Sleeping Your Way to Better Health – Part 2
By Dr. Erik Fleischman –
What Can I do if I Can’t Sleep?
Anyone who has spent a night or two without sleep can tell you how it changes their life. Low energy, poor concentration, bad moods, poor decisions and fatigue are just some of the results of poor or no sleep.
It is not uncommon for all of us to go through a few episodes of bad sleep in our lives, especially if we are busy or stressed. But when sleeplessness or insomnia becomes a regular event or happens every week for at least a few nights it is time to do seek help.
There are many ways to help improve sleep
There are many ways to help improve sleep. Some are healthy, some can create other problems. Let’s look at what is available with and without a doctor’s prescription.
In modern medicine today, unfortunately, too many doctors immediately prescribe sleeping pills to their patients.
The most frequently prescribed pills have names such as:
They are predictable and effective for sleep adding five to seven hours of sleep the first time they are used.
But are they healthy to use on a regular basis?
After years of use and research the answer is clearly NO.
Here are some of the unhealthy/unwanted side-effects from regular use of these sleeping pills:
- Physical Addiction: The pills from the Benzodiazapine family – Alprazolam, Diazapam – have a strong history of creating addiction and dependence. Even worse is that sudden withdrawal of the drugs in someone who has been taking them for months can cause seizures and death. If you are taking this family of drugs daily, please speak to your doctor about the best way to slowly stop them.
- Rebound Insomnia: Many of the medications above can cause worsened Insomnia once they are discontinued. The inability to sleep comes back and can be worse than previously.
- Cognitive loss: There can be a loss of sharp focus and thinking the morning after using sleeping pills with a “hangover” period, but this is not the worst potential effect of these medicines. Recent studies are showing a trend toward increased dementia in persons taking long term sleeping pills.
- Loss of Sex Drive and Erectile Dysfunction: Sleeping medications routinely result in lower sexual interest and less ability to maintain erections in men. Benzodiazapines may actually act directly on the testes in men and reduce Testosterone production.
Before writing prescriptions for these medicines, doctors should have a discussion with patients about their sleep history and something known as “Sleep Hygiene”. Very simply, this asks if your environment to sleep is a good place to sleep!
- Is your room dark?
- Is the room cool enough?
- Is it quiet?
- Have you stopped looking at your phone or Ipad at least an hour before trying to sleep?
- Do you like to eat sugary foods a few hours before you sleep (this habit is sure to wake you from sleep 3-4 hours later as your blood sugar rises)?
Very simple behavioural changes can make all the difference between a good and poor night’s sleep.
Now if you’ve done all the work with good Sleep Hygiene and still cannot sleep there are a few other considerations. Your age can be a big determinant of your ability to sleep. Older people have less total sleep and less healthy stage sleep (called REM sleep) than younger people. The reason for this is likely a lower production in the body of natural Melatonin.
Natural Melatonin production in the brain decreases 1% every year after 40 years old.
Melatonin is produced in the part of the brain called the hypothalamus. This area of the brain shrinks as we get older. Also, Melatonin is produced in the gut and so people with chronic stomach and intestinal pain tend to have lower levels as well.
Current research on Melatonin in the fields of Sleep Medicine and Anti-Aging Medicine suggest that addition of this simple hormone can not only fix a sleeping disorder naturally, but also supports the body’s natural production of essential hormones like Estrogen, Progesterone and Testosterone as well as thyroid hormones.
There are number of other supplements that can also help produce healthy sleep without unwanted bad effects to the body.
There are adaptogenic herbs such as Ashwaganda. Ashwaganda is an herb originally found in India which has a proven effect of lowering stressful sensations and decreasing known stress hormones such as Prolactin, Cortisol and Sex Hormone Binding Globulin (SHBG).
Valerian Root is another natural product which produces reliable sleep. The chemical in Valerian Root mimics a neurotransmitter in the brain called GABA. By simulating the important sleep centers of the brain, this can result in restful slumber.
One important warning:
Many people believe that having alcohol before bed is a good way to fall to sleep more quickly. It is true that alcohol helps induce sleep, but 4 hours later alcohol turns directly into sugar in the body and can cause wakening and poor sleep cycles (loss of REM sleep).
We recommend that alcohol be stopped at least 6 hours before sleep to assure no interruption in a good restful night.
Sleep is now considered as essential toward keeping good health as is taking medication for health issues like High Blood Pressure and Diabetes. Ignoring sleep for too long will result in lower quality of life, more potential for debilitating diseases (even Cancer) and reduced brain function and depression.