We all want restful, restorative sleep, the kind of sleep we got as a child. As we get older, however, restful sleep can become elusive. Multiple factors—job pressures, health issues, marital stress, hormonal changes, too much technology—can keep us awake at night. The more sleep deprived we become, the more anxious we get, and soon, it’s a vicious cycle.
Dr. Susan Saccomanno, a naturopathic physician with Mederi Center in Ashland, says that one-quarter of all Americans suffer from insomnia, described as less than six hours of sleep each night. “Studies show that we should get at least seven and half hours of sleep each night,” she says.
Less sleep leads to more health risks, Saccomanno explains. “People who have chronic insomnia have a 63% higher risk of cardiovascular problems and are at 79% higher risk for developing clogged arteries. In addition, your blood sugar is higher when you are underslept, which can lead to Type 2 diabetes. You feel hungry, so you eat more, up to 250 calories a day, usually junk calories. That adds up to 91,000 extra calories a year.”
Dr. Lissa McNiel, a naturopathic physician with Arbora Natural Medicine Solutions in Ashland, cautions that insomnia can also contribute to high blood pressure and is a risk factor for dementia.
“If you have been struggling with insomnia for more than six months, see your health care provider to rule out any underlying health condition,” says McNiel. “It’s very important to find out what is causing the insomnia.”
If medical issues are ruled out, attention shifts to stress levels and environmental factors, McNeil says. “Insomnia can be treated with cognitive behavioral therapy as well as diet and lifestyle changes.”
Flipping expectations, Saccomanno says that you should begin addressing your insomnia first thing in the morning. “Wake up and start thinking about what is contributing to your insomnia,” she says. “People often start with caffeine, which fires up the adrenals first thing in the morning. If you have stress and anxiety, coffee is not your friend.”
Saccomanno recommends getting up and sitting by a sunny window. “Get some light in your eyes,” she says. “On the flipside of that, sleep in a totally dark room. Be mindful of your circadian rhythm.”
McNeil encourages reducing distractions. “Many people wear a Fitbit to track sleep, but it can actually be waking you up with the beeps and lights. It’s not good for you if you have insomnia,” she says. “For people with anxiety, noise canceling headphones can be helpful. There are several meditation and calming apps available to listen to. A weighted blanket can also be helpful. I recommend wrapping up in it for about 30 minutes before going to bed.”
Herbal and natural supplements can also be helpful, McNeil says, but check with your health care provider if you are on medication before adding a supplement. Saccomanno says that if you choose to take a supplement, take it throughout the day and not just before bed.
“I instruct people who wake up at 3 a.m. to add some passionflower and skullcap tinctures to a small glass of water before they go to bed and leave it on the bedside table or in the bathroom,” she says. “That way, when they wake up in the middle of the night, their drink is ready to go, and they can quell the middle of the night brain chatter. I call this ‘leapfrogging over the witching hour’.”