Insomnia: Integrative Tools to Understand How to Get Sleep

Imagine being able to wake up feeling rested and with energy every day without the worry of wondering whether you will sleep tonight.  Sleep deprivation is an epidemic today in America.  Many of us go through our day worrying about sleeping.  Lack of sleep is a major health issue causing an increasing the risk for conditions such as metabolic syndrome, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, accidents, arthritis, obesity and substance abuse.  The concerns that most often come to mind are the immediate results we experience from lack of sleep including fatigue, depression, anxiety, and immune system problems such as autoimmune and frequent colds or illness. There is so much going on in our daily worlds that we may be overly driven and sometimes need to take a step back to remind ourselves that ensuring restorative sleep is definitely part of a life well lived.

Purpose of Sleep from a Naturopathic Doctor

From a holistic perspective, sleep is an opportunity for your body to heal and detoxify. Sleep is the anti-inflammatory action of your body that helps to wash out our brain and solidify the most prominent memories- either good or bad. Naturopathic doctors firmly believe sleep is when you are cleansing your body.  Therefore some treatment options are specifically more helpful before bed since your body is headed for a detox or purifying mode. Special cells that perform like pacman will drift along sweeping thru your brain collecting and transporting debris, unsafe molecules or simply unneeded substances out of the body.  The night housekeeping also sweeps out the excess cobwebs or thought connections but leaving the stronger connections otherwise known as the stronger memories. This means the reinforced memories like having fun at the go-carts today will overwhelm the end of the year school testing from today.

Pharmaceutical Options

There are a number of pharmaceutical choices that are hypnotic or just help you fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer.  The disadvantage of these is that they do not affect the last stage of sleep which is the most restful and therefore they can have some of the same side effects such as drowsiness, fatigue.  They can induce hypothermia which in turn can affect your thyroid function.  They also reduce cortisol which can help with stress but also motivation. Pharmaceuticals can be a helpful tool to adjust the GABA receptors for sleep but it is usually not as easy as taking a pill and calling it a night.  These drugs don’t get to the cause of why you are not getting enough sleep so we still have to work on getting the deep sleep, managing your stress and why you are not sleeping to begin with. In the end, they don’t change the sleep architecture which is why they sometimes stop working for patients.

Integrative Medicine for Sleep

So we can agree we need MORE SLEEP, BETTER SLEEP and HOW IMPORTANT IT IS. We can also agree that if we are going to use a holistic view on how to improve sleep, we must include your favorite STRESS MANAGEMENT tools whether those are a blend of botanicals, meditation, yoga, exercise or tea ceremonies.  Find your groove.  Sleep training plus a sleep aid has been shown to be more helpful than just a sleep aid or doing nothing especially if it is the ‘getting back to sleep’ part that is a challenge.  There are many lifestyle shifts that are free and can help lay the groundwork for making good sleep tools work better.  Exercising 3 or more times per week earlier in the day will help you fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer in general.  Keeping a gratitude journal, doing things you love, praying and soothing sounds can all help decrease the adrenaline in day to day life.  Review any situations that wished you had handled differently, replay them, or have a friend help you sort it out so you feel better about it, luxuriating in that feeling.  These are just a couple reminders or ideas of how day to day tools are included in integrative medicine for sleep.

Sleep Hygiene

Among those natural treatments for sleep essentials are the sleep routine. The 30 minutes before bed are a crucial time to train your brain and your body to gear toward healing and cleansing.  That on and off button is a slider for most of us not just off.  Diming lights, avoiding technology lighting and just slowing down in general is important.  Dump the thoughts that are clouding the mind on paper to deal with tomorrow if needed.  If your mind tends to race at night, keeping a pen and paper next to your bed allow you to dump it.  Avoid doing any work in bed at any time of day and keep the bed for sleeping only.  It should be a cool and comfortable spot, too warm can prevent you from sleeping.  Avoid things you are sensitive to as well as pollen from plants.

Preparing for sleep can also include an Epsom and soda soak, 5 minutes of deep breathing.  Light blocking blinds and a sleep mask as well will prevent light from interfering with your natural circadian rhythm. Likewise, not enough light during the day can interfere with your natural wake cycle.  Naturopathic Doctors agree on how important this sleep routine is although they may have different addition tools to add such as sleep glasses, a green light as a harmonizing color to trigger the pineal gland or botanicals.

Naturopathic Medicine and Sleep

Rhythm is key for getting sleep which involves your hormones and neurotransmitters.  Cortisol should be ramping down at bedtime while melatonin should be ramping up.  Cortisol is the hormone that gives us drive and energy and helps us deal with stress.  It is a good hormone to have. We even need a small amount for sleep to occur.  However, there are many things that can go wrong here causing it to be too low all the time or too high/ too low at the wrong times. DHEA is the precursor hormone to cortisol. Too much stress can stimulate excess DHEA or too much cortisol.  Sometimes the DHEA is exhausted and can not go up to match the need for cortisol.  Then there is the melatonin which is made from serotonin. If there is a malfunction of the serotonin whether timing or amount, the melatonin will be effective. The balance of DHEA and cortisol as well as the balance of melatonin with serotonin is crucial to mood and sleep.

Let’s now take a quick look on how we can use some integrative medicine tools. A popular natural treatment used is taking melatonin or sometimes even GABA. These items can be addictive you may need more and more over time, although melatonin does naturally decrease with age so it can be appropriate in older individuals. It also doesn’t change the sleep architecture, so may stop working. Not a route I would recommend long term.

Naturopathic Nutrition and Diet for Sleep

Focusing on getting neurotransmitters where they need to be in the body is a great integrative medicine tool for patients who have insomnia.  Neurotransmitters rely on amino acids and fatty acids and is a holistic way to think about sleep.  Therefore, healthy balance of these in your diet relies on good diet, being able to digest them and assimilate distribute them in the body, as well as properly eliminating.

Fats are the sources for neurotransmitters. Omega 3’s are anti-inflammatory and are the ones you should focus on.  Omega 6’s are pro inflammatory and we get a fair amount in our food already. Many amino acids are found in our food such as tryptophan such as nuts, eggs, fish, figs, tuna, brown rice, soy, dairy and meat especially turkey which is why we all need a nap after Thanksgiving turkey! Tryptophan is made into serotonin.  Serotonin is that neurotransmitter that induces sleep and is also found in food such as whole wheat, bananas, walnuts and pineapple.  One of my favorite scripts for patients is a baked potato before bed since it is full of serotonin, organic please.  Amino acids can provide food for your neurological system, thus molecules for endurance and to prevent over reactions such as anxiety or depression.  Using a targeted amino acid for more specific complaints related to insomnia can be successful too and a pure functional medicine way to think about insomnia.

Avoid the tyramine foods around bedtime such as spinach, tomatoes, aged and soft cheeses.  Oranges don’t have tyramine but can trigger an awake cycle.  Caffeine 4 hours before bed is not a good idea either.  Skip that nightcap!  Although alcohol may initially have a sleepy or sedative impact, it will likely make you wake in a few hours and disrupt the quality of sleep.  Sleep apnea and snoring are worsened by alcohol.  Try to finish your meal at least 3 hours before bedtime.  This is another naturopathic tool that has rung true over the centuries.

Other naturopathic tools available in San Diego include looking at your hormones. Progesterone can be sedating and quite appropriate if your hormones are out of balance.  Estrogen has a motivating effect so if you are low already, progesterone is a great option.  Hydrotherapy options can include a warm bath before bed, castor oil packs, saunas or the more involved hot fomentations or constitutional hydrotherapy.  Getting a work up for a homeopathic remedy may also help may an impact on a chronic sleep problem.  Homeopathy can work wonders in many parts of your life.

Naturopathic Pediatrics

Since we do a lot of naturopathic pediatrics in our office, I want to touch on normal sleep patterns here.

Infants are on 3 – 4 hour sleep cycles – 18 hours sleep

6-12 mos old – most of the sleep is at night

Teens – 9 – 10 hours are needed and they tend to be night owls

Adults – 7-9 hours on average

Women tend to have more difficulties falling or staying asleep

Women in their 40-50’s complaints about sleep increase 40%.

Men are 8xs more likely to suffer from sleep apnea and night awakenings

Kids who snore are 2xs more likely to suffer ADHD.  Often the snoring can be resolved by addressing the inflammation in the throat and food intolerances are almost always part of the picture.  Fortunately, we can do a simple finger stick to test for 184 foods so we are not left wondering what they may be reacting to.  Restless legs can be missed in kids which can contribute to insomnia.  Growth Hormone can affect our need for REM sleep, this is why growth spurts mean more sleep. Once GH is released, we get groggy.  This decreases with age.

Find Your Answers!

Whichever natural tools you use for your integrative approach to insomnia, we are happy to help you find answers. We specialize in this holistic kind of thing and see it frequently in our office so it’s not a new idea for us. Getting the right care for your body is important and tailored for your specific body in mind. At Journey of Health we are dedicated to finding the right naturopathic solutions for each patient. We proudly serve the San Diego area, providing some of the best service in naturopathic medicine. If you wish to further your own journey of health with naturopathic solutions and alternative medicines, give us a call at (619) 772-1164.