~ Dr. Sonya Nobbe, ND
Our ability to enjoy good quality sleep is one of the ultimate indicators of balance in our lives. Sleep is a reflection of our relationship with our external environment and it enables us to connect internally to our subconscious mind in the form of dreams. Many ancient medicines use dreams and a person’s sleep habits to help identify imbalances so that a prescription for whole mind-body wellness can be determined. Conventional medicine considers restorative sleep to play a critical role in the proper functioning of our mood, hormones, and immune system. Disordered sleep is a risk factor for a multitude of health conditions, including breast cancer and heart disease.
Successfully adapting to our environment may reward us with quality sleep. Perpetual stress in our lives is a common example of how we aren’t successfully adapting, and this commonly leads to insomnia. The mind perceives the external situation as exceeding our coping mechanisms and the body responds by moving into a “fight-or-flight” mode in which a constant stream of stress hormone makes it difficult to relax the mind and body for sleeping. Over time, our bodies try to compensate for these high stress hormone levels with changes that unfortunately cause symptoms such as bouts of low blood sugar, anxiety, lightheadedness when rising too quickly from a lying position, and increased energy at night.
Our environment also affects our sleep by cuing our internal clock known as circadian rhythm. This rhythm sets the pace for many essential body processes, including sleep-wake cycles and stress hormone release. It is significantly modified by the earth’s cycles of light and dark so that people who regularly travel across time zones or engage in shift work are at increased risk for disrupting this rhythm and the multitude of processes it controls. In fact, the World Health Organization recently stated that shift work is a probable cause of cancer. The sleep hormone melatonin is intimately associated with circadian rhythm and sleeping in an entirely dark room at night will help ensure adequate amounts of the hormone.
Identifying the cause of your insomnia is critical to finding long-term relief. For example, melatonin supplements might work well for shift workers or for those with depression, while magnesium or valerian supplements may support someone who experiences leg cramps at night and high blood pressure. Others benefit more from strategies that balance blood sugar, reduce inflammation, or level out stress hormones. Though health supplements and lifestyle strategies are less likely to cause the day-time drowsiness and rebound insomnia commonly experienced with drugs, they’re not as effective as pharmaceuticals in the long-run unless the underlying imbalance that causes the symptom of insomnia is identified and treated. Because sleep reflects hundreds of processes inside and outside of the body, a prescription by a knowledgeable healthcare practitioner, tailored specifically to you, is often required to aid sleep.