Armen Nikogosian, MD
Across the board, sleep disorders are one of the top complaints healthcare professionals hear from patients.
When seeking natural methods that can improve sleep quality, frustrated patients commonly report difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep. Sleep disorders often result from a disordered circadian rhythm, but sleep aid medications can come with a host of undesirable side effect. So finding new, natural ways to recalibrate this important system and achieve sound sleep is a top priority.
The Body's Sleep Cycle
Circadian rhythm basically refers to the body’s internal clock that’s responsible for keeping us alert during the day and sleepy at night. This is ancient physiology at its finest, the predictable pattern of cycling between the energy levels as needed during each day hardwired into our biology. The interaction between melatonin and cortisol levels, where melatonin is dominant during our night hours and cortisol is dominant during the daytime, drives the circadian rhythm.
When the circadian rhythm’s “sleep-wake” system is off balance and the result is another poor night’s sleep, people are often tempted to opt for prescription pharmaceuticals that will swiftly bring about sound sleep. These drugs, such as benzodiazepines like Ativan or hypnotics like Ambien, are sedatives that rapidly impact the brain’s GABA receptors to induce sleep. The problem with addressing sleep disorders with these types of drugs is their addictive properties. Other serious side effects, including throwing other neurotransmitters out of balance, can also pose problems.
Lifestyle Adjustments to Aid Sleep
Lifestyle habits may be interfering with getting a good night’s sleep without us realizing it. By making some adjustments and tweaks in our sleeping environment it’s possible to improve sleep quality and assist our circadian rhythms. Common culprits of sleep disruption include:
Screens. One of the hardest habits to change is screen exposure, including both television and electronic screens. The bright white-blue light that emanates from these screens suppresses melatonin, allowing cortisol to remain high. Screen time should be limited after dark.
Electromagnetic fields (EMF). EMFs radiate from Wi-Fi routers, smartphones, the base of a cordless phone set inside the home, outdoor cellular antennas, and smart meters that may be located near your home. Try placing your phone in airplane mode at night, do not sleep with the cell phone in or next to your bed, move the cordless phone base and Wi-Fi router to another room.
Light. Try to keep as much light out of the bedroom as possible, as your bodies and brains need darkness during sleep. If outdoor streetlights are intrusive, try blackout curtains. If a night light is preferred, find one with a red amber lamp.
Other lifestyle changes that will improve sleep include avoiding alcohol near bedtime and establishing a regular sleep schedule.
Supplements to Regulate Circadian Rhythm Disorders
Modulating circadian rhythm using herbal or amino acid-based supplements can be just as effective as pharmaceutical interventions but without the health risks associated with those drugs. A blend of these natural or plant-based remedies can help relax the body, settle down the mind, modulate cortisol-melatonin, and induce sound sleep. Some of these natural sleep supplements include:
Melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone available in either natural or synthetic form, and it’s effective in assisting the circadian rhythm balance by promoting relaxation to allow sleep to commence. Melatonin can be particularly effective for treating jet lag.
Valerian. Valerian, or valerian root, is derived from the root of a flowering plant native to parts of Europe and Asia. Valerian root acts as a sedative on the brain and the nervous system, which aids sleep disorders. It is also used by some individuals for reducing anxiety.
Lemon balm. Lemon balm, or Melissa officinalis, is an herb in the mint family that has calming effects, and it aids in sleep disorders and anxiety. Lemon balm is also available as a tea.
L-Theanine. L-theanine is an amino acid derived from tea leaves or certain types of mushrooms. It helps promote relaxation by boosting neurotransmitters GABA, serotonin, and dopamine.
GABA. GABA is a non-essential amino acid found in the brain. Individuals with insomnia often have low GABA levels, so supplementing GABA levels helps induce relaxation and relieve anxiety, helping people fall asleep.
Ashwagandha. Ashwagandha, or Indian ginseng, is a plant-based supplement made from the root and berry. Ashwagandha has been used medicinally in traditional Indian and African medicine and is beneficial for balancing cortisol levels.
5-HTP. 5-HTP is an amino acid derived from the seeds of an African plant that can enhance serotonin levels in the body, which helps promote relaxation.
Chamomile. Chamomile tea is a soothing tea that promotes relaxation and sleep when enjoyed before bedtime.
Sleep Benefits combines appropriate levels of lemon balm, melatonin, L-Theanine, GABA, and Ashwagandha to form a sleep aid that’s both safe and effective. It can be used as part of a holistic approach to improving sleep quality through lifestyle modifications, regular exercise, mindful nutrition, and supplementation.
Sleep struggles related to imbalanced circadian rhythm are more common than you’d think. In addition to making a few lifestyle modifications, a functional medicine practitioner can help guide you to the right supplements for a holistic approach to better sleep.
Armen Nikogosian, MD practices functional and integrative medicine in Henderson, Nevada. He is Board Certified in Internal Medicine and a member of the Institute for Functional Medicine (IFM) and the Medical Academy of Pediatric Special Needs (MAPS). His practice focuses on treatment of complex medical conditions with a special emphasis on Autism Spectrum Disorder in children and autoimmune conditions in adults.