Happy spring! This month we will look at another common sleep pattern: the inability to stay asleep. We will also discuss some of the pros and cons of familiar natural sleep remedies.
A very typical pattern of insomnia is waking at 2am or 3am and being unable to fall back asleep. This is called sleep maintenance insomnia. It’s as though morning has come early, and you feel wide-awake 4 or 5 hours too soon. You may be surprised to learn that this is probably not a true sleep issue at all –it’s a blood sugar issue.
I discussed blood sugar balance in our January newsletter, but to recap –blood sugar spikes and dips are brought on by eating sweets and starches. Over time, this can lead to the inability of blood sugar to stay stable. Someone with hypoglycemia (low blood sugar dips) will experience shaking, irritability, even sweating if they go too long between meals. This is because the blood sugar gets so low that it activates the sympathetic nervous system, or “fight-or-flight response,” releasing a cascade of hormones including cortisol and epinephrine (aka adrenalin). And when this happens in the middle of the night, insomnia is the result.
So how do we prevent this pattern of insomnia? Working on blood sugar balance during the day can be very helpful –emphasizing foods high in fiber and protein and low in sugars and starches. Another approach is to eat a small, high protein meal right before bed, like a slice of turkey or a handful of nuts. Protein helps to stabilize the blood sugar for long periods of time.
Of course, there are other reasons for sleep maintenance insomnia such as hormonal variation or neurotransmitter imbalances, and if you are experiencing anything less than uninterrupted, restful sleep, your naturopath can help.
Because insomnia is so common, many people will turn to a natural sleep aid at one time or another. Let’s look at three of the most common:
Melatonin –this naturally occurring compound plays a major role in our circadian rhythms and is also a very powerful antioxidant. It is especially useful for those who work late into the nights and end up having to sleep for part of the day. It is also considered an anti-stress hormone and can help with anxiety patterns. Melatonin is generally regarded as safe, though it is not always recommended for those with autoimmune diseases, as it can increase immune activity. Side effects from too much melatonin can be unusually vivid dreams and even nightmares and some digestive upset.
5-HTP –(5-hyroxytrytophan) this chemical occurs naturally in the nervous system as a precursor to the neurotransmitter serotonin. It is made as a byproduct of the breakdown of tryptophan, found in many foods. It helps to increase serotonin, which can improve sleep, mood and even pain sensation. Because it increases serotonin, 5-HTP can be very dangerous to mix with any other mood stabilizing or serotonin increasing medications or supplements.
Valerian –this root is considered a moderately potent hypnotic (sleep-inducer) and also a nervine (nourishing to the whole nervous system). It is used not only to help with insomnia, but also to treat anxiety and pain. It’s non-addictive and especially effective for decreasing sleep latency (time to fall asleep). Unfortunately, it has a stimulating effect for about 1 out of every 10 people and would not be indicated for improving sleep.
Please talk with your naturopath if you have any questions about these or any other sleep aids. And, all new patients who want to get their sleep back on track this spring will receive 10% off their first visit.