by Marcelle Pick, OB/GYN NP
Here are the topics covered in this article:
- Lifestyle, stress, and insomnia
- Natural remedies for insomnia
- Prescription for healthy sleep
A very good friend of mine has been waking up at four, three, sometimes even two in the morning and can’t get back to sleep. She’s dutifully taken all of my advice about sleep hygiene and bought room-darkening shades, turns off her electronics at least an hour before going to bed to enjoy some down-time, doesn’t eat before bed or participate any stressful conversations if she can help it, yet she still wakes up earlier than the crack of dawn each day, revved up and ready to go. The other day she called to tell me she was giving up and taking Tylenol PM pills to get back to sleep. “Wait!” I told her. “I have something better for you to try.”
I know from my patients, friends, and family that women today are desperate for sleep! So desperate that they are willing to risk the side effects of Tylenol PM, Lunesta, or Ambien. These drugs and sleeping pills don’t get to the root of sleep problems, and can leave women feeling awful in the morning. The good news is that you can reset your sleep-wake cycle by understanding more about its root causes and working with nature’s safe and effective supplements to gently remind the body to rest.
Sleep cycles gone wild — a product of our modern lifestyle
One night I was driving back to Maine from New York in a snowstorm. It was so dark on the highway I couldn’t see a thing, but just as I was about the pull over and wait it out, I came to a town. Even though it was a small town, lights from big chain stores and parking lots, gas stations and supermarkets lit the sky. At the time, I was thankful for the light pollution! But later, I thought about the experience and the overall implications our modern lifestyle has on our sleep.
Like it or not, we are constantly exposed to light and electronic pollution. Unlike our ancestors, we can have light, instant communication, and electronic entertainment at any hour of the day without even leaving our homes! These luxuries send wake-up messages to the brain and can confuse the body when it’s time to sleep. Lights also allow us to work longer hours, make trips back from New York late at night like I did, and many other things to ignite the nervous system and heighten our stress response.
Many women are surprised to hear that our stress response is intimately connected to our sleep rhythms. Here’s an overview of what can happen:
- Any kind of stress — whether it’s a traffic jam, a disturbing phone call, or simply the light of a computer screen — can send a message to the brain to prepare for “fight or flight”. Unfortunately, the primitive part of our brain can’t decipher a stressful phone call from a wild animal chasing us.
- The sympathetic nervous system (see box at right) helps to prepare your body for the challenge by sending messages to various glands and organs, including the adrenal glands.
- Your adrenal glands, which hold the responsibility of mediating your stress response (and many other things), release hormones like adrenaline and cortisol.
- Cortisol is intimately linked to your circadian rhythm and is generally highest in the morning and gradually declines throughout the day to prepare you for sleep at night. But when cortisol creeps up at night, the body is getting the message to stay awake and alert.
The sympathetic nervous system prepares us to meet challenges by sending messages to a number of different glands and organs, including the adrenal glands. The adrenal glands are responsible for mediating our stress response through hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. The cortisol curve, which is naturally highest in the morning, can shift with unrelenting stress, making it difficult to sleep at night. The parasympathetic nervous system helps to balance the sympathetic nervous system by allowing the body to rest, restore, and prepare for the next challenge. The parasympathetic nervous system causes our blood pressure, breathing, and heart rate to go down into a more relaxed state, while also supporting digestion and immune function.
What’s surprising for many people is that common things you might not think are “stressful”, like certain types of lighting, computers, televisions, and cell phones, all have the ability to ignite the sympathetic nervous system. And when the stress response is heightened on a regular basis, sleep cycles can be thrown off night after night. The good news is that you can gently remind your body what time it is. And you can do this through lifestyle modifications and through herbs, minerals, and sleep-supporting molecules.
Sleep tips for every day
Eat and drink for sleep. Connect the dots between what and when you eat and how well you sleep — sugar, caffeine, and alcohol may be factors to consider.
Adapt your routine. Set a reasonable bedtime, unplug before bed, and try exercising in the morning or at midday instead of in the evening.
Promote good sleep hygiene. Be sure your room is dark, quiet, and has comfortable bedding. Don’t allow electronics or digital clocks to “zap” you in the night.
Consider your stress and anxiety. The stress hormone cortisol is connected to our circadian rhythms. Supporting healthy cortisol balance and adrenal health may help to reset your sleep-wake cycle.
Natural sleep support
Your natural sleep support apothecary
From age-old plants to the newest science, the natural sleep support options listed below have been successful for many of my patients. If you are interested in a combination product, we offer Serinisol (passionflower, phosphatidylserine, calcium, and magnesium).
For more information on any of the natural sleep support mentioned above, read our article Mother Nature’s sound sleep support.
To shift your cortisol curve and quiet the sympathetic nervous system we can use natural support instead of over-the-counter options like Tylenol PM. Herbs and minerals like passionflower, chamomile, calcium, and magnesium can help to calm the sympathetic nervous system and encourage the parasympathetic. Naturally occurring molecules like phosphatidylserine can help moderate the stress response. Explore our natural sleep support apothecary to learn more about how these natural options work with your body.
Welcome to dreamland — our personal approach to sleep
Let’s face it, our world has changed. Between artificial lighting and our responsibilities as mothers, daughters, wives, and caretakers, we are sometimes confronted with stress on an hourly or even minute-to-minute basis. No wonder we can’t sleep!
So we’ve developed a program to help you better respond to stress in a way that doesn’t compromise your health. As one of the best antidotes to stress, sleep support is an important component of this program. Here’s how we can help:
- High-quality nutrient support. We offer a doctor-formulated multivitamin, with an ideal ratio of calcium and magnesium to support your bones, your body, and your sleep. And we also created an eating plan designed to work with your body to level out stress and provide enough energy to help you sail through your day.
- Member Advisors you can talk to. As part of our commitment to serving women by women, our Member Advisors are available to talk with you about your health concerns and share their wisdom about how to make your program work for you.
- Adaptisol. Our phytotherapeutic formulation is designed to improve the resilience of a woman’s response to heightened stress in her life. It has helped thousands of women get on the path to better adrenal health.
- Serinisol. This new product combines calcium, magnesium, phosphatidylserine, and passionflower to help down-regulate your cortisol, dissolve anxiety, and support sleep naturally.
Many of us who are invested in natural health can become frustrated with all the toxins, electronics, and anxiety that are so pervasive in our modern world. Let me tell you something wonderful: sleep is the most natural way to counteract these modern ills. I urge you to protect your sleep. Good sleep is essential to good health — and given all the wonderful sleep aids Nature has in stock, you can leave prescription and over-the-counter sleeping pills as the path of last resort to get you there. Sweet dreams!