We all experience sleep problems from time to time, but some of us have it worse than others. Our minds race while we toss and turn, anxiously watching the clock tick down the hours. Sometimes it seems that with all the mental activity taking up “brain space,” we’ve forgotten how to sleep.
The next day when we feel groggy and our minds don’t work efficiently, we think the solution is to catch up on what was lost—but the problem is that catching up on lost sleep is an elusive gamble. Research shows that once your rest patterns are disrupted, it takes a lot more than sleeping late on the weekends to reverse the damage.
There are better solutions, but we must choose carefully. Pharmaceutical sleep aids and over-the-counter drugs can make us feel drowsy when we need to be alert. We also don’t want to become dependent on them.
So, other than herbal tea and a relaxing read, what are the best ways to help ease into restful sleep? We have to look at it strategically. Quality sleep is a holistic process that involves numerous systems of the body: hormonal, neurological, digestive, and more.
Health, Lifestyle, Sleep
How we live affects how we sleep. For example, exercising regularly and eating nutrient-dense, unprocessed foods can contribute to more restful sleep. Exercise helps us manage the stress hormones (such as cortisol and adrenaline) that prevent us from unwinding, while expending excess energy that can keep us awake.
There are also foods and ingredients to subtract. Caffeine is obvious. Even a cup of coffee hours before bedtime can disrupt sleep. Alcohol, sugar, gluten, and dairy might also be problematic, particularly for those with sensitivities. These items can fuel inflammation and wreak havoc throughout the body, disrupting the hormonal signals that help us unwind and reach deep, restorative sleep. Also, don’t eat a large meal close to bedtime; our digestive process at work can impair sleep.
It’s important to relearn relaxation practices. Many of us don’t even remember how to slow down, yet we expect to go from 60 to zero in minutes. The body doesn’t work that way. Take some time to relax before bed by dimming the lights or lighting some candles. Meditate for 10 minutes or take a warm bath. Stretch and do deep breathing.
In addition, avoid using the computer or any electronic device at least two hours before bed. After sunset, the light emitted from these technologies prevents your pineal gland from releasing melatonin, a critical sleep and repair hormone.
Unprocessed, nutrient-dense foods such as organic vegetables and fruits, raw nuts and seeds, healthy fats, and sprouted whole grains and legumes are important for every area of health. When eaten regularly, these foods balance our bodies, calm our nervous system, and improve sleep. There are also specific foods that can help immediately support more restful sleep.
The amino acid tryptophan is notorious for making us tired after a Thanksgiving dinner. (To be fair, the wine, stuffing, and pumpkin pie may also play a part.) Tryptophan is found in most meats but is particularly high in turkey. Our bodies convert it into serotonin and melatonin, which help us relax and sleep.
Bananas and lentils also provide tryptophan, as well as magnesium and potassium, which help relax us. Cherries provide melatonin. In moderation, potatoes, rice, and other carbohydrates can also support sleep. But again, don’t overindulge before bedtime.
Homeopathy—a system of medicine based on the notion that a disease can be cured by treating patients with a product that produces similar symptoms of their ailment in healthy people— provides a number of time-tested insomnia remedies that gently nudge us toward relaxation and restful sleep.
- Coffea cruda, or unroasted coffee beans, can act as a sleep aid. This may seem counterintuitive; however, remember that homeopathy works on the theory that in tiny doses, “like treats like.” This remedy can be useful when we need help calming an overactive mind.
- Muriatic acid helps when we’re tired but can’t get to sleep.
- Arsenicum album can relax us when we’re anxious or restless.
- Lycopodium clavatum is recommended when we wake frequently from hunger.
- Nux vomica, or phosphorus, can help those who fall asleep at first but wake up and can’t get back to sleep.
Circadian Rhythm Support
As mentioned previously, melatonin is a critical sleep aid. This hormone-like neurotransmitter is closely linked with the circadian rhythms that govern our sleep/wake cycles, and it acts like a powerful antioxidant and repair hormone. Melatonin is mainly produced by the pineal gland in response to darkness, which is why we shouldn’t bathe in light before bed or use our techy gadgets. In fact, it’s important to block out all light in your bedroom, such as clocks, nightlights, and outside street lights. Try blackout curtains—you’ll likely notice a difference in sleep quality the first morning.
Circadian rhythms influence more than melatonin and sleep/wake cycles. They’re involved in countless physiological processes, right down to the expression of specific genes. Taking the right steps to harmonize these “biological clock” rhythms is critical for long-term health. One need only look at studies of shift workers—they reportedly face greater risks of hormone-related cancers and other inflammatory diseases—to understand how important it is to balance circadian rhythms and melatonin production.
Setting a regular bedtime can help balance sleep cycles and circadian rhythms. I also recommend going to bed earlier because we experience more restful sleep before midnight. If you find this hard at first, just turn the lights off and relax in the dark. With extra assistance from the additional tips here, your body will likely get the hint after some practice.
Sleep is a reflection of our health, and as such, it is influenced by multiple organ systems, hormones, and neurotransmitters. Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) has a unique and comprehensive understanding of the intricate relationships between these systems and sleep. In my practice, I recommend a gentle botanical and nutritional formula called Serene Sleep to promote restorative sleep cycles and healthy circadian balance. This formula contains Asian botanicals such as lotus sprout extract, Chinese date seed, mimosa tree bark, and many others which help balance key organs such as the liver, brain, lungs, digestive tract, and heart. According to TCM, these organs and related systems play essential roles in influencing sleep quality. The formula also contains a small amount of melatonin and other supportive ingredients such as pure honokiol extract, passionflower, and vitamin B6 to facilitate restful and rejuvenative sleep. Patients report feeling more refreshed and energized when they wake up.
Pure honokiol, extracted from Magnolia bark, is particularly interesting. Honokiol is known for its ability to support restful sleep, among other critical benefits. One preclinical study found that it extends non-REM sleep, which is associated with physiological restoration and memory consolidation. It’s also a powerful antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-anxiety agent, neurological protector, and anti-cancer compound.
In our society, sleep is sacrificed at the altar of productivity. But science is showing that sleep disruption can affect numerous areas of health and contribute to chronic degenerative diseases. These sleep recommendations should be helpful, but if not, see your doctor. Serious insomnia may also indicate an underlying health issue.
Most often, sleep disorders result from our fast-paced, pro-inflammatory lifestyles. By working to reset our natural rhythms with foods and supplements, exercise, relaxing self-care, and a scheduled routine for unwinding and getting to bed, we can help restore balance, promote better sleep patterns, and boost overall health. That should help you rest easy.
By Isaac Eliaz, MD, MS, LAc, a licensed acupuncturist, physician, and homeopath who has an MS in traditional Chinese medicine, and has done graduate studies in herbology. Visit him online at dreliaz.org.