Sleep is important as it is when our body rests, repairs and prepares for the day ahead.
Knowledge is processed, memories are filed. If we don’t get enough sleep we can feel foggy, and as though our memory is failing us. Our hormones are reset when we sleep, and there is a big correlation between weight gain, type 2 diabetes, depression and lack of sleep.
Insomnia is defined as the persistent difficulty or the inability to fall and/or stay asleep.
It is generally not considered a disease, but rather a symptom of other pathologies such as anxiety, depression or pain. Ongoing sleep impairment interferes with normal daytime function. The amount of sleep required by adults is slightly longer than 8 hours. In order for sleep to occur, adequate levels of melatonin, the sleep hormone needs to be achieved.
Insomnia is classified as chronic if it persists for 4 weeks or longer. There are two common types of insomnia:
1. Delayed sleep onset (i.e., difficulty getting to sleep) – possibly associated with serotonin deficiency.
2. Frequent awakenings and/or early morning arousal (i.e., difficulty staying asleep) – possibly associated with dopamine imbalances.
Factors affecting melatonin levels
In order for us to sleep well, melatonin needs to rise whilst cortisol needs to fall. A stressful busy household/ workplace with no time for relaxation makes this difficult. Exercise, especially in the morning can help to balance these two hormones.
Dimming lights and the use of lamps or candles in the evening is useful.
Reducing the amount of screen time can help.
A relaxing warm bath with epsom salts is also beneficial.
Yoga & meditation can help to increase melatonin levels.
Factors affecting serotonin levels (often difficulty getting off to sleep)
Low serotonin levels are often found when people have low mood or are depressed. Those taking antidepressants often still have low levels. High cortisol levels often lead to low serotonin & melatonin, so stress, anxiety and worry makes it difficult to sleep.
This is often the case in those who are fatigued during the day but can’t sleep at night.
Methods to increase serotonin naturally-
Exercise, especially in the bright morning sun
Ensure good gut health, much of our serotonin is synthesized in the gut.
Use of fermented foods especially kimchi.
5-HTP can be used to increase levels of serotonin and melatonin.
B6 /P5P are important in the production of serotonin & GABA.
GABA is also important for pain management.
Factors affecting dopamine levels (often difficulty staying asleep)
Methods to increase dopamine levels include morning exercise, meditation, yoga, walking and massage. Protein rich foods can help to support dopamine pathways.
L-theanine from green tea is beneficial.
Magnesium in adequate dosage and in an absorbable form is important.
Chronic inflammation can reduce dopamine levels. Curcumin, fish oil, vitamin C and resveratrol can also help reduce inflammation and repair the body.
Excessive amounts of saturated fats, sugar and alcohol can all affect dopamine levels.
As estrogen levels fall at menopause, often dopamine levels fall also leading to insomnia, so supporting women with herbs and nutrients at this time be beneficial.
For those working shift work, sleep can be extremely difficult to attain.
Try to get some daylight/ bright light on rising to signal to the body that it is awake time.
If possible when working nights try to limit daylight expose at the end of your shift. Wear good quality sunglasses & hat if possible to keep the daylight away from the eyes.
Vitex or chaste tree had been demonstrated to increase dopamine and melatonin levels and can be effective in shift workers.
A good quality magnesium can help especially in the powdered form for easy quick absorption. Most people will required approximately 400-600 mg of elemental magnesium.
There are two parts to our autonomic nervous system, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. The sympathetic keeps us in flight or fight mode, the parasympathetic in our rest and digest mode. Both are important to be activated. A lot of us are stuck in the fight or flight mode, and as we get accustomed to being there, that becomes our normal. This keeps our adrenalin and cortisol levels high, and stops us absorbing the very nutrients we require for stress management and hormone production. High adrenalin and cortisol make it impossible for melatonin levels to rise at night.
A diet high in vegetables, fruit, protein, legumes, essential fats, nuts and seeds alongside some complex carbohydrates is essential. Foods high in prebiotic for our gut bacteria can help. Onions and garlic, leeks and artichokes are all good sources.
An anti-inflammatory diet such as the Mediterranean diet is useful as it provides many of the nutrients required for neurotransmitter production.
Avoid too much sugar, artificial sweeteners, caffeine or alcohol as these can upset sleep.
Anxiolytic and sedating herbs
These herbs are useful in treating insomnia in the short term. It is important to also address any underlying causes, such as stress or nutritional deficiencies.
Other factors to consider
Exercise too close to bedtime
Liver support needed. Often waking between 1-3am can signal liver/ anger/ emotional issues. Chinese medicine views the liver as the seat of the emotions.
In concluding, no matter what neurotransmitter you have an imbalance in, much of the treatment planning involves a few key changes which in turn affects overall health;
Good diet with lots of anti-inflammatory foods and important nutrients
Supplementing if required, especially with magnesium/ B6/ zinc
Good gut health
Bedtime routines- low light/ bath/ comfortable temperature