Picture this –You have an important meeting or event that you know you need to get up for early in the morning. But there you are lying in bed, wide awake with a thousand thoughts and ideas running through your head. You toss and turn, trying to find a comfortable spot in your bed, but you still can’t fall asleep. As it gets later, you get more stressed out as the number of restful hours of sleep you will get decreases and the thought of not being rested in the morning or not waking up on time races through your mind.
Unfortunately enough, this type of scenario is quite common for a huge proportion of the American public on a nightly basis. In any given year, it is estimated that about 30% of the US population will experience insomnia – the inability to fall asleep, waking in the middle of the night with difficulty falling back asleep or sleep that is restless and unsatisfying.
Why is Sleep So Important?
Despite how important our sleep is to our normal physiological and biological functioning, few of us get the recommended 7-9 hours of recommended restful sleep we need each night. We spend over 1/3 of our lives sleeping. However the exact reasons for why sleep is so important remain relatively unknown. Just why do we sleep? What is going on in our bodies when we are sleeping? Sleep is crucial for life – simply stated, without sleep we die. Sleep benefits our mood, memory and concentration. During sleep, especially REM sleep, which is the deepest stage of sleep, our mind organizes memories, solidifies learning that has taken place and improves concentration. Have you ever noticed that if you don’t get enough sleep that someone might ask you “Did you wake up on the wrong side of the bed?” This is because during sleep, our mood is regulated as well. Getting inadequate amounts of sleep can make you feel cranky and irritable. Sleep also is crucial for improving your immune system, which plays a vital role in the body’s defense against infection and disease processes.
Conventional Treatments for Insomnia
It is estimated that of those diagnosed as having insomnia, anywhere from 4-6 million people receive prescription sleep aids annually. Two of the most common sleep aids prescribed by physicians are Ambien and Lunesta. Although these drugs may help a number of people fall and stay asleep at night (and have cute and catchy commercials to promote them), they have a whole host of unwarranted drug-related side effects. People who take these prescriptions can often feel drowsy or dizzy, especially during the daytime, get headaches, have abnormal thoughts or behavior, get diarrhea, feel anxious and/or have serious allergic reactions. Because these medications are depressants, these medications should not be consumed with other depressants like alcohol as they can have an additive depressive effect on the central nervous system. Additionally, most sleep aids are controlled substances and have the potential to become habit forming or for people to become dependent on them for sleep or for everyday functioning.
Alternative Treatments for Insomnia
Alternative practitioners, like naturopathic physicians (NMD’s) are trained in viewing insomnia from a whole different viewpoint. Rather than treat your insomnia by giving you a prescription medication that will cause all of the above listed side effects, they get to the root of what is actually causing your insomnia and use natural therapies to help you sleep better. A few therapies that they could use include: diet modification and nutritional supplementation, acupuncture, botanical medicine, and homeopathy.
NMD’s can run simple and specialized laboratory tests to assist them in getting to the root cause of one’s insomnia. One such specialized test is a Neurotransmitter Test. Neurotransmitters are the chemical messengers of the nervous system, essential for relaying signals within the brain and communicating with all organ systems of the body. If some neurotransmitter levels are out of balance, this could potentially lead to a plethora of mental and physical problems including: insomnia, anxiety, depression or pain syndromes, just to name a few.
Hormonal Factors Play a Role in Insomnia
Improper adrenal functioning can also contribute to a person’s insomnia. Your adrenal glands sit directly on top of your kidneys and are responsible for producing hormones that are crucial to a wide variety of physiological and biological processes. One of these hormones is cortisol which, when measured via saliva over the course of the day, is normally highest in the morning and lowest right before you go to bed at around midnight. If your cortisol levels are out of balance, this could interfere with your ability to sleep normally. Other hormones that can play a role in insomnia are estrogen and progesterone, which both often decline as women go through menopause, testosterone, and thyroid hormone. NMD’s can measure these hormones with a simple blood test to determine if they are the cause of your sleep difficulties.
Regardless of the cause of insomnia, this condition can be debilitating and have a number of consequences on your health including anxiety, depression, chronic fatigue syndrome, pain disorders, and cardiovascular disease.
Sleep Hygiene Tips to Help you Sleep
A few basic tips that you can start adding into your nightly bedtime routine to help you sleep include:
- Restrict bedroom use to sleep and sex
- No reading, watching TV, lounging or eating in bed
- Avoid napping and increase physical activity during day but not before bedtime
- Avoid bright lights, noise and uncomfortable temperature in the bedroom
- Discontinue the use of alcohol, tobacco, caffeine before bedtime
- Avoid concentrated mental work or stressful situations before bedtime
- Schedule a time to relax before bedtime in an area outside the bedroom
- Avoid large meals and limit food intake before bedtime
If you or someone you know suffers from chronic insomnia, a visit to a naturopathic physician can help you find out why you aren’t sleeping and to start sleeping better today.