By Mikaela Duffy | Naturopath & Nutritionist
In my previous article (here), I discuss some fundamental food types that can support and improve sleep, and outline the reasons sleep is so important for our overall health. It is also important to note that there are different types of insomnia or sleep issues, which are governed by different mechanisms and underlying reasons.
Poor sleep onset is the difficulty found in falling asleep, often associated with low tryptophan levels. Tryptophan is an amino acid needed to produce serotonin and melatonin (our sleepy hormone that switches on when the sun goes down). Although these hormones can also help with reducing waking through the night and lengthening the time asleep, it is one to consider seriously if long term sleep onset is an issue. Melatonin is needed to regulate our circadian rhythm, or body clock, and is often disrupted for shift workers, new parents, or those travelling across time zones.
Tryptophan foods include beef, fish, turkey, lentils, almonds, pumpkin & sesame seeds, kale, bananas and soy beans.
It is also important to note that sufficient B vitamins and iron are needed for the tryptophan conversion, so if you are having no luck in improving your fall asleep time, there might be a little more exploring needed to check for deficiencies.
Poor sleep maintenance is frequent waking in the night, or waking early in the morning. This can be due to a variety of different mechanisms, such as elevated stress responses in the body (eg cortisol release), and/or depression. For this reason it is important to look at supporting the nervous system and emotional wellbeing (such as counselling, exercise, improving lifestyle and habits) as well as food intake – remembering that a lack of sufficient food intake will trigger a stress response too.
So what kinds of remedies might we use to improve our sleep quality? Stepping back and being able to see potential triggers is important, and there are many remedies available to try.
Sleepy time drinks – use drinks to help with winding down in the evening, perhaps even replace an alcoholic drink if that is your ‘go to’ for relaxing.
For example –
Chamomile, skullcap, withania, damiana and passionflower are calming to our nervous system, so can be helpful as an evening tea (single herbs or a combination of any) to have in the half hour before bed. These are also found in herbal tinctures or supplements at higher doses, which may be needed with the guidance of a naturopath or herbalist.
Warm milk (cows if tolerated or dairy free if not – particularly almond milk for the tryptophan) with a little honey and nutmeg added, can help to provide the fuel needed to sleep through the night.
Essential fatty acids can also affect sleep quality, particularly in children, as they govern the brain’s ability to uptake serotonin and neurotransmitters that calm the nervous system. Try evening primrose oil or fish oils as a way to increase your intake, along with healthy fats with each meal and snack (fish, coconut products, raw nuts & seeds, olive oil & olives, avocado).
Food intolerances can affect both onset and maintenance – look at diet, when did the insomnia start, and can you correlate it to a change in foods? (This may be easier to pick up in children, and for them the most common cause documented is cow’s milk). Testing for intolerances is also available through a holistic practitioner, or eliminating a food group for 1 month to assess changes can be the most effective.
Other remedies to try can have great effects for some, such as flower essences which are available over the counter or tailor made by a practitioner. Flower essences work by balancing the emotions, which affect us in the physical sense. They are safe for all to use and do not interact with any medications or health conditions.
Also important to consider… Deficiencies relating to disorders common with insomnia – metal toxicity – copper, aluminium (found in most antacids) and low iron, may be a factor. Discuss these with a naturopath to find alternative ways of addressing your individual needs – eg indigestion (eg herbal medicine & diet changes), chelating heavy metals, or building up iron with good quality supplements and herbs.
I am a big advocate of some simple yoga stretches at bedtime, and have seen the benefits of 10 minutes of yoga can help to calm the nervous system, reduce cortisol release (to help increase melatonin production) and improves sleep quality. There are some great links to articles and free videos by searching for ‘bedtime yoga’ online. Regular exercise is also important as it improves circulation, digestion, and regulation of stress hormones when done in appropriate amounts to suit your body’s capabilities and energy levels.
It can be tremendously useful to discuss your whole case history with a trained practitioner, who can help you sift through potential causes, and come up with the best solution to help your individual needs.
Here’s to a great night’s sleep!