The Secrets Behind Getting a Great Night’s Sleep
Welcome to the first issue of the Newport Natural Health Letter! Each week I will be sharing with you the same information and insights I provide my patients — information you can use immediately to make wise decisions about your health and medical care. My goal is to get you feeling great, looking great, and having the high energy and spirits that will keep you thriving for years to come. So let’s get started!
Today, I’d like to discuss with you the common issue of insomnia and sleeping difficulties, one of today’s most misunderstood health concerns. Everyone needs sleep. Unfortunately, most of my patients say they have problems sleeping well. In other words, quantity is not the issue; quality is.
If you’re like my patients, you already know that a warm bath is relaxing and that turkey contains the sleep-inducing amino acid tryptophan. But I know that you’re really looking for long-term remedies that are practical, easy to implement, and effective.
Let me introduce you to one of my patients, Terry. That’s not her real name, but her story is true — and all too common.
“I always took sleep for granted,” Terry told me during her first visit to the Center for New Medicine. “But a few years ago, I started having trouble falling asleep. Or I’d get to sleep and then wake up three, four, or five times a night. I can’t remember the last time I slept for eight hours straight.”
Terry was a new patient, but hearing about her difficulties with insomnia was anything but new to me. A significant number of my patients say they have trouble sleeping, a fact supported by the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), which reports that 60 percent of survey respondents report sleep problems every night or almost every night. In addition, nearly 45 percent say they seldom or never get a decent night’s sleep on weeknights.
Clearly, what we’re seeing is an epidemic of insomnia and related sleep difficulties.
Like so many others who find sleep elusive, Terry tried prescription and over-the-counter sleep medications, with poor results. “They made my mouth so dry, I kept waking up every couple of hours desperate for water. And the prescription sleeping pills put me in a half-asleep/half-awake twilight world, not a truly restful sleep.”
Even worse, by day, Terry suffered severe brain fog, anxiety, all-over aches and pains, and recurring bouts of colds and flu as her weakened immune system struggled to maintain good health without the rest it needed to regenerate. Deep, restful sleep gives our bodies a chance to renew from the cellular level on up. When that process is interrupted, health issues like Terry’s are inevitable. In fact, researchers now know that insufficient sleep is even more harmful to our health than lack of exercise.
Searching for Solutions
If any of this sounds familiar, you’ll be happy to hear that sleep problems can be solved. There are many reasons for sleep difficulties, so finding the right solution may take some experimentation, but it can be done.
For example, it turned out that Terry, who was in her early 50s, simply needed her hormone levels adjusted with natural supplements to get a good night’s sleep. Five days after Terry began taking therapeutic doses of the proper hormones, she was sleeping through the night and waking up refreshed. Her anxiety, aches and pains, and brain fog were gone.
“I felt like the cloud had lifted,” Terry recalls. “Finally, I had my life back.” Hormone imbalances, which can occur in men and women at any stage of life, can be detected with a simple blood test. Because hormones are intimately involved in all aspects of our lives and health, we will cover this topic in more detail in a later issue.
Lack of exercise is another common cause of restless nights. I frequently see patients whose only exercise is moving between an office chair, a car seat, the couch, and bed. As a result, stress accumulates. With no outlet (exercise is an outstanding stress reliever), it quickly turns into anxiety, increased blood pressure, irritability, mood swings, and muscle aches and pains.
Too often, patients insist they have “no time” to work out, only to reveal through our discussions that they’re watching television four to six hours a day. Why not work out on a treadmill or trampoline while watching TV? I point out that a recent study determined moderately intensive walking to be the most recommended strategy for dealing with sleep difficulties. Patients who follow through on this recommendation are among the biggest success stories when it comes to conquering insomnia.
Is That Nightcap Keeping You Up All Night?
What you eat and drink can also lead to sleep problems. Many people are not aware of the caffeine content in non-cola sodas and foods like chocolate. Be sure to check ingredient and nutrition labels. If you must have caffeine to function, try to limit intake to just the morning. Caffeine’s effects on the body last for about eight hours, so a cup of coffee after lunch could create problems at bedtime, especially for individuals who are sensitive to caffeine.
Medications could be another source of sleeplessness. If you’re on medication and having trouble sleeping, check with your physician to find out if insomnia could be a possible drug side effect. Each individual reacts differently to medication, so even if you know other people who are taking the same prescription and sleeping well, the medication could still be a problem for you.
When it comes to lost sleep, alcohol is another culprit. The notion that having a drink in the evening encourages relaxation or sleep is actually misleading. One drink may be soothing, but even that small amount can translate into trouble sleeping. In fact, a new clinical trial from Japan found that even a single drink of alcohol interrupts sleep in several ways, including interfering with the restorative functions that are so important to a fully functioning, healthy body. And those effects become more intense with increasing amounts of alcohol.
Ben Franklin was Right!
In a culture of 24/7 everything, it’s easy to overlook the fact that our bodies are designed to be active in daylight and rest when it’s dark. This practice allows the pineal gland to produce melatonin, a vitally important hormone that has an important connection to sleep. Without sufficient supplies of melatonin, sleep problems are likely to develop.
Melatonin production is highest between the hours of 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. But that only happens if you’re asleep in a dark room. If you don’t go to bed until 1 a.m., or nod off with the television on, getting eight hours of sleep is not going to make up for the fact that you’ve missed the prime melatonin-producing portion of the night. In other words, the phrase “early to bed, early to rise” popularized by Benjamin Franklin is actually very good advice!
Personally, I notice a big difference the next day if I get to bed late. It takes longer to get going in the morning and I often feel “out of sync” throughout the day. So I make it a habit to be in bed, ready to sleep, by 10 p.m. every evening. If you’re not in the same habit, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how well this simple tactic works.
If you come to see me with an issue like insomnia, I begin the process of finding a remedy by thinking about what your body is trying to say. So often health issues are about poor eating habits that deprive the body of specific vitamins or minerals. With so much of our food supply grown in nutrient-depleted soil, it’s not too hard to imagine that many people are suffering from nutritional deficiencies. And those deficiencies are going to make themselves known by disrupting important processes in the body, like sleep.
Getting ample amounts of a mineral like magnesium is a good example. Magnesium deficiencies are quite common among those who eat the Standard American Diet (SAD). Yet magnesium is an important mineral for relieving sleep-destroying conditions like restless leg syndrome, anxiety, and tense muscles. A combination of minerals (225 mg magnesium and 11.25 mg zinc) and the sleep-related hormone melatonin (5 mg) was tested recently on a group of participants suffering from insomnia. After two months, researchers compared the results of the melatonin/mineral combination with a placebo (a non-active sugar pill) and found the magnesium/melatonin group had considerably better results in all areas related to sleep, including falling and staying asleep, and feeling refreshed in the morning.
Long before pharmaceutical companies started selling sleep aids, Mother Nature created her own. Herbs and naturally occurring compounds have helped relieve insomnia for centuries. When a patient reports sleep problems connected to a “racing mind” or a similar stress-related issue, combination herbal products are often a good bet for resolving the situation. Supplement manufacturers offer a wide range of herbal insomnia choices. Some of my favorite ingredients include: valerian, hops, lemon balm, chamomile, passionflower, and lavender. These are sometimes combined with an amino acid, such as 5-HTP, or a neurotransmitter, like GABA, to amplify their effect.
The best way to find the right product for you is to choose one and take it as directed for two to three weeks. It takes longer for herbal products to work than prescription medications, so don’t expect instant results. If, after a few weeks, you’re still having sleep problems, try a different product. I have two that work well for me, and I alternate between them to avoid building up a tolerance to any one herb.
If you’re suffering from insomnia, the best time to do something about it is right now! On the surface, sleeping poorly may not seem like a serious problem. But it can lay the groundwork for more complex health issues down the road that can be avoided. Be sure to visit your physician or health care provider to rule out existing health problems that may be interfering with sleep. Then discuss these solutions to determine which might be best for you. You might be surprised by how easy it is to make insomnia a thing of the past.
Last Updated: August 16, 2018
Originally Published: September 13, 2011