Sleep is essential not just for day-to-day alertness and energy, but for long-term health of the brain and body as well. Short-term lack of sleep often causes daytime sleepiness and fatigue, slowed thinking and reaction times, poor memory and attention span, fatigue, more volatile moods with feelings of stress, anxiety, sadness, and irritability. For people who are driving or operating machinery this can be quite dangerous. For people that need to concentrate at work or school, lack of sleep can dramatically reduce productivity and performance.
The body goes into repair mode during deep sleep. The cells clean out waste and repair damage, the liver and kidneys catch up on their detoxification processes, and the digestive system performs several sweeping waves that move bacteria and food residue down the tube. The brain and nervous system also perform these intense clean out and repair activities during deep sleep. During sleep your blood pressure goes down, giving the cardiovascular system a break from its daytime high-pressure state.
We know a lot about the health benefits of sleep, the health risks of not sleeping, the amount of sleep we need, and the amount of sleep Americans are not getting. What we don’t understand well is how sleep actually works. We really don’t know what flips the switch that takes us from conscious to unconscious. We do know certain things that prevent this transition, including stress, anxiety, pain, apnea, allergies or other issues that limit our airway, blood sugar, full spectrum or blue light exposure, high EMF exposure, chronic or acute inflammation, and hormone imbalances (just to name a few).
How much sleep do I need?
Babies need 12-17 hours
Children need 10-14 hours
Teens need 8-10 hours
Adults need 7-9 hours
Insomnia and sleep deprivation
In the U.S., 70% of adults report insufficient sleep at least one night per month, and 11% report insufficient sleep every night. The CDC estimates that as many as one in three adults don’t get enough sleep. Recent studies have shown that Americans got even less sleep during the pandemic, despite being stuck at home.
There are two main categories of inadequate sleep, or sleep deficiency: insomnia and sleep deprivation.
While there is considerable overlap between these, the root causes are different. Sleep deprivation is defined as inadequate time allocated for sleep either due to obligations or lifestyle choices. Insomnia is the inability to sleep despite having enough time set aside for sleep.
Long-term lack of sleep has been associated with hypertension, heart attack, stroke, obesity, diabetes, depression, anxiety, decreased brain function, memory loss, dementia, weakened immune system, hormone imbalance, and lower fertility rates.
What can I do to get more sleep?
Sleep hygiene is essential whether your lack of sleep is caused by schedule or insomnia. Creating rituals for winding down and doing them at the same time every day makes a huge difference in resetting your circadian clock. Some good sleep hygiene habits include:
- Making sure you eat your last meal by 7pm
- Lowering the lights and using blue light filters after sunset
- Having a relaxing bath, or cup of herbal tea an hour before bed
- Getting in bed at the same time (and before 11pm) every night
- Turning off all screens by 9pm or 10pm and having a strict no-screen rule in the bedroom
- Moving electronics out of the bedroom
- Assuring a cool, allergen-free environment for sleeping
- Getting up at the same time (before 8am) every morning and going outside for a short walk
Blue light and melatonin
Our body naturally produces melatonin in response to darkness and naturally eliminates melatonin when exposed to light. One of the most important aspects of sleep hygiene is eliminating full-spectrum, bright, and blue lights after sunset and making sure that we are exposed to bright light first thing in the morning. This “light pulsing” is critical to resetting our circadian rhythm and letting our body know when it is supposed to be sleeping and when it is supposed to be awake.
Managing stress, anxiety, and cortisol
Both cortisol and adrenaline are involved in the experience of “fight or flight” we experience during times of stress. Stress and anxiety can be short-term responses to stressful life events, or they can become chronic neuro-hormonal patterns that need to be unwound. High nighttime cortisol can also be triggered by unstable blood sugar.
Herbs like Valerian, Kava, and Passionflower (read more about Passionflower here!) can increase our natural production of the relaxing neurotransmitter GABA. Herbs like these are often the focus of products that can help you fall asleep.
GABA is a neurotransmitter that acts as the “off switch” for our nervous system. For many people, taking GABA directly can be very calming, helping to still the mind, relax muscles, and even reduce mild nerve pain. GABA products I like to recommend are Zen by Allergy Research Group, GABA Calm by Source Naturals, PharmaGABA by Natural Factors. There are also herbal combinations that are calming and can help with the natural release of GABA, like Best Rest by Pure Encapsulations, Deep Sleep by Herbs, Etc., and Sound Sleep by Gaia.
Herbs like Ashwagandha, Holy Basil, Ziziphus (Suan Zao Ren), and Magnolia can all help reduce excessive cortisol levels. These herbs are often the focus of products that can help you stay asleep, like Integrative Therapeutics’ Cortisol Manager, Cortisol Calm by Pure Encapsulations, and SleepThru by Gaia. Seriphos can also help your body eliminate excess cortisol more quickly.
Magnesium (especially glycinate, malate, or taurate forms) is a key cofactor in making many of our relaxing neurotransmitters. It also supports the breaking down of stress chemicals, and helps our muscles relax.
5HTP supplements are excellent for people that struggle with “thought loops.” If you can’t stop making lists, or going over the same memories or worries over and over, then you may be low in serotonin. *If you are taking a medication that affects serotonin levels, you should not take this supplement without medical supervision.
Pain is often overlooked as a cause of insomnia and sleep deprivation. Whenever possible, identifying and addressing the cause of the pain is ideal. Bodywork, acupuncture, and chiropractic therapies can help with many musculoskeletal and structural issues. If aching and pain are everywhere, there may be a more systemic issue such as food reactions, mold exposure, or stealth infections.
There are three categories of supplements that help reduce systemic inflammation.
1. Omega-3 oils.
2. Herbs such as Turmeric, Boswellia, White Willow, Ginger, Corydalis. Zyflamend by New Chapter is a great herbal combination for pain, as is Curaphen by EuroMedica.
3. Enzymes such as Bromelain, Protease, Papain, Serrapeptase, Nattokinase
CBD for sleep
CBD has activity at a unique receptor that addresses both anxiety and pain. Genetics play a big role in how well CBD works to address these. Some lucky people have genes that break down CBD very slowly so it has a big impact on stress, anxiety, and inflammation/pain sensation. Others break down CBD quickly and do not get such dramatic effects.
Peoples Rx carries a wide variety of products that combine the benefits of CBD with various herbs and nutrients to reduce pain, calm stress, reduce anxiety, and improve sleep. Some of my favorite sleep-specific CBD products are Charlotte’s Web Sleep CBD Gummies, HempFusion Sleep Support, Gaia Hemp & Herbs Sleep.
Before starting a new routine (such as with the upcoming school year), it’s important to nail down a solid sleep schedule. Try out some of these tips and products, and let us know if you’re catching more ZZZs than usual! Peoples Rx has a wide variety of combination products that can help with calming and falling asleep, as well as supplements that help you stay asleep. As always, come to your nearest Peoples Rx and our knowledgeable and helpful wellness staff would love to help find the products that are right for your problems.
Becky Andrews, ND*, L.Ac. received her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine and Masters in Acupuncture at Bastyr University. She specializes in complex, chronic and “difficult” cases, especially relating to digestive health, fatigue, mood and detoxification. She works extensively with MTHFr and genetic challenges. In addition to seeing patients in Austin, she is faculty at AOMA School of Integrative Medicine.
*Naturopathic Doctors are not currently licensed in the state of Texas.
Consult your healthcare practitioner before changing your medicine regimen in any way.
If you have comments and/or questions about this blog, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.