Sleep is vital medicine for mind, body, and soul—more potent and important than anything you can get in an Rx vial. The fatigue that results from sleep deprivation can directly impair cognitive function, cause car crashes and contribute to chronic diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, depression, obesity, and cancer. Lack of sleep also triggers stress, which can fan the flames of chronic inflammation in the body—a major contributing factor to accelerated aging. Quite simply, sleep is the most powerful anti-inflammatory medicine available to us.
When I treat patients for sleep disturbances, I look at all potential causes, which may be psychological, emotional, or metabolic in nature. Most insomnia cases can be traced back to disrupted melatonin-serotonin production and release. Melatonin is a hormone produced by the pineal gland during the day and released when it starts to get dark, preparing the brain and body for sleep. Melatonin is a direct byproduct of serotonin, which is produced at night. With sleeplessness, the body doesn’t produce enough serotonin, and a vicious cycle is set.
If you struggle with insomnia, try these 12 practical steps toward cultivating and protecting your most precious health ally: sleep.
Set a sleep schedule and stick to it.
Go to bed early—by 10 pm. The body releases most of its melatonin between 10 pm to 2 am.
Before bed, have quiet time.
Enjoy some time to yourself or with your partner or family. Turn off the phone: nothing bad will happen if you don’t take calls at night.
Remove computers, telephones, and TV from your bedroom.
These devices contribute to electromagnetic pollution and distract you from sleeping.
Don’t use electronics 1 hour before going to bed.
The bright screen of a computer or iPad tricks your brain into thinking its daytime.
Have the right bedtime snack.
If you’re hungry before bed, that probably means you need to boost your serotonin level. Just make sure the snack you choose can help your slumber, not hinder it. The old-fashioned milk and cookie was a good working option, but sugar can sabotage your ability to sleep; also, many people have hidden allergies to milk/dairy and wheat. I recommend half of a boiled potato, which is full of carbohydrates. Starchy potato has a high glycemic index, but it releases its sugars slowly compared to cookies. Or choose a food that’s high in tryptophan, the amino acid that helps make serotonin and melatonin, such as walnuts, hummus, and bananas.
Say no to nightcaps.
Contrary to popular belief, drinking alcohol at night is not an effective remedy for insomnia; in fact, quite the opposite is true. A drink might make you feel drowsy and seem like a quick fix, but alcohol can disturb the quality of your sleep in the short term and has negative consequences in the long run, such as liver toxicity. Ultimately, it will worsen your insomnia.
When you’re in bed, practice gratitude.
Instead of tossing and turning, think of all the things for which you feel grateful. We might all be different, but many of our sources of gratitude are exactly the same. You may be grateful for your health, for being alive, for your loved ones, for prosperity. A lot of people on this planet struggle for physical survival, which underscores our abundance and leaves us thankful for what we have.
In addition to a wealth of other health benefits, exercise can cure insomnia by optimizing oxygen flow to the brain and other tissues, and by enhancing your body’s energy production. If you don’t exercise, start now. Not at night, though—exercise during daylight hours so you don’t wind up over stimulated at bedtime.
Practice breathing techniques.
Our life on Earth is possible thanks to a miraculous molecule called oxygen. You can survive without oxygen only for a few minutes. Not just breathing, but the way in which you breathe is important. Most people inhale into the chest—a shallow way of breathing that excludes the diaphragm and uses only the upper lungs. Abdominal breathing—taught by yoga instructors—recruits the lungs’ basal areas, where the utilization of oxygen is more efficient. Seek out lessons from a yoga teacher in “pranayama,” or breathing techniques, and see how it can enhance your sleep.
Keep metabolic disorders at bay.
Metabolic problems can lead to excitation of the brain, anxiety, and sleeplessness. This is a vast topic in itself; in brief, investigate factors like these: poor detoxification, digestive problems, hidden food allergies (gluten and dairy are the most common), and toxic metal burden from lead, mercury, or arsenic, which may be treated with chelation therapy. While most of this investigation should be done with a physician, you can take care of yourself by consuming adequate amounts of omega-3 fatty acids (e.g., fish oil supplements), magnesium in chelated form (preferably magnesium glycinate), and B vitamins.
Did you know?
- Almost half of our brain mass is comprised of omega-3 fatty acids, which make the membranes more fluid and facilitate receptor activation. A scarcity of omega-3 fatty acids in the diet, exacerbated by an abundance of trans fats, makes cerebral membranes stiffer and less fluid, and distorts the interaction between cells.
- Low levels of magnesium can cause irritability, nervousness, anxiety, sleeplessness, and muscle cramps. Also vitally important, B vitamins facilitate detoxification, especially B6 and B12.
- Coenzyme Q10 is very important for energy production in the cells. It is decreased by most medications, so if you take medications, talk to your doctor about CoQ10 supplementation.
- L-theonin, inositol and GABA (inhibitory neurotransmitter), and melatonin supplements may be useful in your journey toward better sleep.
In my experience acupuncture and especially scalp acupuncture is very helpful in many cases of sleeplessness.
Learn about Neurointegration Therapy (NIT).
Neurointegration is a new and effective method of biofeedback that can re-train the brain to operate in a healthy fashion. In integrative medicine, Neurointegration is used to treat anxiety, depression, and problems with memory, learning, focusing, and, yes—sleeping.
If you’re suffering from lack of sleep, this article will help. If you have any questions,
just call me at 212.390.1727!
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Stay Healthy and Live with Passion!
Igor, Ostrovsky MD, PhD.