Updated: Dec 23, 2022
-From the desk of Dr. Brkich
If you don’t sleep as well as you should, you are not alone. We have all heard the expression, “sleep like a baby.” Even babies don’t always sleep well. Sleep issues are common.
Insomnia is defined as difficulty falling or staying asleep. There is much information about insomnia on the internet, and no shortage of treatments for it. A Google search of insomnia will garner almost 500 million results.
Much of the information about insomnia and how to treat it is management oriented. Management of insomnia focuses on ways to improve sleep. And rightfully so, because sleep is so essential for health. Any sleep management strategies that can help to improve sleep are always desirable, as long as they do not have deleterious side effects.
Pharmaceutical drugs, such as Zopiclone, are commonly prescribed sleeping pills. Some insomniacs may require stronger medications to “knock them out.” Natural sleep aides such as melatonin, valerian, passion flower, catnip, and essential oils are but a few of the commonly used natural sleep aides. For many, melatonin, for example, may be all that is necessary to induce good sleep.
Even if melatonin helps with sleep, in my opinion, we must still look for and find the cause of why the sleep is disturbed in the first place. From a natural medicine perspective, it is important to understand that management of insomnia is not the same as treating and reversing insomnia. If you are not sleeping as well as you should, the underlying cause always warrants investigation. Usually, there is something else going on in the body that is affecting sleep, and poor sleep is just a symptom. Although poor sleep is common, it is not normal. The normal state is to sleep soundly, like a baby, so to speak. Babies can also be a cause of poor sleep for many sleep-deprived parents!
There is a multitude of factors that can affect sleep. It may not always be straightforward to pinpoint the cause of poor sleep, especially where a number of factors are involved. In many cases, the cause of poor sleep can be easy to identify, while others can be more challenging. Nonetheless, one should never give up and resign to a life of poor sleep. Poor sleep is unnatural and almost always has an underlying cause. We just have to keep searching for the cause, even in those cases where sleep is improved, or even restored, with sleep aides such as melatonin or other natural remedies.
All sleep aides, including natural ones, even if they work for insomnia, are not a cure for insomnia. There is a big difference between managing insomnia and reversing or eliminating it naturally without sleep aides. Improving sleep by whatever means that work is always a good thing. Better yet would be to have no sleep issues at all, which should ideally be our normal, natural, default state. Optimal would be to have good sleep without having to take anything.
Melatonin supplements may work very well to help with sleep when a person has a deficiency of melatonin. Melatonin may even help when there is no deficiency, but at a price, especially if one feels overly groggy in the morning, or has headaches, nausea, dizziness, or tiredness, all of which can be side effects of too much melatonin. Having good quality sleep is far more natural and desirable than having to take melatonin or any other natural supplement.
One of the most insidious and pervasive causes of insomnia is chronic stress. Stress has a profound impact on sleep. Prolonged stress can result in poor sleep as well as a progressively decreasing ability to handle less and less stress. Inability to cope with stress can progress to the point where even previously non-stressful things can become too overwhelmingly, causing us to go into a sympathetic nervous system fight, flight, or freeze mode. Over time, this can lead to undesirable negative consequences on our brain-gut axis and our hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. The stress response can easily get out of control for all of us. None of us are immune. Chronic, persistent, unrelenting stress can run away on us and become magnified with our nervous system becoming turbocharged, resulting in a snowball effect where we become incapacitated when our brain and nervous system are revving out of control. This out-of-control response to stress can take a severe toll on one’s mental and emotional health. One can feel agonizing anxiety and/or a depressive state marked by hopelessness, helplessness, despair, and a debilitating desperation arising from a false belief that there is no way out. The excruciating pain of an agonized mind may not be visible to the outside world but it takes its toll on the one suffering from it.
How can stress cause such profound changes in a person’s mental and emotional state?
An anxious, agonized mind is characterized by the turning on of the sympathetic autonomic nervous system, which becomes stuck in fight or flight or freeze mode. There is little room for happy thoughts or rest and relaxation because the sympathetic nervous system overwhelms the parasympathetic. The parasympathetic system governs rest, relaxation, and digestion. The two systems should always be in balance in a normal state. Under persistent and intense sympathetic nervous system stimulation, a normally level-headed, calm, easy-going person can, as if at the flip of a switch, become irritable, disagreeable, quarrelsome, and even abusive, toward, ironically, those who they are closest to, and love the most. Putting on fronts and faces for those not in their inner circle is a common coping mechanism.
How this vicious cycle of stress creating even more stress perpetuates itself is, surprisingly, orchestrated by our gut microbiome. Stress-induced changes in the gut microbiome can result in a cascade of inflammatory changes in the brain and nervous system, which can ultimately lead to changes in mental and emotional functioning, with eventual depletion of adrenal gland reserves, ultimately leading to adrenal exhaustion. Adrenal exhaustion goes hand in hand with alterations in brain function with neurological symptoms such as poor sleep, depression, anxiety, nervousness, restlessness, cognitive impairment, chronic fatigue, and progressively decreasing resilience or inability to handle even smaller and smaller amounts of stress. Things that were not stressful in the past can become overwhelmingly stressful. The perceived threat can be hugely disproportionate to the actual threat. One can feel completely overwhelmed and incapacitated by even things that posed no problems in the past and perhaps may even have been enjoyable.
Under normal circumstances, the gut microbiome facilitates the conversion of an amino acid, tyrosine, that we get from our food, into serotonin, our happy hormone, and melatonin, our sleep and relaxation hormone. Stress causes an overgrowth of opportunistic, pathogenic, microbes which can become dominant in the gut. Instead of making serotonin and melatonin, these out-of-balance organisms hijack the metabolism of tyrosine. Instead of making serotonin and melatonin, tyrosine is converted into a toxic metabolite that has a much different and opposite effect from serotonin and melatonin. This renegade metabolite is a neurotoxin, meaning it poisons the brain and nervous system. Instead of making happy and relaxing hormones, this toxin interferes with normal brain metabolism by causing inflammation. So, the same compound, an amino acid, tyrosine, found in our food, could become a happy and sleep hormone, or it can become neurotoxic to the brain, based on what is going on in the gut microbiome.
Because our gut bacteria has such a profound effect on how our nervous system works, assessing and balancing the gut microbiome, in my opinion, should be a top priority in looking for the cause of any neurological or psychological issues that one may be struggling with. The gut microbiome is the master regulator and controller of how happy we feel and how well we sleep. More and more scientific evidence confirms that the gut is the key to fixing the brain. This should not be a surprise, since Hippocrates said more than 2000 years ago that all disease starts in the gut.
To find out more on how to optimize an unbalanced gut microbiome to protect your brain and nervous system and restore your health, please give us a call at 250-564-1700, or book an appointment online.