We all feel that much better after a restful sleep. We feel recharged and refreshed, and ready to tackle the day ahead. Our energy is improved, and our mood is more elevated. The patience we have for our kids, partners, and work colleagues seems much higher after a good night’s sleep. However, not everyone sleeps well; in fact, a great percentage of the population suffers from insomnia – whether they have difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep or a combination of the two.
Night time is a period of regeneration. 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.
Mental and emotional 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.
Other causes of insomnia include: depression, anxiety, pain, fibromyalgia, hormonal imbalance, chronic fatigue syndrome, hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), hyperthyroidism (over-active thyroid), and many prescription drugs.
Dietary choices can greatly affect sleep. Try to limit caffeine, especially after noon. Too much alcohol can be detrimental to one’s sleep. Sugar can be stimulating to the nervous system, and is best reduced altogether. Foods that are high in the amino acid tryptophan (turkey, figs, bananas, and dates) can help to promote sleep if eaten in the evening since it can encourage serotonin production, a brain chemical which helps with sleep.
Yoga, meditation, acupuncture, and massage can help reduce stress, and prepare the body for sleep – physically and mentally. Regular exercise is essential as a tool for battling insomnia, but try to avoid any rigorous activity too close to bedtime. Magnesium as a supplement helps to relax the muscles of the body in preparation for sleep, while melatonin (a hormone that regulates the sleep/wake cycle) and 5-HTP (a hormone precursor to serotonin, which can initiate sleep) can be taken as supplements to encourage sleep and increase the amount of REM sleep (good quality, dream-state sleep). Many supplements and herbs that are known to help with sleep can interact with other medications, so it is always advisable to check with your health care provider prior to starting any.
Routine is most important – try to maintain a regular sleep schedule most nights of the week. Take a warm bath in magnesium-rich Epsom salts, or have a cup of chamomile or valerian root tea in the evening. Make sure your sleeping environment is dark, quiet and well ventilated. And remove electronic devices such as computers and TVs, which can hamper melatonin production.