By Cassie Mendoza-Jones
When was the last time you enjoyed a really deep sleep, and awoke feeling refreshed?
Sleep disturbances and insomnia are common, and there are several causes, such as an over-stimulated nervous system, poor neurotransmitter (brain chemistry) function, adrenal and hormonal dysfunction, as well as acute personal or environmental stress. The good news is you don’t have to suffer through endless sleepless nights. Natural medicine takes a holistic approach to healthcare, with a focus on resolving the underlying issues, and the treatment of sleep disturbances is no exception. Here are my top tips for getting a good night’s sleep:
Don’t drink caffeine after midday
I know it may sound simple, but we often don’t think about the caffeine content of our beverages, and how this may affect our sleep. For example, many people gleefully tell me about their nightcap of chai tea. Chai is delicious, but unless otherwise stated, all chai has a black tea base. Black tea contains caffeine, and caffeine interrupts sleep, as it’s a nervous system stimulant. Tired and wired corporate executives will also attest to needing their 4pm macchiato or large strong cappuccino for “an energy boost”. This in fact, may leave you more tired than before the coffee as it puts extra pressure on your adrenal glands, and drinking caffeine late in the day does not make for a good night’s sleep.
My tip: Enjoy your caffeinated beverages before midday, and if you really need a caffeine-hit at 4pm (my first thought would be your adrenals need some nourishing) enjoy a weak green tea. When green tea tastes strong and bitter, it’s because it’s been brewed for too long and at too high a temperature, steeping a lot of caffeine from the leaves. Don’t boil the kettle all the way, and brew the tea for only about a minute or so; this way you’ll get all the beautiful antioxidants from the tea, with little of the caffeine.
Turn the lights off at night
Again, this sounds so simple, but how many of us sit on our iPhones until way past our bedtime? The sleep/wake cycle is influenced by external light and dark, and one of the major players is the hormone melatonin, produced in the pineal gland in our brain when our bodies realise it’s time for sleep.
When sunlight hits our retina, it sends a message to our brain to increase secretion of serotonin (so we feel alert and happy), and when darkness hits our retina, it increases secretion of melatonin, the ‘sleep’ hormone. In caveman days, this was when the sun had set. When the sun rose, caveman and cave-lady’s pineal glands got the message that melatonin could down-regulate and in essence, they felt alert and refreshed.
Fast-forward to today, where you fall asleep in front of the glaring light of your smartphone, Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, and then on rising, whip out your sunnies and drive to work. Your body’s melatonin production is completely dysfunctional; it is exposed to light at bedtime, and darkness in the morning. No wonder restful sleep feels like a distant memory. In fact, it’s not uncommon for blind people or those with poor vision, as well as shift workers and long-haul travellers to have sleep issues, as their melatonin production and sleep-wake cycle has been disrupted.
My tip: prepare your body for sleep by turning the lights down at least an hour before bed, have a relaxing aromatherapy bath with some lavender oil, enjoy relaxing reading material, and don’t stare at bright electronic screens late at night. In the morning, open the blinds as soon as you wake up to switch off melatonin production and get out into the sunlight, sunglasses off!
Eat a balanced diet, including these foods
When your diet is balanced, and you’re obtaining a high level of essential nutrients from your food, your body’s natural brain chemistry will be able to work at it’s optimal function and produce sufficient neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) at the appropriate time to allow for restful sleep.
Tryptophan is an amino acid, (a protein) which suppresses appetite, promotes restful sleep and reduces the sensation of pain. It is the precursor to serotonin, the ‘feel good’ hormone, which also regulates appetite as well as mood and anxiety. Melatonin is then produced by serotonin, so you can see how they’re all interrelated. By including the following foods in your diet, which are high in tryptophan, you’ll be ensuring that your body has the building blocks it needs to create healthy hormones for a great night’s sleep:
- Almond milk
- Cottage cheese
- Sesame seeds
Your body also needs adequate B6 for the conversion of tryptophan-to-serotonin-to-melatonin, and also for synthesis of other neurotransmitters, hormonal balance, mental health and carbohydrate and protein metabolism. Foods high in B6 include:
- Eggs (yolk)
- Sunflower seeds
Nourish your adrenals
Your adrenal glands sit above your kidneys and excrete stress and sex hormones. They thrive on dealing with a little bit of stress, in small bursts, with intermittent chill-out periods “Phew, that bear has gone” or “Phew, my boss is away this week”. But when the stress is constant, and there’s no relief, your poor adrenal glands try their hardest for as long as they can to support your stress response, but then like anything that has been pushed to breaking point, they collapse under the pressure. The initial stage of adrenal fatigue will see you wired at night and exhausted in the morning, unable to ‘wake up’. Carry on a little longer, and finally stress hormone production will cease, sex hormones will vanish, and you’ll feel exhausted everyday.
My tip: the two most valuable and appropriate herbs for adrenal restoration are Liquorice (not the confectionary) and Rehmannia. These herbs in combination have been used for centuries to settle the body’s stress response and restore optimal adrenal function, while your adrenals get to take a well-deserve break.
Herbalists and naturopaths can mix these two herbs into a personalised formula for you to drink. Liquorice tea is also available from health food stores and has a beautiful sweet flavour; it’s perfect for those 3pm sugar cravings. Other nutrients that support adrenal function include vitamin C, (found in berries, capsicum, citrus fruits, melons, broccoli and cauliflower), Magnesium (found in legumes, whole grains, nuts, dark leafy greens, cocoa and mineral water) and B vitamins (found in whole grains, nuts, leafy greens, meats, eggs, legumes, mushrooms, avocado and apricots). Of course, other self-care practices are important in order to manage stress long-term, such as yoga, meditation, mindfulness, exercise and giving yourself a break.
Support your nervous system, naturally
Herbal medicine is one of the most effective ways to nourish a stressed and tired nervous system. Herbal medicine is one of the world’s oldest systems of healing. Some herbs promote sleep, some herbs soothe restlessness and anxiety, some balance and restore sleep-hormone function, while others play a direct role in treating insomnia and increasing production of inhibitory neurotransmitters, the brain chemicals that relax an over-stimulated nervous system.
- Drink a herbal tea with passionflower, lemon balm, chamomile and lavender after dinner (if you’re prone to waking at night to urinate, drink this at least 1 hour before bed)
- Take a herbal sleep formula of Valerian, Hops and California poppy 1-2 hours before bed to promote restful sleep
- Take a nervous-system soothing blend of Withania, Skullcap and Passionflower morning and night to slowly restore endocrine and nervous system function
- Enjoy a bowl of oats for breakfast. Oats (as a liquid herb or a food) is beautiful for restoring an overly stressed or exhausted nervous system function and for improving energy. If you want to spice up your oats, try this baked apple oats recipe.
- Take some Chaste tree, a wonderful hormone-balancing herb which may up-regulate melatonin production. (This herb shouldn’t be taken if you’re on the pill or hormone replacement therapy)
- If you’re not sure where to find these herbs, find a qualified naturopath or herbalist to help you get on track with your sleep and provide the highest-quality herbs in the safest, most effective dosages
About the author
Cassie Mendoza-Jones is a naturopath, nutritionist and herbalist who believes in the healing power of nature. Cassie founded Elevate Vitality, a boutique naturopathic clinic in the heart of Bondi Beach, to help people find their healthiest self, and is the author of Cleansed, a simple program for a life of health, ease and abundance. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram , as well as writing articles and recipes for her blog.
Cassie is qualified in Naturopathy, Nutritional Medicine, Western Herbal Medicine and Touch For Health Kinesiology. She is currently furthering her studies in Kinesiology, as well as a Master of Human Nutrition at Deakin University.