Sleep Better Tonight – Insomnia Explained
It usually goes something like this. You lie awake, watching the minutes and hours tick by, frustrated about all the vital sleep you’re missing.
Your mind turns to your busy day tomorrow and you wonder, “How will I get through the day without sleep?”
You’re now worrying about worrying and at this point you surrender to your day ahead as a foggy-headed automaton, operating on a steady stream of caffeine and sugar.
If you’re fed up with counting sheep to no avail, you may be reassured to know there are many natural strategies to help remedy sleeping problems.
Sleep difficulty is, in fact, most commonly due to stress and may be the first indication that your work or lifestyle habits need assessment.
Tissue repair, rest and the restoration of vital organs and body systems occur during sleep. Periods of insomnia can impede these processes, not only leaving you feeling unrefreshed mentally, but physically you will not feel optimally functional.
During times of stress and emotional difficulty, more strain is put on the physical and emotional reserves, increasing the need for proper sleep.
It’s during these times, when sleep is most likely to be disrupted, that you may need some assistance to ensure a healthful night’s rest.
Insomnia is the inability to fall asleep or to remain asleep for the required length of time, leaving the affected you almost permanently tired during the day.
Sleep difficulties are most often caused by stress or worry but in some cases are associated with disease or certain medications.
Insomnia falls into three sub categories:
Initial Insomnia: Difficulty in falling asleep, most commonly due to emotional disturbances such as anxiety, stress, depression, illness and pain.
Sleep disorders such as restless leg syndrome (involuntary muscle twitches that disrupt sleep) and sleep apnoea fall under the category of initial insomnia.
Sleep apnoea is a condition in which breathing stops periodically during sleep. This condition is usually seen in people who are overweight and sleep on their back.
Other causes of initial insomnia include the withdrawal of sedative medication, use of stimulant drugs such as caffeine and an irregular sleep schedule.
Middle Insomnia: Waking during the night, again usually due to emotional disturbances such as anxiety or depression and may also be associated with pain.
Early Morning Awakening: Falling asleep occurs normally, but the sufferer wakes early and cannot sleep again or falls into a restless sleep.
This is common in elderly people, who require less sleep, but may also occur as a symptom of depression or anxiety.
While stress and other emotional difficulties are the common causes of insomnia, if these are not affecting you to a point of losing sleep, try to pinpoint where the problem may lie in order to guide you to the most appropriate avenue of treatment.
Transitional periods and new life circumstances can affect sleeping patterns dramatically, even if the change is a positive one.
Such situations may include pregnancy or the addition of a new family member, moving in with a new partner and sharing the bed, retirement, illness or death of a loved one, or the development of a physical or emotional illness.
Cortisol – The Anti-Sleep Hormone
Cortisol is called the “stress hormone” because it is secreted during times of fear or stress, whenever your body goes into the fight or flight response.
Cortisol is made in your adrenals. In the constant state of stress so commonplace today, cortisol creates chronic to severe inflammation that eventually causes premature aging and leads to an earlier death.
High cortisol levels at night time can be a primary cause for insomnia. Emed Adrenal Hormone Profile can find if elevated cortisol levels are the cause of your lack of sleep. Click here to find out more.
In addition to their medicinal properties, herbal teas are very useful due to the overall calming effect a cup of warm tea brings.
As an adjunct to teas, herbal medicines are potent extracts that are prescribed according to the individual.
Following is a list of herbal sedatives and nervous system tonics commonly used to treat insomnia:
- Lemon balm
- St John’s Wort
A Valerian Complex containing Valerian, Passionflower and Zizyphus to help you get to sleep and can also help with people who frequently wake during the night.
A vitamin B complex supplement in the mornings can help to support the nervous system to assist generally with stress.
Folate is indicated in restless leg syndrome and muscle cramping. Many good vitamin B complexes contain folate.
Tryptophan is an amino acid found in foods such as turkey, pumpkin seeds, brown rice, bananas, corn and dairy products. Tryptophan facilitates the production of serotonin, a chemical that is believed to have a role in relaxation.
Vitamin B6 taken as part of a vitamin B complex also plays a role in the production of serotonin. A decrease in serotonin levels is said to be associated with sleeplessness.
The absorption of tryptophan is encouraged by carbohydrates, so it’s important to include a carbohydrate component in the evening meal such as brown rice, potato or a slice of wholegrain bread.
Meal size is an important consideration when taking measures to improve sleep. Avoid having a rich, heavy meal at night as a large amount of energy is diverted into the digestion rather than into rest.
The process of digesting a large meal activates the nervous system and is likely to disrupt sleep. Try not to eat less than two hours before bed.
An easily digested protein such as tofu plus a carbohydrate and vegetables makes an ideal dinner. Limit or exclude from your diet refined carbohydrates such as sugar and white bread.
Avoid caffeinated drinks and be aware of where caffeine may be found: coffee, tea, cocoa, cola drinks, energy drinks and chocolate are the main culprits.
Caffeine is a powerful stimulant that raises blood pressure and heart rate, directly working against the potential for a restful sleep.
Similarly, the nicotine in cigarettes is also a stimulant, despite the claim from many smokers that smoking helps them relax.
Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant drug, meaning it reduces the functioning of the nervous system.
While drinking alcohol helps you to feel drowsy, it’s disruptive to natural sleep patterns. Like many habit-forming drugs, more and more alcohol is needed over time to achieve the same effect, feeding the potential for a dangerous addiction.
When alcohol is consumed before sleep, the liver and other digestive organs get sidetracked to process and eliminate the alcohol rather than work on rest and repair.
Regular aerobic exercise that raises the heart rate and causes you to sweat, such as cycling, swimming, dancing, team sports, aerobics, brisk walking or jogging at least four times per week for 30 minutes can be beneficial for insomnia in the following ways:
- Exercise produces endorphins, the body’s own “happy drugs” that bring about feelings of wellbeing and mental relaxation.
- Vigorous activity causes the body to become physically fatigued, encouraging the desire for sleep.
- Exercise helps to get you “out of your head and into your body” as a way of physically working out the frustrations that may be keeping you up at night.
- Exercising with a friend is fun and motivating. Get together with a mate or two and join the local tennis club, netball team, rowing club, aerobics class or whatever takes your fancy.
- It has been found that the influence of light and dark greatly affect our sleep/wake cycles. In today’s world we live by artificial light, not allowing our body’s rhythms to operate naturally. When possible, enjoy morning sunlight with exercise to help establish a more natural and regular pattern in the sleep/wake cycle.
- There is much to be said for the feeling of personal satisfaction that comes with increasing your fitness. Challenge yourself to brave the cold morning, swim one more lap or stay on the exercise bike for an extra five minutes. You will be amazed how exhilarating these small achievements are.
Choose two or three activities that you find fun and challenging and schedule them into your weekly routine. Vary your exercise plan to keep it interesting and different.
It’s important that exercise is not done in the late evening or before bed as it can take some time for the body to calm down after vigorous activity.
In addition to strenuous activity, mild exercise can be useful to help you unwind at the end of the day.
A light stroll after dinner or some yoga stretches can help in being a part of your nightly relaxation routine.