Sufficient sleep is vital for a healthy body and mind. Shakespeare called it "the chief nourisher in life's feast". However, in Shakespeare's time people averaged 9 hours of sleep per night while in our post-electric era, we have reduced our average sleep times by 2 hours a night to 6 to 7 hours. This is not enough for many of us to sustain our well-being, physically, mentally and emotionally.
Too much stress can lead to fatigue, tension and poor sleep. Often, how well we sleep is a good indicator of whether we are too stressed. Apart from lower productivity and fatigue, prolonged stress and insufficient sleep can lead to:
- increased cravings for carbohydrates and hormonal imbalances, causing weight gain,
- poor concentration and short-term memory,
- weakening of the adrenal glands, which produce the hormones we need for vitality,
- irritability and mood swings,
- anxiety, panic attacks and feelings of being overwhelmed,
- depression - research shows that people with insomnia are 10 times as likely to develop depression,
- an increase in inflammatory chemicals - this leads to higher risks of chronic health issues such as heart disease, digestive problems and diabetes, and
- increased rates of infection.
There are many factors that can affect sleep patterns and cause sleep problems, including:
- physical issues such as thyroid imbalance, asthma, or sleep apnea,
- life transitions or stressors that affect our emotional balance and steadiness of mind, such as stress or changes at work or in a primary relationship, or loss, anxiety disorders and depression,
- lifestyle factors such as caffeine and alcohol consumption, too much or too little exercise, and
- environmental issues such as light, noise, or other stimulation.
While it may be tempting to seek relief from sleeping pills, addressing the underlying issues will support you towards safe and long-term solutions to improve your sleep... naturally.
There are many effective, natural solutions available to counteract insomnia and support better quality sleep. This article will highlight good sleep hygiene, nutrients and herbs, psychological support and some of the treatment options available at IMI such as naturopathic medicine, Traditional Chinese Medicine, counselling, psychotherapy, therapeutic bodywork and other complementary therapies.
Good Sleep Hygiene
Getting your mind and body ready and reducing stimulation before bedtime can go a long way towards improving your sleep quality. Here are some techniques you can try to find out which work best for you.
- Sleep in complete darkness or as close to complete darkness as possible. When light hits the eyes, it disrupts the circadian rhythm of the pineal gland and the production of melatonin and serotonin. If you get up in the middle of night to use the bathroom, make sure there is as little light as possible. Even little cracks of light affect melatonin production.
- If you are easily disturbed by noise, you can go to a hearing test centre and have some ear plugs made especially for you. They will make customised ear plugs based on a mould taken from your outer ears. Wearing these customised ear plugs can make an amazing difference.
- Avoid stimulating TV just before bed and do not have a TV in your bedroom. It is too stimulating to the brain and it will take longer for you to fall asleep.
- If you have cold feet, wear socks to bed. Feet have the poorest circulation and often feel cold before the rest of the body. A study has shown that this reduces the frequency of waking up in the middle of the night.
- Read something spiritual, religious or calming before bed, which will help you to relax. Avoid reading anything stimulating, such as a mystery or suspense novel, or a self-help book, as this may have the opposite effect.
- Exercise in the morning benefits mood and sleep, but exercise at night may overstimulate the system and so delay sleep.
- Keep the temperature in the bedroom around 22-23 degrees Celsius.
- Eat a meal packed with complex carbohydrates several hours before bed. This type of meal enhances the production of the amino acid L-tryptophan, which is needed to produce melatonin and serotonin. This amino acid is also found in milk and cheese.
- Avoid sugary snacks before bed, particularly cereals and sweets, as these will disturb blood sugar levels and inhibit sleep.
- Coffee, tea, chocolate and cola drinks are best avoided in the afternoons and evenings, or even altogether, if stress and insomnia are chronic. A recent study found that some people do not metabolise caffeine efficiently, feeling the effects of this stimulating drug long after consumption.
- Although alcohol can make people feel drowsy, the effect is short lived and people will often wake up several hours later, unable to fall back asleep. Alcohol also limits you from falling into the deeper stages of sleep, where the body does most of its healing.
- Being overweight can increase the risk of sleep apnea, which will prevent a restful night's sleep.
- Don't drink any fluids within 2 hours of going to bed. This will reduce the frequency of needing to get up and go to the bathroom.
Herbs and Nutrients
When good sleep hygiene doesn’t bring positive results, most people turn to supplementation, including the hormone melatonin. Melatonin can be very effective at improving sleep. It is particularly helpful if you are over 50, as hormone levels tend to drop with age. You can also use one of melatonin's precursors, L-5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP), especially if you are prone to depression. No matter which supplement you choose, it is best to take it with a small piece of fruit on an empty stomach. This will help the tryptophan cross the blood-brain barrier. However, melatonin and 5-HTP are not always the answer for sleep disorders.
“It is important to note that melatonin only helps those who have trouble falling asleep, it doesn't keep you asleep all night or help those who wake up early,” explains naturopath, homeopath and IMI Founding Director Graeme Bradshaw. “So it is not recommended for stress-related sleep problems.”
Instead, Graeme recommends people who suffer from stress-related sleep disorders try other herbal supplements, such as an Indian herb traditionally called Ashwaganda. This herb can help slowly adjust the adrenal stress response and allow better sleep.
There are a lot of other supplements to support sleep improvement. Many stress-related symptoms, for example, are aggravated by a magnesium deficiency. This mineral insufficiency is very common. If you suspect your sleep problem is related to stress, you can give these herbs and supplements a try.
Counselling and Psychotherapy – When Insomnia becomes Chronic
If sleepless nights persist for more than one month, the problem is considered chronic. Often sleeping difficulties are connected to underlying issues with stress, worry, depression or anxiety. Significant life changes - including stressors or changes at work, separation or loss of a primary relationship, illness, or life transitions such as moving house—can initiate stressful thoughts and feelings, and even re-ignite previous trauma or anxiety. Without support, these thoughts and feelings can escalate and perpetuate further restlessness, worry or anxiety, which will in turn affect sleep.
If insomnia becomes chronic, it can become a secondary problem in itself, as you worry whether you will be able to sleep well at night. This can compound the original reasons that caused the insomnia to develop in the first place and exacerbate difficulties around sleeping. When one is tired, it becomes even more challenging to face the original difficulties or stressors with clarity, which in turn can feed into a vicious cycle, perpetuating further worry or feelings of hopelessness.
Seeing a trained psychologist, psychotherapist or counsellor can help you to understand the underlying stressors, thoughts and feelings that may be interfering with your sleep, and give you support. They can also help you to re-establish healthier routines and patterns of behaviour for more nourishing sleep.
“Often stressful events or loss can trigger our early attachment experiences, or previous traumatic experiences and overall sense of safety and security,” says Carole Bradshaw, mindfulness psychotherapist and Co-owner of IMI.
“Sleep is a physiologically vulnerable state that optimally occurs when a person feels secure enough to down-regulate vigilance and alertness.”
There are many neurological and physiological changes that occur following severe stress (Stahl 2013). We can now understand through neuroscience what attachment theorists and psychologists have known for decades. For example, in a fearful situation, the amygdala—an important centre in the brain which hosts the fear and self-defence systems - is the first structure involved in a cascade of fight or flight hormones, such as cortisol, which cause physiological reactions such as an increased heart rate and blood pressure. In these states of hyperarousal, sleep becomes even more elusive.
Prolonged levels of stress and the accompanying increased levels of cortisol and other hormones have a damaging effect on bodily systems, including decreased immunity, neuron loss and even loss of learning or memory. Levels of serotonin, which helps us to relax, and dopamine, a feel-good hormone will drop. The neurotransmitters that power the prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate, the structure that helps control the amygdala, are also affected. This stress response becomes cyclical and exhausting. Conditions such as insomnia, anxiety, depression and nervous exhaustion are more likely to occur, from the biology alone. At times of stress, our earliest attachment patterns also come to into play, and may activate these neurochemical and biological responses, contributing to the cycle described above.
Re-establishing basic levels of safety and calming this stress response is an important part of healing the deeper issues related to chronic insomnia. Carole advises that a combination of therapy with a trained psychologist or psychotherapist, drawing on somatic or body-based approaches to heal the neural pathways is optimal. In addition, mindfulness practice and gentle energetic or body work such as craniosacral therapy can effectively foster present time awareness, re-create a feeling of safety and encourage the calming influence of the parasympathetic nervous system to bring the body, brain and endocrine system back into balance and rest. If there has been early trauma, this approach over time can also effectively help to heal the trauma and recalibrate the hormonal and neurological systems.
The other modalities mentioned in this article, such as herbs, nutrients, mindfulness and establishing good sleep hygiene, can then build on this to support the process of healing and regaining quality sleep. “However, while the body is in hyperarousal and while underlying issues persist, it is unlikely that the sleep problems will go away,” advises Carole.
Further Natural Treatments for Insomnia and Stress Overload
As mentioned, insomnia can indicate more complex issues that you may not be able to solve with behavioural changes or supplements alone. Hormonal imbalances under prolonged stress, or structural problems in neck vertebrae or cranial plates can be some of the common causes.
Adrenal stress can contribute to insomnia, or it can be exacerbated by insomnia. You can have your adrenals checked by a good natural medicine clinician.
From a Traditional Chinese Medicine perspective, insomnia results from an imbalance of various organs, which ultimately affects the heart, known as the “houses” of the shen (spirit). IMI’s TCM practitioner Gianna Buonocore is experienced in treating insomnia with acupuncture and Chinese herbs tailored to patients’ individual needs.
If you feel that your sleep issues have accumulated as structural issues, then an osteopath or chiropractic doctor can identify the issues and provide the appropriate adjustments or gentle release. Cranio-Osteopathy is particularly effective for sleep-related issues and relieving the accumulation of tensions.
Many people find complementary therapies very helpful for reducing stress and improving sleep. It is often personal preference as to which are most effective from the following options.
Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) can help to balance your body's bioenergy system and resolve some of the emotional stresses that may be contributing to insomnia. It works better for some than others and for those it resonates with, the improvement can be rapid.
Bach flower remedies allow a process of self-discovery and emotional awareness, helping you to understand and pinpoint the underlying emotions that directly impact your overall health and wellness. These remedies are designed to gently restore the balance between mind and body by casting out negative emotions such as fear, worry, frustration and indecision. They also address other emotions that can interfere with the equilibrium of the person as a whole.
Cranio-sacral and Bowen therapies are very effective at rebalancing and restoring the overall system, working on physical, emotional, mental and subtle energy levels. Cranio-sacral therapy is particularly good for encouraging the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps the body and mind rest deeply. These therapies can also relieve tensions on the dura matter in the cranium, increasing the effectiveness of the pituitary gland and pineal gland, which in turn releases melatonin and helps you to sleep better.
Reflexology, reiki, crystal healing and BodyTalk are other complementary therapies that people often find helpful.
All of these therapies are available at IMI.
Next Steps Towards A Good Night’s Sleep