There is nothing more distressing than suffering from insomnia. Chronic sleep deprivation has many long-term negative impacts on our health and wellbeing, from a weakened immune system to depression and mood disorders, to an inability to concentrate and memory loss. Sleep disorders are increasingly common, affecting up to fifty percent of the U.S. adult population, while chronic insomnia is estimated to affect up to fifteen percent.
While sleep medications can offer a temporary reprieve they carry risks of side effects, and when taken long-term, can result in physical dependence and/or addiction. In certain susceptible individuals, dependence on benzodiazepines and Z-drugs for example can take place rapidly and can be extremely difficult to wean off.
Can stubborn, chronic insomnia be fixed without medication? The answer is yes! Pinpointing the primary cause of insomnia is an important first step to recovery. Four common causes include: chronic stress, hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), sleep apnea, and hormonal changes.
Chronic stress induces frequent spikes of the “fight or flight” hormone cortisol, a stimulating hormone that also regulates our circadian rhythm. Stress leads to an excess accumulation of cortisol at night, causing frequent waking. Physical stress will also trigger cortisol release; hypoglycemia induces blood sugar drops while sleeping, and sleep apnea causes drops in oxygen levels in the night; both conditions can lead to frequent waking. Finally, low hormone levels of especially progesterone, typical during perimenopause and menopause, commonly cause mild to severe insomnia. While many doctors will provide oral progesterone, long-term use can cause dependency. The goal should be to support the body regaining healthy sleep patterns on its own.
Nutrition is vital for good sleep. GABA and serotonin are the two brain neurotransmitters required for promoting states of relaxation and sleep, and low levels will lead to sleep and mood imbalances. The amino acid tyrosine boosts GABA and glutamine boosts serotonin. Making sure your diet is rich in high quality protein (and thus rich in amino acids) such as grass-fed meat, pastured eggs, and wild caught salmon, is thus vital for quality sleep. As many people have trouble absorbing nutrients (including protein), adding supplements to support absorption is often necessary.
What else can help? Regular exercise and meditation have both been shown to increase GABA and serotonin in the brain. Acupuncture also powerfully affects sleep and mood through its effect on electrical impulses. Electricity in the brain can be seen in the form of brain waves: beta, alpha, theta, and delta. Acupuncture helps to synchronize brain waves and assist the brain to a calmer, theta or even deeper, delta (deep sleep) wave state. Patients often remark after several weeks of acupuncture feeling more rested and at peace, with improved sleep.
Insomnia can be complex to treat, but the many health benefits are worth the effort. At Vital Health we combine a careful health history with functional nutritional testing to figure out what is causing your sleep problems. We then combine acupuncture, nutrition, and targeted supplements and herbs to get you well!
©2022 Darcy Greenwald, M.S.O.M., L.Ac. and Vital Health