There are 2 main categories related to problems with sleep: 1) Difficulty falling asleep and 2) Difficulty staying asleep or having wakeful periods in the middle of night. One might add to that poor sleep quality, but the solution to that is pretty much covered in this post anyway.
Have you ever heard the saying, “You can sleep when you die” by those trying to get you to burn the wick at both ends or party-hardy? It may be amusing and maybe even tempting, but it is inestimable how important sleep is to great health. So if someone says this to you, laugh it off and go to bed.
Difficulty Falling Asleep
Many things can hinder you from going to sleep at night. Key things that can interfere with falling asleep are brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) that keep you alert such as dopamine and glutamate; high histamine levels; and too much protein at dinnertime.
Other things can also cause problems such as stress, light in the evening hours, pain, hormone imbalances, electrolyte imbalances, etc.
But let’s go back to the excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate. Glutamate helps you to stay alert and focused, which is good during the day. However, if you have too much, or if glutamate is not properly broken down, then it will affect your ability to sleep. Glutamate is a precursor to GABA, which means basically that when glutamate breaks down it becomes GABA. GABA is calming, whereas glutamate is an excitatory neurotransmitter.
Think of it this way: GABA is the brakes and glutamate is the gas pedal, per leavesoflife.com authors.
For a list of foods high in glutamate check out Chris Kresser’s site here.
So the first thing you may want to try is lowering the glutamate levels if you are having trouble falling asleep. Things that breakdown glutamate are magnesium, vitamin B6 (aka peroxidine), and niacin. According to Dr. Ben Lynch, all of these are good to take before bedtime to promote a good night sleep. Remember, this is important because when glutamate breaks down, it becomes soothing GABA.
Dr. Lynch also says that another problem that might be keeping you awake is too much histamine. Thus, eating a lower histamine diet might be necessary. According to Dr. Lynch, people with methylation and MTHFR issues have more problems with histamine intolerances. If you are one of those you will have to be extra careful to avoid high histamine foods. Check out Whole30’s list here. Supplementing with magnesium and vitamin B6 can lower histamines. Quercitin also lowers histamines, so you might want to experiment with this supplement, but it is also found in foods like apples. I take 500 mg of Quercitin every night, and sometimes I take another 500 mg during the day if my allergies are acting up.
Another sleep nugget, incidentally, is that the Jaminet’s caution in their book, Perfect Health Diet, against taking vitamin D3 later in the day because it may adversely affect sleep. I mention this because vitamin D has been an addition to many peoples supplement regimentation, so consider the timing.
And if methylation has become important to you, per Dr. Lynch, make sure that you support methylation during the day and not in the evening for better sleep. He states that magnesium is helpful for supporting methylation. This may not mean much to you now, but it may soon because it has become a very hot topic. Let’s just say for now that methylation is an important biochemical process that controls things that happen in your body. You want good methylation. Like I said in another post, nearly everyone is a little low on magnesium, so most would do well supplementing with it.
Another factor that may be preventing you from good sleep is excess light at night. Light after sundown increases cortisol and decreases melatonin production. Cortisol is a hormone your adrenal glands produce, think fight or flight. Melatonin is a hormone produced by the pineal gland in your brain and is needed for sleep cycle regulation. Light exposure at night shuts down melatonin production. So limit all forms of light in the evening as much as you can.
Lastly, tryptophan helps with sleep as it produces serotonin and melatonin. We all know about tryptophan and turkey, but other good tryptophan sources can be found here.
Other Things to Consider
Don’t go to bed with a full stomach. It is best to be done with all food consumption by 3 hours before going to bed.
Avoid exercising too close to bedtime. How close varies between people. You will have to experiment with yourself to see what you are able to handle.
On the flipside, not enough activity during the day can adversely affect your ability to fall asleep and/or stay asleep.
Movies, TV shows, and nightly news can be too stimulating.
Arguments and stressful conversations too close to bedtime are not a good idea.
Screen use like iPad’s and iPhone’s too close to bedtime are also contraindicated. Try not to use these 1 to 2 hours before bedtime.
Alcohol may help you to fall asleep, but then it affects the quality of sleep and may cause you to have a wakeful period.
Alter your caffeine use if you are affected by it. Many say avoid caffeine after 12 pm or early afternoon. Some say avoid altogether. Bah humbug on the latter!
Have a regular sleep schedule if at all possible, even on the weekends or your days off.
Use caution with melatonin as a supplement. It is thought that regular use can inhibit the body’s own production. Sometimes 3-5 mgs can be very helpful.
Avoid studying or working at least one hour before bedtime.
Get evaluated by your doctor if you think you have sleep apnea. This can have serious consequences for your health.
Overall stress management and doing what you can to avoid stress.
A cool room can promote restful, comfortable sleep.
Make your bedroom into a pleasant, decluttered sanctuary.
Benadryl is frequently recommended as a sleep aid, but I stopped using it due to some troubling side effects.
Specific Things You May Want to Try (adapted and distilled from Dr. Ben Lynch’s recommendations):
Reduce evening protein consumption
Reduce consumption of high histamine foods during the day
Take magnesium 200-500 mg daily if you have normal kidney function. Check with your doctor first if your kidney function is impaired.
Take vitamin B6 before bed. Dr. Lynch did not give an amount but 50 mg would be reasonable, but not every day according to the Jaminet’s.
Take niacin. Dr. Ben Lynch says only a small amount, but did not specify how much. It may be better just to find niacin in food sources, in my opinion.
Things I Do to Fall Asleep– My Bedtime Routine:
I used to have a difficult time falling asleep, but now I almost never do. I habitually practice many of the things listed above in addition to my bedtime routine below.
Warm Shower, or Bath with Epsom Salt
A few pages of a fiction book
5 Gratitudes-I think of 5 things I am thankful for
Deep Breathing to the count of 4 seconds in, 4 seconds out
Muscle relaxation, progressive from feet to face, if needed, but usually I am asleep
How to Stay Asleep
The #1 reason that Dr. Ben Lynch found with people waking up in the middle of the night is blood sugar imbalances. This can be caused by not eating a balanced dinner with quality protein, quality fat, and quality carbohydrates. Dr. Lynch also cautions against eating too early in the evening, like at 4 or 5 pm, saying this is way too early if you go to bed at 10 or 11 pm. Health guru Dr. Jade Teta advises eating low carb during the day, and then a small portion of carbohydrates at dinner time, like a few bites of sweet potato to help with sleep.
Many, if not all of the considerations for falling asleep above also apply to staying asleep.
Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep
Lest we forget prayer and the spiritual aspects pertaining to sleep, I would just like to say that there is much that can be said about this, so I will have to address this in another post. However, I will start wrapping it up with this childhood prayer. There are many versions of it, but this is the one my mom taught me.
Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord my soul to keep
God, keep me safely through the night
And wake me with the morning light.
Great sleep is worth the time and effort necessary to find what will help you get a quality, restful nights sleep. You will probably have to experiment a bit to find your formula. I just encourage you to do it!
I would love to hear what you have found that works for you. What is your successful bedtime routine?
Or what is your particular struggle with sleeping? All questions and comments welcome.
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Check out this other article that wrote about sleep:
Also you might be interested in some other articles on Natural Solutions that I have written: