Sleep, lovely when you can but awful when you can't! When all through the house, not a creature is stirring, not even a mouse, yet we can be lay awake and there's something about the middle of the night that blows every day trivial matters out of proportion and sends the thoughts into overdrive!
Sleep is a complex science and sometimes the drivers that cause us to have a disrupted night can be very different. This can be from external stressors that life throws at us, nutrient deficiencies and gut flora imbalances that prevent sleep hormone production, lifestyle choices that keep us awake and different life stages such as the menopause where symptoms of hot flushes disturb us. Then there's the fact the some people can’t get to sleep in the first place, some people get to sleep but then wake up and then some people sleep so lightly that they don't feel refreshed on waking.
If sleep is a health concern for you, it's important to address this and recognise that sleep is our restoration time where we regain our natural balance. Our sleep hormone is called melatonin, which is responsible for our circadian rhythm and acts as our immune surveillance throughout our bodies whilst we rest. It's also true that without sleep that our energy levels are depleted and our moods can also be affected. From the perspective of a Nutritionist, any sleep concerns must be addressed to achieve optimal wellness and vitality for my clients.
It's all too often that I see people that struggle with their sleep and it's also one of the most common reasons that people come into the shop to seek either some herbal or nutritional supplements. Whilst these can be supportive, it's essential to work out the reasons for the lack of sleep so that the root causes can be addressed. Here is a quick insight into some of the essential components of sleep and areas that should be considered:
Firstly, you need to have enough protein in your diet. There are few rich food sources of melatonin itself with cherries being one exception. We therefore have to provide the precursors for our bodies to make its own melatonin. There is a building block of protein called tryptophan and this is an essential starting point for the body's production of our sleep hormone. Some foods are richer in tryptophan than others such as turkey, nuts, seeds, oats, dates, spirulina, lentils, bananas and eggs. From supplement form, the best form of tryptophan is a form called 5-HTP, which is the activated form of this amino acid. If do you opt for this in supplement form then ensure to take this away from other food sources of protein to maximize the efficacy.
Good gut bacteria. Those who know me, know that I'm passionate about bacteria! The gut microbiome, that is the world of microorganisms that live within us, should be considered a vital organ within our bodies without which, we would not survive. When we nourish our microbiome, the bacteria nourish us through our symbiotic relationship. Good gut health is essential for optimizing all nutrient absorption and also is the first point where the tryptophan from our diet is converted into our happy hormone, serotonin. From good production of serotonin, comes melatonin. Our good gut health also helps absorb our supportive nutrients from our foods, especially our B Vitamins and Magnesium amongst others. If you experience any digestive complaints that you think may be affecting your ability to get a good nights sleep, then ensure that there is plenty of fibre in your diet to nourish your microbiome. It may also be useful to include fermented foods such as sauerkraut into your diet or to opt for a high quality probiotic, especially after the use of antibiotics.
There are also nutrients that act as cofactors for optimal sleep. For example, magnesium plays a role in many enzymatic functions in the body but is especially important for relaxation and rest at night and can be of particular importance for those with insomnia. B Vitamins, especially B6, is essential for optimal melatonin production as well as nourishing the adrenals to assist with our ability to cope with external stressors. Potassium is also important for those struggling to stay asleep. Vitamin D is also important especially during the winter months and can be indicated if someone is struggling to stay awake during the day or has low mood during the winter months.
The pineal gland naturally produces melatonin during the hours of darkness. However, in this 24/7 world in which we live, we often trick our bodies into thinking it's daytime through the use of devices late at night that produce blue light. My recommendation is to have an hours technology detox prior to bed to ensure that the pineal gland can start to produce melatonin effectively. Using 'Night Shift' settings on your devices can also be helpful to switch them to a red light background after a certain time. Also, if you wake to go to the toilet then try not to turn on bright lights as this will also affect hormone production. In addition, try and avoid using your mobile phone as your alarm clock as this will also disrupt sleep, instead opt for a battery operated alarm clock.
Genetically, some people can metabolise and process caffeine better than others but either way, excess caffeine will lead to adrenal disruption which keeps us awake at night. When we are under periods of stress, this also promotes feelings of anxiety, which again, can lead to sleepless nights. The advice here is to keep the amount of caffeine limited and only take it before lunch so your body has time to metabolise and detoxify it prior to bedtime.
Your liver is at its most active regeneration through the night and is busy cleansing the body of the toxins that we have been exposed to throughout the day. If you get to sleep but wake somewhere around 3am, then this may be an indication that your liver needs some support. To support this, we should limit alcohol intake and allow periods without any alcohol to help reset our circadian rhythm. We should also eat our evening meal earlier so as not to add additional processing for the liver as we sleep. Excess carbohydrate at night also promotes a blood sugar spike to which the liver has to respond so avoidance of simple carbohydrates late at night is also helpful. Certain foods such as dandelion tea, artichokes, garlic, grapefruits and green leafy vegetables are all supportive for optimal liver function. Herbal liver support can also help to restore and also protect the liver.
Last but certainly by no means least is lifestyle. Creating healthy habits and introducing a nighttime routine can be extremely beneficial. This can be reading a relaxing book prior to bed, sipping a chamomile tea, soaking in an Epsom salt bath, lighting candles at night or using relaxing essential oils such as lavender or frankincense. Whatever works for you but make your home your sanctuary, pull up your drawbridge at night… and sleep!
Jackie Coldwell is co-Director of Therapy Organics, and leads the Nutrtional Therapy Team.See more Articles by Jackie
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