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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.
Use this information.
Contact us for a consult.
Do what you have to do to ensure you are stacking the deck in your favor as much as possible in order to live this one and only life to the fullest.
Are you someone who thinks about food all day long? Has it gotten to the point that you only feel good when, and for a short stint after you eat? Do these constantly craved comfort foods considerably consist of concentrated carbohydrates? (Do you also like alliteration?) You know; the breads, pastas, pizza, desserts, etc.
Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE food and the ritual that goes along with its preparation and consumption. What I’m referring to here actually comes along with a chemically addictive explanation. We are speaking of those of you who frequently binge or automatically resort to the aforementioned food items as a way to cope or boost your spirits. In turn, you may have put on unwanted excess pounds, created a poor self-image, taken a giant step closer to a myriad of health problems headlined by diabetes, and actually even induced depression.
When it comes to our health, we each need to step up and take personal responsibility for our lives and the choices we make, but it always helps to have an actual physiological explanation for the state we find ourselves in. Provided with this, we can effectively identify the problem and begin to address it with an educated approach.
In our bodies we have chemicals known as neurotransmitters. These chemicals are derived from the dietary proteins we consume. Basically, these neurotransmitters can be looked at as chemical messengers that enable the proper communication between nerves. They are responsible for major physiological responses, including the way we feel, and their presence (or lack thereof) can be at the root of many issues, including binge eating and depression. Let me explain.
It has long been known that sugary carb-laden foods are the “feel good foods.” When we are feeling down or sick, we constantly turn to these pro-inflammatory foods which actually perpetuate the problem at hand. The physiological explanation behind this is that they indirectly increase the production of the neurotransmitter serotonin.
Amongst other things, serotonin is one of the feel good chemicals produced in our bodies. Its levels are commonly targeted when addressing depression. We get serotonin from the dietary amino acid tryptophan (smart sources include turkey, chicken, tuna, salmon, spinach, asparagus, nuts, etc.) If all is working correctly, when we consume food with tryptophan it is eventually converted (with the help of co-factors like oxygen, magnesium and B6) to serotonin in the brain.
(Another interesting fact is that the formation of serotonin is actually facilitated when sun light enters through the eyes. Hence, we tend to feel uplifted on a sunny day and more melancholic on those rainy days. To take it a step further, serotonin is the precursor to the sleep chemical melatonin. Adequate sunlight not only makes us feel good, but actually aids in the proper sleep cycle as well; but back to the serotonin-carbohydrate relationship.)
When we consume carbs, we see a rise in insulin levels to transport the carbs as glucose, to our tissues. Insulin also sends amino acids out of the blood as well. Even though tryptophan is an amino acid, it remains relatively unaffected by insulin due to the fact that it is tightly bonded to another protein. This leaves the tryptophan with a clear path to be converted to serotonin in the brain.
Normally, the various amino acids (including tryptophan) compete to be transported through the blood brain barrier into the brain. This creates a natural and healthy balance within the brain of the amounts of serotonin, dopamine, epinephrine, etc.
The problem arises when we spike our blood sugar and subsequently our insulin levels by way of these carb-heavy meals. The burst of insulin rushes to clear out the glucose and all the other amino acids (which normally compete with tryptophan as far as uptake into the brain), but not the tryptophan. The tryptophan now has an unimpeded path to the brain and conversion to serotonin, leading to that temporary high experienced after devouring that meal.
The nasty part occurs when that serotonin spike drops and we lose the food induced euphoria. Now, just like any addict, we are susceptible to chasing that high, in this case, provided by the carb-heavy meal.
So what does this all mean for you? Well, first off it provides yet another reason to seriously take a deeper look into the lower carb diet. Secondly, it provides you with some comfort in knowing that there is a chemical imbalance here taking place that heavily influences your mood and subsequent behavior. Armed with this knowledge, you can begin to make changes to your lifestyle that created this snowballing imbalance in the first place.
If you or someone you know would benefit from investigating this further, please give me a call and we can begin to get you back on track today.