Sleep is as crucial to good health as a balanced diet, and exercise, in fact even more so. It really is one of the pillars of health, because without good sleep, we can lose the motivation to eat well or even exercise and then face a downward spiral.
For people who suffer from anxiety, sleep is one of the first things affected. There are millions of people experiencing poor sleep due to anxiousness, nervousness, depression, and other mental health issues.
As mothers we know the unrelenting affects of sleep deprivation. 18 months (or more) of being chronically underslept puts a toll on the body and we experience accelerated aging, lowered immunity, and exasperated health conditions.
Sleep and detoxification of the brain
When we sleep, our body goes into repair mode, where the brain is cleared of toxins and allowed to regenerate. The ‘glymphatic system’ is 10x more active during the night when we sleep, and it is responsible for clearing waste from the brain (just as the lymphatic system clears waste from the body). During this process, brain cells shrink to 60% to allow for more efficient waste removal. So if we are not sleeping, our brains are less efficient in removing toxins.
Coping on low sleep
Sleep affects how our brain processes emotions and emotional memory. During REM sleep phase, the brain reprocesses recent emotional experiences in the amygdala. Studies show that sleep also affects next day emotional reactivity to daytime events, as sleep deprivation creates an exaggerated response in the amygdala to negative emotional stimuli. This exaggerated response contributes to higher stress levels, anxiety and anger in situations that perhaps would usually warrant a lower stress response when we are well-slept.
Causes of sleep issues
Although sleep issues can have many causes, there are a few lifestyle choices which regularly cause disruption to sleep, such as screen time/electronic devices, excessive alcohol or/and caffeine, too much time indoors, and poor dietary intake. Some health conditions can significantly contribute to lack of sleep, such as stress/anxiety/depression, pain, and very often hormonal imbalances (low melatonin, thyroid conditions, low serotonin, and low/fluctuating reproductive hormones (such as in menopause or during the monthly cycle).
Promoting healthy sleep
Try and include a minimum of ten minutes of bright sunlight (preferably in the morning) to help reset your body clock and promote healthy melatonin production at the correct time of the day
Exercise at least 3 x weekly, and preferably early in the day
Avoid coffee after 10am if you are having sleep issues, or avoid it completely if you can
Try/or continue a meditation practice, which helps to lower stress and bring the body into a deeper state of relaxation just before sleep to encourage an improved sleep quality
Don’t eat after 7pm, but ensure that when you do eat your last meal that you have adequate protein (at least a fist-sized protein source should be consumed in order to promote sleep).
Turn off screens 2 hours before sleep
In the warmer months, consider earthing. This is the practice of connecting directly with the earth by walking around barefoot which has been shown to lower cortisol levels.
Take a hot bath 90 to 120 minutes before bedtime. Increasing your core body temperature before allowing it to abruptly drop is a good way to initiate sleep
Dietary intake for improved sleep
Having balanced blood sugar is important for sleep. If you experience blood sugar crashes, then eating smaller regular meals could be beneficial rather than just three large ones, or having a small protein-rich snack just before bed can help.
Some other ways to try and balance blood sugar: avoid processed foods and foods containing refined sugar, consume healthy fats (avocado, nuts, coconut oil, olive oil), and try adding a small amount of fermented foods to your diet throughout the day.
Magnesium is another nutrient which is important for sleep, as it’s a natural relaxant. A study has shown that magnesium supplementation in individuals with insomnia exhibited significantly increased sleep time efficiency. Magnesium is involved in serotonin production, which also plays a role in sleep quality.
Tryptophan gets converted to 5-HTP, and 5-HTP in turn is converted to serotonin (a relaxing neurotransmitter) as well as melatonin. Serotonin has demonstrated efficacy in inducing spontaneous sleep. Therefore, a good way to improve your chances of sleep is to consume foods rich in tryptophan as well as to aim to boost your serotonin levels.
Tryptophan-rich foods are chocolate, oats, dates, milk, yogurt, eggs, turkey, almonds, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, spirulina, and peanuts.
Zinc is another important nutrient for enhancing sleep, as it is involved in neurotransmitter production (GABA and NMDA) and research shows a link between sufficient blood zinc concentration and good sleep quality.
Herbal medicine can provide really good relief for sleep disorders; both sleep onset and sleep maintenance concerns. Some herbs worth considering are Passiflora incarnata, Zizyphus spinosa, Valeriana officinalis, Lavandula officinalis, and Matricaria recutita. It’s important to obtain the correct mix of herbs for the underlying cause of your sleep dysfunction.
Passionflower promotes relaxation and improves sleep quality, chamomile and lavender support relaxation, and valerian quickens the time it takes to fall asleep.
Melatonin acts as a marker of our circadian rhythm, and is therefore crucial to good quality sleep and the regulation of our cycle. Melatonin typically starts being secreted by the pineal gland in the early evening to start to make us sleepy and regulate our sleep cycle.
For a normal night’s sleep, melatonin levels stay elevated for about 12 hours, and then the pineal gland starts to reduce production of melatonin as the sun rises. When your circadian rhythm is disrupted, the body produces less melatonin, which causes sleep problems. Exposure to sunlight early in the day can help to reset the circadian rhythm.
5-HTP is is a naturally occurring amino acid and chemical precursor necessary for sleep. One study demonstrated a supplementation combination of GABA (a calming neurotransmitter) and 5-HTP, reduced time to fall asleep, increased the duration of sleep and improved sleep quality.
The body produces 5-hydroxytryptophan from tryptophan, so it’s a good idea to increase tryptophan rich foods, although sometimes supplementation is required to boost 5-HTP levels significantly enough. See your naturopath if you feel that may be the case.
Gut health for improved sleep
We don’t typically associate good gut health directly with good sleep, however, they are very much connected. The gut contains (and produces) neurotransmitters which not only impact our mood, but also our sleep. Most of our serotonin is produced in the gut, and not only is this our ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter, but it is also the precursor to melatonin – which means that it helps produce the melatonin we need to fall asleep at night. If our gut health is poor, ie we have high number of pathogenic or unhelpful bacteria, then it can most definitely result in poor sleep, among a variety of other unwelcome side effects.
In order to improve gut health we need to encourage the growth of healthy bacteria through a wide variety of food sources, fresh vegetables loaded with phytonutrients (5-7 serves per day, including leafy greens, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, beetroots, carrots, tomatoes, onions, leeks, peas, legumes, sea vegetables), fruit (such as apples, blackberries, strawberries, blueberries, oranges, plums, and pomegranite), as well as herbs and spices, nuts and seeds, quality organic protein sources, cultured foods (such as yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, miso, and tempeh), prebiotics (such as artichokes, garlic, leeks, onions, asparagus, unripe bananas, oats, apples, cacao, flaxseeds, seaweeds), and coconut oil to keep a healthy microbial balance.
Lack of sleep is debilitating. For help in understanding the reason behind your sleep problems, speak to your naturopath who will organise a full health history, arrange any necessary testing, and devise a tailored treatment plan based specifically on your underlying cause.
Yvette is a qualified Melbourne-based Naturopath and Nutritionist, MINDD Practitioner, member of the Naturopaths and Herbalists Association of Australia, and Complementary Medicine Association. Yvette specialises in the treatment of conditions commonly affecting women and children, with a key interest in children’s digestive and neurological conditions, as well as women’s hormonal concerns, digestive issues, fatigue, anxiety, and skin concerns. Yvette consults in South Yarra, Melbourne, as well as Australia-wide via skype/zoom/phone.
Van der Helm E and MP Walker. Overnight therapy? The role of sleep in emotional brain processing. Psychol Bull. 2009 Sep; 135(5): 731–748. doi:10.1037/a0016570.
The Naturopathic Co. Melbourne Naturopath 2020