important to determine the root cause of your insomnia–stress, thyroid disease, anxiety, lack of routine—natural sleep aids can support you getting those much-needed Zzz’s.