• Alexandra Joachim, M.S

3 Tips to Address the Root Cause of Night-time Anxiety and Sleeplessness

After a long day, the last thing you need is for your brain to kick into overdrive the minute your head hits the pillow. Unfortunately, eight out of ten adults have some type of sleep-related difficulty or disorder. Whether your issue is falling asleep, staying asleep, or waking up, here are three tips to address sleep-related disturbances.

Tip #1: Create A Routine

The human body craves patterns. Our ancestors went to sleep with the moon and rose with the sun. This is a routine that the body’s circadian rhythm is designed after. Today’s modern lifestyle has introduced a 24-hour work cycle and 16+ hours of screen time per day. Netflix, happy hours, and social calendars cause our everyday life to be somewhat sporadic, and this can affect our sleep.

Set Your Night-Time Routine

  • Go to sleep and wake up at the same time each day, as much as possible. This trains your circadian rhythm and the related hormones to normalize.

  • Avoid naps during the day that last longer than 45 minutes.

  • Don’t stay in bed more than 20-30 minutes attempting to fall asleep. If needed, get up and do a seated meditation before trying to go back to bed.

  • Don’t look at your phone before bed, as the light promotes cortisol secretion which makes it harder to fall asleep.

  • Consider putting your phone in another room altogether, and using an old-school alarm clock to wake you up in the morning.

  • Use dark window shades and close the shades and lights 15 minutes before bed.

  • Remove pronounced noises by using a white noise generator such as a HEPA air filter, or consider using ear plugs.

Minimize stimulants

  • Avoid alcohol at least 3 hours before bedtime

  • Avoid caffeine after 2pm

  • Avoid taking cold medications, including decongestant medications which can have a stimulant effect, at night.

  • Complete exercise at least 3 hours before bedtime

  • Own these habits and make them yours. These simple things allow you to begin taking control of your sleeplessness.

Tip #2: Address Underlying Nutritional Deficiencies

Melatonin, otherwise known as the sleep hormone, is one of the well-known chemical messengers involved in regulating the body’s sleep-wake-cycle, or circadian rhythm. You might be familiar with melatonin in that its a pill that can help you fall asleep.

But how does melatonin actually work? Explaining this leads us to some root causes of sleeplessness.

When your eyes see light - be it from the sun, a phone, or a lamp - your melatonin levels fall which raises the body’s serum cortisol, one of the main natural stress hormones. This makes you feel awake. When your eyes see darkness, the pineal gland in collaboration with the gut increases the levels of circulating melatonin, which makes you feel tired.

Melatonin is derived from the neurotransmitter serotonin, which is derived from the amino acid 5-hydroxytryptophan, which is derived from B vitamins - specifically Vitamins B3 and B6. Therefore, if we look down the assembly line, these B vitamins are critical in order for the body to have a chance at making enough melatonin (which you need in order to fall asleep). Vitamin D, Iron, vitamin E, and Magnesium are also implicated in sleeplessness. Restless leg syndrome is common in individuals with iron deficiency, and magnesium and vitamin D help to balance cortisol and the associated nervous system pathways.

Ensure your diet is rich in these important vitamins and minerals:

  • B vitamins are plentiful in fatty fish (e.g salmon), eggs, beef, lentils, liver, avocados, and spinach.

  • Vitamin D is most easily synthesized from direct sunlight, but also can be found in fatty fish and eggs.

  • Iron is found in meat, beans, whole grains, nuts, and leafy greens.

  • Magnesium is found in leafy greens, nuts, seeds, beans, grains, and fish.

Consider supplementing with Vitamins, Minerals, and Herbs that support circadian rhythm and melatonin production:

  • Supplement with a high-quality B complex (ensure adequate amounts of B3 and B6) and/or a high quality multi vitamin-mineral complex which includes all of the aforementioned vitamins and minerals.

  • Herbs such as chamomile, passionflower, and valerian root have been implicated in improving sleep through adrenal balancing effects. Try these as teas or supplements, and/or consider calming essential oils such as lavender or ylang ylang.

  • Theanine: often found in teas and mushroom-based herbal tinctures, is an upstream amino acid for regulating sleep neurotransmitters and hormones.

  • Melatonin is a safe option to incorporate into your routine. Start with 2-3 mg per evening as higher dosages can cause morning drowsiness in some people.

Work with a functional nutrition practitioner to comprehensively assess nutrient deficiencies - this could include other vitamins, minerals, and amino acids which are upstream of the sleep-cycle hormones.

Tip #3: Stabilize Your Blood Sugar

In order to get a good night’s sleep, the body’s blood sugar needs to be kept at a stable level. The standard American diet, which is full of refined carbohydrates and processed foods, often results in blood sugar dysregulation (seen in a lab test as high or low fasting blood sugar and/or abnormal HbA1c). These things can prevent you from getting a good night’s sleep.

Let’s break this down.

When you eat food, glucose (sugar) molecules are extracted from the food and delivered to the bloodstream. When the food you’ve just eaten contains refined carbohydrates or sugars (think breads, crackers, pastas, chips, bagels, desserts), a higher-than-normal amount of glucose builds up in the bloodstream. When this happens, a hormone called insulin is sent by the pancreas to remove that extra sugar in the blood, and deliver it back to cells. This sudden insulin spike causes blood sugar to subsequently plummet from the bloodstream very fast, which triggers adrenaline in the body. Adrenaline makes you feel awake and energized. Adrenaline then signals to other hormones such as cortisol to turn on, all of which make you feel awake, jittery, and hungry.

This is why after a high-carbohydrate meal, such as a big plate of pasta or a fluffy bagel, you feel initially tired afterwards (blood sugar spike), and then suddenly hungry and awake 2-3 hours later (insulin spike, blood sugar plummet, adrenaline and cortisol spike).

To recap: eating processed foods high in refined carbohydrates and sugar leads to blood sugar dysregulation which causes the body to produce more hormones that make you feel awake. If eating like this becomes a habit, hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol are circulating too often, preventing you from having a good night’s sleep.

Stabilize your blood sugar

  • Eliminate or significantly reduce intake of refined carbohydrates as part of your dietary routine (breads, crackers, pastas, sugary snacks).

  • Incorporate whole-foods such as lean meats, fish, veggies, fruits, beans, and whole grains into the diet.

  • Eat at least 3 hours before you go to bed. Eliminate night-time snacking.

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