This is the third part in a three part series on the role of nutrients in insomnia.
Sleep apnea is another common cause of insomnia and must be ruled out in anyone who suffers from insomnia. This article’s primary goal is to discuss nutrients and in the role of sleep, however being that this affects so many people (according to the National Sleep Foundation over 18 million Americans are affected by it),12 I felt the need to mention it. Sleep apnea was first recognized in 1965 and is a breathing disorder “characterized by brief interruptions of breathing during sleep.”2(748) Breathing actually stops as often as several hundred times per night and is almost always accompanied by snoring. When people stop breathing, their brain becomes oxygen deprived and the lack of oxygen causes the person to awake just enough to begin breathing again. Often the person does not fully wake and is unaware of the problem, however these frequent interruptions ultimately result in the person getting less of the deep, restorative sleep that is so important. The condition is associated with irregular heartbeat, hypertension, heart attack and stroke, so it is imperative to be evaluated by a sleep center or physician if your partner notices periods of apnea, or if you are excessively drowsy during the day. This is not a condition that can simply be corrected by nutrients. Medical evaluation and intervention is necessary here.
Other factors including stimulants, medications, and other causes
Another cause of insomnia is the use of stimulants or depressants. Think about how a cup of coffee late in the day can have you staring at the ceiling later that night. Caffeine is associated with sleep onset insomnia, as well as sleep maintenance insomnia. Caffeine is not only in coffee, but tea, chocolate, medications, and energy drinks as well. Please be sure to read the label of whatever you are consuming.
Alcohol is a depressant, and one would think it would help combat insomnia, but it actually can be one reason for sleep maintenance insomnia. Many people use alcohol as a sleep aid, but it’s important to know that there is peer reviewed evidence that discusses the detrimental effects of alcohol on the sleep cycle.13 In addition to alcohol, other prescription and street drugs can also affect sleep patterns, and therefore must be considered when experiencing insomnia.
Other causes of waking up in the middle of the night include restless leg syndrome, benign prostatic enlargement, menopause symptoms including hot flashes, and the need to urinate, which are just too numerous to discuss.
There are several botanical products that have been found to be effective sleep aids.
Valerian, lemon balm, hops, passionflower, skullcap and chamomile are all plants that have sedative effects and can promote sleep. Of all these aforementioned botanicals, valerian is the most studied and has the strongest evidence of its efficacy. Please know though, if you choose to take any of these, it’s always best to check with someone who is a nutritional professional as there are certain compounds in many of these botanicals that are the active ingredient. Because they are supplements, and not medications, there is no strict government regulation and dosages, as well as the amounts of the active ingredients can vary from product to product. There are several products that I can recommend that contain either some or all of these botanicals. L- theonine is a substance found in green tea that can also help with sleep, but if you choose to drink the green tea, make sure it is decaffeinated; otherwise you can take 200-600mg of this as a supplement.2(756) I also need to mention, if you choose to take Valerian on its own, it does have a very strong, offensive odor and I know some people have said it smells like sweaty feet!
Multivitamins/multimineral supplements- We know that various vitamins and minerals all help to maintain homeostasis in the body. Certain vitamin and mineral cofactors are required for biochemical reactions that occur in the body. If you are deficient in any one of these nutrients, chemical pathways can slow down tremendously causing an effect not only in sleep, but general health. If is ALWAYS best to obtain your nutrients from food (especially fruits and vegetables) as there are not only vitamins and minerals, but often other antioxidants, phytochemicals, water and fiber, but if this is not possible, then other multivitamin/multiminerals can be supplemented and may help improve sleep.
2 Murray & Pizzorno. The Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine- 3rd edition. New York: Atria; 2012.
7 Bralley J & Lord R. Laboratory Evaluations for Integrative and Functional Medicine- revised 2nd edition. Metametrix Institute: Duluth, Georgia; 2012.