For millions of people, a good night’s sleep is only a dream. Up to 30% of the population experiences sleep difficulties within a given year and roughly one in ten people suffers from chronic insomnia. In North America, over 100 million prescriptions are written every year for sleep medications, many highly addictive.
Insomnia is an umbrella term for a number of distinct sleep complaints, including sleep-onset and sleep-maintenance insomnia (difficulty falling asleep and frequent waking, respectively). Insomnia is also defined according to whether symptoms are transient, short-term or chronic (over six months).
Night time is a period of regeneration. Many important physiological processes take place while we sleep, including the secretion of anti-aging hormones and the quenching of free radicals in the brain. Sleep helps rebuild cells, combat illness and regulate blood sugar levels. Most people can tolerate a few days without adequate sleep, however long-term deprivation can have serious consequences for our physical and mental health.
A night’s sleep is composed of a series of alternating periods of REM (rapid eye movement, or dream-state) and non-REM sleep. With age we tend to have relatively less REM sleep and to awaken more easily at the transition between the two states.
Sleep dysfunction can be caused by an enormous range of physical problems. These include depression, anxiety, pain, fibromyalgia, hormonal imbalance, chronic fatigue syndrome, hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) and hyperthyroidism (over-active thyroid). Many prescription and non-prescription drugs, alcohol and caffeine also undermine sleep.
Psychological factors account for half of all insomnia cases. Stress has a particularly harmful effect on sleep, since it tends to elevate the stress-response hormone cortisol. The more cortisol is produced in the late evening, the more sleep is impaired and the greater the difficulty of controlling daytime stress.
Diet greatly affects sleep. Whole grains and other complex carbohydrates help maintain blood sugar levels and increase serotonin – the ‘feel-good’ hormone important for initiating sleep. Foods containing the amino acid tryptophan – turkey, bananas, figs, nuts and yogurt – are sedative, and herbs, including Valerian root, passionflower and chamomile, provide a natural alternative to prescription sleep medications. Sugar is a stimulant and should be used sparingly; artificial sweeteners avoided altogether.
Improving sleep can be a complex process involving blood work and other tests, or even a stay in a sleep clinic to check for chronic disorders such as sleep apnea. First, one can take some obvious steps. Yoga, meditation, acupuncture, and massage help reduce stress, and calcium/magnesium as a supplement helps to relax the muscles of the body in preparation for sleep. Melatonin (a hormone that regulates the sleep/wake cycle) and 5-HTP (a hormone precursor to serotonin) can encourage sleep and increase the amount of REM sleep. Regular exercise is essential, but best avoided in the hours before bedtime.
Most importantly, try to maintain a regular sleep schedule, seven days a week. Switch off the computer or TV well before bedtime and take a warm bath in magnesium-rich Epsom salts. Make sure your sleeping environment is dark, quiet and well ventilated. Remove electronic devices such as computers and TVs, which can hamper melatonin production. If sleep problems persist, see your health professional.
©Dr. Gordon, 2011.