Insomnia - accept it or banish it?

“I’m an insomniac - I just live with it”. Sound familiar? It’s quite common to hear people say comments such as “I live on four hours sleep, I’ve just trained my body to deal with it” or “I’ve had insomnia for years, it’s just how I am”. Margaret Thatcher (the Iron Lady!), Bill Clinton and Madonna are all well-known for saying they function on just four hours sleep per night and this created a movement of people following in their path, believing they could be highly productive and healthy with little sleep. However, there is a plethora of research that reveals we need to have around eight hours per night. As you’ve read in previous Live Well blogs, sleep is not something we do just for the sake of it.

Sleep plays a crucial role to our physical, mental and emotional well-being.

So, whose fault is it that so many of us are struggling to reach the golden 8 hours per night? Factors such as medication, diet, weight, chronic disease, anxiety and depression are well-known players in the game of sleep. Of course, the biggest culprit is a term we’ve come to use in daily life - stress. In fact, stress from the working week has created a community of ‘sleep bulimics’, a term coined by associate professor of psychiatry, Robert Stickgold whereby those who sleep very little from Monday to Friday are binging on sleep at the weekend. The problem with this is that sleep is accumulative and a simple binge on the weekend won’t make up for the negative effect the week has had on your mind, body and emotions. Indeed, the body craves to be at one with the day-night cycle, known as the circadian rhythm.

Complementary medicine can help you reset your sleeping patterns by treating the underlying causes of insomnia such as your hormones and your nervous system and help you to deal with external stressors such as work and relationships. I have written much about sleep and how complementary medicine can help, so start by reading my most popular article Why You Wake Up At The Same Time Each Night.

So, do you accept that you’re an insomniac or someone who ‘functions’ on very little sleep?

Or do you challenge this limiting belief and give credit where credit is due? Sleep is an invaluable part of your health, wellness and basic survival. Without it, you sacrifice a healthy immune system, a strong mental state and a balance of emotional well-being - all for the sake of getting even more done that you’re already doing. I know which one I choose. What about you? Choose sleep and then see how much you get done! I work with all ages, so book in with me for kinesiology and start breaking the pattern of insomnia.

Kate's passion is to educate and empower each client to understand their mind, body, and Spirit and how these aspects are all connected. Her integrative approach to health and healing is to explore and treat the whole person. Kate is the creator of Holistic by Nature and is also on the expert panel of I Quit Sugar.
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A Naturopathic Perspective on Insomnia

When it comes to insomnia and poor sleep my clinical experience tells me that what we really need to be doing is look at the source. In other words, if you were a tree and the insomnia or poor quality of sleep (the symptoms) are represented by the leaves, our inquiry needs to be centred around what’s happening at the level of the soil and at the roots (of the proverbial tree). This is where we find the diet, stress and lifestyle factors that contribute to nutrient deficiencies, toxicity, inflammation and the other driving factors that are causing the disturbances and symptoms in the first place. So rather than just trying to band-aid or prune the leaves and branches with various remedies (that are not going to treat at the source level), you’ll find it more effective (and life-changing) to work from the ground up…

So what does that mean?

The substances we put in our body have such a major influence on our physiology –from our hormones and nervous system (including our brain), our immune system function, how we feel emotionally, clarity of mind and concentration, ageing processes, you name it –the lot! And whilst there are many factors that can contribute to a person’s experience of insomnia, our diet and the kinds of things we’re eating and drinking can be a (if not THE) major culprit. To read more on food & sleep, see my Guide to Eating Right for Better Sleep)

If you’re suffering through your own version of poor sleep or insomnia, it’s likely you’re not feeling great. Once insomnia and poor sleep establishes a habit, it can become difficult to cope after a while.  You probably still having to get up and appear like a normal, functioning person…  So what do you do?

Well, most people begin to rely on caffeine and high energy, sugar-laden foods to get up and going and push you through the walls of fatigue and dullness so they can show up and get things done. Physiologically, blood-sugars will spike -which will help you through; but they’ll soon also crash -which is a bit like catching a wave to surf and then being dumped! It essentially creates a cycle of reliance on substances and behaviours –for example, that propensity for an alcoholic beverage of an evening, carb/sweet or salty cravings, inordinate amounts of screen-time and being sedentary.

Whilst these practices initially appear to help in managing the fallout from the poor quality sleep, it also creates not only a deficit in the system (from poor nutrition and unbalanced stress and lifestyle factors) but establishes an unhealthy crutch that you probably feel you need to go about your day and demands, and to get through. You’ll likely be relying on “uppers” –things you’ve found that help to get you functioning -like coffee or chocolate for example; and “downers” like alcohol, a big rich meal or even chocolate again (seemingly conversely, but it also hits the “reward” centres in the brain and alters the brain chemistry to soothe, as well as pep you up). These things appear to work in the short term and help bring you back to a place that feels more “relaxed” or is more conducive to falling asleep. 

But how you feel in the morning when you wake is usually the best sign to go by, as it is your indicator for quality of sleep. And we’ve all had those “perfect” 8+hr nights of sleep and woken feeling less-than-amazing. So it’s not necessarily about the amount of sleep-time you’ve clocked up in a night, nor the fact that you may be sleeping through. So let’s explore quality of sleep a little further…

What kind of sleep disturbances are you experiencing?

□      Having difficulty getting to sleep, feeling tired, but too “wired”, and unable to wind down at the end of the day?  

□      Have you come to rely upon certain “crutches” -like alcohol, chocolate, ice-cream or tv to help you wind down?

□      Are you generally able to fall asleep OK, but are waking during the night?

□      Are you technically “sleeping through”, but your sleep is restless and non-refreshing –are you waking feeling just as tired (or more so!) than when you went to bed the night before, feeling headachy, unmotivated, slow  or foggy on a regular basis?

□      Do you find yourself waking too early in the (middle-of-the-night) morning, having 2 a.m, 3 a.m and 4 a.m wake-ups; lying awake for hours at a time and unable to fall back asleep, or falling asleep right before your alarm goes off…?

Well, you’re not alone!

Here are some of the most common factors that play a role in insomnia and poor quality of sleep:

·       Stress! Plays a huge role in insomnia, and is an absolute must-look in any case.

·       Diet and nutrition: excesses, deficiencies, toxicity and inflammation; psychoactive substances such as caffeine, sugar, alcohol, nicotine, amphetamines, opioids and medications.

·       Blood glucose imbalances (one of the triggers for insomnia) can cause a neuroendocrine response that activates the brain to be awake -hence, an early dinner that is not rich and is easily digestible + a light snack or gentle supper in the hour before bedtime can help. (see my Guide to Eating Right for Better Sleep for more information on how our food choices can help you sleep better)

·       Hormonal disturbances and irregularities e.g. menopause

·       Rich meals and desserts

·       Stimulant intake throughout the day - sugar, caffeine, alcohol (yes, alcohol initially acts as a depressant on the nervous system; but it winds up messing with blood glucose levels and burdening the liver, which can be a major causative factor in sleep issues)

·       Electromagnetic disturbances from electronic gadgetry, wiring and lights in the bedroom

·       Exposure to short wavelength blue light emitted from our phones/tv which impacts the pineal gland and reduces melatonin (the hormone responsible for regulating our sleep and circadian rhythm)

·       Other underlying conditions, for example:  stress, anxiety or depression; sleep apnoea; menopause; arthritis; gastric ulcer

·       Medications

·       Sedentary lifestyle

It is worth noting that many of the factors listed above are not only underlying causes in insomnia and poor quality of sleep; but many –such as elevated stress hormones, intake of high-caloric, sugary, quick energy-releasing foods, use of stimulants, hormonal disturbances, depression, anxiety and states of inflammation like arthritis –are also behaviours and effects that are in turn, driven by insomnia and poor sleep. So a vicious cycle ensues, and it can be a real “chicken or egg” situation.

Good quality of sleep is so vital to our health and wellbeing.

If we’re sleeping poorly, it not only impacts our energy, how we feel, or our focus, cognition, and how we eat on any given day. Chronic poor quality sleep also sparks inflammation and disease pathways in the body, can cause leaky gut, foggy head -and even brain damage; it promotes metabolic, endocrine and cardiovascular disorders, and is terrible for mood and mental health. In essence, if you are experiencing consistent poor quality sleep or insomnia it’s an awful space to be in, and it’s important you to seek professional help so you can feel well and be well again soon!

Banish Insomnia

The Perfect Night’s Sleep

Ahhh sleep, you know the drill, your head hits the pillow and you drift effortlessly into a long, peaceful and rejuvenating nights rest….or maybe…..not! Unfortunately, for many this is not your reality.

Instead your mind is awash with the thoughts and experiences of the day playing over and over again on repeat. You revisit the annoying conversation, the difficult conflict or the embarrassing moment ad nauseam.

Or perhaps it’s not a particular thought that keeps you awake, rather a general sense of restlessness and irritation or physical discomfort.

For others getting to sleep is the easy part, staying asleep is the problem. You wake at the same time each night and then toss and turn until the alarm goes off and signals the end of another unsatisfactory night. Or something wakes you like a crying baby, a pet or a crazy neighbour and you lie awake long after the interruption has passed.

Sleep and your health

The problem with these scenarios is that sleep is no longer seen as a ‘nice to have’; it is an essential foundation of wellbeing. Poor sleep not only leads to chronic exhaustion but also to chronic disease. Anxiety, depression, heart disease, hypertension, obesity and diabetes are just some of the many conditions linked to chronic insomnia.

The reason sleep is so super important is because the quality of your sleep determines the health of your nervous system and when your nervous system is out of balance it effects everything else: immune system, hormone balance, metabolism, mental health, digestion and so on.

If you want to prevent cancer, if you want to heal from auto-immune disease, if you want to lose weight, if you want to overcome depression or anxiety then start by addressing the quality of your sleep and the rest will follow.

Quality and quantity

What about those people who have chronic illness and already sleep a lot? It comes down to quantity plus quality. Many people with conditions like chronic fatigue or depression will sleep for long hours but wake up feeling exhausted. This indicates that whilst your eyes might be shut your body and mind are stuck in a limbo land between wakefulness and deep rest. It’s like you’re dipping your toes in the waters of relaxation when every cell of your body wants to be able to dive right in and soak up the recuperative waters.

Banishing insomnia

The good news is natural therapies are very effective in restoring quality sleep. Everyone’s pattern of insomnia is different and the underlying causes are as unique as the person themselves which is why holistic approaches are often successful where other avenues have failed.

Throughout July at Live Well, we’re focused on helping you solve the puzzle of getting a good night sleep. So stay tuned and keep an eye out for blogs, information resources, seminars and more to help you get the quality sleep and rejuvenation you deserve.

If you do struggle with sleep, don't ignore it or put up with it any longer. It’s not a trivial issue so make a time to connect with one of our practitioners and get help. The quality of your wellbeing is depending on it.

We are here to help.

Wes Smith is Live Well's Director and has 20 years experience as a practitioner and wellness educator. He has a special interest in working with chronic immune issues, stressanxiety and depression
Wes is passionate about inspiring and educating people to create and sustain their vitality and wellbeing so they can live life to the full.
Wes also enjoys teaching meditation and is the creator of meditatewithwes.com an online resource for learning how to meditate. es has a B.App.Sc.(Acup), Diploma of Herbal Medicine, a Yoga Teaching Diploma and is an APHRA registered acupuncturist. Learn more about acupunctureherbal medicine and meditation.

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