Are you dreaming of a good night’s sleep?

Can’t seem to wake up this morning and reaching for your coffee in desperation?  Chances are you have not been sleeping well and you may be interested to know that you are not the only one.  According to the World Association of Sleep Medicine one quarter of Kiwis have chronic sleep issues and 55% reported waking feeling un-refreshed.

Other than feeling lousy there are many other reasons why not getting our zzz’s is detrimental.  For instance the Ministry of Transport linked 8% of fatal crashes with fatigue in 2011.  On the health front high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and stroke were more likely in those with on-going sleep issues.  For example a study from the USA found the risk of stroke was 14% higher for women who regularly slept six hours or less, compared to those sleeping seven hours a night.

There is also evidence now that disruptions to our sleep can cause weight gain. One theory is that it affects ghrelin and leptin the hormones that affect appetite.  However the stress of not sleeping can affect our blood sugar causing cravings, along with the desire to eat carbohydrates to get some more energy.   If that were not enough poor sleep has also been linked with depression and your sex drive can completely go out the window.

So what counts as a sleep disorder?  Well it includes those of us who cannot get to sleep, those who wake in the night, who wake too early in the morning and finally those who have poor sleep quality.

So why can sleep have such a drastic effect on our health?  Interestingly when we are asleep it is not just about giving our brain and body a rest, there is actually a lot going on.  The body spends time detoxifying us and repairing and growing new structures.  Also our short term memories are sorted for saving, deleted and cleared out.  There are actually 5 stages of sleep, each lasting on average 90 minutes.  The types of sleep are classified as non REM sleep, which is where our brain is quieter and slows down and REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep where the brain is more active and we are more inclined to dream.   Different regenerative processes occur at different times in these cycles.

The process of falling asleep and waking up is governed by circadian rhythms (our inbuilt 24 hour clock) and the increase and decrease of different chemicals.  These chemicals are in part triggered by light and dark.  So as it starts to get lighter in the morning we produce more cortisol, which will make us more alert.  At night as it gets darker we start to produce more melatonin, which makes us sleepy.

So what can go wrong with our sleep?  Well there are many factors that can cause us to lose sleep. Certain pharmaceutical medicines can cause insomnia or you have an illness or condition that causes you to be awake with pain.  One of the most common reasons is stress, which causes trouble getting to sleep or causing people to wake in the night; sometimes with hot sweats.  Talking of which menopause is also a time for sleep issues, which are often caused by night sweats.  Nutritional deficiencies can also impede the creation on sleep hormones if they are the building blocks to create them or required as part of the manufacturing process.

When looking at ways to help improve our sleep, we can start by developing healthy sleep habits such as not pottering around until too late and not drinking stimulants like coffee, tea and alcohol to close to bed time.  Using the computer and staying up late watching TV impedes the creation of melatonin due to the brightness.

There are several herbs that can help to relax you and improve sleep onset.  Chamomile is one and can be taken as tea before bed.  Others include lime flower, lemon balm, passionflower, valerian, skull cap and kava, which are often found in sleep formulas.  St John’s Wort can also support the body in the production of melatonin, which helps improve sleep quality.

Nutritionally the most important nutrient is magnesium.  This helps relax the muscles and is used in the many chemical processes for creating sleep hormones.  Many people get restless legs in bed and this would be a good indicator that magnesium would be of benefit.  Also make sure you have enough protein in your diet as the amino acids in them are used to build your hormones.  For example, the amino acid 5HTP is used as a building block to make serotonin, which then creates melatonin.

Finally I would say that if stress plays a big part in sleep issues or you are in menopause, look to treat the adrenal glands as well.  There are many stress formulas around that can help with this or you could look for herbs that help you adapt to stress like plants from the ginseng family.

By Jane Cronin

Clinicians Naturopath

Clinicians REM Sleep contains nutrients known to support both sleep-onset and sleep maintenance. It is available for secure order from our online shop.

Also, have a read of the Siberian Ginseng – a natural adaptogen article.

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