It’s well known that sleep is essential for our bodies and brains to function properly, yet many of us still struggle to get adequate and restful sleep each night.
Often we turn to prescription medication in order to fall or stay asleep, but these can come with many negative side effects that may only cause more problems.
Is there a better way? What are the real reasons we have trouble falling asleep and what can we do about it?
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My quest for better sleep…
I’ve always been a night owl and as a kid loved staying up later whenever I was allowed to. It first became a problem for me in middle school when my homework load led me to stay up late (which I didn’t mind), but I still had to get up at 6 am (which I definitely did mind!). I ended up taking long naps after school when I should have been doing my homework, repeating the cycle over and over again.
Then as a young mother caring for babies and toddlers, my sleep pattern became even more chaotic (if this is your current season in life, I feel for you mama!). Suddenly I was desperate for every moment of sleep I could come by and really didn’t understand my younger self’s desire to stay up all night!
Fast forward to today, I still struggle to get to sleep sometimes. Especially when I’m stressed, anxious or just excited. My mind will.not.shut.up.
Understanding the ins and outs of sleep and how it can be impacted by our lifestyle has helped me pinpoint areas I need to improve in order to get a better night’s sleep.
Not being able to fall or stay asleep is a message our body is sending us, letting us know that something is amiss.
How our bodies fall asleep
Falling asleep requires our body to transition from our sympathetic to our parasympathetic nervous system.
During a normal night’s sleep, our bodies experience 4-6 cycles of REM and non-REM sleep, each one lasting 80-110 minutes.
The deeper and more often we go into these cycles uninterrupted, the more refreshing our sleep will be.
Benefits of a good night’s sleep
During sleep, stress hormones (like cortisol) drop, while growth hormones increase, resulting in increased immunity, memory defense, and cellular healing.
Adequate restful sleep decreases inflammation, helps you lose weight, boosts your immunity and protects you from a myriad of other health problems like diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.
How our sleep can become disrupted
Sleep can be disrupted when two response systems, the “fight or flight” and stress response, are activated in our bodies.
This can happen due to a number of factors, from stress and anxiety to food sensitivities (which may cause digestive distress and inflammation), to infections or toxic exposure.
The resulting inflammation can lead to insomnia. Insomnia, in turn, exacerbates inflammation by not allowing the body to rest and heal on a cellular level . . . and on it goes in a vicious cycle!
In addition, when circadian rhythm is off (triggered by actions such as eating at abnormal times, or not sleeping/waking at consistent times) our sleep is further disrupted and we must help our bodies get back into sync.
Risks of sleep deprivation
Regularly getting less than 6 hours of sleep can lead to depression, chronic fatigue, a weakened immune system, accelerated cancer growth, a pre-diabetic state and weight gain (by increasing grehlin, the “hunger hormone” which leads to overeating), impaired memory and cognition, and premature aging.
Uncover the real reasons you can’t get to sleep
Look for the root cause of your sleep problems
As mentioned previously, inflammation is a big factor in disrupted sleep patterns. Often this comes in forms we may not even associate with sleep itself.
Take a look at your lifestyle. Where is inflammation coming from in your body?
Diet-induced blood sugar instability can provoke inflammation, as can food sensitivities. Make sure you’re not eating foods that can produce allergenic responses. Common foods include wheat, dairy, and sugars like HFCS (especially when eaten before bed).
In addition, having erratic blood sugar levels may cause your blood sugar to drop in the middle of the night, signaling your brain to wake up and go eat something.
To fix this, never go to bed hungry (but don’t eat a huge meal your body will need to work hard to digest . . . and then crash from later!), instead eat a small protein-rich snack.
There are numerous ways the body can become overloaded with toxins, from pollution to our cleaning products, to what we put on our skin. Examine where you can make healthier choices and reduce your exposure. In addition, regularly cleansing or detoxing can decrease our toxic load.
Infections can lodge themselves in our spinal column or fat tissues, producing chronic low-grade inflammation.
You may not even be aware of an underlying infection in your body caused by bacteria, yeast or fungus, so it may be necessary to get checked by a naturopathic or functional medicine doctor.
Another possible contributing but often overlooked factor is parasite infestations (a form of infection).
Parasites wreak havoc on your body, typically in the intestines, causing damage and inflammation. They can also be very active at night causing you to wake up! The good news is that you can get rid of them.
When your diet is not optimal and food sensitivities or parasites are present, gut imbalance usually isn’t far behind. The gut has been dubbed our “second brain” and as such communicates with our nervous, endocrine and lymphatic systems in a myriad of ways.
When the gut bacterial balance is off, meaning more “bad bugs” are present in the microbiome, it can lead to all sorts of issues including hormone imbalance, neurological problems and, you guessed it, sleep disorders. The gut actually produces serotonin and dopamine, two important hormones involved in sleep function.
Imbalances in our hormones such as testosterone, estrogen, progesterone, melatonin, dopamine and serotonin can all have an effect on our sleep patterns.
For instance, progesterone plays a role in maintaining and calming the nervous system. It is a natural anti-depressant and has protective qualities for the brain. It stimulates the new formation of bone and restores normal sleep patterns.
Hormones can become disrupted in many ways. One way is toxicity ranging from our personal care products, cleaning products, drinking water, hidden areas of black mold in our homes, heavy metals and other sources.
Others causes of hormonal disruptions can come from gut imbalance, parasite infestations, birth control and nutritional deficiencies.
Insomnia may be caused by adrenal stress which often stems from a stressful lifestyle, leaving you feeling “tired and wired.” If you’ve been suffering for a while, it may be a good idea to get your adrenals checked.
A switched nervous system
In energy healing, if your parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems are operating opposite of what is normal, this is considered being “switched,” or parasympathetic upregulating (which can be likened to a malfunctioning circuit).
A heart rate variability test can determine if this dysfunction is present by measuring how your nervous system responds in a prone position against how it reacts when you stand.
If your nervous system is upregulating (firing) when you lay down (it should be downregulating), you’ll feel awake and alert rather than sleepy. At the same time, you may be lacking enough alertness and energy to get you through the day.
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Simple strategies to help you fall asleep fast
Increase your melatonin levels
Melatonin is both a hormone and an antioxidant. Adequate levels of melatonin are essential to getting better sleep.
Synthetic melatonin doesn’t always produce the same effect as natural sources, and may even lead to negative side effects such as dizziness and headaches. Experiment with what works best for you.
The good news is that it’s easy to consume superior sources of melatonin from the foods we eat.
Sources of melatonin include:
- Tropical fruits, especially bananas, oranges, and pineapple.
- Cherries (try tart cherry juice)
- Oats, sweet corn, rice, ginger, tomatoes, mangosteen, and barley.
Check your sleep environment
Are you unwittingly sabotaging your better sleep efforts by ignoring some of the sleep commandments below? I know I was!
Repeat after me, “Thou shalt…”
Sleep in complete darkness
That means no alarm clock, no phone charging right next to your head, no glow of a night light or street lamp.
Even minimal amounts of light can disrupt your internal clock and your pineal glands ability to produce melatonin. Use a sleep mask if you must!
Keep the light off when you go pee
Look, I know you’ve walked your bedroom/house thousands of times, I’m pretty sure you can find just about any area in the (near) darkness – including a toilet. Turning on a light signals your brain that it’s time to wake up. Don’t do this to yourself!
Keep the temperature no higher than 68°
Preferable lower. Your body’s temperature naturally drops during sleep. The premise is that by doing so you’ll encourage sleep. If you’re cold, wear socks or use a hot water bottle. (Or do what I do and put your cold feet/butt on your husband – works like a charm!?)
Check your bedroom for EMFs
Electro-magnetic fields can affect your pineal glands ability to produce melatonin. You can get a gauss meter to check levels in your bedroom.
In addition, electronic devices put out positive ions which can disrupt the body’s equilibrium in numerous ways.
Reduce positive ions in the air by setting up Himalayan salt lamps around the house. Salt lamps emit negative ions while neutralizing positive ions.
Keep electronic devices at least 6 feet away from the bed while you sleep
Put away electronic devices at least 1 hour before bed
Your phone, tablet, and laptop emit blue light which can mess with your bodies sleep/wake signals. Filters help, but it’s best to just turn off these devices altogether. (You may have to ban the TV from your bedroom!)
Never do anything in bed besides sleeping and sex
Why? From a behavioral conditioning standpoint, if you sit on your bed to work or eat or talk on the phone <guilty>, your mind associates those things with being in bed and not just with sleep. That makes it even harder to fall asleep there when you need to.
Other important tips
Go to bed before 11 pm
Between the hours of 11 pm and 1 am, our adrenal glands do most of their recharging. The gallbladder also dumps toxins around this time.
If you’re constantly awake during this time, toxins can get backed up. (Remember how toxins can create inflammation and inflammation can cause insomnia? Yeah . . . not good.)
Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day.
This practice helps reset and regulate our circadian rhythms.
Count back at least 8 hours from your desired wake-up time and make this your bedtime. If you typically go to bed much later than this time, you can wean yourself in 15-minute increments over the course of a week.
For example, if you need to wake up at 6 am (but don’t usually go to bed until midnight or later), start by going to bed at 11:45 pm, then 11:30, then 11:15 and so on until you reach your ideal bedtime of 10 pm.
This has worked better for me instead of forcing myself to bed 2 hours earlier (and then laying there staring at the ceiling for 2 hours!).
Establish a bedtime routine
You know how bedtime routines are so important to getting your littles to sleep? Well, the same can be said of adults, we really don’t (or shouldn’t) outgrow it. Just like kids, we need to signal our bodies that bedtime has arrived and ease ourselves into it.
An example of this would be to turn down lights and sounds at least one hour before bed, take an epsom salt bath, meditate and then read for a few minutes before bed.
Come up with a pre-bed sleep routine that works for you!
Don’t drink fluids at least 1 hour before bed
Unless you enjoy getting up in the middle of the night to pee. The choice is yours . . . just don’t say I didn’t warn you 😉
Eat a snack before bed
This does NOT mean eat any ol’ thing that you want! Especially a sugary snack (remember how blood sugar levels impact sleep?).
Instead, reach for a protein-rich snack (like a small piece of turkey), which can increase l-tryptophan in the body triggering the production of melatonin.
Put a journal by your bed
If you’re like me, with racing thoughts that magically pop into your head as soon as it hits the pillow, try writing in a journal before lights out. Give yourself a few minutes to let out all the worries and stress from the day, or to jot down new ideas for tomorrow.
Avoid caffeine and alcohol
Some people can handle caffeine, but many have trouble metabolizing it. Personally, I’ve noticed that I have trouble falling asleep if I have caffeine after 12 pm.
Most people usually drink alcohol in the evening which can create problems with blood sugar levels over time and affect sleep patterns.
Check your weight
Being overweight can impact your ability to fall asleep, especially if it causes sleep apnea.
Exercise is helpful because it can lower symptoms of anxiety and depression by encouraging feel-good endorphins. It’s not recommended you work out right before bed though unless you’re doing something soothing like a gentle yoga routine.
I don’t know about you, but I tend to have trouble with meditation (those racing thoughts again!); it definitely takes practice.
However, guided meditations have proven helpful for me, especially ones that tell you to focus on tensing and relaxing your muscles one by one. Give it a try!
Get to the heart of your anxiety or depression
Other than diet and lifestyle changes that can help treat anxiety or depression naturally, EFT (sometimes called Tapping) can also ease feelings of anxiety.
If you’ve never heard of it, read my post on how you can easily soothe negative emotions using this scientifically proven technique.
Putting these tips into action
How do you know which of these tips are best to try first? Do you have to do them all? The name of the game here is to make this simple and actionable. Focus on one area or goal at a time, then build from there when you’re ready.
When I struggled with sleep issues or when I get off track occasionally, this is the general path I take:
First, I start with my diet by reducing foods that trigger sensitivities. Typical triggers include refined sugar, wheat, dairy, caffeine, and alcohol.
A healthy, balanced diet with plenty of fresh organic produce will help prevent gut imbalances, hormone imbalances, and nutritional deficiencies. (Sometimes this is all it takes!)
I also make sure other basic health, dietary and wellness needs are being met: adequate hydration, daily sunlight exposure, daily movement and regular self-care practices to reduce stress.
Next, I create a soothing bedtime routine and check my sleep environment if I’ve let this area slide.
As I’m putting these pieces together, I’ll also try natural remedies to give myself immediate relief!
Don’t miss my next post on how to treat insomnia and sleeplessness with homeopathy, herbs and natural supplements!
Hi! I’m Liane, mindset coach and holistic nutritionist in training. I have a passion for all things natural, healthy and holistic. My aim is to inspire you on your healthy living journey by sharing simple, everyday holistic habits that can transform your well-being and life.