Sleep Struggles: Underlying Causes & Natural Remedies
“How’s your sleep?”
I ask my clients this question at every check in. Even though the quality and duration of sleep is often overlooked, it is a crucial component of health.
The average person spends 26 years sleeping throughout his or her life. Plus, most people chew up about 7 years just trying to fall asleep. That's a grand total of 33 years - on average- that we spend dedicated to sleeping.
Yet an estimated 50 million to 70 million Americans suffer from a chronic lack of sleep. And poor sleep impairs long-term health.
In this blog I’ll discuss why sleep is so important to your overall health (impacting everything from mood and energy, to digestion, weight management, longevity and anti aging) and I will break down some potential underlying causes for sleep disturbances.
I’ll also offer lifestyle and supplementation suggestions which you can use to help improve the quality and duration of your sleep.
Why Sleep Matters for Your Health
You've probably heard by now that adults need, on average, 7-8 hours of sleep each night.
But for many, getting the recommended amount of sleep can be challenging.
A survey done in 2019 found that Americans slept on average 47 minutes LESS then they did in 2018, and averaged LESS THEN 6 HOURS A NIGHT.
In our society, insufficient sleep has become a the norm. Which is a shame because proper sleep:
Improves mood. Poor sleep has been linked to depression and anxiety. It’s been estimated that 90% of people with depression complain about sleep quality. Poor sleep is even associated with an increased risk of suicide.
Improves your mental focus and function. Sleep is important for various aspects of brain function. This includes cognition, concentration, productivity, and performance.
Improves your physical performance. In this study on basketball players, longer sleep was shown to significantly improve speed, accuracy, reaction times, and mental well-being but less sleep duration does not just impact athletes. It has also been associated with poor exercise performance and functional limitation in older women. This study found that poor sleep was linked to slower walking, lower grip strength, and greater difficulty performing independent activities.
Modulate hormone levels, metabolic status, and ensure a healthy immune system. Sleep helps the body repair, regenerate, and recover. Some research shows that better sleep quality can help the body fight off infections.
Supports quicker recovery from fatigue and injuries. During sleep, your body repairs the damage caused by stress, ultraviolet rays and other harmful exposure, as well as muscle damage and injury and other trauma.
Contribute to healthy digestion. There is a link between getting adequate sleep and reducing inflammation in the body. This study suggests there is a link between sleep deprivation and inflammatory bowel diseases that affect the gastrointestinal tract.
Reduce your risk of lifestyle related diseases like weight gain and obesity, Alzheimers and dementia, metabolic syndrome and insulin resistance, heart disease, etc.
Slow the aging process. Did you know people that don’t sleep enough literally die sooner? In one study, adults age 45 and older that slept less than 6 hours each night were 200% more likely to have a heart attack or stroke during their lifetime compared to participants who got seven or eight hours.
Better appetite regulation. When you don’t get enough sleep it literally skews your body’s hunger and satiety cues. This study found that chronically falling short on sleep can affect leptin and gherlin, the hormones responsible for appetite
You can see how sleep has a far reaching impact on all facets of health- mental, physical and even emotional. Most of us know this, yet we still struggle to get the quality and quantity of sleep we need to thrive.
Let’s talk about some common causes of sleep struggles.
To discuss organ dysfunction, I want to discuss the Chinese body clock.
According to traditional Chinese medicine, the body regulates various organs- and specific organs function at their peak- at specific times of day and night.
To understand the Chinese body clock, you first need to grasp the concept of “qi.”
In short, qi is a word used in Chinese medicine to describe energy. The Chinese body clock is built on the concept of qi. During 24 hours, qi is thought to move in 2-hour intervals throughout the organ systems. While you’re sleeping, qi is believed to draw inward to fully restore your body.
Traditional Chinese medicine has been around for thousands of years, and involves various forms of herbal medicine, nutritional therapy and lifestyle practice to treat imbalance in the body and promote healing.
The Chinese body clock is one tool used in Traditional Chinese Medicine that might help you find the meaning behind your imbalances.
9 pm to 11 pm: Triple burner (or triple heater). This pertains to the endocrine system, which controls the body’s homeostasis and where enzymes are replenished. Sleep is especially beneficial at this time so the body can conserve energy for the following day. It can be helpful to filter, detox, and cleanse the body to help with this process.
11 pm to 1 am: Gallbladder. If you find yourself waking up this early in your sleep cycle, according to Chinese medicine, your gallbladder may be trying to tell you something. Look to support your drainage funnel better, since sluggish digestion can make it difficult for your gallbladder to empty. TUDCA, a water-soluble bile, may help support gallbladder function because it promotes healthy bile flow.
1 am to 3 am: Liver. Without a well-functioning liver, every other bodily process and organ will suffer. Sometimes your liver works overtime to handle the influx of toxicity and unwanted materials. So if you wake up often during these hours of the night, your liver may be asking for some support. In this situation, you can take certain liver-supportive nutrients or herbs to help support your liver function.
3 am to 5 am: Lungs. This time of the morning is when your lungs are at their peak energy. It is also the time of deepest sleep and when your lungs detox if they’re working properly. If you wake up frequently during this time, you may need to better support your oxygen levels. Look for ways to support your lung health in this case.
5 am to 7 am: Large intestine. Chinese medicine focuses on this time for your body's key elimination function. Waking up this late in the sleep cycle may point to drainage issues, particularly in the intestine and colon. If you are not having two to three healthy bowel movements a day, you may want to consider intestinal-moving supplements for additional drainage support, and working with a health coach, functional medicine practitioner or RD to pinpoint and address the root causes of your motility.
7 am to 9 am: Stomach. When it comes to breakfast, Chinese medicine says it should be your biggest meal of the day to optimize digestion and absorption. Warm meals high in nutrition are best.
The Chinese body clock can work as a snapshot into your internal organs and help you get an idea of what could be disturbing your sleep.
Another major reason for sleep issues is toxicity, especially mold toxicity. Human exposure to molds and mycotoxins, such as in water-damaged buildings, can cause damage the nervous system. This exposure can also lead to respiratory issues in all age groups.
As it relates to sleep, mold toxicity can contribute to insomnia.
You may find help eliminating toxins with carbon based binders. They nourish good bacteria in your gut, infiltrate all the cells of your body, and remove the toxins. Think of these binders as a sponge that absorbs toxins and eliminates them from your body.
An alternative option is activated coconut charcoal.
Parasites and Microbiome Dysbiosis
Parasites and dysbiosis are a two way street.
For starters, studies have shown that humans and other mammals that sleep for longer periods have reduced levels of parasitic infection. During sleep, the body isn’t as active, so it has more energy in reserve to support the immune system. The longer a person sleeps, the stronger the immune system stays, being more able to defend against parasites.
However, intestinal dysbiosis or a parasite infection can actually be the underlying cause of insomnia or sleep disturbances. Some parasites are nocturnal and are most active during sleeping hours. This can lead to more symptoms at night, including difficulty falling and staying asleep.
And if the immune system has become compromised, it cannot fight parasites as well, creating a vicious cycle.
Dysbiosis can also keep you up. In gut dysbiosis, there’s an imbalance between commensal or friendly bacteria and opportunistic/ pathogenic bacteria.
Essentially there’s more bad bacteria then good.
Good bacteria are in charge of making neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine and GABA. And your body uses serotonin to make melatonin.
When bad bacteria are abundant the good bacteria can’t produce these hormones that help you relax and sleep.
Leaky gut can contribute to sleep struggles as well. When your gut wall is damaged undigested food particles, toxic waste products and bacteria leak through and enter the bloodstream. These toxins cause inflammation and that in turn causes your body to release cortisol. When cortisol is released at night, it suppresses melatonin and wakes you up.
Hormones and sleep could be an entire blog in and of itself, so I’ll keep this short.
Fluctuations in thyroid, testosterone, insulin, cortisol, progesterone, melatonin and/or growth hormone can all cause sleep difficulties. This can become a vicious cycle, as lack of sleep can cause further hormonal imbalances.
Evidence of this is displayed by the mere fact that women are at a 40% higher risk for insomnia than men due to the fact that their hormones naturally fluctuate more.
For example, hormone fluctuations during a woman’s menstrual cycle and menopause can affect sleep patterns. This can lead to increased insomnia and frequently waking up during the sleep cycle.
Natural Ways to Support Sleep
Bright Light and Blue Light Exposure
You may have heard of your internal clock, or circadian rhythm. This influences your brain, body, and hormones. It’s basically your internal alarm clock for sleeping and waking up. But certain activities can help and hinder your circadian rhythm.
The amount of bright light exposure you receive each day can support your body’s natural sleep processes. Researchers have found that increased sunlight or bright light during the day can boost mood and sleep.
One study noticed that adding two hours of bright light exposure improved sleep efficiency by 80% and overall sleep by two hours in older adults. By soaking up more sun each day, your body can better fall asleep and stay asleep. (Here, here, here, here)
On the other hand, another type of light can disrupt your circadian rhythm and sleep patterns. Blue light exposure — which emits from devices like smartphones and computers — can trick your body into thinking it should stay awake. It can also impair your body’s production of melatonin, a crucial hormone for sleep. (here, here, here)
With this knowledge, you can look to make lifestyle adjustments to support your body’s sleeping processes naturally. For example you may consider:
Getting outside during the day to increase your bright light exposure
Staying away from your phone and other electronic devices one to two hours before bed
Using blue-light glasses, filters, or apps to limit exposure at night
Diet and Physical Activity
Besides bright- and blue-light exposures, your nutritional hygiene and the degree and type of physical activity you engage in can also affect how well you sleep.
There are four main vitamins and minerals that can be found in food that aid in promoting sleep: tryptophan, magnesium, calcium, and B6.
TRYPTOPHAN is an amino acid that, when ingested, gets turned into the neurotransmitter serotonin and then converted into the hormone melatonin. Some of the best foods loaded with tryptophan are:
Dairy products (yogurt, cheese)
Poultry (turkey, chicken)
Seafood (shrimp, salmon, halibut, tuna, sardines, cod)
Nuts and seeds (flax, sesame, pumpkin, sunflower, cashews, peanuts, almonds, walnuts)
Legumes (kidney beans, lima beans, black beans split peas, chickpeas)
Fruits (apples, bananas, peaches, avocado)
Vegetables (spinach, broccoli, turnip greens, asparagus, onions, seaweed)
MAGNESIUM is a powerful mineral that is instrumental in sleep and is a natural relaxant that helps deactivate adrenaline. A lack of magnesium has been directly linked to difficulty falling and staying asleep. Excellent dietary sources of magnesium are:
Dark leafy greens (baby spinach, kale, collard greens)
Nuts and seeds (almonds, sunflower seeds, brazil nuts, cashews, pine nuts, flaxseed, pecans)
Fish (salmon, halibut, tuna, mackerel)
CALCIUM is another mineral that helps the brain make melatonin. A lack of calcium can cause you to wake up in the middle of the night and have difficulty returning to sleep. Calcium rich diets have been shown to help patients with insomnia. Sources of calcium include:
Dark leafy greens
Enriched breads and grains
Green snap peas
Vitamin B6 also helps convert tryptophan into melatonin. A deficiency in B6 has been linked with lowered serotonin levels and poor sleep. A deficiency in B6 is also linked to symptoms of depression and mood disorders which can lead to insomnia. Highest sources of B6 are:
Fish (tuna, salmon, halibut)
Meat (chicken, tuna, lean pork, lean beef,)
WHAT ABOUT MELATONIN? Many of the vitamins and minerals that are on the lists above are there because they help aid in the production of turning serotonin into melatonin. However, there are a few excellent sources of naturally occuring melatonin in foods:
Fruits and vegetables (tart cherries, corn, asparagus, tomatoes, pomegranate, olives, grapes, broccoli, cucumber)
Grains (rice, barley, rolled oats)
Nuts and Seeds (walnuts, peanuts, sunflower seeds, mustard seeds, flaxseed)
When you eat- not just what you eat - can influence your body’s sleeping habits. For example, eating later at night, or too close to bedtime, can interfere with hormone production. Both HGH and melatonin levels can take a dive, which negatively affects sleep. (here, here, here). And eating too close to bedtime can send you to bed with an active digestive system which can also impact sleep.
Both caffeine and alcohol consumption may disrupt the quality and duration of your sleep as well.
Caffeine can act as a stimulant in your blood for six to eight hours. And these effects worsen on individuals with caffeine sensitivity or sleeping disorders.
Research has connected alcohol to poor sleep, sleep apnea, and snoring. Those key hormones HGH and melatonin again come into play here. Alcohol lowers the natural nighttime elevation of HGH and melatonin. (here, here, here, here)
It probably comes as no surprise, considering its many health benefits, that physical activity boosts sleep. Regular exercise and physical activity have been shown to lessen insomnia and sleep disturbances.
Although much like nutrition, the time of day you exercise, and even the type of exercise you do matters.
Physical activity during the day — particularly outside with natural sunlight — may help you sleep better at night. But physical activity later at night, especially within the hours closest to your bedtime, can act like a stimulant to your body.
Through nutrition and physical activity, here are some suggestions for optimizing your sleep:
Crowd out caffeine four to six hours before bedtime. Opt for decaf or try caffeine free herbal tea.
Avoid eating large meals a few hours before bedtime. An overactive digestive system can impede sleep.
Taper your water before bedtime to lessen the urge to get up in the middle of the night to pee
Stay active and go outside when you can
Minimize or eliminate exercise in the hours before bed, or consider activity that stimulates your body’s parasympathetic nervous system function like yoga, stretching, or deep breathing
Limit alcohol consumption before bedtime
Other Lifestyle Adjustments
The following may also help you catch more zzzs:
Clear your mind and relax in the evening. You may try journaling, meditation, reading a book, soaking in a hot bath, etc. It’s important to wind down. Priming the mind and body for sleep is important. A relaxing, routine activity right before bedtime helps separate your sleep time from activities that can cause excitement, stress or anxiety which can make it more difficult to fall asleep, get sound and deep sleep or remain asleep. Personally, for me this means no social media, no texting, no answering emails- etc. I get away from bright lights and don't do anything that overly stimulates my mind.
Did you know that going to bed and waking up at consistent times can help your body get into a rhythm? Stick to a sleep schedule, even on the weekends. Head to bed and wake up at about the same times, daily. This helps to regulate your body's clock and can therefore help you fall asleep and stay asleep for the night.
Optimize your sleep environment. No laptops, tv or other really bright lights. It's also been suggested that cooler temperatures help facilitate deeper sleep. Experts say between 60-65 is best. I like my room cooler and my husband and I usually keep ours about 10 degrees cooler. Your bedroom should also be free from any noise that can disturb your sleep. My husband snores so we keep a fan running and I also use ear plugs and a blackout mask when I sleep. Light, noise, and temperature can all disrupt your body’s circadian rhythm.
In the event you can't sleep go to another room and do something relaxing until you begin to feel tired. If you continue to lay in bed and toss and turn you'll begin to become anxious and then associate the bedroom with that anxiety. This can make falling asleep harder not easier.
It also helps to keep work materials, laptops, and tvs out of your sleep environment. In order to strengthen the association between bed and sleep it's important to not allow the bedroom to become about anything else. And if you associate a particular activity or item with anxiety about sleeping, omit it from your bedtime routine.
Supplementation and herbal remedies can help to support the body during times of recurring sleep disturbances. In particular, melatonin and lymphatic-supportive herbs can help, as well as herbal remedies that support feelings of calm. (here, here)
Melatonin has a wide variety of benefits. It helps improve total sleep time, fatigue from jet lag, and poor sleep from rotating shift work. It may help reduce the time it takes to fall asleep, and to reset the body’s sleep/wake cycle. Because melatonin has very low side effects, melatonin supplementation is a great resource to improve sleep quality.
The brain is one of the most active organs in the body. Its high energy demand continues during REM sleep. The glymphatic system is a transit pathway for cerebrospinal fluid in the brain. It’s responsible for toxic waste clearance and interstitial fluid exchange. It functions during sleep, which is important for the elimination of waste products. Look for natural ways to help support lymph drainage and health (burdock root, astragalus, slippery elm, graviola) which will in turn support sleep.
Valerian can help as well. Researchers believe valerian helps increase gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) levels in the brain. GABA is a chemical that contributes to a calming effect in the body. Valerian root has a powerful sedative effect on the nervous system and has been known to effectively relieve tension. It’s also useful for alleviating menstrual pain and has been used to treat anxiety.
The Bottom Line:
Sleep (both quality and duration) is vital to your health
If your sleep has shifted, consider the areas of bodily organs, gut health, hormones and toxicity
Support healthy sleep hygiene through physical exercise and nutritional therapy
Additionally, you can support sound sleep with lifestyle adjustments
Explore supplementation to provide additional support to your body during times of sleep disturbance