Why am I not sleeping?
3rd avril 2017
Do you often find yourself tossing and turning, unable to doze off? Or wake up in the night with racing thoughts? Nutritional therapist Cassandra Barns explains four of the most common sleep problems and what we can do about them, including some specific natural remedies that can help.
Problem 1: You’re too stressed to sleep
A particularly common scenario; You lie awake going over a problem at work, wondering how you’re going to meet a project deadline, or even worrying about your home life or relationship. Your mind is buzzing, and no matter how hard you try, you can’t calm it down.
Have a set wind-down routine. If you have to work in the evening, then stop at least an hour before you need to get to bed. Write down your to-do’s for the next day. Then do anything that relaxes you, such as having a bath and then reading for 20 minutes. Having a set wind-down routine helps your mind and body to ‘let go’ of the day and prepare for sleep. Extra tip: add magnesium flakes or Epsom salts to your bath to help with calming and relaxation.
Never email or work in bed. To sleep well, you need your mind and body to associate your bed with sleep, not with work. In fact, unless it’s unavoidable, don’t work in your bedroom at all.
Take up meditation. Everyone’s talking about meditation at the moment; but its benefits are undeniable. We can never get rid of all stress from our life – it’s the way we manage it that’s key, and this is what meditation can help with. Meditation practices don’t all rely on ‘clearing your mind’ – check out Vedic or transcendental meditation, which can be more approachable and enjoyable for people with busy minds.
Eat (and drink) this…
Eat to balance your blood sugar. Eating regular meals, avoiding refined carbohydrates and sugary foods, and including a good source of protein and complex carbohydrates with every meal (without overdoing protein at dinner – see the next section) can help to regulate your stress hormones and keep you calm.
Magnesium-rich foods. Magnesium is known as ‘nature’s tranquilliser’ as it’s associated with calming and relaxation. Green leafy vegetables, pumpkin seeds, buckwheat pasta, beans and pulses, and rye bread are all good sources. They can be eaten throughout the day rather than just in the evening – they won’t make you feel drowsy!
After dinner, sip a herbal tea containing calming herbs such as chamomile, valerian and lavender. Pukka’s Night Time herbal tea is a gentle combination of these three herbs together with limeflower, oat straw, licorice and tulsi (holy basil).
Pukka’s Night Time capsules, which contain a combination of seven organic herbs traditionally used to support relaxation and sleep. These include valerian, which has gentle sedative and tension-releasing properties, and ashwagandha, which has anti-anxiety and sleep-supporting benefits (as indicated by its Latin name Withania somnifera). Also included is gotu kola, traditionally used to calm a racing mind. Try taking two capsules with your evening meal and a further two capsules before bed to help wind down.
Magnesium. As well as using it in a bath – and getting it in food – taking a magnesium supplement could be beneficial. Studies have found that magnesium supplements can improve sleep in people with insomnia.
Problem 2: You’re tired in the morning, but not at night
You struggle to get out of bed, wishing you had another hour or two to snooze and need a cup or two of strong coffee to get you going. But come 10pm, when you should be winding down for bed, you feel wide awake.
The problem is often that your circadian rhythm is out of sync. The circadian rhythm is our approximately 24-hour rhythm that dictates our sleep-wake cycle.
Cut the bright light in the evening. Particularly problematic is blue light from phones, computers and TV, as it suppresses melatonin – the primary hormone that regulates sleep. Either stay away from your devices for at least two hours before bed, or dim the screen and use a blue light filter app or setting. Dim the lights in your house in the evening, or use ambient lighting.
But get as much bright light as you can early in the day. Not only does it make you feel more awake in the morning, it also helps to regulate your circadian rhythm so that you feel sleepier in the evening too. Make it a priority to get outside for at least 20 minutes in the morning, even on a grey day. You could also try using a light therapy box in the morning – these are especially useful if you can’t get outside or don’t have any natural daylight where you’re working.
Exercise in the morning, not the evening. Exercise can really help improve your sleep, simply by tiring you out. But the last thing you want is to feel ‘wired’ after a late evening exercise session. Keep it to the morning or afternoon to help keep your circadian rhythm on track.
Eat protein in the morning, and carbohydrates in the evening. Carbs help tryptophan to get into the brain so it can be converted to melatonin. Eating more protein, on the other hand, suppresses this process and can make us feel more awake. This doesn’t mean have only protein in the morning, or only carbs at dinner. But eat a protein-rich breakfast, such as an omelette, sardines on toast or even leftovers from last nights (healthy) dinner. And with your evening meal, make sure you have a serving of slow-releasing carbohydrates such as brown rice or a sweet potato; or have a small bowl of oat porridge before bed.
Avoid caffeine after midday. It can take hours for your body to completely get rid of the stimulating effects of caffeine from your blood.
Viridian Cherry Night powder. Tart cherries have been found to contain a small amount of melatonin, and so may help to regulate our sleep-wake cycle. In fact, a study on 20 adults found that taking tart cherry juice improved their sleep quality and total time asleep .
Bergamot essential oil. You’ve no doubt heard of the benefits of lavender essential oil when it comes to calming and sleep. But it doesn’t suit everyone, and some people don’t like the smell. Instead, try bergamot oil. Add a few drops to a bath (with your magnesium flakes, if you want), use it in a diffuser, or dilute a few drops in a carrier oil and give yourself a foot massage.
Problem 3: You wake up in the night, or wake too early
Contrary to popular opinion, we don’t all need eight or nine hours’ sleep every night. So if you’re waking up at 6 or 7am even though you didn’t set an alarm, this isn’t necessarily a problem, provided your energy levels are good during the day. But if you’re waking several times during the night, or waking after just four or five hours’ sleep and being unable to doze off again, then it’s worth addressing.
This type of insomnia can also be stress or anxiety-related, especially if you’re waking up with thoughts and worries buzzing around your head. For this reason, some of the same tips and tricks I recommended for “too stressed to sleep” can also be helpful. Meditation is a particularly good one to try.
Give your mind the chance to process your thoughts before bed. Rather than distracting yourself with the TV or social media at the end of the day, take your wind-down hour to think through your day and write down worries or to-do’s. If your mind’s only chance to do this is when you’re in bed, it’s not surprising that you can’t stop the buzzing thoughts when you wake up.
Don’t give up when you wake up. Most importantly, don’t reach for your phone and start checking emails or social media. When you wake up in the night, give yourself half an hour – or even an hour – to lie quietly in the dark, just appreciating the rest. You might find that you fall asleep again, even if you weren’t expecting to. Some people find listening to a sleep meditation or a mindfulness recording helpful at this point to calm their mind.
Have a snack containing complex carbs and protein before bed. If your blood sugar falls too low in the early hours of the morning, this can trigger adrenaline to be released. The result is that you’ll wake up, often with a racing heart and a racing mind. So as well as balancing your blood sugar by eating whole foods and including protein with every meal, try having a snack containing complex carbohydrates in the late evening, to help stop your blood sugar dropping in the night. A good example is a couple of oatcakes with a teaspoon of nut butter.
Ashwagandha. I mentioned this herb as one of the ingredients in Pukka’s Night Time capsules – my recommendation for “too stressed to sleep”. But ashwagandha specifically could be beneficial if you’re an early waker. According to herbalist Sebastian Pole, it’s the go-to herb for those who wake in the night with worries on their mind, helping to reduce hyperactive symptoms and calm the body and mind. This may be because its effects come on more slowly than other herbs, so it works later in the night, when you tend to wake up. Try Pukka Ashwagandha capsules, taking two to four capsules in the evening.
Problem 4: You have night sweats
Night sweats are a common reason for sleep problems in women in the years before and after menopause. If you’re experiencing night sweats – especially if you’re not a woman of menopause age – it’s advisable to see your GP first, as there can be various causes.
Here are some tips for menopause-related night sweats.
Cut back on the caffeine and alcohol. They can encourage hot flushes and sweats by widening blood vessels, bringing more blood to the skin’s surface and making you sweat more. Alcohol in particular is also tough on the liver, which has lots of work to do at this time to detoxify and regulate hormones. Of course, both substances can interfere with your sleep in other ways, too. Keep them to a minimum, or gradually cut down then stop.
Get some regular exercise. Research has found that aerobic exercise in particular can help reduce menopausal symptoms including hot flushes and night sweats; and gentle exercise such as yoga may help too [3,4].
Beans, lentils, chickpeas and ground flaxseeds… as well as plenty of vegetables. Legumes and flaxseeds in particular are good source of phytoestrogens – plant compounds that can act like a weak oestrogen in the body and help to balance hormones. Although soya has a reputation for being a particularly good source of phytoestrogens, it’s best to include different types of legumes in your diet rather than just relying on soya. Legumes, seeds and vegetables are also great sources of fibre, which can help to bind and excrete excess hormones from the body.
Make sure you’re getting enough protein. Blood sugar imbalances can trigger night sweats as well as other sleep problems. Following the steps to a healthy, balanced blood sugar (as recommended in “too stressed to sleep”) will help – including making sure you’re eating protein with every meal. Include both plant proteins and good-quality animal protein – preferably organic to minimise your exposure to hormones and hormone-imbalancing chemicals that can be used in non-organic animal farming.
Try a specialised herbal supplement such as Natural Health Practice Black Cohosh Nutrition Support, a combination of five organic herbs traditionally used for supporting women before, during and after menopause. According to Dr Marilyn Glenville, nutritionist and women’s health expert, black cohosh is ‘the herb of choice for the menopausal symptoms of hot flushes and night sweats’ ; and she finds this combination with four other herbs particularly effective for her clients. In addition, Dr Glenville also recommends taking a multivitamin and mineral supplement designed for women.
Another alternative to black cohosh is shatavari (Asparagus racemosus). Like ashwagandha, shatavari is a popular herb in traditional Ayurvedic medicine. It’s considered a tonic for women’s health and especially the female reproductive system. Many women find it helpful to ease the transition through menopause. Try Pukka’s Wholistic Shatavari, taking one or two capsules a day.
It’s worth noting here that any programme (or supplement) that aims to balance hormones can take two to three months to have full benefit. Don’t give up if it doesn’t work straight away; persevere and you will be rewarded.
- Abbasi B et al. The effect of magnesium supplementation on primary insomnia in elderly: A double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trial. J Res Med Sci. 2012 Dec;17(12):1161-9.
- Howatson G et al. Effect of tart cherry juice (Prunus cerasus) on melatonin levels and enhanced sleep quality. Eur J Nutr. 2012 Dec;51(8):909-16.
- Daley AJ et al. Exercise to reduce vasomotor and other menopausal symptoms: a review. Maturitas. 2009 Jul 20;63(3):176-80.
- Glenville, M. (2011). Natural solutions to menopause. 1st ed. London: Rodale.