Insomnia can be one of the most frustrating conditions to deal with. And while not all cases of sleep disturbances fall under this overused and often incorrectly utilized label, when you are sleep deprived you know it, and end up suffering on numerous physiologic fronts far beyond simply feeling tired.
But why does this happen?
How can we fix it?
Unfortunately there are plenty of reasons why our sleep cycle can be thrown off, ranging from diet and stress to outright neurological dysfunction. However, if we utilize our knowledge of physiology and start with a least invasive approach, we can start the balling rolling in the right direction.
We first need to understand and appreciate our body’s natural 24 hour cycle. This is called the circadian rhythm and is our built in sleep-wake cycle. This cycle is heavily contingent upon the inverse relationship between two chemicals: melatonin and cortisol.
Our adrenal glands secrete cortisol in response to stress (chemical, physical and emotional) in order to provide our body with energy to deal with that stress. The adrenals and thus the release of cortisol can be set into overdrive when we are stressed or from constant blood sugar swings. This is important to grasp as cortisol has an inverse relationship with melatonin and is a driver behind the wake portion of our circadian rhythm. This means that when cortisol is elevated, melatonin and thus your ability to sleep is down.
Melatonin on the other hand drives the sleep portion of our 24 hour cycle. When all is functioning properly, our melatonin level rises throughout the day (as cortisol is dropping), ultimately culminating in its peak in the later evening, sending us off to a refreshing slumber. During the evening our melatonin level begins to drop as our cortisol levels begin to rise in response to our lower blood sugar during the mini fast that takes place when we sleep.
Cortisol then peaks in the morning (while melatonin level bottoms out) providing us with wide eyed energy for the day. As the day goes on cortisol level slowly dips and melatonin rises, and we repeat the cycle all over again.
Does this picture of perfect balance and physiological harmony sound like you?
If it doesn’t, you’re not alone as adrenal dysfunction is overwhelmingly common in contemporary lifestyles filled with poor diets and high stress.
Again, starting with a least invasive, general approach, there are things you can do in an attempt to recalibrate your circadian rhythm. The first thing you can do is to start your day out with 10-15 minutes of sun exposure. This exposure to natural light will signal the body that it is day time and lead to increased production of serotonin, which is the reason people tend to feel happier with higher levels of sunlight.
Serotonin is the precursor to melatonin and thus the more serotonin, the more potential melatonin that can be produced. This is why people who are suffering from depression due to a lack of serotonin also tend to have issues sleeping.
In addition to the sun exposure, you can also make sure to provide fuel for serotonin by consuming the amino acid tryptophan as this is the precursor to serotonin. In order to boost the likelihood of this conversion, adequate amounts of magnesium and vitamin B6 are also necessary.
Taking this step can start you on your way to more serotonin, more melatonin, and hopefully more sleep. However, there are some common pitfalls that hinder the pathway from serotonin to melatonin. One of the last steps in this conversion is called methylation. Potential attenuators of the methylation process include a junk food diet (high carb/sugar), birth control pills, hormone replacement therapies, and the bacterial gut infection, H. pylori. Working with a qualified health care provider to identify and rectify each of these situations is a must when attempting to correct that 24 hour cycle.
By far the most common cause of low melatonin is the aforementioned high cortisol. When one of these is up, the other is down. The most common cause of abnormal cortisol is dysglycemia or blood sugar issues. We have covered the causes of this extensively in past posts and it truly is a deal beaker when it comes to ALL aspects of health and longevity. Other than modifying the diet, having fasting insulin and HbA1c levels monitored can point you in the right direction.
A regular recharge by the way of natural, refreshing sleep is another vital pillar to optimal living and longevity.
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