Quality sleep is essential to health and happiness.
Without adequate rest and recovery your body and mind do not get a break to refresh and strengthen. Plus, your mood and energy are lousy.
Sleeping pills are NOT the answer!
Scientists are just now starting to understand the negative impacts that lack of sleep has on the body and mind. Not only does energy become drained and thinking sloppy and choppy, chronic insomnia has been linked to serious health conditions including depression, anxiety and other mood problems1, as well as conditions like breast cancer and heart disease.2 And, since sleep is your chance to recover from another day, the lack of good rest will simply prevent every cell and system in your body to regain strength or improve. Lose sleep, lose life…
What is Insomnia?
Insomnia is a chronic inability to fall asleep or remain asleep for an adequate length of time [Latin nsomnia, from nsomnis, sleepless]. People who have insomnia typically do not feel refreshed with they wake, while typically struggling through an average day.
Insomnia can perpetuate a vicious cycle, where lack of sleep increases anxiety and stress hormones, which, in turn, makes sleep more difficult, which, on another turn, leads to more sleeplessness. Round and round it goes…when unchecked.
Causes & Symptoms
Most of us have experienced a period in our lives when we had problems falling or staying asleep. These temporary insomniac periods often occur when traveling (jet lag), during a brief medical illness (cold or flu), or when worrying about life’s events (money, family problems…). This occasional insomnia is usually not more than a short-term event that is easily fixed by a full night of sleep.
Chronic insomnia, on the other hand, is much more of a concern, eating away at vitality night after night, day after day. Here are some of the possible causes of chronic insomnia:
- Chronic Stress: A myriad of stressors accumulate and contribute to physical or mental dysfunction. Call your health symptoms whatever you want; call them “Fatigue”, “Depression”, or “Insomnia”… they all share a foundation of Chronic Stress. You did not get here without going through STRESS. No one wakes up suddenly with a disease. Diseases are earned and/or inherited. You can earn them by ignoring your hormones, by ignoring your need to sleep…
- Medications: Some prescription medications lead to insomnia, including nasal decongestants, appetite suppressants, certain asthma medications, antidepressants, and steroids.
- Medical Conditions: Sleep apnea, heart diseases, asthma, restless leg syndrome, and any condition that causes pain (including injury, arthritis or other pain syndromes) can lead to chronic sleeplessness. Hyperthyroid, Cushing’s and other hormonal diseases may also lead to problems sleeping.
- Substance Use: Caffeine and nicotine are well-known for the ability to disrupt sleep. Alcohol is used by some to fall asleep, but often leads to night-time wakening.
- Mental/Emotional: Stress, depression, anxiety and other psychiatric conditions may also lead to insomnia.
The Hormones of Sleep
The hormones of sleep are complicated and not fully understood. It is known, however, that there is a delicate hormonal balance which can easily be upset by other hormonal problems (such as thyroid or HPA hormones). For example, the stress hormone cortisol should be produced at its lowest levels at night (sleepy time) to allow for growth hormones and immunity processes to do their thing, but under chronic stress, this cannot happen. Cortisol is being produced because your brain is telling the body to fight. What are you fighting at 1:56 AM? Parasites, Candida overgrowth, chemical toxicity, bad diet, stressful thinking, and so on.
The principle sleep hormone is known as melatonin. Melatonin is produced by the pineal gland and regulates sleep cycles. Levels of melatonin in the body start to rise around the middle of the day and remain high during much of the night. It is thought that the production of this hormone is affected by exposure to light and changes throughout the year.3 Melatonin, in turn, is thought to affect other body systems and may be partly responsible for conditions such as seasonal depression (SAD) when melatonin production is lower in wintery months.4 Supplemental melatonin can be very helpful for some people with sleep problems.
Stress Disrupts Sleep
Most people know they have difficulty sleeping if under stress, but what they don’t know is how much hormones can play a role in sleep-disruption. The main system in the body that regulates the stress response is known as the hypothalamic-pituitary-HPA axis or HPA axis. This axis, which includes cortisol, is what allows us to respond and adapt to stressors in our lives.
Researchers have discovered that low levels of morning cortisol are strongly associated with anxiety and exhaustion.5 This HPA gland fatigue represents a disruption in the HPA axis and a point where the stress hormone cortisol has been depleted or is compromised, leaving us venerable to many other diseases.
Cut to the chase: Know Chronic Stress.
Other studies have shown that high stress situations increase sleeplessness and impair normal cortisol secretion.6
What to do about Insomnia
Medical Approach to Insomnia
That’s right! More drugs. After all, you can’t sleep because you were not taking enough prescription drugs, right? Gee, it seems we should have born with prescriptions…
- Prescriptions: Medications, such as the benzodiazepines (Lorazepam, Xanax, Restoril and others) and barbiturates (Librium, Valium) are used for people who have trouble sleeping. These medications can be very addictive and habit-forming.
- Over-the-Counter: There are many over-the-counter medications used for sleep such as antihistamines, Nytol, Sominex, Unison and others. Why not? Just drug yourself and avoid taking responsibility! After all, it’s so popular.
Integrative approaches to Insomnia
- HPA Hormone Balancing: When the HPA glands are performing at their best, sleep problems are drastically reduced. With saliva based lab tests that measure cortisol and DHEA patterns, natural therapies for hormone balance can be developed.
- Functional Lab Testing: As with any health condition or prevention plan, one should devote resources towards doing as much lab testing as possible to identify dysfunction.
- Light Therapy: Light therapy has been shown to help with people who have difficulty sleeping, especially those that live in Northern climates.7 Verilux light therapy devices are available here.
- Exercise: A great exercise routine improves sleep just as effectively as benzodiazepines in some studies.8
- Sleep Hygiene: There is much you can do to improve your sleep such as: avoiding television or other electronic stimuli (like this monitor) before going to sleep, talking a walk after dinner, keeping a set sleeping schedule, and not reading or watching anything exciting before bed.
- Melatonin: The hormone melatonin can be taken as a supplement and has been shown to be effective in clinical trials.9
- Meditation: Meditate. Meditate. Just lie down and breathe and follow those breaths. That’s it. Let thoughts and body aches come and go. You don’t need to know chants or follow a guru, you just need to calm down and chill out. These tools can help.
1 Dørheim SK, Bondevik GT, et al. Sleep and depression in postpartum women: a population-based study. Sleep. 2009 Jul 1;32(7):847-55.
2 Chung SA, Wolf TK, Shapiro CM. Sleep and Health Consequences of Shift Work in Women. J Womens Health (Larchmt). 2009 Jul 6.
3 Hawkins L. Seasonal affective disorders: the effects of light on human behaviour. Endeavour. 1992 Sep;16(3):122-7.
4 Srinivasan V, Smits M, Spence W, et al. Melatonin in mood disorders. World J Biol Psychiatry. 2006;7(3):138-51.
5 Dahlgren A, Kecklund G, Theorell T, Akerstedt T. Day-to-day variation in saliva cortisol-Relation with sleep, stress and self-rated health. Biol Psychol. 2009 Jul 21.
6 Dahlgren A, Kecklund G, Akerstedt T. Different levels of work-related stress and the effects on sleep, fatigue and cortisol. Scand J Work Environ Health. 2005 Aug;31(4):277-85.
7 Campbell SS, Dawson D, Anderson MW. Alleviation of sleep maintenance insomnia with timed exposure to bright light. J Am Geriatr Soc. 1993 Aug;41(8):829-36.
8 Ramakrishnan K, Scheid DC. Treatment options for insomnia. Am Fam Physician. 2007 Aug 15;76(4):517-26.
9 Zhdanova IV, Wurtman RJ, Lynch HJ, et al. Sleep-inducing effects of low doses of melatonin ingested in the evening. Clin Pharmacol Ther 1995;57:552–8.