Over the past few months the topic of sleeplessness has come up with several friends, so thought I’d share a bit of my experience…….I’ll try to keep this brief, not going into all the details about neurotransmitters, etc. which can be found all over the internet.
As days shorten and nights get longer, animals naturally begin to sleep more, some hibernating or semi-hibernating. ‘Our’ resident chipmunks are sleeping more, soon they will be tucked into their dens until spring. Around November many of us would like to hibernate. Yet for some, just getting a normal night’s sleep can be a challenge. I’ve been one of those. Insomnia since childhood caused me to read books and try most sleep remedies, even seek help at sleep clinics. Rejected at two sleep clinics because I didn’t sleep enough to run the tests, I found help with Dr. Darley at the Institute of Naturopathic Sleep Medicine. Although I knew a lot about sleep, and sleeplessness, I learned what unique protocols were necessary for me to normalize sleep patterns. Like most areas of health, there are new findings about what makes us sleep, or not, as science gains a better understanding of our neurochemistry. I happen to be a person who has low levels of serotonin. I think I came from a serotoninless planet.
You could stop reading this right now and go to Dr. Darley’s list of archival articles for interesting and helpful information. Or, you can humor me and read on…..
Lack of sleep has been shown to create in normal healthy people symptoms that mimic ‘syndromes’ such as fibromyalgia ~ acheiness, dizziness, nausea, lightheadedness, etc. I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia decades ago, a diagnoses I no longer put much ‘stock’ in, believing it to be a label used when allopathic medicine does not understand what is wrong. (It’s also become big business ~ new drugs, treatments, etc. How do you create a drug for something you don’t know the cause of ? But I digress.) Most people know without sufficient sleep they might feel dizzy, lack the ability to focus, have slower responses physically and mentally, and generally feel tired. Insomnia has become an epidemic in our society, a high percentage of people functioning all the time with combinations of these symptoms, others having periods of sleeplessness which interrupt their ability to live optimally. Most post-menopausal women have increased sleepless nights due to lower estrogen levels which impact the production of serotonin which is needed for sleep.
Ben Franklin suggested eating apples before going to bed for sleeplessness. I remember trying that. There’s the warm milk remedy, which has some science behind it. Milk contains both calcium, which has a sedative effect on the body (I take my calcium supplement at night) and low levels of the amino acid tryptophan, a precursor of the sleep-inducing neurotransmitter serotonin, which in turn produces the neurotransmitter melatonin, which puts you to sleep. Other food recommendations are based on small snacks of complex carbohydrates (not sugar!) combined with protein. What NOT to eat is just as important. Do not eat heavy meals, high fat foods, spicy foods or refined carbohydrates before bed time.
Melatonin, a hormone produced in the pineal gland, is a neurotransmitter that begins to increase about 2 hours before your customary bedtime, if you are in dim lighting, and peaks about 2 hours later. It decreases through the night to very low levels during the day. Bright lights, such as sunshine…or computer screens, television screens, or a brightly lit room, will decrease levels of melatonin significantly, or prevent it from rising. If you do not get to bed when your melatonin level is peaking you will likely have a sleepless night. Some people have melatonin rhythms that might be different from the norm, causing them to be sleepy during the day, and/or not sleepy at bedtime.
So to stay awake ~ eat a big rich meal late in the evening in a brightly lit room, stay on the computer late, add a conversation with partner, child, friend, that is stimulating to the brain and emotions, some loud ruckus music, and jump into bed in an over heated, messy room.
For many of us, any one of these factors can throw our brain chemistry off, meaning there will be no melatonin which equals no sleep, or not enough melatonin to get us through a night of sleep.
The trick to improving sleep is to enhance the body’s ability to produce melatonin. And that begins in the morning. I was not happy when told by Dr Darley that even if I did not sleep well, or at all, I still needed to get into light early in the morning to turn off the melatonin. Beginning the period of reduced melatonin during the day helps re-set the biological clock. At first this meant 5:30 and I was miserable! But it did reset my evening biorhythm. I also wasn’t happy when she said do not stay in bed more than 20 minutes if you can’t sleep, get up, go to another room, read (by dim light) something really boring, go back to bed when sleepy. I do not always do this. But it may work for you.
I have a routine that enhances my ability to sleep, if I don’t follow it I don’t sleep. It includes getting ‘in the light’ by 6:30 – 7:00 in the morning, even if I had a terrible night of sleeplessness. In the evening it means eating dinner no later than 7 p.m., earlier better, getting off the computer by 9:00, earlier better, having the house dimly lit, listening to calming music, not discussing ‘hot’ topics (money, family, projects, etc.), taking a warm bath (yes, this old time remedy works, the warmth relaxes muscles and when the body cools down it induces tiredness), and having a cool bedroom that is only used for sleep. The regularity of a routine is part of telling the brain it is time to sleep – same music, same pre-sleep rituals, whether it’s having the same favorite blanket you wrap yourself in to read poetry to your partner, or inspiring short stories to yourself ~ maybe it’s the boredom of the routine, but these things trigger the brain to prepare for sleep.
Life does not always lend itself to this protocol, I have periods of poor, even no sleep, but when I get back to the routine my sleep always improves. I can usually tell when I get into bed if the chemistry is there or not to put me to sleep. I do take an herbal sleep remedy when needed, but I stubbornly believe it is best to work with the body, and mind, to help it do what it knows how to do, produce the sleep producing chemicals. Dr. Darley explained to me even a small amount of light in a room, from an LED clock or radio, can stop the production of melatonin in some light-senstive people. I’m one of them. I have a lot of black-out cloth and take it with me when sleeping elsewhere. Most people live in environments that have too much light. My mother’s house in Seattle is in a quiet neighborhood (except for the not-so-distant trains!) yet through her windows there are glaring lights from as far away as the Port of Seattle. Eliminate the light and sleep better!
Each of us are unique. I have shared in a general sense what I find helpful. Experiment with yourself, read Dr Darley’s articles.
Good-night and sweet dreams!
I am envious of the chipmunks who go into semi-hibernation. These furry little friends sleep away the winter, waking every so often to eat from their store of food, which here includes the many sunflower seeds they beg for at our door!