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Kick the Pills and Get the Natural Sleep You Deserve

by Catherine Morris | June 5, 2020

If you find yourself staring wide-eyed at the red numbers on your bedside clock in the early hours of the morning, when everything is still, and dawn feels imminent, you can not-so-comfortingly remind yourself that you are not alone. Insomnia is a common sleep complaint, affecting millions on a nightly basis. Sleep disorders in general affect 40 percent of adult Canadians.  Insomnia may get the most attention, but humans have a whole host of sleep disorders that plague them on the regular. Some people wake up, heart racing in their chest, having just experienced a night terror. Other people suffer from sleep paralysis, a disorder that’s described as a feeling of someone sitting on your chest who won’t let you get up, no matter how much you struggle. People who work graveyard shifts, and people who are traveling internationally suffer from similar circadian rhythm disorders: shift work disorder and jet lag respectively. A bad night's sleep isn’t just about tossing and turning. For people with sleep apnea, a condition that obstructs airways causing people to gasp, snore, and sometimes stop breathing altogether, sleep can start feeling like a high-risk activity. 

Our inability to catch 40 winks isn't just an inconvenience, it's a health crisis. Our bodies are busy during their soporific shutdown. When we sleep, we produce cytokines – proteins that supercharge the immune system by targeting inflammation and infection. Less sleep means fewer cytokines and for chronic insomniacs, this can severely deplete their natural resistance to disease.  Lack of sleep has been linked to obesity, thanks to its harmful impact on glucose metabolism, appetite control and blood pressure. Poor sleep is also associated with a higher risk of hypertension, stroke and coronary heart disease, according to the American College of Cardiology, which notes that 44 percent of US cardiac patients report insomnia.

Besides the physical effects of lack of sleep, not getting rest is stressful. Anyone who's ever yawned their way through a big meeting, or an important project knows they're not at their best on minimal sleep. Studies show that insomnia sufferers have a higher risk of developing depression, anxiety and problems with alcohol abuse. The mental health effects of lack of sleep are unquestionable. Those eight hours of shut-eye aren't just a recommendation, they're a necessity.

Natural Remedies for Insomnia

It's tempting to reach for the sleeping pills when you can’t fall asleep, but pharmaceutical intervention isn’t without risk. Sadly, the science on sleep meds shows us that they don’t solve sleep problems over time, they do however have a whole host of side effects, ranging from nausea and chest pain to addiction.  A 2018 study from The Brain and Mind Institute at Ontario's Western University tracked the sleep habits of over 10,000 participants worldwide to determine the impact of insomnia on cognitive ability. In that study, the researchers discovered that seven to eight hours a night was the sweet spot for reasoning, verbal ability, and overall performance. We know the health risks of not sleeping, but how do we actually get those eight hours?

Happily, there are many non-pharmaceutical tried and tested remedies for anyone wanting to improve their sleep quality, and you can break them down into two major categories.

1. Herbs and Supplements for Better Sleep (and how to take them)

Some pills are gentler on the body than others. Ditching the sleeping meds for supplements can help deliver lasting rest by addressing nutrient deficiencies, or providing tried and tested herbal relief.

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Melatonin

There are many natural sleep aids on the market, most containing melatonin – the hormone that naturally regulates our system, signaling when to sleep and when to be active. Generally speaking, melatonin levels in the body rise when it's dark and decline when it's light. This delicate mechanism is very vulnerable to disruption, and modern life tends to wreak havoc on it. Travel, screen time, stress and shift work can all disrupt the body’s ability to produce melatonin. Melatonin also declines with age, making it harder for the elderly to get sufficient sleep.

Melatonin supplements are best used for acute sleep disturbances. It's commonly taken to beat jet lag, treat shift work disorder, and help those who for one reason or another, are suddenly finding it hard to fall or stay asleep.

Magnesium

Known as the calming supplement, magnesium mitigates stress and balances mood. The importance of magnesium can't be overstated. It's one of the most essential minerals and plays a vital role in sleep by regulating levels of the neurotransmitter GABA. GABA slows down the connection between the brain and the nervous system, enabling the mind to switch off for the night.

While magnesium is found in foods like leafy green vegetables, dark chocolate and nuts, it can be difficult to get the recommended daily allowance from diet alone. According to Health Canada, the Recommended Daily Allowance for magnesium for adult women is 310-320mg, while men should get 400-420mg.

Valerian

The founding father of medicine, Hippocrates himself, was said to be a fan of Valerian root – a pink or white flower widely used in ancient Europe as a sleep aid. Taken as a tea, a powder, or a tincture, Valerian root is generally regarded as safe, with minimal side effects. Herbalists advise taking the remedy just before bedtime and trying it regularly for at least two weeks before expecting results.

2. Sleep Hygiene and Lifestyle changes

Sleep Hygiene

Despite how it sounds, sleep hygiene has nothing to do with being clean. Instead, it’s about developing healthy sleep habits in your environment and routine to give your body clear signals that it’s time to rest. Below are some suggestions for getting your sleep on when the day is done.

Optimize Your Sleeping Space

Where you sleep is just as important as how you sleep. Take a look around your bedroom – is it a restful sanctuary or a chaotic jumble that doubles as a workspace, play area and living room when needed?

A good first step is to clear the clutter. Next, take note of the temperature. Your body temperature drops as you sleep and begins to climb again as you prepare to wake. A room that’s too hot or too cold can throw this process off balance and leave you waking up in a sweat, or shivering in the small hours. According to the Sleep Foundation, your room should be a cool 65 degrees for a good night’s rest. While you’re turning the temp down, it’s also a good idea to lower the lights, or better yet, swap out your bedroom bulbs for red spectrum lights. A Chinese study found athletes given a course of red light therapy slept and performed better than those using regular lighting. 

Red light can also boost mental health according to an Ohio State study, which exposed hamsters to blue light, white light, and red light overnight for a four-week period. At the end of the trial, the red light rodents showed significantly less depressive symptoms than those under blue or white light. Following this outcome, the researchers recommended shift workers use red lights to prevent sleep-related mood disorders. 

Build a Bedtime Routine

Light is a huge factor in teaching our bodies how to sleep better so it’s smart to limit bright light as you’re winding down in the evenings. By limiting screen time and blue light before bed, you can encourage healthy melatonin production – boosting the sleepy hormone at the right times, and ensuring it ebbs when you want to be alert.  We should all watch what (and when) we’re eating, but for more reasons than the obvious. What you eat can affect how you sleep. Including sleep-promoting foods in your last meal of the day will improve your chances of nodding off quicker, and more easily. Lean proteins such as fish and chicken, healthy fats, and dark chocolate are all good options. Foods to limit as you prep for bed are simple carbohydrates and sugar-laden treats such as cookies or cakes. Skipping coffee and other caffeinated drinks in the afternoons can help, as can replacing that post-dinner espresso with a soothing cup of chamomile tea. 

Experimenting with mealtimes can help as well. Are you going to bed hungry or too full? Burdening the digestive system late at night sends the wrong signals, urging the body to kick into high gear when you should be slowing down.

Lifestyle Changes

What we do during the day affects us during the night. And taking care of our mental and physical health on a daily basis can impact our sleep for the better. A few small lifestyle changes can often make a big difference so why not give some of the following a try.

Mindfulness and relaxation techniques

What to do if sleeping pills are risky and supplements don’t work, count sheep? Yeah, you probably should! People in Britain were suggesting the sheep counting method all the way back in medieval times when shepherds did a flock headcount as part of their nightly routine. It may have gone out of fashion, but this simple practice is based on sound science. Focusing the mind on repetitive tasks promotes relaxation. Creative visualization, meditation, or breathing exercises can produce the same effect. Whether you’re an android or you’re a human, counting sheep can really help you power down. A Mindfulness practice that includes meditation, breathwork, and awareness, can help trigger the relaxation response. Instead of anxiously clock-watching, focusing on the steady rhythm of your breath or uttering a chant or phrase can ease the pressure of not being able to get to sleep, and make it more likely that you'll slip into peaceful dreaming.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is one of the most effective forms of therapy for all sleep disorders. By encouraging sufferers to address unhelpful thinking patterns and actions, CBT has had better results than prescription meds in many cases.

Alternative Therapies

Anything that encourages calm is good for sleep, and that can mean making use of a host of alternative treatments such as massage therapy, acupressure, aromatherapy, and even sleep specific counseling. Devotees of traditional Chinese medicine have seen clients achieve relief by trying acupuncture. Acupuncture as a cure for insomnia, came under scrutiny in 2009 when after a comprehensive study compared it to Western sleep medications, the ancient Eastern treatment came out on top. Participants of this study saw their nightly rest increase by up to three hours.

Finally, Moving More

It sounds simple, but it's often overlooked: the more you move, the better you sleep. A long day at the office may be mentally exhausting, but if it's not accompanied by some sort of physical activity, it's not likely to lead to a restful night. Integrating more movement into daily life doesn't have to mean going for marathon runs or climbing mountains on your lunch break. Micro-workouts such as taking the stairs, pacing during a meeting, or cycling to work all add up.

The National Sleep Foundation recommends restorative yoga for seniors, cancer patients and pregnant women struggling to get enough rest. The benefits of a gentle, relaxing Hatha practice just before bed are accessible, and advisable, for everyone. Over 55 percent of US adults who regularly practice yoga report better sleep.

A Holistic Approach

Too long, didn’t read? Poor sleep is often not a condition in itself, but a symptom of other underlying problems. In most cases, getting to the root of sleeplessness and finding a solution means confronting the cause:

  • Mental health issues keeping you up at night? Sleep therapists, anxiety counseling, cognitive behavioral therapy, hypnotherapy and life coaches may be able to help you get to the core of your concerns.

  • Physical problems? Yoga instructors, massage therapists, fitness coaching, reflexology and acupuncturists can help you develop an optimal sleep plan.

  • Dietary woes? Naturopaths, herbalists, dietitians and nutritional counseling could pinpoint any deficiencies, and address those gaps for better sleep.

Alternative medicine, with its whole-body approach to care, has a lot of tools at its disposal. Working with complementary care practitioners can help you decide what's right for you – setting you up for sleep success, and helping you stop stressing about sleeplessness. 

Catherine Morris

Writer

Catherine Morris is an award-winning journalist with a bad case of wanderlust and a passion for all things health and wellness. Originally from Northern Ireland, she worked as a news and feature writer for media outlets in the UK, South Africa, France and the Caribbean before settling in Canada. Catherine now lives in Alberta with her husband and rescue mutt and spends her time happily exploring the great outdoors with both.