Insomnia (an inability to sleep well) is the most common disorder of the nervous system. Statistics suggest that 36% of UK adults struggle to get to sleep at least on a weekly basis. Almost 1 in 5 have trouble falling asleep every single night and nearly half of the UK have trouble falling asleep at least once a month. At night, different recovery processes take place in the body, and without them, our body would not be able to fully repair all the damage that occurs throughout the day. Therefore, prolonged chronic insomnia has associated health risks such as cardiovascular disease, anxiety etc., which makes our ability to sleep well even more relevant for our long-term health and longevity.
Dr. Helena Rutllant of Vitae Health Innovation answers some questions about insomnia and how to treat it.
- What is insomnia and how can we detect it?
The word insomnia means sleep disorder, but within this disorder there are a multitude of variants. We may find it difficult to fall asleep, to wake up during the night, to wake up early and all of them will be classified as insomnia.
Normally people suffering from insomnia will present different symptoms that can affect their daily life to a greater or lesser extent. An indicator that we suffer from insomnia can be getting up feeling tired; have daytime sleepiness; be more irritable, depressed or anxious; have difficulty concentrating, memorising something or paying attention among others.
- Why does insomnia occur?
At some point in our lives we have all suffered or will suffer from insomnia, therefore we would have to differentiate punctual insomnia (we have taken stimulants such as coffee, we have witnessed something shocking, we have dined copiously, etc.) that affects one night specifically, short-term (acute) insomnia that will last for a few days, but always less than four weeks and long-term (chronic) insomnia that will last more than four weeks.
It should also be noted if insomnia is the main problem or is associated with other diseases or medications.
We can find very different individual causes and the important thing is to identify them because the treatment should not only be to treat the symptom. We do not solve the problem with giving a hypnotic or an anxiolytic, the approach to insomnia is to correct or at least try to correct the origin of the disorder.
At the moment one of the main causes of insomnia is stress (worries related to work, school, health, family…these can keep the mind active during the night, making it difficult to fall asleep).
Diseases causing chronic pain, cancer, gastroesophageal reflux, heart failure, sleep apnea, restless legs syndrome, Alzheimer’s disease … among many others; some medications (antihypertensive, antidepressants, asthma drugs, caffeine, painkillers, etc.).
Intercontinental travel; night work shifts (alter our circadian rhythm…); bad sleeping habits (irregular schedules, prolonged naps, use of screens just before bedtime, uncomfortable sleeping environment, etc.).
Anxiety and depression often manifest as sleep disorders and the non-control of this symptom worsens and or aggravates the disease; taking stimulants just before bedtime (caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, etc.) or eating too much at night…
It is clear that if we are able to find out the origin of insomnia, the benefit we will get from treating it will have greatest efficacy.
- Why is it so important to rest properly?
We must keep in mind that sleeping well is as important as a good diet. If a person was deprived of sleeping, he or she would die within a few days.
During sleep we go through several states (non-REM sleep and REM sleep).
In the non-REM sleep phase, the body repairs body tissues, recovers energy, etc.
In the REM sleep phase, brain repair (neuro-reorganisation) occurs and the relevant memories are consolidated and stored.
As insomnia becomes chronic, daytime functioning deteriorates, there is a decrease in intellectual performance with difficulties in concentration and memory.
This also impacts the main functions of sleep, which helps regulate body temperature, functioning as a thermostat that will facilitate the correct execution of metabolic, hormonal processes, etc.
- What can we do to regulate the wake – sleep cycle?
Everyone has heard about circadian rhythms, which happen rhythmically on a daily basis in behavioural or physiological processes, among them the best known is the Light-Dark Cycle or Vigil-Dream Cycle.
The ideal would be to send to our brain the unequivocal signals of what phase of the day we are in. It is important to have correct habits, regular schedules, etc. I would sum it up in several points:
- Maintain more or less fixed schedules when waking up and going to bed.
- Increase sun exposure during the day. Avoiding instead the intense artificial lights both at the first and the last hour of the day.
- Avoid computer screens, tablets and even television after 9pm when melatonin production is naturally increased.
- Avoid stimulants such as caffeine and alcohol, especially in the evening.
- Have dinner at least 90 minutes before bedtime.
- Sleep in silence and in a dark, cool room.
- Avoid going to bed with negative emotions.
- Do natural ingredients really help?
We must not forget that the most important thing is to try to be as physiological as possible. You have to get to the origin of the problem. Earlier in the article we mentioned that giving drugs is not treating insomnia, it is just treating a symptom. The important point here would be to find out what causes that insomnia and treat the problem from the very beginning.
There are various supplements that have been shown to be beneficial for sleep support including;
Valerian which is thought to act as a sedative to relieve insomnia and reduces stress or anxiety. There is also research yto suggest this can be beneficial alongside lemon balm for menopausal sleep problems.
Melissa which can be an effective tranquilis er that will also work to support digestive disorders.
Passiflora incarnata is also widely used for sleep disorders and generalised anxiety disorders.
California Poppy is a plant that has a beneficial effect on the quality of sleep. It acts basically in the first phase of non-REM sleep, that is, when we fall asleep, although its action will also effect on the phases of deep sleep. The advantage we have over synthetic drugs is that it will not generate dependence, therefore it is an interesting option in the treatment of insomnia.
Magnesium is also an important cofactor involved in melatonin production and is recognised as a relaxant beneficial for the adrenals.
If you’re interested in working to identify the root cause of your insomnia and improve your sleep please do not hesitate to contact The Food Teacher™ Clinic for a free telephone consultation. You can also book a personalised Nutritional Therapy Consultations.
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