Insomnia: When Counting Sheep Won’t Help Ewe

Dr. Eric Viegas, ND

If you have chronic trouble sleeping then chances are you are one of the estimated 3.3 million Canadians struggling with insomnia. ‘Insomnia’ refers to the disruption of: time taken to fall asleep, amount of time asleep (versus time in bed) through the night, waking up too early, and feeling unrefreshed on waking.1 Insomnia is extremely frustrating, and can be a fearful prospect knowing that it can lead to impaired memory and concentration.1 As a result, insomnia can predispose you to be more accident prone at home, on the road, and in the workplace.1 Insomnia exists as its own disorder, but it is also associated with a large number of physical and mental illnesses. For example, mood disorders like depression and anxiety are both associated with insomnia.1


So what can be done to help you get a better night’s sleep? First, it is important to identify the underlying cause of your insomnia. If you are sensitive to light and noise, make sure your bedroom is as dark as possible and remove any electronics that might be distracting you from falling asleep. The ‘blue light’ emitted from our TVs, laptops, and mobile phones all effect the release of melatonin from our brains.2 A small amount of melatonin, one of the most well known natural sleep aids, is secreted by your pineal during the day. At night, melatonin secretion spikes to help us get to sleep. Exposure to ‘blue light’ before bed suppresses melatonin secretion and tricks our bodies into thinking we should be awake.2 If you are not willing to give up your bedtime electronics, you can reduce ‘blue light’ exposure by turning down the brightness of the device, and/or downloading an app (eg. Twilight). The long term use of benzodiazepine medication for anxiety and panic disorders can deplete the brain’s supply of melatonin.3 Overtime, a disruption in circadian rhythm reduces normal sleeping habits. Melatonin supplementation can help with normalizing circadian rhythm, and alleviating withdrawal symptoms from anti-anxiety meds.3 Insomnia, fatigue, ADHD, IBS, and breast cancer risk, are all associated with melatonin deficiency.3 Symptoms of fibromyalgia, bulimia, neuralgia, certain forms of depression, and certain postmenopausal problems improve with melatonin supplementation.3 Other common underlying causes of insomnia include mood disorders, hormone imbalance, sleep apnea, chronic pain, and exercising too close to bedtime.

The need to be busy has has left us overworked and overtired. When our bodies are in a constant state of stress, our systems shift from ‘rest and digest’ to ‘fight or flight?’. As a consequence, our adrenal glands secrete more cortisol; a hormone responsible for increasing blood sugar, and the breakdown of fat & muscle, for the energy to get us away from danger. Cortisol spikes in the morning to get us out of bed, and is very low at night to help us fall asleep. In a chronically stressed state, high cortisol will worsen insomnia and--if left untreated--will eventually lead to adrenal fatigue. Speak to your naturopathic doctor about your health concerns to help determine the underlying cause(s) and help tailor a treatment plan specific to your individual needs. Acupuncture, nutritional changes through diet and supplements, counselling, and sleep hygiene advice are all parts of naturopathic treatment that can help get you back to sleep and leave you feeling well rested.


References:

  1. Tjepkema M. “Insomnia”. Statistics Canada Health Reports. 2005 17(1): 9-25.
  2. Schmerler, Jessica. “Q&A Why is Blue Light Before Bed Bad For Sleep?” Scientific American. Nature America, September 2015.
  3. Rohr UD, Herold J. “Melatonin deficiencies in women.” Maturitas. 2002 Apr 15(41): 85-10.