In my practice I work with people of all age brackets, backgrounds, ethnicities and medical concerns. The most common concern issue I deal with is insomnia, sleep-onset or sleep-maintenance (meaning not being able to fall asleep or stay asleep).
Sleepless nights cause low energy, increased healing times, depression, decreased focus and major irritability along with a whole host of other health issues. For those currently suffering this goes without saying.
As everyone is frequently reminded by doctors and researchers adequate sleep is one of the major cornerstones of holistic health and optimal wellness.
My ultimate goal for patients is as follows:
- To fall asleep within 20-30 minutes
- To sleep 7-9 hours every night without waking to urinate, turn off the TV or to help the dog back onto the bed
- To wake feeling rested
When you get adequate sleep you can easily understand the benefits…
Boosted focus, heightened motivation, increased patience and improved healing changes everything when you have been suffering. Depending on the situation this can be achieved without pharmaceutical medications.
When was the last time you woke up feeling refreshed? How many hours is it taking you to fall asleep? If you aren’t happy with either of your responses to those questions this article will be a simple guide you can use to build a new sleeping pattern and completely change your cycle for good.
Waking feeling refreshed isn’t out of reach.
Waking feeling tired is not “normal”. It may be the norm but it indicates something about your sleep is off. Whether it is your amount of time, how deep you are sleeping, that you are waking throughout the night, etc. Either way it can be fixed. So, lets get on with it.
Things can change. They can change quickly. Sleep patterns can improve in one night.
In this article I will share a few personal stories about how Amy and I have optimized our sleep patterns, outline some natural sleep options and highlight some of why you want to avoid pharmaceutical sleep medications.
Our Sleep Stories – Simple Changes Can Reverse Sleepless Nights
As a classic Type A personality “anxiety causing a racing mind” was my cause of sleep onset insomnia or difficulty falling asleep. Through my adolescent and undergraduate years I suffered from persistent negative thinking, fear, worry and ruminating mind that kept me awake at night.
As a go-getter, perfectionist and worrier all-in-one I thought I was just normal. I thought it took everyone hours to fall asleep.
Sound familiar? Many Type As will agree.
Through my mental and spiritual growth and development I have learned the following invaluable lessons:
- To reflect on my fears and worries as they come up and highlight the fact that they don’t serve me in the pursuit of my goals
- To understand they came from a place of negativity with no rational basis
- To know that they caused a physical stress reaction in my system which raised my cortisol (along with other hormones) and kept me awake.
Becoming more centered, carrying a positive vibration and focusing on gratitude has helped me switch a racing mind to a calm zen zone. This seems simple but that was most of what I needed. My palpitations subsided, I fell asleep within 15 minutes and woke much more rested.
This isn’t the only change that helped me sleep better.
Simple things that I thought had no effect on sleep were giving me issues as well. Eating before bed (including high sugar and dairy foods), sleeping with the TV on, exercising too close to bedtime and keeping the bedroom to warm all had a significant impact on my sleep quality and may be things to consider if you aren’t having optimal sleeps.
Once I changed some of these patterns and gained control of my thinking my life changed. Feeling rested is a form of personal freedom. Having consistent energy changes everything.
Amy has a different story.
Amy has a history of severe Adrenal Fatigue caused by stress (we have wrote about her healing process here. If you resonate with her symptoms check out how we helped her heal).
Suffering from complete morning and day-time exhaustion followed by a nighttime “tired and wired” feeling Amy had to overhaul her lifestyle (basic details: quitting coffee, decreasing her stress, etc) and add in supplementation (herbs and vitamins) to heal completely.
At her adrenal fatigue peak she couldn’t fall sleep at night and subsequently never slept through the night. She woke exhausted and relied on coffee for energy.
For her, in addition to treating her adrenal fatigue (details here), we needed to reset her sleep cycles using specific herbs and vitamins (examples below), remove all electronics from the bedroom (including phones, computers, iPads and TVs) and overhaul her pre-sleep routine.
One of the most important components of her sleep program was her pre-sleep routine. Winding down at night from the stress of the day is often overlooked when it comes to improving sleep quality and length.
Amy changed her routine from blogging, exercise, stimulating TV shows and a late dinner before bed to a long bath, calming music, comedy shows, herbal tea and most importantly not doing work, checking on work, planning work, thinking about work, etc.
This changed everything.
At the same time we added a supplement containing many of the vitamins and herbs I will list below. She used Vitazan Sleep Well (a professional line product only available from Naturopathic Doctors): one cap before bed was all she needed (in combination with her adrenal treatments) to reset her sleep cycle and she only needed to use it for 2-3 weeks.
She now wakes well-rested with a clear mind and significant energy. She gets tired in the evening, falls asleep within a reasonable time frame and sleeps straight through the night.
*NOTE – Get these checked out first:
The first thing to do when you are suffering from insomnia is to see a medical professional to rule out obstructive sleep apnea, depression, circadian rhythm disorders or any other serious issue. Get checked up.
Sleepless Nights: The 7 Most Important Sleep Essentials You Need
Making certain lifestyle changes greatly improved our sleep quality and length. Here I want to outline the simple shifts that worked extremely well for us.
1) Keep electronics out of the bedroom (or to be used within 60 minutes of sleep) – Everyone is talking about this tip yet most people aren’t taking it seriously. I’ll admit I really didn’t think keeping iPhones and iPads out of the bedroom would have any effect on sleep. I was wrong.
The blue light given off by electronics has been shown to suppress melatonin release from the pineal gland. This causes major sleep-wake cycle issues and a whole host of other health consequences.
The point is the research is there – modern computers, tv and phone screens disrupt sleep patterns.
Avoid them within 60 minutes of going to bed.
2) Avoid exercise before bed – A series of small studies show that late-night exercise doesn’t have any effect on sleep and many will tell you that exercise before sleep changes nothing for them (maybe even helps them sleep better). Personally, I notice a significant enough change in sleep quality with intense exercise before bed to recommend against it.
3) No large meals before bed (especially sugar) – Eating before can cause digestive upset, blood sugar spikes, uncomfortable bloating, acid reflux, etc.
There are no benefits to eating late at night.
Make sure to avoid sugar, processed foods, caffeine and alcohol before bed.
4) Keep your room cool – This seems to be a big help for people having difficulty falling asleep. Cool your room down and you may have more success with falling asleep quicker.
5) No stimulating TV shows before bed – If you do watch TV before bed try to only watch less stressful shows focused more on comedy than news, war or crime. Shows that raise your blood pressure can hinder sleep patterns.
6) Try to get in bed before the 11 PM mark – On an anecdotal note I have noticed that people tend to maintain their sleep cycles better if they get to sleep before 11. Sleeping from midnight or 1AM to 8-9AM seems to be a little harder on the body and usually results in less first morning energy.
7) Do not do work (or stressful tasks) before bed – The obvious stimulation and positive and negative stress associated with work is enough to keep you awake. As part of your winding-down process leave work stress out of your routine.
Sleepless Nights: Specific Vitamins, Minerals and Herbs to Help You Sleep Better
The following list is just a look into the possibilities for supplementation to improve sleep.
There are other vitamin, mineral and herbal options that work as well. These simply happen to be my go-to’s for helping people fall asleep quicker and stay asleep longer.
Remember, like anything I recommend, make sure to check with your Naturopathic Doctor for dosing, proper combinations for your specific situation, safety and contraindications with your current medications.
These supplements are all powerful and should not be taken without proper individual guidance.
5HTP – Let us start with 5HTP (or 5-Hydroxytryptophan). It is the active form of the amino acid tryptophan (You’ve heard of tryptophan before – it is why turkey makes us tired!).
5HTP is a key molecule in the synthesis of serotonin, the neurotransmitter most known for contributing to feelings of well-being and happiness. Also known because it is the focus of anti-depressant medications. They try to keep serotonin around longer so that a person can feel happier.
Serotonin also plays an important role in sleep as a building block to melatonin (the sleep hormone) and has its own role in regulating sleep-wake cycles.
Increasing your 5HTP intake can increase your serotonin levels and help you feel more relaxed, calm and content and subsequent melatonin levels helping you sleep longer and deeper.
Melatonin – Melatonin is a hormone released from the pineal gland that serves as a potent anti-oxidant to the body and is responsible for telling the body that it is now time to get to sleep.
Levels can be easily disrupted by electronics and a bedroom that is too light (this is so important I can’t stress it enough). When circadian rhythms become disrupted melatonin is at the centre of the problem. To rebalance your system and improve your sleep melatonin supplementation can be very helpful.
Resetting your melatonin levels is not just about sleeping better. It is also about cancer prevention and maintaining long-term optimal health goals.
Valerian – Valerian is a herb used in anxiety, nervous sleeplessness and muscle tension. My experience has shown that results will reflect the quality of the valerian supplement you choose. For some it works wonders but in others no effect is felt.
In practice I have seen both sides of valerian and therefore haven’t relied on it heavily. Much of its unreliability has to do with the form it is taken in (tincture or tea), the dosage and the quality of the herb. Finding the right balance is key.
Passionflower – Passionflower works really well in insomnia caused by anxiety. It can even be taken during the day to curb a racing mind.
I recommend passionflower frequently as it is safe and effective.
Chamomile – Chamomile is one of the best herbs if you like to drink tea in the evenings. If you are suffering from insomnia one cup of chamomile tea should be part of your pre-sleep routine.
It is also great when anxiety causes digestive upset including gas, pain or bloating.
Magnesium – Magnesium is commonly used for muscle tension and restless legs but is also a key co-factor in serotonin synthesis along with B6 and niacin.
Supplementing all three together along with 5HTP can be the ultimate combination if you are more prone to depression and adrenal fatigue.
Other herbal options to consider:
There are many herbs with sedative properties. The others I commonly use include:
I will cover some of the benefits of these herbs in Part 2 of this guide along with some info about:
Sleepless Nights: Sleep Drugs and their Negative Consequences
If you have been diagnosed with insomnia you may have heard about the following medications: Ambien, Lunesta, Sonata, etc.
Your sleep may be so terrible that you could have considered taking them. For those who have exhausted all herbal, vitamin and mineral options I understand it. You need to sleep.
Maybe you were prescribed benzodiazepines, antidepressants or anti-histamines for your sleepless nights. Either way, here I will highlight some of the negative side effects and stress the importance of trying natural remedies first.
Ambien, Lunest and Sonata – With these non-benzodiazepine sleep drugs the most important thing to know is that you are only supposed to take them for 1-2 weeks maximum. Beyond this they can be dangerous.
They work by stimulating the neurotransmitter GABA receptors in the brain which causes brain function to slow down. The effect can last longer than 8 hours and it has been shown that Ambien can remain in your system for many days after you have taken it.
The main side effect of Ambien is dizziness but this class of drugs have been shown to cause adverse cognitive effects (such as memory loss), increased frequency of falls, fractures and road traffic crashes, daytime fatigue, addiction and increased rates of death.
Benzodiazepines – Benzodiazepines such as Valium, Xanax and Ativan are used mostly in anxiety but have a history of being used in insomnia. They also work on the GABA receptor in the brain and have a heavy side effect profile.
They have been shown to cause depression, dizziness and headaches. The more they are taken the higher the dependence on them will get.
Important Note: When a person decides to stop using these drugs they have to reduce their dose slowly or they will be at risk of seizures, tremors, muscle cramping, vomiting, and sweating. This is why they are being used less and less as a sleep aid.
Anti-Depressants – These medications are not meant to be used to correct sleepless nights. They occasionally will work but not significantly more than the natural alternatives outlined above and are often combined with one or more of these other sedatives.
Anti-Histamines – Most allergy medications cause drowsiness and some companies repackage them as over-the-counter sleep medications. They work for a few days and then they wear off. They also cause dry mouth and dizziness. Skip these.
Sleepless Nights: The Most Important Factor for Improving Your Sleep
You really can improve your sleep quality and length. No matter what the issue there are natural remedies and techniques that can be tried before medical interventions are indicated.
Sometimes all that is needed is an appropriate stress reduction technique, something to calm the mind, something to remind us we are safe. A personal mantra can be all that is needed. Explore what works for you.
- *Consider the mantra “I am safe”
- *Consider replacing thoughts of fear of the future with thoughts of gratitude for upcoming experiences
- *Consider contemplating on forgiveness for yourself and others
Note: You can always try counting sheep!
In addition to everything listed above the following can also be added to a sleep routine or attempted during periods of insomnia:
Meditation – I recommend taking a minimum of 5 minutes every night to reflect of the positive aspects of your day, step into a state of gratitude and work on any forgiveness you may need to cultivate.
Hydrotherapy – warm baths, contrast hydrotherapy and saunas can all be helpful for setting the body into a relaxed tone.
Acupuncture – There are many acupuncture points known to help improve sleep. *See an ND or acupuncturist for this one.
Build Your Own Pre-Sleep Routine
The main thing I can recommend to improve sleep is a solid routine. When Amy and I focused on what we did for the last 2 hours before we actually went to sleep, creating a relaxed environment, everything changed. The other things we used helped as well but nothing was as important as the routine.
Herbal teas (chamomile, valerian, passionflower), warm baths, soft music, a dark room (no electronics), light reading, not eating a big meal (or sticking to low glycemic foods) can all help improve sleep. They are inexpensive and easy!
Once your environment is created sleep is possible and know that you have access to the above supplementation and techniques if extra help is necessary.
What has helped improve your sleep? Let us know your story in the comments!