Sleep – a Pillar Stone of Good Health
We sleep less today than and we suffer negative consequences. Research paints a clear picture – sleep deprivation increases the risk of virtually all diseases; mental illness, autoimmune diseases, cardiovascular diseases, neurodegenerative diseases, neuropsychiatric disabilities, metabolic diseases, susceptibility to infection and cancer. Within these groups we find:
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Multiple sclerosis
- Diseases of the gut
- Myocardial infarction
- …and many more
Sleep deprivation is rarely the only or main trigger for these conditions, but insomnia increases the risk of all types of conditions in a very fundamental way. Many essential biological processes occur only during sleep, such as tissue repair and “clean-up” of the brain. During sleep, waves of oxygenated blood and cerebrospinal fluid wash over the brain, as harmful waste products are eliminated. Good sleep is thus central to good health. That’s why we always ask our patients about sleep.
In standard medicine, pharmaceutical sleep aids are often prescribed for sleep deprivation, which can help the patient get out of a vicious circle. But sleeping pills do not address the root cause. For some patients, this is the beginning of an addiction that risks damaging their health in the long run. Research has shown that those who take sleeping pills are five times more likely to die prematurely (although it is unclear if it is the use of drugs themselves that increases the risk, or if drugs simply don’t restore sleep effectively).
Common causes of insomnia are stress and anxiety. Lack of sleep hygiene is also a major contributing factor. Sleep hygiene aims to recreate the bedtime conditions that we as human beings throughout our evolution have adapted to. It involves temperature, darkness, avoiding blue light, and more. Lifestyle factors also include physical activity, social interaction, coffee drinking and what you eat and when. Like all other processes in the body, our sleep machinery needs specific nutrients in certain amounts to function optimally. Specific vitamins, minerals and amino acids have been shown to be important for the ability to produce and regulate the sleep hormone melatonin and neurotransmitters in the brain (for example, the calming substance GABA).
However, some of our patients suffer from a more complex sleep disorder that isn’t easily corrected with routines. Sleep issues can be symptoms of, for example, anxiety or ME/CFS. Despite suffering from severe fatigue, and applying sleep hygiene, these patients cannot sleep well. In such cases, you need to identify the root causes of the patient’s entire symptom picture. Dysregulated neurotransmitters and hormones may be involved. Many also suffer from unrefreshing sleep despite adequate sleep of 7-9 hours a night.
In summary, sleep disorders can manifest themselves in different ways and have many different causes. When our patients experience issues falling or staying asleep, or suffer from unrefreshing sleep, we take a holistic approach. We listen carefully to the patient and develop an individual action plan. The action plan may include, for example, a sleep study, analyses of the sleep hormone melatonin, the stress hormone cortisol, targeted nutritional therapy with nutrients or adaptogens, and lifestyle changes.