If you’re like most of us, you’ve had challenges with sleeping at one time or another. The National Sleep Foundation (NSF) reported in their 2010 study that only four in 10 respondents got a good night’s sleep most nights. The NSF, warned about making the health-depleting mistake of resorting to sleeping pills — at best ineffective, at worst dangerous!
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) collected data that showed over-the-counter sleep products really do not offer significant benefits; if you believe you should resort to prescription medications, think again. Studies financed by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) found that these sleeping pills only reduced the average time to get to sleep by just under 13 minutes compared to sugar pills (placebos)— not enough of an improvement to warrant the possible side-effects.
Disorders From Lack of Sleep…
It’s important to keep in mind that without quality sleep, wellness cannot be achieved nor maintained. Not only does good sleep affect our immune responses but also can cascade a series of disorders. The following are the most profound disorders/ imbalances caused directly from lack of restorative sleep:
- Heart Disease — sleep disorders can double one’s risk of heart attack or stroke according to a recent study in Taiwan. Inadequate quality sleep contributes to high blood pressure, making the body’s “fight or flight” response more active when fatigued from lack of restorative sleep;
- Pre-diabetic syndromes — accelerates appetite even when you’ve just eaten, leading to overweight and the consumption of “comfort” food with more sugar and simple carbs, conditions that lead to type 2 diabetes;
- Pre-mature aging — growth hormones, normally released by your pituitary gland during deep sleep, are stunted;
- Susceptibility to stomach ulcers — in addition to external stresses, ulcers can be accelerated by lack of restorative sleep, which can cause excessive stomach acid and/or more serious digestive issues;
- Intestinal disorders — constipation is accelerated when the body is fatigued and stressed from lack of sleep — causing an already compromised immunity to further be depleted by the toxic burden of accumulated matter not expelled daily;
- Brain health — halts new cell production and can increase levels of corticosterone (CORT), a stress hormone resulting in fewer new brain cell creation in your hippocampus. Emotional manifestations of sleep deprivation include impaired work performance, impaired memory and concentration, difficulty making decisions, brain-fog, learning becomes difficult, heightened risk of fatigue-related accidents and slow response time, irritability, anger and lessened ability to cope with stress.
Researchers learned that circadian rhythms — the 24-hour cycles known as your internal body clock — are involved in everything from sleep to weight gain, mood disorders, and a variety of diseases.
Your body actually has many internal clocks — in your brain, lungs, liver, heart and even your skeletal muscles — and they all work to keep your body running smoothly by controlling temperature and the release of hormones.
It’s well known that lack of sleep can increase your chances of getting sick. A new study shows just how direct that connection is.
The research found that the circadian clocks of mice control an essential immune system gene that helps their bodies’ sense and ward off bacteria and viruses. When levels of that particular gene, called toll-like receptor 9 (TLR9), were at their highest, the mice were better able to withstand infections.
Lack of Sleep Worsens Stress-Related Immune Depression
One of the first studies to provide direct evidence linking sleep with the human stress-immune relationship dates back to 1998. Stress, interfering with immune system functions, has also showed slow wound healing.
In the same 1998 study, the researchers discovered that people who were more likely to awaken during the first sleep cycle also tended to have lower levels of natural killer cells (NKC). Overall, the age of the patient was the greatest determinant of NKC level, but sleep disturbances were responsible for about 12 percent of the variance in NKC level.
Living in Sync with Your Natural Body Clock
Sleeping well is one of the cornerstones of optimal health, and if you ignore your poor sleeping habits, you will, in time, pay a very high price. In general, you will feel best and maintain optimal health when your lifestyle is in line with your circadian rhythm. It’s wise to establish healthful routines of eating, exercising and sleeping, and to stick to them every day, including weekends.
Unfortunately, sleep deprivation is such a chronic condition these days that you might not even realize you suffer from it. Your circadian rhythm has evolved over many years to align your physiology with your environment. However, it operates under the assumption that you are behaving as your ancestors did. Historically, humans slept at night and stayed awake during the day. If you stay up late at night, depriving yourself of sleep, you send conflicting signals to your body. As a result, your body gets confused and doesn’t know whether it should be producing chemicals to help you sleep, or gear up for the beginning of a new day.
Melatonin is another chemical closely tied to your circadian rhythm, a pineal hormone and a very potent antioxidant, created in your brain during sleep.
Among its many functions, melatonin slows the production of estrogen and is well known to suppress tumor development, which is why insomnia may increase your risk of cancer. Melatonin also helps suppress harmful free radicals. Melatonin production can be severely disrupted simply by exposing yourself to bright light late at night. Just switching a bedside lamp on and off in an otherwise pitch-black room produces an almost immediate drop in melatonin levels. This is why it’s so important to turn off the lights as the evening wears on, and avoid watching TV and working on the computer late at night.
How Melatonin Works
Light and dark are processed and then relayed to the cells throughout the body by the pineal gland, an organ. The eyes deliver information to the pineal gland through different routes that include the retinohypothalamic tract and the suprachiasmatic nuclei. Norepinephrine released from postganglionic nerve endings to the pineal gland helps control the release of melatonin. This release of norepinephrine to the pinealocytes occurs at night, which is when melatonin secretion and levels throughout the body begin to rise.
How Sleep Influences Your Physical Health
Without good sleep, optimal health may remain elusive, even if you eat well and exercise (although those factors will tend to improve your ability to sleep better). Aside from directly impacting your immune function, another explanation for why poor sleep can have such varied detrimental effects on your health is that your circadian system “drives” the rhythms of biological activity at the cellular level; hence, disruptions tend to cascade outward throughout your entire body.
Resetting Your Circadian Rhythm
The following are the basic guidelines I provide my clients when faced with a baffling set of sleep disorders. Keep in mind that because of individuality, it’s always best to consult a nutritionally aware health professional if your attempts do not produce results.
- Avoid using electronics at least two hours before bedtime (computer, iPad, iPhone, etc.). These electronic devices, particularly the TV and computer, have screens that emit blue light — almost the same as sunlight exposure. When exposed too close to bedtime, your brain shuts down the melatonin production believing it’s still daytime. With a healthy circadian rhythm, the brain begins secreting melatonin between 9 and 10 PM. When excessive light is introduced after sunset, you disrupt this natural cycle, which then manifests as insomnia or non-restorative sleep patterns.
- Darkness is your friend because a room with light disrupts your internal clock. The pineal gland produces the melatonin and serotonin that is so vital for biological balance; even a tiny glow from a clock or electronic gadget can interfere with sleep. The best remedy is to simply turn the face of clock around or cover it. To ensure the best possible sleep and healthy hormone production, the following is recommended:
- Close bedroom door if external light or noise can easily be heard.
- Avoid loud alarm clocks; instead get one that has a mellow sound or soft music. Waking suddenly by jolting the body with loud noise is very stressful to the body.
- Eliminate night-lights in the bedroom and any light visible from the bedroom, if it cannot be closed off.
- When possible use blackout shades, drapes or an eye mask when bedroom is not completely dark.
- Keep bedroom temperature cool. Studies show the optimal sleeping room temperature is between 59 – 64 degrees. When you sleep, your body’s internal temperature drops to its lowest level, usually about four hours after falling asleep. Scientists report a cooler room (ambient air temperature) contributes to a better sleep because it mimics your body’s natural temperature drop. If you’re cold, use warmer nightwear or bedding but don’t raise the overall room temperature.
- Eliminate all electronic devices because the electro-magnetic fields (EMFs) disrupt the pineal gland and the production of melatonin and serotonin, the same as light does. If you want to prove to yourself how much exposure is emitted from these devices, buy a Gauss Meter. They are available online and range from $49 to $250. For those that are already suffering an immune system disorder or reactive to EMFs it is recommended to shut down all power to the bedroom by pulling that circuit breaker before going to bed. Remember that EMFs are emitted especially by chargers (cell and cordless phones, iPads, etc.) and, therefore, should be kept as far from the bedrooms as possible, preferably at over 15–20 feet.
- Your bed is for sleeping; not for watching TV, reading, using an iPad, iPhone or listening to music. This room should always be your sanctuary for rest and rejuvenation and free from anything that stimulates the brain, even bright colors. • Avoid sharing your bed with pets, restless sleepers and those who snore. Recent studies show that many sleep disorders are actually from sharing a bed with someone that constantly interferes with your sleep. In these cases, you might be forced to sleep in a separate bed or even bedroom in order to get good quality and restorative sleep. I do know individuals who sleep with their pets because it’s calming; if that’s the case and you don’t have allergies to them, enjoy but it is not as healthy to sleep with your pets though you love them.
What Encourages Healthy Sleep?
- Avoid consuming liquids two hours before going to bed; this will eliminate or minimize trips to the bathroom that disrupt sleep. Be sure to void your bladder just before going to bed.
- Maintain continuity in times you go to bed and awaken — even on weekends and holidays. Sleeping in, even occasionally, will disrupt your natural circadian rhythm. Your body recharges between 11 PM and 2 AM and is also the time your gallbladder “dumps” toxins. If you’re awake, those toxins may back-up into your liver — your chemical processing plant. We should take lessons from history when our ancestors went to bed shortly after sundown, as most animals do, and Mother Nature intended for us as well.
- Create a bedtime routine that includes medications/supplements, deep breathing/meditation, personal care, etc. Do whatever you need to maintain a pattern that becomes automatic so it’s stress free — even down to laying out your wardrobe or packing your brief case/back pack for the next day so you don’t have to think about it.
- Consume a high protein snack a couple of hours before bedtime; this helps provide L-tryptophan needed for production of melatonin and serotonin — a neurotransmitter that controls our “feelings” such as depression, hunger, thirst, sleep and other “moods.” Turkey is my preferred snack because it’s high in natural L-tryptophan; the following foods also contain good levels:
Foods containing natural L-tryptophan
Baked Potato (with skin)
Roasted Pumkin Seeds
- Eat a small piece of fruit because it helps transport tryptophan across the blood-brain barrier.
- Avoid grains and sugars before bed; they raise blood sugar and delay sleep. The sugar causes an unhealthy rise in blood sugar and when it “dumps” it can cause you to wake up and then unable to fall back asleep.
- Create a Zen space for relaxation before bed; a hot bath with organic sea salts and/or an essential oil that is calming like lavender, hot shower, or even a steam bath. Your body temperature is naturally raised in the late evening and it will fall at bedtime helping to induce sleep — signaling the body it’s time for bed.
- If you’re one of those whose feet are always cold, consider placing a hot water bottle or microwaveable pack at the foot of your bed. If your feet are cold you will have trouble getting and staying asleep.
- Do not do any work at least two hours before bedtime so your brain can "unwind."
- If you're as sensitive to caffeine as most of my clients, avoid anything that contains it after 2 PM. Studies show caffeine is not efficiently metabolized in some people and they may feel its stimulating effects long after consumption. Also, keep in mind that some medications, both prescription and over-the-counter, contain caffeine; know what you're consuming!
- Don't exercise at least two hours before bedtime as it will stimulate your body and mind rather than relaxing it; studies show exercise in the morning is best.
- Studies show that sleep apnea can be caused by excess weight. If you need to lose those extra pounds, maybe knowing if can affect your sleep will provide that added incentive.
- Avoid alcohol; the short-lived calming effect will have the reverse effect hours later because it prevents you from entering those deeper stages of sleep so necessary for repairing and rejuvenation.
Natural Sleep Remedies
Note: The following suggestions should be tried one at a time, not several at once so you can tell what is working and what isn't. Keep in mind you should use a new remedy nightly for at least one week to give it time to balance your metabolism . don't determine it is ineffective after one or two days. Of course, if you have any negative responses stop the remedy.
Remedy # 1—Take your calcium and magnesium supplements in the evening; they are both sleep boosters when taken together. Take as much magnesium as tolerated to bowel tolerance (until it creates loose stools), then back down to the tolerated amount.
Remedy # 2—One of the best natural remedies for restlessness (including restless leg syndrome), calming anxiety, joint and muscle pain, and headaches are from Wild Lettuce. The recommended dose is between 50 to 120 mg at bedtime.
Remedy # 3—The extract of hops is a mild sedative for anxiety and insomnia when taken approximately 30 minutes before bedtime. The recommended dose is between 30 to 120 mg.
Remedy # 4—Pure essential therapeutic oils, as in the blend I use and recommend most often, that contains 21 essentials oils: A proprietary blend of Lavender, Frankincense, Sandalwood, Angelica, Helichrysum, Patchouli, Ravensara, Niaouli, Iris, Pink Lotus, Sweet Marjoram, Black Spruce, Palmarosa, Cinnamon Bark, Spikenard, Black Pepper, Dill, Vetiver, Litsea Cubeba, Rosemary Verbenon and Lime.a synergistic complex known to alleviate anxiety, depression, insomnia, grief and many forms of emotional distress. A simple ONE drop on your wrist gently rubbed in will calm the mind and body without the side effects of medications.
Remedy # 5—The hormone that controls sleep is melatonin; more is NOT best. Studies show lower doses are actually more effective. I recommend 0.1 to 0.5 mg before bed and most benefits are derived from a time-released formula and a sublingual liquid blend.
Remedy # 6—L-theanine, an amino acid derived from green tea, not only helps maintain calm alertness during the day, it also induces a deep sleep at night. Green tea alone does not contain enough of this amino acid to give you the boost and the roost. The one I find is most effective is a brand called Suntheanine because itfs pure L-theanine and not ineffective inactive forms as in other brands. Recommended dose is 50 to 200 mg at bedtime.
Remedy # 7—The herb Valerian is highly researched for its benefits in improving sleep, speed of falling asleep and overall quality of sleep. It is most effective used over a long period of time. Recommended dose is 200 to 800 mg before bedtime.
Remedy # 8—Sleep Factors* is a nutraceutical blend that contains many of the ingredients listed above, all in one capsule: Over 15 ingredients including valerian, GABA, 5-hydroxy-L-tryptophan, melatonin, and L-theanine.
Note: There are many medications that actually deplete melatonin in your body. If you are pregnant, nursing or taking medications, be sure to consult with a nutritionally aware health professional. Medications known to deplete Melatonin include:
If you travel extensively through various time-zones like I do, I recommend taking a low dose Melatonin when boarding your flight; it helps avoid jet-lag and allows you to sleep in transit to arrive at your destination rested and alert. I use the sublingual because I find it works best because of its ability to be immediately absorbed.
The Way I See It... Sleep is as important as water, food, clean air and shelter. Sleep deprivation accelerates the aging processes including brain functions (forgetfulness, easily distracted, brain-fog, lack of focus, depression, etc.). New cells cannot be created if you do not have adequate sleep.
I don't know about you, but my life's goal is to age without looking or feeling old . sleep plays a huge part in fulfilling this goal. Skin discoloration, bags under the eyes and pre-mature wrinkles can all be attributed to lack of quality sleep. Begin your wellness plan by first working on getting your Zzzzzzzz's, Naturally.
*Sleep Factors is available online click here