Secrets and Solutions to Sound Sleep

Some of us like to joke about needing more sleep. But many of us don’t get enough simply because we can’t. And this is a big, missed opportunity! While the body appears from the outside to be still and inactive, sleep is a time when the body is quite busy. During the night, we restock our supply of hormones, process toxins, repair damaged tissue, make white blood cells to fight infections and illness, eliminate the effects of stress, and process heavy emotions. Unfortunately we have an epidemic of sleep disorders – from trouble falling asleep to often-interrupted sleep to actual insomnia. There are, however, several straightforward remedies I want to share that I’ve seen work over and over again.

We fall asleep due to the gifts of the pineal gland, a small ant-sized lobe in our brain that secretes melatonin. This wonderful neurotransmitter suppresses the activity of other chemicals in the brain and helps to calm us (in part by countering the stress hormone cortisol). For ideal sleep, melatonin should rise steadily throughout the evening and hit a high around 2am. But there’s a catch: the pineal gland secretes melatonin largely in response to darkness. And our evening cortisol levels are lowest in environments with low noise. With our addictions to TV, video games, and email in the evening, however, our choices can interfere with these natural pro-sleep chemical shifts. These devices mostly display full-spectrum light which can confuse the brain about whether it’s night-time or not. We also, unfortunately, tend to watch shows or view email that can be loud and/or stressful (e.g. the evening news, a crime show, work email, or ever-longer to-do lists). Digesting a heavy meal eaten later in the evening can also prevent (or interrupt) sleep.

So the first thing I want to recommend to you is “sleep hygiene”. Yes, these are simple ideas. But they are powerful!

  • Instead of using the high-tech toys at night, consider calming, quieter evening activities (e.g. reading a book, taking a warm bath, going for a light stroll outdoors, playing with a pet, folding laundry).
  • No email, TV, next-day-planning, or stressful conversations in the full hour prior to bedtime.
  • If noise is an issue during the night, consider soft foam ear plugs or the white noise of a fan.
  • Make sure your bedroom is not too hot, as this can disrupt sleep.
  • Herbal tea (e.g. lavender, chamomile, valerian, passionflower) can help you to relax and set the tone for sleep.
  • No food a full two-to-three hours before bed.
  • No caffeinated food or drink after 2pm in the afternoon (e.g. tea, coffee, soda, mate).

There are many cases, however, where pro-sleep behavior is simply not enough. For some of us, our brains simply aren’t able to make enough melatonin to ensure solid sleep all night long. Or there is a chemical imbalance preventing sufficient relaxation. Here are some solutions that might help. Note: all of the remedies described can be found easily at Whole Foods Markets or your local health food store or online.

  • If you have trouble falling asleep, I recommend 0.5-3mg of melatonin taken 30 min. prior to bedtime (start with the lowest dose; it may be all you need). This is safe and effective for short-term use. And melatonin actually helps also to reduce blood pressure during the night, good for those with hypertension.  Note that more isn’t better, so I recommend starting with just 0.5mg which is sufficient for most people.  Too much can leave you groggy the next day.
  • If you fall asleep fine but awaken in the middle of the night and cannot easily go back to sleep, your problem is likely an insufficient supply of melatonin throughout the night. Taking melatonin before bed probably will not help much. Instead, I recommend 50-200mg of 5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan) before bed. Note: do not take 5-HTP if you are also currently taking a SSRI or SNRI (or other serotonin-enhancing) antidepressant drug (e.g. Zoloft, Trazadone) without additional guidance.  Again, more isn’t better, so start with the lower end of the dose first.
  • If you have trouble getting stressful thoughts out of your mind at bedtime or cannot sleep due to pain, it is often because of an imbalance of excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmitters in the brain (specifically glutamate and GABA, respectively). You will likely benefit from taking calming herbs one to two hours prior to bedtime. I have explored many blends with clients and find that 500mg of holy basil combined with 1-3 capsules (~300mg each) of valerian works best. Both of these are long-standing herbal remedies.
  • If you have trouble sleeping when you have had an alcoholic beverage(s) in the evening, this is usually because alcohol interferes with another calming neurotransmitter (an amino acid) called Taurine. Try taking 1000mg of taurine just prior to bedtime to help reduce this interference.

Without restful sleep, it can be challenging for any of us to be at our best (and how are you going to catch any of those leaves?)!  Choose to live on purpose and get a regular, good night’s sleep. You’ll be amazed at how much more positive and energizing your days can become.