Sleep disturbances are a normal part of a normal life. We all have bad nights once in a while, but when sleep becomes an elusive goal most nights, when we lie in bed staring at the ceiling half the night, when we wake too early or fall asleep too late, our body suffers. So often, and especially later in life, the biggest health complaint patients have is lack of sleep. As we age, we are told, “Oh you don’t need as much sleep at your age!” If that were true, why do we fall asleep in the chair watching TV, or nearly crash the car because we can barely keep our eyes open? This is not normal, at any age.
Causes of Sleeplessness
Some of the reasons we don’t sleep are easy to fix. Eating too late at night can give us heartburn—the fix is obvious. Alcohol will make us sleepy, but also tends to wake us during the night when it wears off—don’t drink most nights. Time in front of television screens, computers, or even our mobile devices can disrupt our sleep. Put away your phone and turn off the TV late at night—these remedies are all within our capacity to implement without needing a doctor.
Inactivity can be a source of restlessness as well. The body needs movement. People who live in their heads, thinking too much and not using their bodies in a healthy way, will have a tough time shutting off that busy mind at night. The best remedy is an enjoyable activity that gets you huffing and sweating—a least a little bit! The activity doesn’t have to be bone-crunching exercise; it could be a half hour of dancing or pickle ball or whatever brings you pleasure, earlier in the day. It’s not good to get the blood flowing right before you try to sleep, however. Just before bedtime, it would be better to take a hot bath. Add some Epsom salts to relax those muscles you were building earlier in the day.
Hormones and Sleeplessness
The prime cause of insomnia in my patients is hormone deficiencies and imbalances. Low thyroid function can keep you awake at night and exhausted during the day. Try using iodized salt or taking an iodine supplement to improve thyroid function. Iodine is crucial for normal hormone function, brain function, and prostate and breast cancer prevention, but few doctors remember that. We are surrounded by minerals such as fluoride, chloride, and bromide that can replace what little iodine we get from shellfish, seaweed, and iodized salt. Most Americans are very deficient in iodine and don’t know what that means or why it’s important. Replacing iodine in the diet can often fix low thyroid function (including its attendant insomnia). Beyond that easy fix, you would need a doctor to help regulate your thyroid.
The sex hormones are crucial for normal brain function, including sleep. Women do well with progesterone replacement after menopause, with little to no risk of cancer (it’s the pharmaceutical version of artificial progesterone that increases risk of cancer). Though you can buy over-the-counter progesterone topical cream, for proper hormone replacement therapy please see a knowledgeable physician who uses bioidentical hormones. Sometimes different forms of this hormone are required, and any menopausal woman who wants to be young, healthy, energetic, and well rested as long as possible will need the help of a hormone-savvy practitioner.
Men are hormonally much less complicated—testosterone levels fall as they age, so they may need more to remain healthy. Poor sleep is an indicator that a man might be needing more testosterone; sexual dysfunction, loss of interest in sex, a growing waistline, and “man boobs” are sure signs of testosterone deficiency. Men also tend to get grumpy without their favorite hormone, so testosterone is absolutely a brain support treatment (and marriage support, too) for men as they age.
Melatonin is a hormone regulated by our biological clock. It is produced by the pineal gland at night from the same nutritional factors as serotonin, which is made in the daytime. Melatonin is cancer preventative and immune system boosting. It is so safe that, no matter how much was given, researchers were unable to kill a mouse with melatonin. For these reasons, I like to take 5–10 mg at night. This is also a good strategy for insomniacs.
Learn to Turn off Your Mind
Learning techniques for shutting off the busy mind is always in order. Meditation, spending quiet time in nature, and reading an actual book at night are all good practices to adopt. So is a little homeopathic remedy called Coffee Cruda, made from raw coffee beans. In homeopathy, often the substance that would create problematic symptoms is given in special form (homeopathically prepared) to neutralize those very symptoms. Caffeine would keep you awake, but Coffee Cruda calms down a racing mind. It can be taken in the daytime to help alleviate stress. It is not a knockout pill; it is simply the song of a relaxed state of being.
Finally, here’s the fun part. Snuggle up to a partner or pet at night to help you relax and ease stress. For those of us who don’t have a warm body to cuddle with at night and our cats or dogs won’t stay spooning very long, I recommend buying a large, fuzzy stuffed animal to hold close at night. This may sound odd, but there is something primal and satisfying about clutching something to your heart at night. Make sure it’s not an allergy attractor for you; if so, a pillow may do the job just fine. Happy good night’s sleep!
Dr. Carol L. Roberts is medical director at Naples Center for Functional Medicine and author of Good Medicine: A Return to Common Sense. Dr. Roberts has practiced functional, integrative, and holistic medicine for nearly 30 years.
For more information or to schedule an appointment, please call 239.649.7400 or visit: NaplesCFM.com.