• Nicole Spear, MS, CNS

Sleep Your Way to Optimal Health


Millions of individuals face a daily battle with fatigue, exhaustion, chronic pain, poor immunity, mental fog, lack of concentration and depression. Life seems overwhelming, and the hill is simply too tall to climb. Desperate for a quick fix and instant energy, we turn to caffeine (the #1 drug choice of Americans), sugar, and stimulants. Although, some of these symptoms can signal a truly complicated condition, in many cases, basic health hygiene has suffered at the hands of busy schedules.

Sleep is as foundational for optimal health, as is pure water, clean air, a healthy diet, and physical activity, and yet, it quickly becomes the last item on the priority list.

Years of insufficient sleep stack up quickly, leading to seriously compromised health. Many fail to recognize the importance of the restoration and healing that occurs during those 8 critical hours when the body disengages from the stimulating activities of the day and focuses on rebuilding hormones, cells, and health. Cognitive, emotional, and behavioral health are dependent on sleep quality and in fact, the most recent medical literature is bursting with studies connecting a lack of sleep to poor neurological function, including impaired memory, recall, and processing. Likewise, long-term sleep deprivation increases risks of developing all forms of dementia and decreases life expectancy. Sleep deprivation also influences cardiovascular health, immune function, neurotransmitter balance, and hormone production. Quite simply, health is impossible to own without adequate sleep.

Nearly one third of our lives should be dedicated to this critical habit, but instead, nearly one third of Americans are sleep deprived, according to a recent press release from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC, 2016). Although, functional issues such as sleep apnea, menopause, and chronic pain are responsible for low quality sleep, I blame chronic stress for the sharp increase in sleep disturbances and deprivation seen over the past two decades. Evidence of this is illustrated in the type of sleep patterns we are witnessing today. Sleep disturbances most often fall into two categories: an inability to fall asleep or an inability to stay asleep.


Stress: The #1 Cause of Disrupted Sleep

When experiencing either physical or psychological stress, the adrenal glands kick into high gear to support the energy levels required for the demands of a busy lifestyle or to cope with stressful circumstances. With time, the adrenal glands begin to get burned out and sleep disturbances ensue. Consistently waking early in the morning, usually between the hours of 2am and 4am, is a classic sign of adrenal fatigue. This is usually accompanied by a surge of energy in the late evening (aka. “the night owl”). The adrenal glands produce cortisol, which influences the circadian rhythm and sleep cycles. As the adrenal glands progress through the stages of fatigue, they produce cortisol at inappropriate times, resulting in a deranged sleep/wake cycle. Restoration of the adrenal glands occurs when we enter deep REM sleep between the hours of 10pm and 2am. However, those battling with stress and adrenal fatigue, find themselves awake during this critical time, preventing the healing and restoration that can improve their health and sleep habits.


Botanicals to the Rescue

Lemon Balm Calming herbals that help to decrease anxiety, can help promote sleep in individuals with sleep disturbances related to stress. Lemon balm is a favorite herbal that is renowned for its ability to reduce anxiety and promote sleep. It is most effective when combined with other calming botanicals such as chamomile and valerian, passionflower, and lavender. These herbals are useful for creating a safe, sedative-like effect in both children and adults. If a mild effect is desired, various teas with a combination of calming herbs, can be drank before bed. Essential oils of lemon balm and lavender may be placed in a diffuser and used in a bedroom to calm and promote relaxation. Long-standing sleep disturbances may require more aggressive quantities, such as capsules and tinctures. If you are curious about the effectiveness of herbals such as lemon balm, consider the following: In a prospective, open-label, 15-day study of standardized Melissa officinalis (lemon balm) extract given to stressed volunteers with mild-to-moderate anxiety disorders and sleep disturbances, 95 percent responded to treatment, of which 70 percent achieved full remission for anxiety, 85 percent for insomnia, and 70 percent for both. (Mediterranean Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism, 2011)

Ashwagandha & Rhodiola Ashwagandha and Rhodiola are classic herbals used to help decrease stress and promote resiliency in individuals dealing with chronic stress. They are among the best in a class of herbals known as adaptogens. Herbals in this class improve the body’s stress response, helping the body to adapt to both physical and mental stressors. They function to decrease the “stress hormones” such as cortisol, which disrupt the sleep/wake cycle and are responsible for achieving the energy-demanding “fight and flight” response that the adrenals fight to maintain while we are under stress. Therefore, these herbals are a long-term solution for aggressive cases of chronic stress and related sleep disturbances.


Sleep Promoting Nutrients

Magnesium Magnesium is one of the most important nutrients for restorative sleep and optimal health, yet sadly, most Americans are severely deficient in this basic mineral. Why? One of the most common causes of deficiency is the high consumption of coffee, soda, and alcohol. Each of these beverages contain harsh acids. The body uses calcium and magnesium to neutralize these acids, leading to critical deficiencies. Muscle tension, muscle twitches, sleep disturbances, and mental and cognitive challenges are all indicative of insufficient magnesium. To promote relaxation and sleep, 500 to 1200mg of magnesium can be taken before bed. Many have found that magnesium, alone, is sufficient to induce deep, restorative sleep and consider it a relaxing elixir. The most effective way to increase the body’s magnesium is through the skin. Soaking in a warm bath with magnesium salts (Epsom salts) or rubbing magnesium gel over large areas of the body will quickly raise magnesium levels and prompt a state of relaxation.  

GABA Perhaps, you are one of the many individuals whose mind seems to be continually running at top speed, striving to solve the world’s problems at night, and ruining a good night’s rest. Worry, anxiety, and fear are common battles to these individuals and as you may have guessed, stress is often a root. GABA is a one of the brain’s calming neurotransmitters; however, in those with restless, overactive brains, GABA is often lacking. This is the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter of the brain, meaning it inhibits brain activity and in so doing, can promote relaxation and sleep. Providing the brain with extra GABA can prove to be helpful in calming the mental noise and promoting restorative sleep.

L-theanine & Glycine L-theanine and glycine are amino acids known to enhance rest and relaxation. Studies have shown L-theanine has successfully promoted better sleep in children with ADHD; however, it is equally favorable for adults. It is naturally occurring in green tea and serves as a perfect adjunct to other natural sleep aids such as GABA, 5-HTP, and melatonin. Glycine is found abundantly in muscle and in the brain. Studies show that it promotes better REM sleep (the deep restorative sleep the body needs most) by inhibiting muscle activity during sleep and working with neurotransmitters to establish a healthy wake/sleep cycle.


Melatonin & Blue Light

You probably wondered when I would discuss this popular hormone, which is often the first choice of many individuals, as a sleep aid. I mention it last because I like to use it as a last resort or as a temporary tool to promote sleep. Melatonin is the hormone responsible for controlling our body’s circadian rhythm. It is produced by the brain in response to the sunlight. Therefore, the changes of the seasons can impact melatonin production, leading to the “winter blues” and our desire to hibernate as the daylight shortens. Jet lag is also a result of melatonin attempting to adjust to a new time zone in which the exposure to sunlight has changed. Today, melatonin production is often disrupted by the blue light of electronic screens, used late in the evening. As an increasing number of individuals have televisions, tablets, phones and computers in their bedrooms and powered on all night, the body struggles to produce adequate melatonin, leading to disturbed and unhealthy sleep patterns. It is extremely important that electronic devices are powered off at night and that the brain is given a rest from the blue light of electronic screens at least an hour before bed. This habit will encourage adequate melatonin production and establish a healthy wake/sleep cycle. This is quickly becoming one of the primary reasons children, teens, and young adults are lacking deep, restorative sleep. Although blue light filters may help, they cannot eliminate the electromagnetic  field and other stimulating effects of electronic use.  Melatonin supplements are useful in boosting levels while new sleep habits are established,  during travel, or temporarily circumstances where natural melatonin production is compromised. However, in cases where stress, anxiety, depression and fear are at the root of disordered sleep, melatonin will not be a good choice for establishing a permanent solution for insomnia. ​


The Power of Sleep

The importance of getting adequate sleep cannot be overestimated in our fight for good health. We can strive to maintain the cleanest diet, drink the purest water, participate in a well-balanced exercise program, be conscientious of environmental toxins, and yet … rob our body of the most important element that ensures the success of all our other efforts. Never underestimate the power of sleep!

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 Certified Nutrition Specialist®

Certified Functional Medicine Practitioner®

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Disclaimer: The information on this website is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any medical condition, nor is it intended to replace medical advice. Claims regarding specific nutrients have not been evaluated or approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Always consult with your physician or health care provider if you are concerned about specific medical conditions or before embarking on a new diet or exercise program.