Although it may be an obvious fact, it must be said; sleep is an integral part of our lives. A good night’s sleep allows the body and brain to rest.
While we sleep, our immune system goes on high alert and scans the body for infection. Our brain converts short term memories into long term storage, a process called consolidation. And lastly, our conscious brain temporarily takes the back seat while our subconscious runs loose.
When sleep quality starts to diminish, consequences are felt immediately and their detrimental effects accumulate over time. Studies suggest that poor sleep (or less than 7 hours per night) increases one’s chances of heart disease, obesity, depression and even diabetes. Yikes!
“OK you’ve scared me enough Dr. Manning- what am I going to do to start sleeping better??”
While often a challenging chronic health issue, insomnia is one of the most responsive conditions to naturopathic treatment modalities. The solution for you could be an easy switch or it may require a comprehensive evaluation and plan- always check with your doctor before initiating any treatments listed in this article.
Below you will find an overview of naturopathic approaches to insomnia- split into three parts:
- Insomnia Basics: finding the root cause and lifestyle interventions
- Botanical and nutraceutical treatments for insomnia
- Investigating insomnia: when treatments aren’t helping
Insomnia Basics: finding the root cause and lifestyle interventions
Treatment for insomnia should never be “one size fits all.” As always in naturopathic medicine, identifying and addressing the root cause of why you can’t sleep is paramount to treatment success and long term cure.
So… Why can’t I sleep?
Looking deeply and with depth at your problem can help you identify the reason why sleep is not a satisfying, refreshing experience. Your doctor may ask the following questions:
- Do you have trouble falling asleep?
- Do you have trouble staying asleep?
- Do you wake often throughout the night?
- How much time do you spend in bed? Sleeping? Doing other activities in bed like reading, watching TV, eating?
- What is your work/school/home schedule like?
Some causes of insomnia are obvious while others may take a little digging (e.g .nutrition, pain, medications, anxiety) and maybe testing for a thyroid disorder, a blood sugar problem or cortisol dysregulation among others.
Food, News and Booze
Do you eat large meals shortly before bedtime? Do you watch headline news at night? Do you engage in a liquor, beer or wine night cap most evenings? These all have the potential to significantly interfere with your body’s “winding down” process, either by causing a spike in your blood sugar or even worse- a spike in your body’s stress hormone, cortisol.
Experiment this week by replacing your evening TV time with a relaxing book, a warm bath or gentle stretches before bed. Save the headline news for the following morning or afternoon.
Aim to eat your last meal for the day at least 60-90 minutes before you hit the hay, that way your body will be finished digesting food once it’s time to sleep. If you find yourself hungry before bedtime, eat a light protein-focused snack like veggie sticks, nut butter, hummus, hardboiled egg or a small piece of cheese.
Aim to limit your exposure to inflammatory or stimulating social media, television or music if you’re the sensitive type. Often, these images, words and/or articles linger in our subconscious mind long afterward and inhibit truly restful sleep.
Ready… Set… Sleep! Establishing a Bedtime Routine
The body responds surprisingly well to routine. If you regularly repeat a similar sequence events leading up to bedtime your body will begin to learn that these activities equal sleep- and over time it will become easier to fall asleep. There is a practice called sleep hygiene that outlines several practices for attaining satisfying sleep. More info regarding this can be found here.
Try brushing your teeth, changing into your PJ’s, dimming the lights, etc. in the exact same order every night for a week. Notice if your body begins to relax and prepare for sleep as soon as you start that routine. Often, preparing our bag, supplies, outfits, etc. for the following day can make us feel less stressed and more clear-minded as we drift off to sleep.
Other lifestyle tips for sleep
Meditation offers a multitude of benefits for sleep. Try mindfulness meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, loving kindness or mantra meditations. Meditation can be self-guided or guided by a podcast, audio recording or book. Stretching, yoga and tai chi are also great ways to enhance your sleep if you prefer movement meditation. Journaling our day, our thoughts or even our concerns can help free more of our mental space for rest, sleep and rejuvenation.
Napping is a great way to recover from a poor night’s sleep, however it can interfere with the following night’s sleep. If you must nap, limit to 30 minutes only and avoid napping too late in the evening.
Exercise is the one of the most underrated, untold secrets in medicine. The benefits of regular exercise (150 minutes per week, to be exact) are immense. Regular exercise not only helps us sleep better at night, it improves almost every aspect of our health. Start small: a few minutes per day or a few days per week. Increase your amount/intensity slowly and ask for guidance if you run into difficulties or develop pain in your joints.
Image courtesy of www.theinsomniaclinic.co.uk
Coming up next: Botanical and nutraceutical approaches to insomnia.
– “Sleep and Chronic Disease,” www.CDC.gov