About 8 years ago, I had the WORST case of insomnia I’ve ever seen (and I’ve worked with over 1,000 private clients). It lasted on and off for two years…
I know how awful it can be and how much it can affect your entire life.
Three in five people have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep every night.
Sleep is pivotal to our health, necessary for brain function, immune health, hormonal balance and much more.
If we are not sleeping, we simply can’t handle the demands of our waking life well. If you have trouble sleeping, you are no stranger to this feeling and it’s time to unveil what I’ve learned to get you back to sleeping deeply so you can feel good.
Simply put, good sleep comes down to one thing: circadian rhythm, also called our sleep-wake cycle.
If our circadian rhythm is off, we are plagued with symptoms such as trouble falling asleep, unable to stay asleep, waking up frequently, waking up too early in the morning or feeling fatigued upon awakening.
Over 10 million people in the US are on prescription sleep medications with 3 out of 5 Americans not achieving restorative sleep on a nightly basis.
This means quickly falling asleep and staying asleep for a period of 7 to 8 hours. If you are waking up several times during the night or having trouble falling asleep, chances are you are not hitting deep sleep, otherwise known as the REM cycle.
Restorative sleep promotes:
When we are not able to fall asleep or stay asleep, we usually turn to prescription medication. They can be fine when used in the short-term (I’m talking a few weeks ONLY a few times a year) but over time they can do much more harm than good.
They put a tremendous burden on your liver, lower immunity, cause dehydration and brain changes. Plus, the most important thing to realize is that they force a “shut off” so you can sleep, but without providing the deep relaxation the nervous system needs to truly rejuvenate. So, using a prescription sleep medication might help you sleep, but if your nervous system is still churning underneath that, you are not going to get the restoration you so desperately need.
The underlying issue of poor sleep goes back to your body’s internal clock, also referred to as circadian rhythm.
The sleep-wake cycle runs on a 24-hour time period, which naturally consists of 16 hours of wakefulness and 8 hours of sleep. When we disrupt this cycle with our work schedule, exercise, caffeine, stress load, and health issues, we drastically reduce the recovery and healing the body needs every day.
Factors such as poor sleep hygiene, neurotransmitter health, glycemic regulation or fluctuating blood sugar levels and stress can all play into whether our sleep-wake cycle is in balance or not.
We have spoken previously about the importance of sleep hygiene; we are big fans of limiting screen time before going to bed. We live in a society where we must consistently be connected—if you can limit this even just in the hour before bed, your sleep can significantly improve.
Cleaning up your sleeping environment can do wonders to your health—reducing technology in the bedroom, and making sure the room is pitch black can provide significant benefits.
Solution: Having a routine is also a great way to set yourself up for success. Listen to relaxing music, use a diffuser with lavender oil, dim the lights as low as you can stand when the sun goes down, get blackout shades or use a sleeping mask — these are all great tools to utilize.
Balancing your circadian rhythm is your key to restful and lasting sleep. We have discussed the importance of our neurotransmitters, which are the chemical messengers in the brain.
First and foremost if our neurotransmitters are off due to stress, diet (low protein or low carbohydrates can be a considerable deterrent) or other health issues, we can be wide awake all night long. Neurotransmitters such as serotonin and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) influence anxiety, nervousness, depression, and lastly, your sleep-wake cycle.
Solution: Snacking during the day and before bed, with foods that are high in GABA and other amino acids can be great to support our neurotransmitters. You can also supplement with Pharma GABA—a favorite of ours—it crosses the blood-brain barrier to be more effective. L-theanine, an amino acid, is great to take for sleep and relaxation in the evening and is safe to take during pregnancy.
Phosphatidylserine is another favorite supplement which has been clinically shown to blunt the cortisol response within the HPA axis. We talk about the importance of balancing cortisol and melatonin below; phosphatidylserine can be great for those with high cortisol levels at night.
The connection between blood sugar and sleep is a double-edged sword. Studies show that sleep can affect your blood sugar levels (poor sleep can increase our blood sugar levels), but interestingly enough, blood sugar levels can significantly affect your sleep as well. Fluctuations in blood sugar, either due to stress hormones or dietary choices can cause symptoms of high blood sugar (hyperglycemia) as well as blood sugar dips, also known as hypoglycemia. These irregular patterns can cause hormones such as glucagon, growth hormone, and cortisol to be released, leaving us wide awake at night.
Solution: Having a small snack before bedtime can be a great way to keep your blood sugar balanced through the night. Additionally, a diet too high or too low in carbohydrates can cause blood sugar fluctuations, so be sure to include protein and fat along with adequate carbohydrates in your evening snack.
Some easy snacks we love that meet these criteria are:
The function of melatonin is to regulate the biological rhythm and regulate certain reproductive hormones. An interesting fact that is not well known is that melatonin is a powerful antioxidant produced in the body; it is also both fat and water-soluble, allowing it to be available to every cell in the body.
Cortisol and melatonin balance each other out throughout the 24-hour cycle; cortisol is most dominant during the day while melatonin should dominate the sleeping hours. If this is flipped (as it often is), you can be wide awake when trying to get to sleep at night or have fatigue in the middle of the day.
Blue light is an indicator for us to wake up—our retinas have evolved and associate blue light with being awake, this is why we suggest cutting off phones and any other screens emitting blue light at least an hour before bed.
This is essential for our bodies to produce melatonin at night. Melatonin as a supplement taken at a low dose (extended-release) is excellent on a short-term basis, but we ultimately want the body to be able to produce it on its own at the right time and in the right amount. The more rhythm we have in our sleep-wake cycle, the more balanced cortisol and melatonin will naturally be, the better we’ll sleep, and more energy we’ll have throughout the day. We will also be able to maintain our weight, mood, and hormones much better as well.
Solution: A short-term dose of melatonin can be useful to reset this balance. However, we do not want to use it as a crutch long-term. Using a lightbox first thing in the morning can be great to kickstart cortisol production—even better, open your blinds right away and/or go outside first thing in the morning and get some natural sunlight.
It can be important to raise your core temperature at night before bed to sleep well and consistently through the night. A short sauna, a warm salt bath, sesame oil rubbed on your feet or just a warm cup of chamomile tea with honey are all great choices.
This combined with the tips mentioned above, including a balanced diet can create a solid foundation. It not only contributes to healthy sleep hygiene and circadian rhythm balance but also helps you recover from physical and emotional stress much faster.
As you can see, there are many pieces to the puzzle when it comes to sleeping well.
Getting a good nighttime routine in place is one of the best things you can do for yourself and your health.