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Insomnia

Insomnia can be a significant cause of stress, mood problems and irritability, not to mention daytime sleepiness and feelings of tiredness. Lack of sleep can also lower your immune response and if it’s chronic it may even raise your risk of dementia.

Not surprisingly, there are a number of causes of poor sleep. The key factors that seem to affect most people who seek help at the Brain Bio Centre are poor blood sugar control, excess caffeine, lack of the necessary neurotransmitters and hormones, and lack of some key nutrients with magnesium being top of the list.

To find out more about these factors read on. Also see our nutritional action plan for managing insomnia. 

If you would like further help, you can visit our clinic the Brain Bio Centre which specialises in optimum nutrition for mental health recovery. We have helped many adults and children with sleep issues by working with them/their parents to create personalised nutritional programmes based upon their health history, symptoms and test results. If you would like to learn more about how we can help you, please click here.

SLEEP...WHAT WORKS?

Blood sugar balance

If you have blood sugar levels which fluctuate wildly throughout the day and night, this can affect your sleep. Excessive sugar in your blood can have you feeling wide awake, whereas if your blood sugar is low, your body’s response is to release cortisol, a naturally-occurring hormone whose function is to release stored sugar into the bloodstream. Cortisol has a natural cycle in the body and low levels are required prior to sleep.

Also, if your blood sugar levels are low, you will probably feel hungry which may keep you awake, and you may also feel irritable which won’t help either.

Fluctuating blood sugar levels are generally a result of consuming too many high GL (glycaemic load) carbohydrates which release their sugar quickly. The body’s response to this is an excessive release of insulin to escort sugar into the body’s cells which can lead to low blood sugar levels. Low blood sugar levels cause cravings for carbohydrates or cortisol release and so the cycle continues.

Where’s the evidence? Search our evidence database and enter ‘sugar’ and ‘sleep’ into the search field for a summary of studies that demonstrate the effect of blood sugar imbalance on sleep.

Side effects? None

Contraindications with medication? Diabetes medication should be closely monitored since dosages may need to be lowered if sugar intake is reduced significantly.

See the action plan for our recommendations on managing insomnia.

Amino acids for neurotransmitters and hormones

There is a complex interplay in the body between various neurotransmitters and hormones which affect sleep.

The key sleep hormone is called melatonin. It is released from the pineal gland during the late evening (stimulated by decreasing light levels); it peaks at around 3 or 4am, before dropping off sharply between around 6 and 8am, in part as a response to increasing light levels. Melatonin is an almost identical molecule to serotonin (our key mood neurotransmitter), from which it is made, and both are made from 5-HTP, itself derived from the amino acid tryptophan which is present in most protein foods. The conversion of amino acids into neurotransmitters and hormones requires nutrient co-factors, in particular the B vitamins, so a lack of these may also be responsible for low melatonin levels. The amino acid L-tryptophan is found in protein rich food, whereas 5-HTP can only be taken in supplement form. Melatonin is available on prescription in the UK, but can be purchased in the US.

Another key neurotransmitter is GABA – it is the body’s major relaxing neurotransmitter. In fact alcohol and benzodiazepine medication (eg valium) have a similar action to GABA which is why our initial response to these substances is a feeling of relaxation. Of course alcohol and benzodiazepines are not the answer to a sleep problem. Alcohol may help us get to sleep but for most people it will cause non-restorative sleep, and early waking. And both of these substances are addictive drugs with side-effects. There is an amino acid called Taurine which also provides the GABA effect, but because it’s a naturally-occurring amino acid that is found in the diet, it has a gently relaxing effect and no addictive properties or side-effects. The herb valerian also promotes the GABA effect.

Where's the evidence? Search our evidence database and enter ‘amino acids’ and ‘sleep’ into the search field for a summary of studies that demonstrate the effect of amino acids on sleep.

Side effects? Drowsiness. In our experience about 5% of people who take 5-HTP or L-tryptophan experience side-effects such as irritability and agitation – if you experience any unpleasant side-effects, discontinue the supplementation immediately.

Contraindications with medication? Supplementing 5-HTP or L-tryptophan is contraindicated with antidepressant medication. Valerian may be contraindicated with medication – always check with your prescribing doctor or pharmacist before taking herbs alongside medication.

See the action plan for our recommendations on managing insomnia.

Magnesium

Magnesium is known as ‘nature’s relaxant’. Its role in the body is to counteract the contracting effect of calcium. In the modern diet, most people take in plenty of dietary from dairy products, but it seems that magnesium intake is dropping. Magnesium is found in highest amounts in green leafy vegetables and pumpkin seeds. Of course, like any mineral, the level of magnesium found in the plant depends on it being present in the soil in which the plant is grown at adequate levels, and with modern farming methods, this may not always be the case. Certainly, at the Brain Bio Centre, we find that magnesium deficiency is very common, even in people who eat a healthy diet.

Where's the evidence? Search our evidence database and enter ‘magnesium and ‘sleep into the search field for a summary of studies that demonstrate the effect of magnesium on sleep.

Side effects? Increased magnesium intake may reduce anxiety, improve constipation, relieve menstrual cramps, reduce headaches and calm hyperactivity.

Contraindications with medication? Magnesium may lower blood pressure, so if you are taking blood pressure medication, you should keep a close watch on your blood pressure and consult your doctor if it drops as your medication may need to be reduced.

See the action plan for our recommendations on managing insomnia.

Caffeine

For most people the purpose of drinking caffeine is for its stimulating properties, so its no surprise that caffeine from coffee, tea or energy drinks is a cause of insomnia. Caffeine has a variety of biochemical actions including increasing levels of stress and motivation hormones (catecholamines and cortisol) and suppressing melatonin production for up to ten hours. What many people don’t realise, however, is that we are very individual in terms of our sensitivity to caffeine and while some people seem to be able to drink a double-espresso after dinner and apparently sleep well, the more sensitive amongst us will suffer with poor sleep from just a single cup of tea in the morning.

Where's the evidence? Search our evidence database and enter ‘caffeine and ‘sleep into the search field for a summary of studies that demonstrate the effect of caffeine on sleep.

Side effects? If caffeine consumption is high and it is withdrawn suddenly, withdrawal symptoms such as headaches and irritability may ensue. It’s generally better to make gradual reductions to avoid this.

Contraindications with medication? None known

See the action plan for our recommendations on managing insomnia.

Sleep hygiene

Sleep hygiene relates to our sleeping environment and has nothing to do with cleanliness! Essentially, poor sleep hygiene includes using the bedroom for things other than sleeping (for example: work, video games, watching television, using the computer), or sleeping in a room where there is too much light or noise.

Where's the evidence? Search our evidence database and enter ‘sleep hygiene’ and ‘sleep’ into the search field for a summary of studies that demonstrate the effect of poor sleep hygiene on sleep.

Side effects? None

Contraindications with medication? None

See the action plan for our recommendations on managing insomnia.

References

L.Shilo et al., ‘The effects of coffee consumption on sleep and melatonin secretion’ Sleep Medicine 2002;3(3):271-3

T. C. Birdsall, ‘5-Hydroxytryptophan: a clinically-effective serotonin, Alternative Medicine Review, 1998;3(4):271-80

Pigeon WR, Carr M, Gorman C Perlis ML. Effects of a Tart Cherry Juice Beverage on the Sleep of Older Adults with Insomnia: A Pilot Study. Journal of Medicinal Food 2010; 13: 579-583