Inability to fall asleep, or trouble falling back to sleep, plagues most people from time to time. While we usually chalk it up to stress, a racing mind, or something psychological, it’s much more typical that the root cause is chemical, or, more specifically, hormonal.
When all systems are functioning as they should, there is a predictable ebb and flow to the cortisol levels in the blood. Cortisol, the stress hormone secreted by the adrenal glands, should be highest in the morning, to boost you out of bed, and lowest in the evening, to let you fall asleep. There are many possible glitches in the system, though, that may throw this cycle out of whack.
One very common issue is middle-of-the-night hypoglycemia. Typically, your blood sugar levels should be such that the activity of sleep is well fueled throughout the night. If, however, blood sugar drops too low, the body will detect a stress, and shoot up cortisol to wake you up so you can deal with this emergency. Two similar causes of these types of blood sugar crashes are sugar and alcohol. Both of these things are fairly typical pre-bed routines. Dessert or a glass of wine before bed may be socially acceptable, but that doesn’t mean your body approves. Both of these things cause a blood sugar spike, and then a follow-up crash as your body finally succeeds at getting the sugar levels under control. It’s very typical for participants of a program like the 21-Day Sugar Detox, which eliminates both sugar and alcohol, to experience unexpectedly good sleep quality.
A very different cause, with the same result, is that of late night workouts. While this is quite the opposite of dessert before bed, and would certainly be considered the healthier option, hitting the gym before bed can also cause middle-of-the-night wake ups. If you are getting some cardio in, like going for a run, in the late evening, you also might experience a blood sugar crash after going to bed and sleeping for a few hours. This is easily remedied with a post-workout starchy carb refuel, such as half a sweet potato or some quinoa or rice.
Initial trouble falling asleep is a very different animal than waking up after being asleep. This can often be a result of a flipped circadian rhythm. Having high cortisol at bed time and low cortisol in the morning is a real problem, and often an indicator of adrenal dysfunction. Finding ways to destress and calm the adrenals in the evening is important for getting cortisol back on track. Dimming lights, staying away from screens before bed, taking a warm bath or having a warm drink, and resolving life stresses are all ways to begin correcting dysregulated adrenals.
Nutritional and lifestyle changes are truly the best and most lasting remedies for sleep issues. Since sleep deprivation can be an immediate health issue, (a night with two hours of sleep once resulted in my backing into a cab) getting more sleep now can be considered an emergency. In that case, there are some short term supplements which can provide relief…and sleep.
Start with 500-1,000mg Vitamin C, 500-750mg Calcium, 350-500mg Magnesium, and 300-500mg Potassium. If this in ineffective, add in 500mg of L-tryptophan or 50-200mg 5-HTP. The mineral blend is often available in pre-made drink mixes such as Natural Calm. Many “sleepy” teas are also available. Look for herbal blends that include valerian root, chamomile, vervain, catnip, hops, or linden flowers.
This information is for educational purposes only and should not be used as medical advice.
Supplement protocols adapted from Haas, E. Staying Healthy with Nutrition. 2006. Celestial Arts, Berkeley.