Are you getting good zzz’s?

With the demands of a busy life, sleep tends to fall to the bottom of our priority list. Sleep deprivation is a growing issue — studies show the average hours of sleep in the 1950s was eight hours per night. Today the average American is sleeping six-and-a-half hours per night. Insufficient sleep can have profound affects on our health and quality of life.

Poor sleep quantity and quality can contribute to mental illness, weight gain and obesity, diabetes, elevated blood pressure, poor immunity, and impaired memory. Though we are at rest during sleep, neuroscientists have proven our brain is still incredibly active. Two important functions of sleep include restoration and memory consolidation.

While at rest, particular genes associated with restoration are turned on to repair tissue. The human growth hormone (HGH), associated with repair, is highest around 10 p.m. It behooves us to rest during this time, so energy can be efficiently expended.

During the night, our brains are processing and consolidating memories from the day by strengthening important neuronal links. Sleep deprivation impairs our ability to remember learned tasks and causes decreases in creativity. Good quality sleep increases our ability to develop creative solutions to complex problems.

I frequently treat insomnia without the use of pharmaceutical medications, and to do so successfully, it is important to identify the cause. Sleep disturbances are commonly caused by sleep apnea, hormone imbalances, neurotransmitter imbalances, and diet and lifestyle choices.

Sleep apnea is a condition where a person ceases to breath while sleeping. People with sleep apnea may not wake up due to the disruption, but it still affects their sleep. It is common that a partner will notice the cessation of breathing.

Those affected by sleep apnea will complain they wake up feeling unrested, and they have a greater incidence of high blood pressure and obesity. Sleep apnea can contribute to obesity, but obese individuals have a higher likelihood of being affected by sleep apnea.

To diagnose the condition, one must complete a sleep study, and treatment includes a C-PAP machine that regulates breathing.

It is impossible to discuss sleep without discussing stress. Stress is the root of many of our modern-day issues, and sleep is no exception. When we are under stress, our body releases the hormone cortisol from the adrenal glands. Cortisol is responsible for our fight or flight response and raises alertness.

After testing my patients for their cortisol levels throughout the day, it is common that those with difficulty sleeping release higher amounts of cortisol at night. People with elevated evening cortisol levels will commonly report a second wind in the evening, being night owls, or increased productivity at night. Over time, these people deplete their cortisol levels, and will have a difficult time waking in the morning.

Elevated cortisol is necessary in the morning to awake, and lower levels throughout the day allow us to sleep at night. Cortisol rhythm can be rebalanced by a combination of herbs like rhodiola, nutrients, and diet and lifestyle changes.

For women, the onset of insomnia can occur with the hormonal fluctuations of peri-menopause and menopause. As sex hormones begin to drop, insomnia is common, and many women benefit from hormone support. Hormone support can range from herbs with hormonal indications like black cohosh and Vitex to bioidentical hormone therapy.

Sleep is affected by the neurotransmitters released in the brain and their ability to excite and inhibit neuron pathways. The three neurotransmitters most commonly involved in sleep are serotonin, GABA, and melatonin. These neurotransmitter levels can be tested via urine.

Serotonin is most widely known for its connection with mood disorders like depression, but also plays a significant role in the sleep-wake cycle. People with low levels of serotonin often have difficulty sleeping.

GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that affects sleep and anxiousness. This neurotransmitter “pumps the breaks” to balance excitatory neurotransmitters. When GABA levels are low, the “breaks are out,” and the excitatory neurotransmitters can increase, making it difficult to sleep.

Melatonin is a common supplement people suffering from insomnia turn to as a natural solution. Unfortunately, it is often used in the wrong scenarios. Melatonin is affected by light to regulate the sleep-wake cycle. When the sun is shining, melatonin is low, and as it grows dark, levels increase to help one sleep. As a supplement, it can be helpful for short-term jet lag but not for chronic insomnia.

Avoid drinking alcohol four hours before bed. Alcohol does not provide sleep, but it provides sedation. Drinking alcohol can inhibit your ability to get into the sleep stages where repair and memory consolidation occur.

Avoid drinking caffeine at least six hours before bed. Stimulants like sugar, caffeine, drugs, energy drinks, and nicotine temporarily fuel cortisol and serotonin, but the temporary rise eventually leaves you with a sudden drop. These sudden drops often leave you craving that energetic euphoric feeling that can make all the above stimulants quite addictive.

Eat regular balanced meals. Blood sugar fluctuations can affect your cortisol and energy levels. The best way to manage blood sugar changes is to eat before you hit your low point and to eat meals balanced in protein, fat, and complex carbohydrates. Eating sugar even from fruit too close to bedtime can cause enough stimulation to affect your sleep.

Wind down at least 30 minutes before bed. Turn down the lights as the night comes to a close to stimulate natural melatonin and engage in low stimulation activities like take a nice bath, drink herbal tea, or read leisurely. Avoid using your phone, computer or television as the light emitted from the screens suppresses melatonin levels.

Following these tips will help you get the restful night’s sleep you need.

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Thalia Farshchian is a naturopathic doctor at Discover Health. Her background includes both conventional and alternative modalities, and her practice is primarily focused on weight management, hormone imbalances and gastrointestinal conditions. E-mail: [email protected]