The Causes and Natural Solutions for Insomnia – The simple act of falling and staying asleep is a major problem in this country. Sleep deprivation can cause everything from excessive weight gain, problems concentrating and retaining information, anxiety and depression, lower immunity and longer recovery times. At Swanson Health Center, insomnia or trouble sleeping is one of the most commonly checked boxes on our client forms. When I’m analyzing the causes, they are usually multi-facted depending on:
- Hormone Imbalance/Vitamin Deficiencies
- Mental Stress and Nighttime habits
- Melatonin Deficiencies and Low/High Cortisol Levels
- Physical Activity level
- Alcohol or Coffee Consumption
- Current Medications
Estrogen, Progesterone, Thyroid or Testosterone Imbalance and Deficiencies
This is actually one of the least looked at causes of insomnia. In my experience, a majority of cases have actually been corrected by normalizing hormones and deficiencies. As many women have experienced, menopause brings insomnia showing an obvious connection to fluctuating hormone levels. If you are a women, have your doctor test your estrogen, progesterone, T3, T4 and TSH levels.
Men’s sleep can also be effected by low testosterone levels. Symptoms of low testosterone include: sleep disturbances, lack of drive, fatigue, mood problems, increased abdominal fat, decreased muscle mass, and erectile dysfunction. Get your levels tested and read the article Natural Testosterone: Why You Don’t Need Steroids to raise your testosterone. Women are not omitted from testosterone either and should make sure they are in the range.
Deficiencies of the B vitamins, inositol, vitamin A , vitamin D ,Vitamin K, calcium , magnesium, tryptophan, GABA, taurine or too much potassium can lead to insomnia.
Melatonin Deficiencies and Low/High Cortisol Levels
What are the most common complaints for not being able to sleep?
“My mind won’t turn off.”
“I feel anxious at night.”
“I can fall asleep, but I wake up and can’t get back to sleep.”
“When I wake up I don’t feel rested and can barely get out of bed.”
Melatonin is produced by the pineal gland as it gets dark and makes you sleepy. When you stay connected to a bright light- like your laptop – melatonin is not released because your body still thinks it’s day time. As we age, melatonin production decreases rapidly, getting to its low point around 70.
Those with SAD have low melatonin levels, people with bi-polar have too high of melatonin in the morning and too low at night, anxiety (regular and during PMS) can be caused by low melatonin, and those with breast cancer, prostate cancer, Alzheimers, Dementia, and low blood flow to the heart often have low melatonin levels. Caffeine, alcohol, chronic stress, nicotine, beta-blockers, certain anti-depressants, sleeping pills and tranquilizers deplete melatonin. It is a major piece of the puzzle.
Melatonin is produced by the pineal gland as it gets dark and makes you sleepy. When you stay connected to a bright light- like your laptop – melatonin is not released because your body still thinks it’s day time. As we age, melatonin production decreases rapidly, getting to its low point around 70. Even more interesting, is those with SAD have low melatonin levels, people with bi-polar have too high of melatonin in the morning and too low at night, anxiety (regular and during PMS) can be caused by low melatonin, and those with breast cancer, prostate cancer, Alzheimers, Dementia, and low blood flow to the heart often have low melatonin levels.
Caffeine, alcohol, chronic stress, nicotine, some anti-depressants, beta-blockers, certain anti-depressants, sleeping pills and tranquilizers deplete melatonin. Those with impaired adrenal function need to be careful with melatonin since too much can give you a melatonin hangover and excess fatigue. In other words, if you’re aboard the stress train, be careful with how much and how often you take it.
What Do the Studies Say?
This study showed evidence that melatonin was safe in short-term use (3 months). Another study also concluded that it was safe for short term use. Interesting enough, both of these studies did not find melatonin effective in their respective sleep disorders, while this double blind placebo controlled study found that administration of nightly 5 mg of melatonin, 225mg of magnesium, and 11.25mg of zinc appears to improve the quality of sleep and the quality of life in long-term care facility residents with primary insomnia. Children with autism suffering from insomnia have found to benefit from doses ranges from 1-3mg.
What about long term use? According to this study, there are no published long-term safety data on the use of melatonin, assuming long term to mean more than 6 months of daily medication. The possible deleterious effects include inhibited reproduction function, delayed puberty, influence on the circadian status of the fetus if taken during pregnancy and future development, unknown interactions with medications and its use with psychiatric disorders. Furthermore, my own personal question is how a synthetic form effects or alters the body’s own release of melatonin by the natural feedback mechanism in place?
Based on the current research, it appears that melatonin should be used in the 1mg to 5mg range in non-pregnant healthy adults (not children or teenagers unless extreme circumstances warrant it) without a family history of psychiatric disorders or using any medications. It shouldn’t be used consistently for over 3 months until more research comes out, ideally only on an as needed base while underlying issues of insomnia are addressed.
How to Produce and Consume More Melatonin Naturally
The first step is to get in tune with nature’s cycle of light and dark. If you are keeping all your lights on while staring at your Kindle (go back to paperbacks at night), computer, phone or any other bright light, your pineal gland will not release melatonin. Make an effort to shut everything down by 10:00pm and begin winding down with a book, music or stretching with the lights turned down.
Foods high in tryptophan (precursor to serotonin): The precursors to melatonin include folate, B12, B2, B6 and magnesium. One case I did for a child with autism was a fresh green juice with romaine, parsley, celery and carrot about an hour before bedtime, combined with magnesium oil oil spray. For the first time in his life he slept through the whole night, and has ever since.
Foods high in melatonin: Bananas, tart cherries, apples, pineapple, kiwi, strawberries, tomato, cabbage, carrots, onion, cucumber, asparagus, oats and ginger.
Cortisol, Mental Stress and Nighttime Habits
If you have major weight fluctuations during times of stress, digestive problems, eczema or psoriasis or crave salt and sugar, then your cortisol levels are imbalanced. People with elevated cortisol levels at night may experience fatigue, depression & anxiety, weight gain, low libido, high blood pressure and high blood sugar. Low cortisol can also be associated with sleep disorders and hypoglycemia.
Working after 10:00pm with intellectual activity will cause your brain to revamp the work cycle. In Ayruveda, there is a cycle that goes from 10:00pm to 2:00am that can ramp up the mind when activated, causing the frenetic flurry of thoughts that affects so many people when they are trying to fall asleep. If you have ever started working on something late and felt a second wind until 2 in the morning, you went down the worm hole and lost a major time frame of the repair process. Western medicine accepts overexertion of the physical body, but neglects overexertion of the mind. It is just as damaging.
Having a routine of going to sleep at the same time and waking up at the same time is extremely important. Your body craves routine and structure to function optimally and is the same way with meals. Each dinner between 6:00 and 7:00pm, avoiding heavy carbs and sugar. Aim to be in bed between 10:00 and 11:00pm, waking up between 6:00 and 7:30am. Keep your room cool and dark, read something light, turn off and unplug electrical devices, stretch, or take a bath with epsom salts to relax. For some, watching something light and funny on TV will not cause any issues, but something extremely violent or suspenseful cause cause cortisol levels to elevate along with a delay of melatonin release from the flashing lights.
Exercise and Sleep
If you find yourself tossing and turning too much, your leg is twitching, or you simply feel the need to move your body around, then you are exercise deficient. Aim for 45 minutes to an hour of an exercise 3-5 times a week that breaks a sweat and leaves you relaxed at the end. On the other side of the coin, if you are working out too hard or too late at night, this can also affect cortisol levels and keep you wired at night. I remember a guy at CrossFit that had to stop doing the group classes because the intensity was causing insomnia. As soon as he dropped the excessive cardio and focused more on moderate weight training, he was sleeping like a couple without kids or a mortgage.
Alcohol and Coffee
“To alcohol! The cause, and solution to, all of life’s problems.” -Homer Simpson
The #1 dietary problem I have seen with sleep disorders will probably surprise you, but it’s wine or other alcoholic drinks. People think that it helps them get drowsy and fall asleep. Alcohol actually disrupts the sleep cycle by initially increasing drowsiness, but causes shallow sleep and multiple awakenings due to the rapid metabolism and change in blood concentrations in the middle of the nights. If you find yourself getting hot flashes (men and women) during the night, it is because alcohol causes rapid changes in estrogen levels and increases blood flow which signals a temperature increase to the brain. As mentioned earlier, alcohol also depletes melatonin.
Coffee is a known stimulant and can effect adrenal health when used in excess or consumed too late, effecting cortisol levels, depleting b-vitamins and increasing anxiety.
Certain medications like beta blockers deplete CoQ10 and melatonin. Combine poor nighttime habits with medications that deplete melatonin levels, and you have a recipe for insomnia. Check the side effects of any medications you are taking.
The horror stories of people taking sleep medications like Ambien and doing strange things during the night are well documented online and are trippy! A recent study has shown that sleeping pills are linked to an increased risk of death and cancer. These can be addictive, and going off them can be extremely difficult. They must be withdrawn very slowly and if are stopped suddenly then they can cause seizures, severe anxiety, insomnia, nightmares, abdominal pain, palpitations, loss of balance, sweating and a long list of other symptoms.
The Best Natural Alternatives for Sleep
Best Rest Formula uses a combination of of valerian, lemon balm, hops, passion flower, chamomile, melatonin, GABA and l-theanine. When I first came across this product, I knew that his first formula was the ultimate combination because it used herbs that I had experience with along with melatonin, GABA and l-theanine. I didn’t have access to passionflower, but I am very impressed with it along with the addition of hops. What makes this formula unique is that it also uses a 1mg of melatonin with GABA and l theanine. If herbs haven’t been strong enough for you in the past – and you are trying to avoid larger doses of melatonin due to the side effects – then this combination is for you. Magnesium is nature’s tranquilizer and helps all your muscles relax.
If the Best Rest isn’t strong enough and you want to move up to 5mg of melatonin, then choose this product. It contains passionflower, chamomile, lemon balm, skullcap, melatonin, magnesium, GABA, taurine and glycine.
If you are looking for a lighter strictly herbal version without melatonin that works and is affordable, this one will work. It uses valerian, passionflower, hops, chamomile and catnip.
There are other products you can combine with these formulas if you still can’t sleep, but it needs to be customized. Swanson Health Center can help you if you require more assistance.