By Natasha Kubis

As a chronic sufferer of insomnia, I have great empathy for my clients who struggle to get a decent night’s sleep. There have been too many evenings when I lay awake with a busy mind, pondering a vast array of thoughts, ranging from the meaning of life to the meaningless details of life. Articles about the detrimental effects of sleep deprivation only serve to create more anxiety around bedtime, as do phone apps that measure sleep quality and how little I actually rest. I am already aware that I am not a solid sleeper and I know how bad it is for my health! So what is the solution?

Around one in three people have at least mild insomnia. It is no surprise that it affects women more often than men. Most of us ladies have an outstanding ability to worry about everyone and everything, especially at night. In yoga we call this “monkey brain,” or the inability to quiet the mind. For inadequate sleepers, it is imperative to find lifestyle tools that yield sustainable rest habits.

A common mistake people make is that they often take a one-size-fits-all approach when addressing insomnia. To effectively treat insomnia it is important to determine its root cause and that means deciphering between primary insomnia and secondary insomnia. Often, insomnia is a symptom of an underlying issue (secondary insomnia) and those issues need to be addressed first for best results. You can make healthy changes to your sleep routine and try every natural sleep aid in the pharmacy, but it will not make a difference if there are other medical conditions preventing restorative sleep.

Medical conditions and factors that can cause secondary insomnia are:

• Hormone imbalances: menopause, hot flashes, perimenopause, and pregnancy.

• Psychiatric disorders: depression, anxiety, and brain injury.

• Pain issues: from an injury, physical exercise, arthritis, and headache.

• Breathing issues: asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD), and heart disease.

• Digestive disorders: gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), heartburn, acid reflux, and food allergies.

• Other sleep disorders: restless leg syndrome (RLS), obstructive sleep apnea, and narcolepsy.

• Thyroid disorders: hyperthyroidism, and hypothyroidism.

• Other diseases: obesity, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, hypertension, and diabetes.

• Side effects from medications: beta blockers, certain antidepressants, decongestants, and stimulants.

If your sleep problem includes difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or waking too early, and is not a result of another medical condition, it is primary insomnia. Primary insomnia is not related to an underlying medical condition and is often the result of bad sleep habits that can begin in youth. 

Some common factors that can impact sleep negatively are:

• Electronics:  Avoid them at least 30 minutes before bedtime and in the middle of the night if nocturnal awakenings occur. The blue light emitted from computer screens and hand-held devices can suppress natural melatonin production, resulting in difficulty falling asleep.

• Stimulants: Cigarettes, caffeine, and other stimulants in the evening can interfere with sleep by keeping your mind overactive. Foods with dark chocolate have caffeine and should be avoided late in the day.

• Alcohol: While it can make you drowsy and more likely to fall asleep faster, it often disrupts sleep and can deter you from entering the deeper, much needed phases of the sleep cycles.

• Heavy meals at dinner: Foods high in fat have been linked to poor, fragmented sleep. Fat triggers the digestive processes and causes a buildup of stomach acids, which while lying down can creep into the esophagus causing discomfort. Heavy meals before bedtime cause the body to spend more time working on digestion rather than focusing on sleeping. It is best to keep your heaviest meal for lunchtime.

• Spicy foods: While spicy foods are tasty and have health benefits, they are notorious for causing heartburn, indigestion, and acid reflux. Heartburn can be made worse while lying down because it allows the acids to creep up into the esophagus and burn the sensitive lining.

• Diuretic foods: Foods containing water, such as watermelon and celery, are natural diuretics which help push water through your system. Eating these types of foods and drinking anything too close to bedtime can cause you to lose sleep from middle of the night bathroom trips.

Yogic practice for better sleep:

• Yoga and yogic breathing: Yoga is a gentle and restorative way to wind down your day. A national survey found that over 55% of people who did yoga found that it helped them get better sleep. Over 85% said yoga helped reduce stress. Breath in yoga is equally important as the physical pose. The gentle and calming yoga breath technique called Ujjayi Breath is also known as Ocean Breath. You start by inhaling deeply through the nose. With your mouth closed, exhale through your nose, while constricting the back of your throat, as if you are saying “ha,” but keep your mouth closed. This exhalation should sound like the waves of the ocean. Use this slow and steady breath to soothe yourself in each of these poses.

Here are some restorative poses that are ideal for preparing your body for sleep.

– Standing forward bend 
– Cat stretch
– Cow Stretch 
– Child pose 
– Butterfly pose  
– Legs-up-the-wall pose

Proper nutrition:

helps control your daily sleep-wake cycles. There are a few excellent sources of naturally occurring melatonin in foods:

• Fruits and vegetables (tart cherries, corn, asparagus, tomatoes, pomegranate, olives, grapes, broccoli, and cucumber)

• Grains (rice, barley, and rolled oats)

• Nuts and Seeds (walnuts, peanuts, sunflower seeds, mustard seeds, and flaxseed)

Tryptophan is an amino acid that when ingested gets turned into the neurotransmitter serotonin and then converted into the hormone melatonin. Here are some of the best foods loaded with tryptophan:

• Dairy products (milk, low-fat yogurt, and cheese)

• Poultry (turkey and chicken)

• Seafood (shrimp, salmon, halibut, tuna, sardines, and cod)

• Nuts and seeds (flax, sesame, pumpkin, sunflower, cashews, peanuts, almonds, and walnuts)

• Legumes (kidney beans, lima beans, black beans split peas, and chickpeas)

• Fruits (apples, bananas, peaches, and avocado)

• Vegetables (spinach, broccoli, turnip greens, asparagus, onions, and seaweed)

• Grains (wheat, rice, barley, corn, and oats)

• Magnesium is a natural relaxant and is referred to as the “sleep mineral”. Excellent sources of magnesium are:

• Leafy greens (baby spinach, kale, and collard greens)

• Nuts and seeds (almonds, sunflower seeds, brazil nuts, cashews, pine nuts, flaxseed, and pecans)

• Wheat germ

• Fish (salmon, halibut, tuna, and mackerel)

• Soybeans

• Banana

• Avocados

• Low-fat yogurt

Calcium is another mineral that helps the brain make melatonin. Sources of calcium include:

• Leafy greens
• Low-fat milk, cheeses, and yogurt
• Sardines
• Soybeans
• Green snap peas
• Okra

Vitamin B6 also helps to convert tryptophan into melatonin. A deficiency in B6 has been linked with lowered serotonin levels and poor sleep. Highest sources of B6 are:

• Pistachio nuts and flaxseeds

• Fish (tuna, salmon, and halibut)

• Meat (chicken, tuna, lean pork, and lean beef)

• Dried Prunes

• Bananas

• Avocado

• Spinach

Other healthy habits:

• Maintain a sleep environment conducive to sleep. The bedroom should be comfortably cool. Use of blackout curtains, ear plugs, or sound machines may help promote an optimal sleep environment for individuals with sleep disruptions due to environmental stimuli. Sleep on a comfortable mattress and pillows.

• Regular bright light exposure in the mornings may help to maximize alertness and maintain a regular circadian rhythm.

• If you cannot sleep, do not look at a clock. Go into another room and do something relaxing until you feel drowsy enough to fall asleep again. Then return to bed.

• Go to bed and get up at the same time every day. Stick to a sleep schedule of the same bedtime and wake up time, even on the weekends. Consistency makes it much easier to fall asleep and wake easily.

• Use a journal to work out problems you have before you go to bed.

• It may be helpful to work with a counselor or psychologist to deal with the problems that might be causing poor sleep. Behavioral therapies for insomnia include sleep hygiene education, stimulus control, relaxation, sleep restriction therapy, cognitive therapy, and cognitive behavioral therapy.

It is never too late for proper sleep training. Learning these tips can help you feel more relaxed around bedtime and encourage a more restorative and good night’s sleep.

Natasha Kubis is a licensed acupuncturist and certified yoga teacher.
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