Getting to sleep and staying asleep

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Insomnia affects 1 in 4 people, and can have significant affects not only on one's enjoyment of life, but also on one's health.

First of all, I want to thank every one of you that took the time to respond to my survey – I am so very grateful. Your insights are very valuable indeed and have given me a lot to think about.

Those of you that know me may be wondering how I can possibly give advice on the topic of insomnia, as this is the major ongoing issue that I struggle with and have not personally resolved to my satisfaction. I know first hand how difficult it is to deal with. It is as if the body has completely forgotten how to fall asleep, which seems absurd to those that don’t have this problem. Sure, we all go through rough times where problems keep us awake, but I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about lying awake night after night, even if there is no major problem to mull. Or waking up in the middle of the night and being unable to fall back asleep again. Needless to say, this hugely impacts how one feels during the day, and with too many days in a row with little or no sleep, it becomes very difficult to function. Some insomniacs actually sleep, but do not feel refreshed at all in the morning. It becomes very understandable why insomniacs rely on caffeine to get through the day, and on sleeping pills or alcohol to sleep, neither of which is a solution to the cause of the problem, and may instead make the underlying situation worse. Alcohol disrupts sleep patterns, and sleeping pills can be very addictive and can create other problems in the body. After a while, sleeping pills stop working.

Although insomnia certainly does affect men, it seems to affect women more frequently, and often becomes a problem in peri-menopause/menopause when hormone function changes, although it can happen at other times in one’s life. I think women suffer more frequently, because hormonally women are more complicated than men, and it doesn’t take much to throw the hormone balance off. And not sleeping has very serious health consequences, impairing organ function, making one more susceptible to heart disease, depression, not to mention the increased possibility for accidents due to daytime drowsiness.

Most insomniacs have probably tried these common solutions:

  • No caffeine past noon (or none at all, if possible)
  • Plan what needs to be done for the following day and write down an action plan so you don't worry about it
  • Address problems and plan action steps so you don't worry about them in bed
  • Get some exercise during the day
  • Turn off the TV/computer an hour before bed
  • Remove TV and computers from the bedroom
  • Meditation
  • Breathing exercises
  • Hot bath before bed
  • Turn down the temperature in the bedroom
  • Black-out drapes so bedroom is completely dark
  • Eye mask
  • Lights out by 10pm
  • Use a light box in the morning once up
  • Comfortable mattress and pillow (feather pillows have less allergens)
  • White noise (fan?)
  • Read something light/inspirational or listen to relaxing music to wind down before bed
  • Protein snack before bed (amino acid tryptophan aids sleep)
  • Turn off the breaker to the bedroom to remove electromagnetic fields
  • Warm full-fat milk if you are not sensitive to it, before bed (amino acid tryptophan aids sleep)
  • Camomile tea (mixed with lemon balm can be good)
  • Valerian Root
  • Wear socks to bed
  • Comfy headphones with binaural beats to bring brain waves down to delta
  • Keep a sleep schedule – same bedtime and wake time every day including weekends

Often insomnia is caused by another problem such as chronic pain or sleep apnea, and won’t be adequately resolved until the underlying issue is addressed.

The suggestions above address a variety of potential causes of primary insomnia. Circadian-rhythm stress is quite common these days as we tend to keep artificial lights on at night, suppressing melatonin, which is the hormone that is activated by darkness and helps us sleep. Turning the lights out by 10pm, having black-out drapes, turning off computers and TVs, and keeping to a sleep schedule can make a big difference for some. Using a light box in the morning may also help regulate one’s circadian rhythms by emphasizing the difference between light and darkness.

Others (particularly protein types) wake up in the middle of the night when blood sugar levels drop too low, which is why a protein or fatty snack before bed can help. Also, the amino acid tryptophan which aids in serotonin production and sleep, comes from protein sources. Carbs before bed will more likely cause an insulin spike, driving down blood sugar a few hours later, creating a bigger problem. Alcohol before bed would also be counter-productive, as alcohol is sugar.

Prolonged stress of any nature (psychological, nutritional, physical – like pain, chronic illness, lack of sleep, relationship issues, money problems etc.) may eventually lead to adrenal fatigue, which impacts most hormones of the body, as particularly the sex hormones will be sacrificed to make the stress
hormone, cortisol
, to help the body cope with the stress. (This is why often the true cause of hypothyroidism and fertility problems may be adrenal fatigue). If you have significant sleep problems that are not resolving with the above suggestions, get your hormones like cortisol, DHEA, estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, melatonin, growth hormone, and thyroid tested with either a 24-hour urine test or a circadian saliva test through a functional medicine doctor or possibly a naturopathic physician. That way, once the hormone picture is known, appropriate treatment can be decided upon. Emotional issues often underlie adrenal issues and sleep problems, so getting psychological help, or using NLP, EFT or whatever technique works for you may make all the difference. Scheduling down time each day, or better yet, a relaxing vacation my be exactly what is needed. Recovering from adrenal fatigue can take well over a year, so do not expect a quick fix, but hopefully the treatment protocols will get you sleeping again in the meantime.

If you want to search for other posts by title or by topic, go to www.wellnesstips.ca.

Related tips:
Light pollution is messing with our hormones
Melatonin, our rest and repair hormone
Sleep apnea, snoring, and a lack of sleep
Adrenal fatigue
Cortisol, our stress hormone
How hormones, neurotransmitters and steroids work
Mind and body, psyche and soma

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Copyright 2009 Vreni Gurd

5 Comments

  1. Linda DeFever said,

    March 27, 2011 @ 6:07 am

    actually protein will not help in sleep – staying asleep especially – protein alone drops your blood sugar causing as state of stress – which will release adrenaline, into order to raise the blood sugar so we do not die.
    Try OJ with some salt – which balances your blood sugar. Also all that tryptophan is highly inflammatory.

  2. Ted Hutchinson said,

    March 27, 2011 @ 2:27 pm

    f.lux™ Better lighting…for your computer
    http://stereopsis.com/flux/

    It’s even possible that you’re staying up too late because of your computer.
    You could use f.lux because it makes you sleep better because is reduces the brightness of your monitor after dusk so the light is automatically subdued during the evening. You should still try to stop using the computer 2hrs before bedtime but I know I often struggle to switch off an hour before bedtime.
    I think most people fail to get the amount of sleep we really need.
    See
    http://www.sleepfoundation.org/article/how-sleep-works/how-much-sleep-do-we-really-need
    How Much Sleep Do We Really Need?

    Ear Plugs may also be a good idea to improve sleep quality. We can at least close our eyes but closing your ears is not so easy.
    I suppose we needed to keep our sense of hearing going while we slept to protect from predators but air/road traffic noise must affect stress levels through the night for many.

  3. Rebecca Cody said,

    March 27, 2011 @ 11:54 pm

    Wow! What a list of things to help insomniacs! I guess I’ve heard most of them, but I’d never seen so many in one place.

    Something that helps me if I wake up in the middle of the night and can’t go back to sleep is to eat a little piece of cheese or drink a glass of warm milk, or drink Nitey Nite Tea. The first two of these both give you tryptophan and a blood sugar boost, and they usually put me back to sleep. You mentioned both as a before-bedtime snack.

    Waking in the night because of low blood sugar indicates your body isn’t using the sugar stored in the liver, which should supply you for a couple of days, so addressing the cause of not making that conversion would help. I wonder how you would do that.

    Thanks again for all the research you do and writing so clearly on all the topics you cover.

  4. Donna Stevenson said,

    November 20, 2011 @ 11:23 am

    Good tips – I use ear plugs (silicone are the best) eyeshades, put the fan on low, blackout curtains and recently L-theanine just before bed – because of a busy brain about 2:45 am, the L-theanine calms the noise in my head and I can drift off again. Actually got 5 continuous hours last night!

  5. Robert said,

    November 21, 2011 @ 6:00 pm

    White noise is my way to ensure a good night’s sleep. The white noise I like is the humming sound of old air-conditioners. I think it’s because it reminds me of my childhood when I had no worries and stress. Cozy nights with the aircon on during those hot humid Asian summers is one of my best memories. I live in Asia now but most condos now use split-type aircons which are super quiet. One of the rooms in our flat has an old type aircon so I sneak over there from time to time to catch up on sleep. So I guess anything that reminds you of when they use to be “stress-free” may help solve your sleep problems. Another rule I have is to not watch the news before bedtime as there’s a good chance I’ll see something depressing or violent. Lastly, settle arguments with spouse before bedtime.

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