You lay your head down on the pillow. Its 10:00 pm. Your body is tired but your mind races. 11:00 pm rolls around. The thoughts in your mind continue to keep you awake. And now anxiety sets in. “If I don’t fall asleep soon, I’m going to be tired all day…”
You are not alone. In fact, the National Sleep Foundation reports that 64% of individuals surveyed experience a sleep disruption more than once per week. Over 40% report sleep disruption on a nightly basis. What keeps us from getting good sleep?
Sleep is an extremely complex process that is influenced by many factors in our external and internal environments. Our brains are ultimately responsible for processing the external and internal information and transitioning the mind and body into sleep. To make the transition, our brains use chemical messengers, called neurotransmitters and hormones, to “shut off” brain pathways that keep us awake.
Biologically speaking, our bodies are essentially a carefully orchestrated sequence of biochemical reactions – chemical messengers shooting back and forth to keep processes running smoothly. Optimal health, specifically adequate sleep, boils down to having the right chemicals (neurotransmitters and hormones) at the right place and at the right time.
Stress, in the form of physical challenges (toxins, infections, sensitivities), and in the psychological form (emotional difficulties, traumas, tight schedules), disrupts the delicate balance of chemical messages in our brains and bodies. The body is designed to handle these challenges on a short-term basis. However, repeated exposure to these stressors can have long-lasting effects on the function of our systems.
Chronic stress forces the brain and body to use up valuable chemical and energy resources, as it tries to cope with the challenge. When your stress response system runs on “overdrive” for an extended period of time, the degree of imbalance in the system can steadily increase. And for some, this is experienced as the inability to sleep. Others may feel depressed. Some feel anxious. Some may experience all of these and more!
Effective resolution of these issues requires one to consider their internal biochemistry. For years, experts have promoted healthy diets that are key to maintaining good health. Why? Our diets provide the building blocks for the chemical messengers in our systems. When stress depletes them, a good diet can replace them.
Often a healthy diet isn’t enough to resolve significant health concerns. When it comes to sleep, there are a number of options an individual has to help restore balance in the system. “Sleep hygiene,” as it’s called, is the practice of creating an environment that is suitable for the body to transition to sleep. It suggests making your bedroom as dark as possible, as darkness signals your brain to sleep. It also suggests removing sounds, including shutting off the TV. The flashes and sounds of a blaring TV stimulate your brain, thereby keeping you awake. It is important to avoid caffeine before bedtime. Caffeine is a chemical that stimulates your brain, making you more awake and alert.
In addition to sleep hygiene, relaxation techniques including yoga have been shown to help the mind and body transition to a more tranquil state, setting the stage for good sleep.
Lastly, numerous prescription medications, over-the-counter remedies, and dietary supplements have been designed to enhance sleep. This rapidly growing area of medical science is providing some very effective solutions for those with sleep disorders. Because of this, choosing which intervention is right for you can be a daunting task. There are literally hundreds of different options that exist and many work via differing mechanisms.
The decision process can be simplified by asking your doctor to measure your sleep hormones and neurotransmitters through an exciting new test. Non-invasive, insurance reimbursable lab tests now exist that can help your doctor determine which sleep intervention may be best suited for you. By unveiling potential deficiencies and/or imbalances in your brain chemistry, the lab test is a useful way to target your needs.
To learn more about sleep and sleep hygiene, visit the National Sleep Foundation weblink provided above. More information about neurotransmitters and hormones related to sleep can be found at Neuro Science, Inc.