Updated: Nov 17, 2021
A good night of sleep is vital to our health and well-being.
Sleep deprivation depresses our immune system's disease-fighting abilities.
It affects our mood, concentration, memory, and cognition.
It even puts us at a greater risk of diabetes, heart disease, weight gain, high blood pressure and so much more.
So, if getting a decent night's sleep is an issue for you, please consider these root causes and simple natural solutions.
1. Poor gut health and nutritional deficiencies
Essential for healthy sleep are adequate levels of the hormones serotonin and melatonin. Since ninety five percent of serotonin is made in the gut and there is 400 times more melatonin in your gut than the pineal gland of your brain, good gut health should be a priority.
The amino acid tryptophan found in foods that contain protein is a necessary precursor to these hormones. A number of conversions take tryptophan through to 5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan) to serotonin to N acetyl serotonin and finally melatonin, a hormone that naturally regulates sleep. However these conversions cannot occur without the help of a number of nutrients. Of note are the minerals magnesium and zinc, and the active form of vitamin B6, pyridoxal-5-phosphate (P5P).
Iron and a few other B vitamins also play a role, but zinc and magnesium deficiencies are a common underlying cause of poor regulation of the sleep-wake cycle. Zinc is also required to convert dietary vitamin B6 to its active form of P5P.
Even if dietary intake of these nutrients is adequate, (which is rare in this modern age), poor absorption in the gut can lead to deficiencies.
So if you have signs of poor gut health such as gas, bloating, abdominal cramping, food intolerances, diarrhea or constipation then your chances of solving your insomnia problem may be futile until you fix your gut. (Learn more on gut healing here).
So while you address your poor gut health, consider if supplementing with zinc, magnesium and P5P could be right for you. Increasing your protein intake or taking tryptophan or 5-HTP as a supplement may also be an option. (Note: It is not recommended you take 5-HTP if you are on anti-depressants).
Keep in mind that most over the counter B vitamin supplements do not contain activated B vitamins. Vitamin B6 as pyridoxal-5-phosphate (P5P) is preferred over pyridoxine hydrochloride to avoid the additional step required to be activated. In the case of vitamin B12, methyl or hydroxy cobalamin (vitamin B12) is preferred over cyano cobalamin. With vitamin B9, methyl folate or folinic acid preferred over synthetic folic acid. Thorne Stress B or Basic B Complex are great options as they contain all the active forms of B vitamins.
Your diet and gut health are not the only factors which influence how much serotonin and melatonin we produce. Exposure to natural light and exercise are also important. So avoiding screens before bed and going for a walk outside daily can be highly beneficial.
2. Hypoglycemic rebound
If getting to sleep is a breeze but you tend to abruptly wake a few hours later and then struggle to get back to sleep, consider a hypoglycemic rebound reaction as the cause.
Think back to what you ate or drank hours before bed. Was it high in sugar or carbs, highly processed or did you have a few alcoholic drinks? Caffeine before bed is also not going to help.
If you get the night time munchies, don't reach for the biscuits, instead snack on a few nuts. Nuts provide protein and fat, which are more satiating and because they are slowly digested and high in magnesium can provide a calm sleep.
Stabilized blood sugar levels require optimal levels of nutrients like chromium, magnesium and manganese. Which again, comes back to your diet and gut health.
3. Poor liver function and toxicity
You are exposed to numerous toxins on a daily basis from the exhaust fumes and fragrances you inhale, to the pesticides and medications you ingest, to the chemicals you lather on your skin. Reducing toxin exposure can go a long way toward improving your sleep.
These toxins can disrupt your hormones, deplete nutrients, affect your gut health, interfere with brain and nerve function and put a burden on your liver and kidneys.
So clean up your environment and your personal care products by switching to more natural low-tox products. At the very least avoid or limit plastics, fragrances, air fresheners, cigarette smoke, alcohol, pesticides and antibacterial soaps.
Look to boost your anti-oxidant levels by consuming lots of brightly coloured fruit and veggies, and consider supplements like vitamin C, glutathione, green tea extract or resveratrol. The herb milk thistle can also offer beneficial support to the liver. Lastly, make sure you're eating plenty of high fibre foods and drinking lots of pure filtered water.
4. Respiratory issues
Have you ever been told you snore loudly or seem to stop breathing in your sleep? Do you wake unrefreshed even after 7-9 hrs of sleep? Are you often drowsy, forgetful and grumpy? Then sleep apnoea may be an issue for you. Sleep apnoea is a condition in which breathing stops involuntarily for brief periods of time during sleep. This causes episodes of decreased oxygen supply to the brain and other parts of the body.
Untreated sleep apnoea can lead to hypertension, heart disease, diabetes and stroke.
Weight loss provides relief for many sufferers but sometimes positive airway pressure masks and machines are necessary.
A natural solution which can promote clear airways and restful breathing is the essential oil blend of Laurel Leaf, Peppermint, Eucalyptus, Tea Tree, Lemon, Cardamom, Ravintsara, and Ravensara. DoTERRA call this blend Easy Air. Pop a drop or two on the tips of the big toe before bed or diffuse in the bedroom nightly. Many notice a difference after 1-2 weeks of use.
5. Poor hormonal health or hormonal changes
Low levels of the hormones oestrogen, progesterone and even testosterone can have an impact on sleep. This is particularly a factor for women during menopause and peri-menopause.
For hot flushes that interfere with sleep I have found the herbs tribulus or black cohosh can help. Clary sage essential oil (or the Clary calm blend) has also been known to cool, soothe and aid hormone balance. Gut health and stress greatly influence hormonal health, so it's vital these are also addressed.
6. Stress, high cortisol and HPA axis dysfunction
Cortisol is another hormone critical to the human sleep-wake cycle. Our natural circadian rhythm is in tune with the sun. Cortisol levels are ideally highest 30 to 60 minutes after waking, with a decline during the day. Levels should be lowest at night before bed to encourage rest and relaxation. In contrast, your melatonin levels should be lower during the day and higher at night. People who develop high cortisol levels can wind up feeling wired and anxious at night, making it difficult to drift off to sleep.
What can interfere with our circadian rhythm and our cortisol/melatonin levels?
Lack of exposure to natural light during the day
Exposure to blue light before bed (suppresses melatonin)
Dysfunction of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis e.g. cushings disease
To help reduce stress levels consider regular meditation, gentle exercise, time outdoors and breathing exercises. Adrenal support may be necessary in the form of nutrients such as active B vitamins, zinc, magnesium, manganese and vitamin C.
There are also many herbs, botanicals and even essential oils which can help stabilize the HPA axis or reduce cortisol levels. Some of my favourites are lavender and frankincense essential oils, rhodiola, ashwanganda, and astragalus. Herbal teas containing lavender, chamomile and lemon balm before bed can also be beneficial.
So make your bedroom a sleep sanctuary and establish a relaxing bedtime routine. Remove screens and sources of EMF, use blackout curtains and kick out family pets. Darkness will help your body begin producing melatonin, a hormone that naturally regulates sleep.
Aim for at least seven to ten hours sleep per night and ideally be in bed before 10 pm, especially if stress is an issue for you.
Make sleep and stress reduction a priority and discover the benefits of improved energy, clarity, memory, performance, immune function and overall well-being. Who else would like some of that?
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