Sleep is one of the most crucial pillars in maintaining health and longevity. Our bodies have their own clocks, called circadian rhythms, that are guided by external environmental factors and internal biological processes. If the circadian rhythm is disrupted, it can cause insomnia.
Insonmia can be characterized by an array of symptoms:
Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep
Poor quality sleep
Waking up during the night or too early in the morning
Feeling not well rested, fatigue, or sleepiness during the morning or daytime
Feelings of anxiety about sleep
Insomnia is very important to address because lack of sleep or poor quality sleep can lead to a number of serious health concerns, including:
Weight gain- lack of sleep causes dysregulated appetite hormones, leading to increased appetite and insulin sensitivity.
Hormone imbalance- under stress, the body will divert its energy reserves away from producing hormones towards more important bodily functions like digestion.
Cognitive dysfunction- poor sleep disrupts our memory, damages our neurons, and disrupts our ability to create new neurons.
Poor athletic performance- sleep is critical for the skill development and motorskill learning involved in athletic performance.
Immune system dysfunction- insomnia compromises the immune system in several ways. For example: melatonin, a chemical produced when we sleep, helps protect the body from infection by increasing the function of immune cytokines.
Disrupted mental health- poor sleep can disrupt our mood and emotional stability through multiple mechanisms, including suppressing brain activity and contributing to systemic inflammation.
Poor gut health- lack of sleep can cause digestive issues because our gut microbiota is intimately connected to our circadian rhythm.
Fatigue- poor sleep disrupts our mitochondrial function, which is essential for energy production at a cellular level.
Having difficulty sleeping can be rooted in a variety of health issues or diet and lifestyle factors. Risk factors for insomnia include:
Our bodies need certain nutrients to produce chemicals that are essential for a healthy circadian rhythm and good quality sleep.
Poor gut health
The bacteria in our gut produce most of our serotonin and can increase GABA receptors in the brain, which are important neurotransmitters needed to keep the body in a calm, restful state. The lining of the gut and the bacteria inside the gut are also their own circadian rhythms which is connected the body’s internal clock. When the gut microbiome is thrown out of balance by antibiotics, poor diet, stress, or toxins, it affects the body’s circadian rhythm on a systemic level.
Exposure to environmental toxins
Toxins in our environment can create a stress response in our bodies which hinders sleep.
If our bodies are in a constant state of stress, it causes chronic cortisol production which disrupts the HPA Axis and circadian rhythm.
Depression or anxiety
Depression, anxiety, or other types of mood disruption can make sleeping difficult for some, and should be treated at the root level.
Addiction to substances (drugs, alcohol, tobacco, sugar, junk food, etc.) that alter our physiology negatively impact our cognitive function and sleep. The mental and behavioral aspects of addiction can also prevent people from sleeping.
Hormones play a major role in any aspect of health, and certain hormones like melatonin are essential for sleep.
Blood sugar dysregulation
When blood sugar levels fluctuate too much throughout the day from consuming sugar, alcohol, or refined carbohydrates, it can lead to drop in blood sugar during the night, which can alarm the body and disrupt sleep. High blood sugar at night can also disrupt sleep by causing frequent urination or feelings of anxiousness.
Chronic pain or inflammation
Chronic pain means chronic cortisol production, which disrupts the HPA Axis and circadian rhythm. Chronic inflammation means there is systemic inflammation happening throughout the body, which can cross the blood brain barrier and disrupt cognitive function and thus sleep.
Conditions like narcolepsy, epilepsy, restless leg syndrome, and sleep apnea that disrupt sleep need to be addressed at the root level.
Too much or too little movement
Exercising too late in the evening can also affect sleep because it produces cortisol and adrenaline which tell the body it’s time to be awake. Excessive exercising can disrupt sleep by overstimulating the production of cortisol in the body. Not enough exercise can also have a negative impact on the quality of sleep, so it’s important to find a balanced amount of movement that works for you individually. Studies show that getting 20-25 minutes of exercise a day can significantly improve sleep quality and helps with feeling more alert and less sleepy during the day (National Sleep Foundation). Getting movement in throughout the day is better for overall health compared to one intense workout session.
Conventionally, sleeping pills are used to treat insomnia but they are not actually effective. Sleeping pills sedate people by shutting down certain parts of the brain to cause unconsciousness, but they do not put us into a natural sleep state. Alcohol and marijuana are also common remedies for sleep issues, but they also result in a lower quality of sleep and are both shown to prevent REM sleep. There are several lifestyle and behaviors that can help prevent or reduce these underlying circumstances and improve our quality of sleep:
Getting enough sunlight exposure on certain receptors in our eyes during the daytime helps to regulate a healthy circadian rhythm and increase the production of melatonin later during the evening.
Exposure to even small amounts of artificial light at night can disrupt the circadian rhythm. Limiting your exposure (turning off screens, using blue blocker glasses, using black out shades, and using salt lamps or candles 1-2 hours before bed) is crucial in allowing the body to know that it’s time to sleep.
Aiming to get at least 8-9 hours of sleep a night to keep the body on a consistent schedule helps the circadian rhythm function properly.
Sleeping during normal hours (at night) is important for good quality sleep since our body’s biological clock is naturally synced up with the earth.
Refraining from stimulating or stressful activities and practicing relaxation techniques at night before bed is important to put the body in rest mode and can impact both quality and quantity of sleep.
Wearing mouth tape is a new method of ensuring you are breathing through your nose throughout the night which helps activate the parasympathetic mode to prevent snoring, sleep apnea, and other sleep disturbances.
Avoid chemical toxins in the environment like fragrances, toxic beauty products, pesticides, cleaning products, mold, paint, car fumes, etc. which trigger cortisol production and may disrupt or overstimulate the HPA-axis.
EMF (electromagnetic frequency) waves from electronic devices are also a stressor on the body and increase our cortisol levels. Limiting your exposure to EMF waves by turning off or removing all electronic devices (including Wifi) from your bedroom or house at night can improve quality of sleep.
The brain needs to drop 2-3 degrees Fahrenheit to initiate sleep, so sleeping in cooler temperatures will help your fall asleep faster and get better quality of sleep.
There are several important aspects of diet that can impact how well we sleep.
To provide the body’s biological clock with the nutrients it needs to function, a whole foods diet with fresh, seasonal, local, and organic ingredients as much as possible is best.
Avoiding processed/refined foods and limiting the amount of sugar, alcohol and caffeine consumed are also important to maintaining normal cortisol levels.
Since HPA axis dysfunction is at the root of most sleeping issues, a macronutrient ratio of low carbohydrates and plenty of good quality proteins and fats to help soothe the HPA axis glands and maintain a stable blood sugar can be helpful. That being said, eating enough carbohydrates during dinner is also important because they can increase tryptophan. Also, too much protein in the evening can inhibit good quality sleep because it can crowd out the amino acid tryptophan (so eat sightly more for breakfast and lunch). Experiment with macronutrient ratios to find what works best for you and you’re sleep.
Giving yourself plenty of time(2-3 hours) to digest before going to bed is important for quality of sleep.
For people that are hypoglycemic or have hypoglycemic tendencies, it might be beneficial to eat something small before bed to help prevent their blood sugar from dropping during the night.
Not drinking caffeine after noon or even completely eliminating caffeine can offer relief for some people with insomnia.
Herbs and supplements recommended by a practitioner can be very effective at improving sleep.
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Kresser, C. (March 18, 2011). 9 Steps to Perfect Health: #8 Get More Sleep. Retrieved from: https://chriskresser.com/9-steps-to-perfect-health-8-sleep-more-deeply/
Wilson, J. L. (2018) Sleep disruptions. Retrieved from: https://adrenalfatigue.org/sleep- disruptions/
Carollo, L. (October 20, 2017). A Sleep Scientist on the Viscious Cycle of Insomnia and Sleeping Pills. Retrieved from: https://www.thecut.com/2017/10/the-vicious-cycle-of- insomnia-and-sleeping-pills.html
National Sleep Foundation. Study: Physical activity impacts overall quality of sleep. Retrieved from: https://sleepfoundation.org/sleep-news/study-physical-activity- impacts-overall-quality-sleep