By Jesse Cannone
Your body needs adequate sleep as much as it needs good nutrition and exercise to stay healthy. Although sleeping aids can help you get a good night’s rest, the best long-term course of action for chronic sleeplessness is to tackle the problem at the source. A few months ago I shared some tips on how to ease nighttime pain and get to sleep. Today I’m going to show you how to recognize the root cause of your insomnia and help you beat it at its source without resorting to habit forming prescription drugs.
Long term insomnia is usually caused by some type of chemical imbalance in the body. Psychological stress, such as worry over a financial problem, can trigger insomnia. So can physical stress, like an injury or medication. Correcting this imbalance allows you to more easily return to a healthy sleep pattern.
Job number one of course is making sure you treat the right problem. Fortunately most sleep related chemical imbalances in the body exhibit tell-tale symptoms. Once recognized you can take specific actions to return them to healthy levels.
Produced by the adrenal glands, cortisol is the hormone responsible for giving your body that quick burst of energy during a “fight or flight” response to a perceived crisis. It redirects energy from less vital processes like growth and digestion to give your muscles the energy needed to face the event.
Cortisol is always present at various levels throughout the day. The key word here is “various.” In a properly functioning body, cortisol levels reach their highest level within half an hour after waking to give you the kick start to get moving that day. They gradually decrease throughout the day reaching their lowest level around midnight, or about 3 to 5 hours after you go to sleep.
In today’s high stress culture cortisol gets repeatedly pumped into our bloodstream in response to stressors like getting stuck in traffic when you’re already late for a meeting (as opposed to a genuine life threatening emergency). Prolonged periods of elevated cortisone levels can increase blood pressure, promote unhealthy weight gain, lower immunity, impair mental clarity, cause blood sugar imbalances, and increase risk of many other health issues.
Elevated cortisone in the body can also make it impossible to sleep. You’ll find yourself lying in bed wide awake, tossing and turning for much of the night trying to get to sleep. When you finally nod off your sleep will be shallow and frequently interrupted. In the morning you’ll probably feel like you didn’t even get any rest. That’s because your body didn’t get the deep, restful sleep it needs.
On the other hand, chronic stress can exhaust the adrenal glands to the point where they don’t even manufacture sufficient quantities of cortisol to get you through the day. You slog through the day feeling completely run down. By mid-afternoon you feel like you need to go take a nap. But come the middle of the night you finally get a “second wind.” In actuality that’s your first wind — your adrenal glands, exhausted as they are, needed extra time to produce the cortisol your body normally gets in the morning. This leaves you feeling tired throughout the day yet still having trouble getting to sleep at night as cortisol levels finally rise at the wrong time.
Avoid high glycemic carbohydrates, like processed foods and foods containing refined sugar or flour, which cause your body to secrete additional insulin. Cortisol works with insulin to maintain proper glucose metabolism, so more cortisol is pumped out to meet the increased demand. Looks like Mom had a point when she told us kids no candy before bed.
Avoid caffeine, particularly later in the day. While a cup of coffee may give you a temporary boost of energy, drinking more than a cup or two in the morning will wear down your adrenal glands over time. By all means stay away from caffeine pills!
Try supplements which can help rebuild your adrenal glands. Vitamin B-5 (pantothenic acid) and licorice herb have both been found beneficial for helping maintain proper cortisol levels. Vitamin B-5, sometimes called the anti-stress vitamin, plays a key role in regulating cortisol and forms the key enzyme used in its creation. Licorice herb helps prevent your liver from breaking down cortisol before your body can use it. Adrenal gland extract or supplemental cortisol in the form of hydrocortisone can also help rebuild even severely exhausted adrenal glands.
Neurotransmitters are central to memory, pain perception, sexual urges, emotions, appetite and sleep. At least four neurotransmitters are crucial for maintaining a proper sleep cycle: serotonin, dopamine, endorphins and GABA. A deficiency can wreak havoc on both your emotions and ability to sleep normally.
Serotonin levels directly affect your sleep. During the day, serotonin is stored in the pineal gland within your brain as melatonin. As light fades at the end of the day, this melatonin is released to help you fall asleep. In the morning, daylight signals the pineal gland to stop releasing melatonin so you can wake up. Without adequate serotonin your body cannot make sufficient melatonin to regulate your sleep/wake cycle.
Low levels of serotonin, more common in women than men, frequently cause eating disorders such as food cravings only satisfied by eating sweets and starches. Deficiencies can also lead to very negative feelings of depression, panic attacks, worry, anxiety, and even suicidal thoughts.
One natural way to increase serotonin production over time is supplementing with the 5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan). This amino acid regulates serotonin levels in the brain, allowing your body to create needed melatonin. It also is considered effective at treating anxiety and aiding weight loss.
Dopamine is another neurotransmitter used to regulate sleep. When your body is deficient in dopamine, critical REM sleep is greatly reduced.
Low levels of dopamine are associated with ADD, ADHD, cravings for caffeine, and depression. Unlike depression caused by deficient serotonin, low dopamine induced depression usually manifests itself as a form of extreme apathy. Although a dopamine deficiency will cause you to crave caffeine, one of the most effective ways at restoring adequate dopamine production is to reduce your caffeine intake, preferably to just one cup of coffee a day. You can also supplement with l-tyrosine which boosts production of several neurotransmitters including dopamine. You’ll also find significant levels of l-tyrosine in many foods like poultry, fish, peanuts, avocados, lima beans, pumpkin seeds, milk and cheese.
Endorphins, though not directly responsible for regulating the sleep/wake cycle, do play a vital role in calming the body so you can rest. Produced by the pituitary gland, an adequate level of endorphins reduces anxiety, relieves pain and resembles opiates in their ability to produce a feeling of well-being. Those with deficient levels of endorphins are often overly sensitive to pain or suffer from chronic anxiety. Those previously addicted to codeine or opiates are more likely to have an endorphin deficiency.
I recommend DLPA, a combination of D-phenylalanine and L-phenylalanine, for most people with endorphin deficiencies. These are amino acids your body uses to both prevent the breakdown of endorphins and promote the creation of dopamine, which can reduce pain and anxiety helping you sleep better. You should discuss taking DLPA with your doctor before supplementing if you are on taking an MAOI (monoamine oxidase inhibitor) or other antidepressant as the combination can lead to dangerously high blood pressure.
GABA, short for gamma-aminobutyric acid, is one of the brain’s most widespread neurotransmitters. Involved in most aspects of brain function such as memory and sleep, it also calms the body by blocking signals from the stress hormone norepinephrine.
Low levels of GABA can cause feelings of anxiety, panic attacks, and even seizures. Feeling overwhelmed, burnt out, and unable to relax are signs of a GABA along with overly stiff and tense muscles. While GABA supplements are available, I don’t recommend them as most of it gets destroyed by the digestive process and much of what survives never makes it to your brain. Instead, try supplementing with the amino acid precursors of GABA, taurine and theanine. Both have a calming effect on the body and help your body create more GABA.
There are several other supplements useful for calming anxiety and promoting sleep as well. The amino acid glycine is another neurotransmitter which can help you sleep better at night while reducing daytime sleepiness. Niacinamide provides a relaxing effect similar to Valium without the addiction risk. And you’ve probably heard of valerian root and St. John’s wort which both have positive effects on anxiety and depression. Taking valerian root and St. John’s wort together multiplies their effectiveness at helping you get a restful night’s sleep.
Restore a Healthy Sleep Pattern
Now you know how to recognize and correct the sleep related chemical imbalances in your body causing your insomnia. It may take up to 6 weeks to restore normal cortisol and neurotransmitter levels but at least you can see a light at the end of the tunnel. In the meanwhile, there are other actions you can take to get a good night’s rest starting tonight.
First of all, eliminate all caffeine and sugar late in the day. Exercise regularly, early in the day. Avoid drinking for an hour before bedtime so a full bladder doesn’t wake you. Begin keeping a regular sleep/wake schedule to get you body into a routine – even on the weekends. Keep your bedroom dark and quiet (turn off the TV and radio, or at least use its sleep timer). Finally, use a natural sleep aid like Sleepzyme® if necessary to help you get back to a normal sleeping pattern. Pretty soon you won’t need it anymore as you address the underlying chemical imbalances keeping you up at night.