Can't Sleep? Blame Thomas Edison
According to Bastyr University professor John Hibbs, ND, the human body was designed to awaken near dawn and go to sleep soon after dark. "The introduction of artificial light took us away from the natural cycle," he says, "and our bodies have been trying to cope with it ever since."
Our body’s natural sleep cycle
While Dr. Hibbs isn't suggesting we hit the sack right after the 6 pm news, he does recommend going to bed at 9:30 or 10. Since studies have shown that the body's sleep cycle is bio-chemically programmed to kick in at this time, forcing the body to remain awake beyond this point puts stress on the whole system. And don't assume you can make up for it by sleeping in late the next morning. Hibbs warns that, while you may ultimately get six to eight hours of sleep, your body's internal clock is still distressed.
Hibbs explains that when you ignore the natural sleep cycle, the body produces stress hormones in an effort to keep the body awake. These hormones not only interfere with your ability to sleep, but once you finally do nod off, they won't allow you to go into the deeper states of sleep, which are necessary for bodily repair and rejuvenation.
The real danger lies in the body becoming habituated to these sleep cycles. It begins adapting to the anticipated stress by automatically secreting stress-coping hormones every night, no matter what time you go to bed. Not only does this lead to insomnia, but eventually it can shorten the life of brain cells, and pull protein out of muscle tissues such as skeletal muscle and the heart.
Signs and causes of sleep disorders
Signs of sleep deprivation may include depression, memory problems, headaches, poor hand-to-eye coordination, heart palpitations, vision problems, infections, blood-pressure and blood-sugar irregularities, low resistance to flu and colds, eczema and any number of allergies.
Insomnia may be a symptom itself of other ills, like low iron stores, food allergy or sensitivity, liver disease or blood-sugar problems. "One of the common triggers for waking up in the middle of the night and not getting back to sleep is a hypoglycemic reaction," says Hibbs.
A sedentary lifestyle may also contribute to insomnia. "Exercise is not just beneficial to good health," says Hibbs, "it's absolutely essential. It's one of the primary regulators of the body's endocrine clock." He points out that, as men and women age, their testosterone and estrogen levels drop along with other hormones, which are integral regulators of the sleep cycle.
Natural cures for sleep disorders
Resistance exercise, like working out with weights, actually increases testosterone and growth hormones. In addition to good exercise, a natural approach to addressing insomnia includes a healthy diet filled with vegetables, fruits and fiber. Hibbs, however, warns poor sleepers away from ingesting stimulating herbs and spices and especially caffeine in all its forms. And be careful about a "night cap." According to Hibbs, alcohol decreases the quality of sleep.
While Hibbs believes that no one dietary supplement is ideal for correcting a lifetime of sleep abuse, a few have been shown to be helpful. Valerian, passion flower, lemon balm and chamomile are relaxing, sleep-inducing herbs. Melatonin often works for people deficient in this hormone. Hibbs also recommends that insomniacs try acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine, a combination that has brought relief to many of his patients.
Prescription and over-the-counter cures for sleep disorders
For the patient whose body has been sleep deprived for so long his/her neuroendocrine clock is completely off, Hibbs suggests that neurotransmitter-modifying drugs may be necessary. "If a safe drug can bring relief to the body long enough to get things going in the right direction again, then it's a good intervention. Consider 5-Hydroxy Tryptophan first to raise brain serotonin levels."
Hibbs has found that SSRI antidepressants, such as Zoloft and Prozac, are beneficial to some, as are tricyclic antidepressants like Amitriptyline. "I strongly prefer these over central nervous system depressants, such as the sedatives Neurontin and Ambien."
As for over-the-counter drugs, Hibbs reports that Tylenol PM works well for many people. "The idea is to think of these as temporary, emergency measures. Start adding the natural steps to good sleep, the lifestyle changes and nutrition supplements, then slowly wean yourself off the drugs." It's important to work with a knowledgeable physician before taking any medication.
Hibbs acknowledges that making some lifestyle changes can be harder than others, especially trying to get to bed by 10 pm. "I'm not suggesting you never stay up late or go out and enjoy a Saturday night with friends," says Hibbs. "Socialization, loving relationships and happiness are important, too. So is spiritual health. We just need to recognize that, while our bodies are amazingly flexible, they do have their limits. It's all part of keeping everything in balance."
Please check with a knowledgeable health care professional before beginning any new treatment for your insomnia.
Writer: Sharon Peterson
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