Improve your mental health and wellbeing with these holistic approaches to getting a good night’s rest.
We live in a dysregulated world. The world values what we produce and achieve versus who we are and our connections to ourselves and our community. With an ongoing pandemic and daily stress, it’s no wonder that nearly one in five U.S. adults have a diagnosable mental health issue, and between 10% and 30% of adults struggle with insomnia and sleep.
Sleep and Mental Health
Living with a mental illness is difficult enough, let alone the sleep disturbances that often accompany these diagnoses. Mental health disorders like depression, anxiety, and other psychiatric conditions can often cause insomnia.
It is easy to connect the dots between mental illnesses and sleep difficulty. When we improve sleep quality, we see improvement in our mental health and cognitive abilities. There is a strong relationship between your mental and emotional well-being and sleep patterns, and lack of sleep causes mental decline and mood dysregulation. Treating sleep disorders can help alleviate symptoms of psychiatric disorders.
Our bodies have natural biological rhythms that correlate to night and day. Our sleep is often affected when these rhythms get disrupted due to anxiety, depression, trauma, or other mental health disturbances. Disturbances in sleep can exacerbate mental health concerns, causing a vicious cycle of distress and sleeplessness.
Sleep Cycles and Mental Health
Our circadian rhythm is your brain’s mental clock based on a 24-hour sleep and wake cycle. Daily exposure to light and darkness affects our circadian rhythm. When light or darkness enters our eyes, it triggers the brain’s limbic system to produce the hormones cortisol or melatonin. Cortisol and melatonin have an inverse relationship, like the sun and the moon.
Disruptions in these chronobiological cycles can create problems sleeping, including insomnia, waking up in the middle of the night, or difficulty waking up in the morning. Light and dark irregularities cause rhythm disruptions, like working night shifts or experiencing jet lag. Anxiety, PTSD, depression, ADHD, and bipolar disorders can also cause upsets in these cycles. Normalizing your Circadian Rhythm can help create psychobiological balance and foster restful sleep.
The hypothalamus is the part of the brain that releases the hormone cortisol when light enters the eye triggering the body to be awake and alert. Ideally, cortisol levels peak in a healthy circadian cycle in the late morning, leading to alertness and cognitive sharpness. Low cortisol levels at night help promote relaxation and sleep.
Dysregulation in the cortisol cycle can result in insomnia and make it more challenging to wake up in the morning. Chronic stress and depression can cause cortisol levels to peak at night, making you feel awake instead of tired. Artificial light can also trigger cortisol levels at inappropriate times. The blue light from late-night television, video games, and mobile devices can trick the body into producing cortisol, making it more difficult to fall asleep.
Darkness tells the body that it is time for sleep by triggering the brain to produce the hormone melatonin. Bright lights in the evening inhibit the production of melatonin. As we age, our bodies produce less melatonin.
Help Sleep the Natural Way
When you eat is just as important as what you eat. Chrono-Nutrition is an emerging study of how the timing and what you eat affect your circadian rhythms and sleep patterns. Learning how your body reacts to eating certain foods at certain times of the day can help you find balance in your sleep patterns.
Food and Sleep
What and when you eat affects energy distribution throughout the day and night. Eating a heavy meal right before bed can disrupt your sleep. However, going to bed hungry can cause you to wake up in the middle of the night when your blood sugar drops. If you have concerns about your blood sugar, talk to your doctor about testing for hypoglycemia. If you find yourself waking up after falling asleep, try eating a light protein or carb snack before bed to help regulate blood sugar. Some foods before bed can help you fall asleep naturally.
Foods that naturally produce melatonin:
- Cherries and Goji Berries
- Walnuts and Other Nuts
Stimulants and Sleep
Caffeine and other stimulants can also cause sleep concerns. Everyone has a different sensitivity to caffeine, and it may be beneficial to limit caffeine to only one in the morning hours. We tame coffee addiction by switching to half-decaf or milder stimulates. Replace energy drinks with healthier substitutions, like kombucha, green and black tea. Rhodiola (Rhodiola Rosea) supports focus and is a mild stimulant. You should avoid stimulants in the late afternoon and before bedtime.
Alcohol and Sleep
Many people drink alcohol to help induce sleep. Although it is a depressant, excessive drinking can make it harder to fall asleep and exacerbate conditions like sleep apnoea. Drinking alcohol also interferes with the effective use of many psychiatric medications. According to the Sleep Foundation, “Since alcohol can reduce REM sleep and cause sleep disruptions, people who drink before bed often experience insomnia symptoms and feel excessively sleepy the following day.” Drinking alcohol can disturb sleep, causing you to wake up to use the bathroom during the night. Researchers suggest not to drink any alcohol at least 4 hours before bedtime.
Light and Darkness Exposure
Unlike our ancestors, we live by artificial light during the nighttime hours, and our biological light and dark rhythms are can quickly become unbalanced. Understanding how light exposure or deprivation can contribute to sleep and mental health conditions puts you at an advantage to make deliberate choices in your exposure to light.
Regulate Your Circadian Rhythm
To help your body regulate its circadian rhythm, expose yourself to morning sunlight before 10 AM to trigger serotonin. Serotonin is a hormone associated with calmness and a positive mood. Try and get an hour of daytime light exposure a day. If you live in a Northern climate, you are more prone to seasonal affective disorder due to shorter days in the winter. Light therapy or phototherapy uses natural sunlight or a lightbox to alleviate depression and sleep concerns. A lightbox 10,000 LUX can help boost your mood and regulate biological sleep patterns. People with bipolar disorder should know that lightboxes can trigger mania and start with just a few minutes a day. Also, those who wear sunglasses or blue-light-blocking glasses are not getting the benefits of light.
Promote melatonin and restful sleep by limiting light exposure in the evening and before bed. Many of us like to stay up watching Netflix or on our devices. However, the type of light emitted from these devices suppresses the body’s release of melatonin. We recommend blue-light-blocking glasses an hour before bedtime to help prevent insomnia. It can also help to sleep in complete darkness. Many appliances like cable boxes and humidifiers have lights that can be distracting. Eliminate all excess lights by putting electoral tape over appliance lights and unplugging nightlights to sleep in total darkness. Wearing a sleep mask or utilizing blackout curtains is another way to control the light that may be interfering with sleep.
Herbs that Help Sleep
Cultures have used herbal medicines for centuries as a natural remedy for sleep issues. Although they are not as potent as many over-the-counter or prescription medications, they are often more gentle and have fewer side effects. It is essential to talk to a functional doctor when deciding to use herbal medicine, as it can interfere with other medications you are taking or trigger allergies. Always tell your doctor that you are using or planning on using herbal medicines. Please consult with a functional doctor, registered herbalist, or acupuncturist when considering taking new herbs, as this article can’t cover all aspects of these methods fully.
Valerian is a natural sedative that helps promote sleep decrease anxiety and stress. It is available as a pill, liquid tincture, or tea. “Taking valerian root extract 300-600 mg by mouth daily seems to improve sleep quality. Continuous use for up to 4 weeks might be needed before an effect is noticeable.”
Hops are commonly associated with brewing beer, but it also has a calming effect on the body. Not only has it been used to treat restlessness but also menopause. Hops are not recommended if you are already taking estrogen. It’s not intended for long-term use but has “been used safely in doses of up to 300 mg daily for up to 3 months.”
German Chamomile is a well-known herb that promotes relaxation. Typically drank as tea, but is available in pill form or can be used on the skin. Caution is advised for some who have an allergy to ragweed because they might also have an allergy to chamomile. It may also act like estrogen and interfere with oral contraception or other estrogen medications.
Cannabidiol Oil (CBD) is legal in most states and is different from psychoactive THC marijuana. Some strains of marijuana can inhibit sleep and are still illegal in many states. Unlike marijuana, CDB does not make you high. CBD is being studied to treat PTSD, anxiety, and pain which often interfere with sleep.
Vitamins and Supplements that Help Sleep
Many have turned to natural methods to reset their circadian rhythm and help insomnia. You should use caution when taking vitamins, minerals, and supplements. Consult with a functional doctor before taking any new supplements to avoid conflicts with existing conditions, allergies, or medications. Many of these methods are not recommended for long-term use.
Vitamin B12 nutrient that is needed for your body to function normally. B12 can come in different forms. Methylcobalamin or hydroxocobalamin (not cyanocobalamin synthetic) are the recommended forms with a dosage of 1 gram a day. Foods that contain Vitamin B12 are beef, chicken, liver, eggs, fish, and dairy. A doctor can also test your levels of B12 to make sure you are not deficient. Too much B12 over long periods can cause organ damage.
Lithium Orotate is a natural element that helps balance the circadian rhythm. Not to be confused with the medication Lithium Carbonate that treats the symptoms of Bipolar disorder. Natural mood stabilization and relaxation can be supported by using lithium baths found in natural hot springs. Natural Lithium supplemented dosage of 5 to 20 mg is suggested.
Magnesium is another natural element used for relaxation and balance. It can be taken orally as Magnesium Glycinate to help sleep and decrease stress. Dosage varies on age and gender. Many also find comfort and relaxation in taking Epsom salt baths before bed. This is an excellent remedy for children and teens. It can also be used as a topical lotion. Foods naturally high in magnesium are seaweed, bananas, and fish.
GABA is a neurotransmitter produced by the brain that promotes the relaxation of the body’s central nervous system. The GABA precursors are methods for encouraging the body to produce GABA. Lactium is a natural milk biopeptide that helps reduce anxiety and help sleep. Bioidentical oral progesterone is also used for anxiety and sleep for premenopausal women. A prescription from a doctor is needed.
Melatonin, as discussed previously, is a hormone produced by the brain that tells the body it’s time to go to sleep. It is a common supplement used by many. As we age, our bodies produce less and less melatonin. Teenagers have an abundance, which is why they often sleep late. Because of this, it is not recommended for children and teens. As people age, they may require higher doses. You should be aware that Melatonin is not intended for long-term use and can come with side effects.
Possible adverse effects of melatonin supplementation:
- Gastrointestinal disturbances
- Waking up with a hungover feeling
- Exacerbate symptoms of depression
- Vivid dreams or nightmares
Mental Health Therapy to Help Sleep
Our thoughts and feelings can become huge deterrents to getting a good night’s rest. Anxious thoughts and feelings can be overwhelming, while obsessive thoughts can be counterproductive. Therapy can help sort out these thoughts and feelings.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a method of mental health counseling that helps people identify how their thoughts affect behaviors. We can associate anxiety and dread when suffering periods of prolonged insomnia. A therapist trained in CBT can help challenge those sabotaging thoughts and replace them with healthier beliefs that promote relaxation and sleep.
Biofeedback is a psychological technique that teaches people how to use thoughts and breathing techniques to relax the body and central nervous system. A trained therapist can use equipment like specialized video games or other visional or audio systems techniques to help train the body and mind to work together to create internal peace.
Traditional Talk Therapy is what most people think of when working with mental health counselors. It can be hard to sleep when life is overwhelming and stressful. At night we are not distracted by life’s demands, and our internal thoughts and fears catch up to us and ruminate in our minds making it challenging to fall asleep. Talking to a licensed therapist can help release these stressors and develop coping skills to help you clear your mind.
Integrative Methods for Better Sleeping
Exercise can be an excellent way to burn off excess energy and relax the body. However, working out after 3 pm can have the opposite effect. Later workouts can stimulate your body and make it more difficult to sleep at night. However, morning workouts can help the body wake up and prepare for the day.
Medical issues can also be the cause of many sleep problems. Hormonal changes like progesterone in women and testosterone in men, menopause and pregnancy have also been known to create sleep concerns. Other conditions like sleep apnea, chronic pain, itching from eczema, and psoriasis can also make sleeping more difficult. Certain medications can also be the cause of sleep conditions. Everyone should have yearly exams and bloodwork with their family doctor to identify underlying causes of sleep problems. It’s essential to be completely honest with your doctors about everything you’re experiencing to get the best treatment. It is ok to get a second opinion if you feel unheard, disrespected, or invalidated by your medical provider.
Journaling is a beautiful way to express your thoughts and feelings. Creating a positive morning routine by journaling your gratitude, intentions, and affirmations is a fantastic way to start the day. Also, nightly writing “brain dumps” or free associations is another excellent way to externalize worries that may keep you up at night.
Weighted blankets are designed to be heavy duvets or throws that are filled with materials like beads or pellets that make them weigh 10-30 lbs. They are known for relieving anxiety and providing comfort, making sleep more viable. They are NOT recommended and are very dangerous to babies and toddlers.
White noise is ambient low-frequency sounds, like the hum from a fan or specialized sound machine, that help drone out background noise. You can generate white noise from machines or apps. Noises can include static hums, natural sounds like rain or ocean.
Meditation or Guided Imagery
Meditation or guided imagery are methods that can help relax the mind and foster inner peace. Adding these methods before bed can clear the mind of anxious thoughts and calm the central nervous system. Many people say they can’t meditate because they can’t turn off their minds. We need meditation for exactly this reason. Apps like Headspace are great for beginner meditators because it eases you into developing a practice. Also, guided meditation is another option that can help in the process of meditation. We find many options Youtube. You may need to try out a few different ones until you find one that works for you. Also, be aware of disruptive commercials from Youtube that can wake you during these videos.
Cranial Electrotherapy Stimulation
Cranial electrotherapy stimulation (CES) is a non-invasive device that delivers electrical pulses that help create calming brain waves. Electrodes placed on the ears or scalp help stimulate the brain to moderate melatonin and cortisol levels. Many use CES to treat anxiety, depression, and insomnia.
Healthy Sleep Routine
Developing a healthy sleep routine is extremely important when trying to reset your biological rhythms. A yo-yo schedule is one that alternates between two extremes, like when you stay up late and then sleep late. Then that following night you can’t sleep because you slept so late. Although we can’t always control when we fall asleep, it is important to wake up at the same time every morning. Go to bed early if you wake up tired – don’t sleep in! Start your bedtime routine early. Incorporate the ideas listed in this article into your routine. Set times to turn off devices, dim lights, drink chamomile tea, read a book, meditate, or journal. Set alarms or reminders on your phone to help you stay on track.
Conclusions to Getting Better Sleep
Mental health and insomnia are challenging to combat, and restful sleep is a basic need that is imperative to higher levels of functioning in life. Hopefully, this article has given you ideas and areas of focus to help you find that rest and relaxation to promote a healthy mental state.
5:55 – Charlotte Gainsbourg
A cinq heures cinquante-cinq Awake with open eyes Adrift upon the night And miles away from land Five fifty-five Five fifty-five A cinq heures cinquante-cinq Ante meridiem Too late to end it now Too early to start again Five fifty-five Five fifty-five Soon the morning will arrive Can I begin another day Whilst this old day is still alive Refusing to be put away Five fifty-five No sleep tonight Five fifty-five Like a beast awaits its faith Laid here with time to kill The very dead of night Where time and space standstill Five fifty-five Five fifty-five A cinq heures cinquante-cinq Nothing will ever change On the altar of my thought I sacrifice myself again and again and again Five fifty-five Five fifty-five
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References Not Linked in the Article
Module 4: Circadian. (2018). Nutritional and Integrative Medicine for Mental Health Professionals Training Course. Retrieved from http://www.pesi.com.