How terrible does it feel to get up early after a sleepless night?
You see the world through a haze of exhaustion and you mindlessly go about starting your day, trying not to drop off to sleep as you force yourself through the motions. You may also have achy muscles and joints because your body simply hasn’t had the rest and repair that sleep provides. You could also be more likely to come down with that cold or flu that’s been going around and if you have allergies or a chronic illness you might find it’s worse after a bad sleep.
Your body is actively repairing and rebuilding itself while you sleep
So why do you need to switch off for 8 hours every night? It might seem as though you’re doing nothing during that time, lying perfectly still and serene. But studies show that your body is very busy with repair and rejuvenation while you’re asleep [i]. It’s when most of your new cells are manufactured and your body has a chance to catch up on housekeeping duties. Rather than spending energy on thinking, talking and moving, your body spends it on reducing inflammation[ii], rebuilding injured tissues and strengthening your immune system. [iii]
Symptoms of sleeplessness are caused by inflammation
So when you don’t get enough sleep, your body falls behind on these important repair and rebuild processes, and you feel the result of the stress and inflammation it causes. Inflammation is what causes the broad range of symptoms that can come with sleeplessness. Brain fog, drowsiness, aches and pains are just the start of it. If insomnia continues for a long time [iv], it can also lead to stress, anxiety, depression, allergies and chronic illnesses.
Always treat the underlying cause of sleeplessness if you can identify it
Understanding the cause of your sleeplessness is the key to changing your disturbed sleep pattern and creating a new routine that puts you on the path to optimum health. Sleeplessness has many causes and they each need a different approach to be resolved.
As an example, if you’re waking in the night because of low blood sugar, then it’s vital you take steps to re-balance your blood sugar levels through the day as well as at night.
There are times when you might not be able to pinpoint the source of your sleeplessness. You can use a combination of techniques at these times, to gently push your body towards a better sleep routine. Complementary therapies always work better when you use multiple strategies at once.
Use complementary therapies in combination to get the best results
The simple act of using black-out curtains might not be enough to make you fall asleep quickly. But if you combine that with taking a high-quality nutritional supplement and eating the right foods at the right times, as well as reducing your caffeine and alcohol intake, then you’re very likely to see a change. Read the rest of the article to see if you can recognize the most important hacks for your personal situation.
Solutions – Part 1: What To Do If You Can’t Get To Sleep – Causes and Cures
Sleep onset insomnia is when you can’t get to sleep after you’ve gone to bed.
If it takes you longer than an hour to fall asleep after you’ve shut your eyes, you qualify for having sleep onset insomnia [v] . If you fall asleep in a reasonable time but then wake very soon after, or just don’t fall into a deep sleep but stay somewhat awake, that can also be considered sleep onset insomnia.
Your bedtime routine and sleep environment are very important factors if you have this type of sleeplessness. If your routine around going to bed is disturbed, or if it’s different every night, your body can fail to recognize that it’s time to shut down.
Your body needs routine and regularity at bedtime
You have a hormone in your brain called melatonin [vi] that is also called the sleep hormone. It’s released at night to make you tired and encourage you to fall asleep. Being in a low light environment encourages melatonin release [vii], this is why dimming or switching off lights can help you to sleep.
Melatonin is usually low in people who have sleep onset insomnia
It’s a good idea to learn more about the sleep hormone melatonin and how to encourage it’s production. Throughout this article, you’ll read about the nutrients, foods and environmental factors that your body needs to make melatonin.
Tension and stress can contribute to sleep onset issues
Tension, stress and emotional disturbance [viii] are very common in people who have sleep onset insomnia. If you think these could be a factor in your sleeplessness, then you really need to address them as their own separate issue. It’s no coincidence that many strategies for sleeplessness are also useful for stress because the two conditions go together so much of the time.
Proper nutrition and cutting out stimulants can help with getting to sleep
Nutrients such as magnesium and B vitamins [ix] are prescribed for stress as well as insomnia. Foods that encourage production of your happy hormones (serotonin) and your sleep hormones (melatonin) are also useful for both conditions.
Caffeine [x], alcohol, nicotine and other stimulants can disrupt your sleep pattern because of the way they influence your hormones. It’s best to eliminate or at least reduce these substances from your diet and your lifestyle as much as possible.
Certain pharmaceutical drugs can also upset your sleep hormone balance, including appetite suppressants, anti-depressants, anti-seizure medication (phenytoin) and thyroid hormone replacement drugs. Obviously if you’re taking these particular drugs then there’s a real need for them and you shouldn’t try to give them up. But knowing that they’re contributing to your sleeplessness can give you some clues about which measures you could take to counter their effect.
If pain is keeping you awake you need to address it separately
Chronic pain can also make it difficult to get to sleep and the only way to make this better is to address the pain itself. Sometimes pain relief is needed before going to bed as part of your overall pain management strategy. And sometimes it’s worth looking at other options like using mechanical aids such as braces or pillows to make yourself more comfortable. If you can work towards better health and less pain through treating the cause of your pain, then your sleep will likely improve without much further effort.
Increasing melatonin helps you fall asleep better
Sleep onset insomnia has a specific pattern of hormone disturbance behind it. As you would expect, the vital sleep hormone melatonin is often lower than normal. Melatonin can be gradually increased, over a period of around 6 weeks, by taking tart cherry extract daily [xi]. Tart cherry contains a compound called phytomelatonin, which basically means plant melatonin.
Phytomelatonin adds to your flagging melatonin levels, bringing you back to balance. It also contains potent antioxidants that can help to protect you against the inflammation caused by sleeplessness.
Reduce stress and support your liver
Stress hormones including cortisol and epinephrine are often higher than usual in sleepless people. Making an effort to remove yourself from stressful circumstances is ideal but it’s not always possible so sometimes you have to work around the situation. Sometimes you just have to support your body in its efforts to get you through.
Cortisol and epinephrine need to be broken down in your liver, so caring for your liver health [xii] is really important during stressful times. This could mean taking a liver-supporting supplement such as Saint Mary’s thistle seed extract. Or cutting out alcohol or drugs as you can. There are many commercially available nutrient formulas for liver support, just make sure you buy from a trustworthy manufacturer.
Also when someone is suffering sleep onset insomnia, feel good hormones serotonin and dopamine are often depleted. Magnesium, zinc, vitamin C and B vitamins help to restore these important hormones back to their normal levels. Your body simply can’t make happy hormones without all the necessary building blocks.
Passionflower herb is your friend
Passionflower [xiii] is specific for sleep onset insomnia. It’s calming and mildly sedating with a pain relieving action. It’s especially good for restless, irritable sleepers. It can be taken as a herbal tea, a tincture, in capsules, and is found in many herbal formulas, including Luna [xiv] sleep aid.
Solutions – Part 2: What To Do If You Can’t Stay Asleep – Causes and Cures
Sleep maintenance insomnia is when you have trouble sleeping through the night
You may fall asleep exhausted, often earlier than you intended, only to wake between the hours of 3am-5am, unable to get back to sleep. When you wake in the morning, you feel un-refreshed.
Adrenal fatigue often causes seep maintenance insomnia
This pattern of sleeplessness is strongly associated with long-term stress , anxiety and adrenal fatigue. If you have this type of insomnia then learning more about adrenal fatigue [xv], and how to recover from it, is a really good idea. If you have adrenal fatigue then your adrenal glands are overworked and it’s likely that you feel edgy, anxious and exhausted.
Blood sugar balance is important for staying asleep
Low blood sugar [xvi] levels are another common cause of sleep maintenance issues. Usually your body is alright when you go to bed because it hasn’t been too long since you last ate. But if you’re suffering from blood sugar fluctuations, it’s very likely to get worse through the night as your body struggles to maintain its normal balance point.
By the time you’ve woken up due to your low blood sugar level, it’s likely that you really do need to get up and eat something. A small portion of carbohydrate-rich food is usually enough to allow you to go back to sleep. You might need only one cracker or a single piece of fruit and you’ll fall asleep as soon as you lie back down.
Menopause can cause sleeplessness
Hormone imbalance associated with menopause [xvii] is another common cause of sleep maintenance insomnia. If you’re menopausal or peri-menopausal, your hormones are fluctuating so suddenly and to such extremes, that your body hardly has time to adjust before the next wave hits it.
This means blood sugar levels can soar and crash and your body temperature can go from sweats to shivers. Your energy level can swing between excited and lethargic and your appetite can go from ravenous to anorexic. None of this helps with having a long, refreshing sleep.
If you have sleeplessness associated with menopause, you really need to treat it as menopause rather than insomnia, by aiming to balance your hormones.
Drugs and alcohol can wreak havoc on your ability to stay asleep
These substances can really mess with your body’s normal rhythms. Whether it’s pharmacy or recreational, drugs and alcohol [xviii] can influence your hormone balance, nervous system function and digestion. That means mood, energy levels, hunger, and whether or not you sleep are all at risk of getting out of balance.
Of course, sometimes you need pharmacy drugs and you should never stop your prescribed medication without talking to your physician. But you might find that talking to them can help you get clear about which you need, which you can reduce, and whether you can eliminate any of them. If you have an issue with alcohol or recreational drugs affecting your sleep, you really need to look at that separately.
Licorice herb is specific for sleep maintenance insomnia
When you get to sleep fine, possibly even falling into bed exhausted, but you can’t stay asleep all night, licorice is your go-to natural medicine. It’s nourishing to the adrenal glands, so if you’ve been under stress for a long time, licorice [xix] is your go-to herbal extract. It tastes okay, very similar to the confectionery. And it can be used as part of a blend to mask the taste of other, more bitter herbs. If you want to use the dried root, you need to boil it for 10-15 minutes before drinking it to really get the good compounds out.
Calcium and magnesium are useful nutrients for supporting sleep maintenance. You can get them from your diet or you can take them as part of a supplement formula. Magnesium is a major ingredient in Primaforce ZMA [xx], designed for optimum absorption.
Healthy Habits For Sleeplessness
Not all sleep hacks are specific to sleep onset or sleep maintenance
Many will work regardless of the cause or pattern of your insomnia. Developing healthy habits around your sleep will help you get the foundations right so that when you face a bout of insomnia you’ve already done most of the hard work.
Making sure your environment and lighting are encouraging of good sleep can go a long way to hacking your way to better sleep. Eating the right foods, taking nutritional supplements and using medicinal herbs complete the picture of setting yourself up with the best possible chance of getting quality sleep.
1) The Importance of Timing for Sleep
Have you heard of a circadian rhythm? [xxi] It’s basically your daily rhythm – the patterns of waking, sleeping and eating that shape your life. Your circadian rhythm is your body clock, and it’s controlled by a complex interplay of nervous and hormonal signals.
Different hormones are released at different times of the day, stimulating you to wake up in the mornings, feel hungry and thirsty, get tired in the evenings, fall asleep when it gets dark, and repair and rebuild your body during the night.
As much as you might like spontaneity in your life, your body prefers to follow the same routine every day. The more you can work with that and support it, the better your body will perform. This means going to bed at the same time every night, so your body can adjust to it and make a habit of it.
It also means making sure you get enough sleep every night, which should be around 8-9 hours [xxii]. So if you know you have to get up at 6am in the morning, your bed time should be no later than 10pm. Set yourself an alarm on your phone telling you it’s time to go to bed. Or even better, set your alarm to tell you when you’re half an hour away from bed time, so you have time to get ready before sleep time.
The timing of your eating can also influence your sleep. Your body takes around 3 hours to digest a meal and it digests much more effectively if you’re upright during this time. Especially if you suffer heartburn or indigestion, lying down with a full belly can really make it worse. Eating your main meal just before sleep can also contribute to weight gain and problems with blood sugar balance.
Try to have your evening meal at least 3 hours before bed time [xxiii] and if you get hungry again before sleep, have a light, healthy snack that will help to balance your blood sugar. Eat a handful of nuts, seeds, or dried fruit. Or have a small portion of a carbohydrate food such as a piece of toast or a couple of crackers.
2) Electromagnetic Frequencies and Sleep Disturbance
Computers, phones, televisions and other electronic devices emit electromagnetic frequencies (EMFs). You’re exposed to more EMFs now than anyone in history has been. While there is still no certainty about their effects on human health, a couple of studies [xxiv] have pointed towards EMFs disturbing sleep.
Until there is further evidence one way or the other, the effect of EMF’s on sleep remains an unproven theory. However, many people report that they sleep better after taking steps to reduce EMFS in their sleeping environment. Other health concerns possibly linked to EMF exposure include cancer, reproductive issues, and mental health conditions.
So for the small effort involved in minimizing EMFs in your home, it doesn’t seem you have much to lose. It’s a simple as switching off all electronic devices before sleep. They need to be powered off, not just on standby or hibernate. Wireless internet routers also emit EMFs and these can be put on a timer so that they automatically switch off for the night and come back on in the morning.
It’s also important to try to avoid them as you get nearer to bed time. This means turning off your computer or TV an hour before bed. You could a your evening wind-down time with a book to read or a board game to play.
3) Light Sources Can Keep You Awake
The sleep hormone melatonin is released in low light [xxv] . Your eyes send the message to your brain that it’s night time and your brain sends melatonin through your body to cause sleepiness. During the day when you’re in bright sun light or indoor lighting, there’s no message to release melatonin so you don’t get sleepy.
Indoor lights can have a similar effect to sunlight in preventing you from feeling tired. Warm white (soft white) light bulbs give out a frequency of 2700k. This is similar to an evening light and it has a warm, yellow tone with a cozy feel. This bulb is the least likely to disturb your melatonin production [xxvi] so it’s really good for your bedroom, lounge area and other places you spend your evenings. If you haven’t got warm white bulbs in these places already, consider swapping them.
Cool white (bright white) bulbs at 4100k are good for kitchens and areas where you need to see well and stay awake. Daylight bulbs at 5000k are best for bathrooms and places where you need really good visibility such as home offices and studios. They’re good for reading, applying makeup and working on intricate projects, but when you’re trying to wind down towards sleep in the evening, these color bulbs need to be switched off so they don’t disrupt your melatonin release.
Blue light [xxvii] eliminating glasses can also help with preserving your circadian rhythm and melatonin release. These glasses selectively block the blue light frequencies that disrupt your body clock. So you can still see your computer and other screens, but you’re not risking the loss of a good night’s sleep. These glasses have other benefits associated with them such as improving mood and protecting your eyesight.
LED lights and fluorescent lights emit a lot of blue light, which is the most disruptive light frequency to proper melatonin balance. If you need to leave them on at night, consider dimming them or covering them with a blackout filter. If at all possible, switch off these light sources at least half an hour before bed.
Black out curtains [xxviii] are an essential part of any sleep hack. As we’ve already discussed, your eyes need darkness to send the right messages to your brain for the sleep hormone melatonin to be released. Even if you sleep in a light room with a sleep mask on, you’ll still be exposed to light every time you take the mask off. Having solid curtains that block out all light really is the best way to keep your sleep hormones in balance. Be sure to cover the edges too where light filters through.
4) Nutrition for Sleep – Which Foods To Eat
The importance of proper nutrition – key nutrients and their food sources including magnesium, calcium, B vitamins. Also increase tryptophan, decrease tyramine.
Of course you can’t make all the right hormones without the right nutrients. The best place to get nutrients will always be through eating a wholefood diet. And supplements can be used to boost and support your healthy diet. Your body needs the right type of protein to make melatonin and it’s precursor serotonin. It then also needs the right combination of nutrients to make serotonin into melatonin.
Tryptophan [xxxix] is the key protein used as the building block for making sleep and mood hormones. If you don’t have enough tryptophan in your body, you simply wont be able to make the right hormones for getting good sleep.
Tryptophan is particularly high in:
Other important nutrients for good sleep include magnesium, calcium, and B vitamins. Magnesium [xxx] is well known as a muscle relaxant and sleep aid. It helps with stress, tension, anxiety, and other mood disorders. And it works for both sleep onset and sleep maintenance insomnia.
The best food sources of magnesium are:
Calcium [xxxi] is important for sleep because your nervous system needs it to send messages. These nervous messages include muscle relaxation and slowing down thoughts. Calcium is also needed for the process of converting tryptophan into melatonin. If you don’t have enough calcium, you won’t have enough melatonin.
To get calcium from your diet, choose to eat:
B vitamins [xxxii] are essential for good sleep. They’re very active in the nervous system and work in many different ways. But one of their most important functions is to assist your body in making mood and sleep hormones. This includes serotonin and melatonin. Even though people talk about vitamin B3 and vitamin B6 the most when it comes to sleep, it’s actually best to consume all the different B vitamins in combination. This is because they work together and need to be in balance in your body.
Get B vitamins in your diet from:
Melatonin is found in many plants because they use it to regulate their circadian rhythms just as humans do. Foods that contain decent amounts of natural melatonin include:
5) Supplementation for Sleep – Best Supplements to Take
Primaforce ZMA [xxxiii] is a combination of zinc, magnesium and vitamin B6, designed to provide the ideal ratio of these important nutrients. It can help with hormone balance, including sleep and mood hormones. It also acts as a nerve and muscle relaxant. The formula is pure and potent with no fillers, for maximum absorption and effectiveness.
Nested Naturals Luna [xxxiv] is a combination of medicinal herbs and L-theanine. The herbs work together to induce a state of relaxation and encourage a long, deep, refreshing sleep. L-theanine is a protein that has proven calming effects.
6) Herbs for Sleeplessness
Medicinal herbs contain a vast array of active ingredients. It’s quite common for a single herb to contain hundreds of different chemical compounds, and often a few that don’t even have names yet. So it’s not surprising that herbs can affect your body in potent and effective ways. All the different chemicals work together in synergy to alter the way your nerve signals are being sent and the way your hormones are being produced.
So passionflower is specific for sleep onset insomnia and licorice is specific for sleep maintenance insomnia. These herbs can be taken alone or mixed with other herbs to make a formula unique to you. If you see a herbalist, they’ll most likely prescribe you a mix of herbs extracted into alcohol that will include sedating herbs with others that match your symptoms. A herbal tonic blended skillfully can be a powerful sleep hack!
Valerian root [xxxv] (Valeriana officinalis) is very popular as a sleep aid. It’s non addictive and effective as a sedative. Valerian has been the subject of many scientific studies which have shown that it relieves tension, stress and anxiety as well as encouraging longer, deeper sleeping. Valerian is very bitter to taste and it’s the root that’s used for medicine so it needs to be boiled if you’re going to use fresh or dried herb. It’s most often given in a capsule to avoid the bitter taste and the effort of boiling.
Chamomile [xxxvi] flowers (Matricaria recutita) is a gentle sleep aid, useful for relieving sleeplessness that’s associated with digestive upset. Certain people with anxiety often feel it in their gut as a twisting or knotting sensation or changes to their appetite. This is a result of the brain-nerve-gut connection, also called the gut-brain axis. If this sounds like you then chamomile is your new best friend because it works on the gut as well as the nerves.
Lemon Balm [xxxvii] (Melissa officinalis) is clarifying and soothing. If you have a mind that’s just too busy and full to fall asleep, then lemon balm is perfect for you. It’s a member of the mint family and has an uplifting, refreshing taste when made into a herbal tea. It’s best used fresh because much of the delicate oil that gives it such a sweet flavor evaporates when the herb is dried. If you want to use lemon balm for sleeplessness your best idea is to grow it at home. It’s easy to grow in the garden or in a pot and once you’ve planted it, it will establish itself almost like a weed, bringing you many years of soothing herbal infusions.