Understanding Insomnia & Sleep/Wake Disorders - The Naturopathic Approach
By Dr. Bronwyn Hill, ND
Over the next few months, Bronwyn will be contributing a series of interest pieces, sharing insights on the treatment of common health concerns via the use of food, lifestyle and other natural treatments. If you have any ideas for topics or questions for Bronwyn, forward them our way and she will address them in her column.
Sleep is an essential part of our health. As we dream through the night, our bodies are working hard to enhance our immune system and repair damage done to our tissues and cells during the day. We also secrete several hormones during sleep which help to regulate everything from our blood sugar control & metabolism to our mood, focus and concentration.
Most of us have experienced a few restless, sleepless nights - but more and more people in North America report chronic insomnia. Some sources say that about 35-50% of the adult population have insomnia - difficulty falling asleep, maintaining sleep, or both. We should care about the quality of our sleep because chronic deprivation appears to accelerate the aging of the brain and upsets hormonal balance. The quality of our sleep effects our day-to-day mental & cognitive function, our mood & energy, even our ability to lose weight!
Cortisol, a hormone secreted by our adrenal glands, is very often involved in the development and persistence of sleeping disorders. We normally secrete cortisol during times of stress, and it naturally decreases at night to help us rest & repair. Elevated cortisol due to to prolonged stress worsens the quality of sleep, and in turn our levels of the hormone continue to rise. Naturopathic doctors can perform lab testing to diagnose an imbalanced cortisol response in addition to other hormones that may be contributing to insomnia.
The naturopathic approach to treating sleeping disorders begins with a thorough medical assessment. Although insomnia is often associated with stress, depression & anxiety, it can have many other causes. Once the cause is determined, it can be treated with the appropriate naturopathic therapies. Food & diet, botanicals, acupuncture, supplementation and stress management techniques are all very useful, safe and effective.
Sleep Hygiene Tips:
- Maintain a regular bedtime, and wake time - ideally routine bedtime should not be much later than 10 or 11 pm - later than this and you are less likely to achieve the restorative phases of sleep. Also – do your best to maintain a fairly regular wake-up time, and expose yourself to sunlight/daylight as early as possible.
- Have a "calming" routine before bed - drink some herbal tea, have a bath, read for pleasure. Set boundaries about finishing work & other tasks an hour or two before bedtime.
- Drink water throughout the day - a lot of people do not drink enough and realize they are thirsty in the evening = waking up to use the bathroom in the middle of the night!
- Avoid exercising at night, and eating after 8 pm, these activities both increase body temperature which decreases melatonin production - a hormone needed to initiate and maintain sleep
- Increase whole grain carbohydrates in your evening meal - these foods are known to increase serotonin and melatonin - both promoters of sound sleep. Great foods that boost sleep hormones include turkey, cottage cheese, chia seeds, bananas, and cherries ~ try these if you need an evening snack.
- Keep the bedroom reserved for two things: sleep & sex.
- Make the bedroom as dark as possible, and try not to keep electronic devices like cell phones and laptops in the space. The light and radiation from electronics interferes with melatonin production and normal sleep cycles. Get an eye mask or ear plugs if needed!
- Try a bit of lavender essential oil massaged into your temples, scalp, and the tips of your ears. Dried lavender can be put in a teabag or sachet under your pillow. Other herbs that can act as sleep aids or relaxants include lemon balm, chamomile, passionflower, & valerian. **It is advised you consult with a health care provider before taking any herbal supplements as they may interact with other medications.**
Bronwyn Hill, ND is a Naturopathic Doctor & food lover. She is currently in practice in Toronto's Forest Hill Neighbourhood, at Mahaya Forest Hill Integrative Health. She specializes in using food as medicine, acupuncture & traditional chinese medicine & botanicals; and has particular experience treating digestive concerns, women's health concerns including menopause, stress management, insomnia, healthy detoxification, and chronic respiratory conditions including asthma. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . Follow her on Twitter @drbronwynnd.