Humans and a good night’s rest parted ways when light bulbs replaced the sun.
According to Bastyr University professor John Hibbs, ND, the human body was designed to awaken near dawn and go to sleep soon after dark. “The introduction of artificial light took us away from the natural cycle,” he says, “and our bodies have been trying to cope with it ever since.”
While Dr. Hibbs isn’t suggesting we hit the sack right after the six o’clock news, he does recommend going to bed at 9:30 or 10:00. Since studies have shown that the body’s sleep (diurnal) cycle is biochemically programmed to kick in at this time, forcing the body to remain awake beyond this point puts stress on the whole system. And don’t think you can make up for it by sleeping in late the next morning. Hibbs warns that, while you may ultimately end up with your six to eight hours of sleep, your body’s internal clock can still end up out of whack.
“When you ignore the natural sleep cycle, the body goes into stress compensation mode,” says Hibbs. “The stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline are produced in an effort to keep the body awake. You know the expression ‘getting a second wind’? That’s actually stress adaptation.”
Hibbs explains that these stress hormones not only stick around for a few hours interfering with your ability to sleep, but once you finally do nod off, they won’t allow you to go into the deeper states of sleep, which are necessary for bodily repair and rejuvenation. “This literally shortens the life of tissues and organs,” he says.
The real challenge lies in the body becoming habituated to abnormal sleep cycles. It begins maladapting to the anticipated stress by automatically secreting stress-coping hormones every night, no matter what time you go to bed. Not only does this lead to insomnia, but ultimately the excess cortisol secreted during these hours can shorten the lifespan of brain cells, pull protein out of muscle and bone tissues and increase the probability of developing type 2 diabetes.
Regular sleep loss leads to sleep deprivation, the signs of which go beyond heavy eyelids and yawning. They may include depression, memory problems, headaches, poor hand-to-eye coordination, heart palpitations, vision problems, infections, blood-pressure and blood-sugar irregularities, low resistance to flu and colds, eczema and any number of allergies. Says Hibbs, “When the body’s energy is low, it gets conservative. It may decrease the energy allowance for some physiological processes.”
Insomnia may be a symptom itself of other ills, including low iron stores, food allergy or sensitivity, liver disease or blood-sugar problems. “One of the common triggers for waking up in the middle of the night and not getting back to sleep is a hypoglycemic reaction,” says Hibbs. “Food reactions can stimulate elevations of the stress hormone cortisol, having the same effect on sleep that any chronic emotional stress does.”
A sedentary lifestyle may also contribute to insomnia. “Exercise is not just beneficial to good health,” says Hibbs, “it’s absolutely essential. It’s one of the primary regulators of the body’s ‘endocrine clock.’” He points out that, as men and women age, their testosterone and estrogen levels drop along with other hormones, which are integral regulators of the sleep cycle. Resistance exercise, like working out with weights, actually increases testosterone and growth hormones in men and women.
In addition to good exercise, a natural approach to addressing insomnia includes a healthy diet filled with vegetables, fruits and fiber. Hibbs, however, warns poor sleepers away from ingesting stimulating herbs and spices and especially caffeine in all its forms—that nighttime cup of hot chocolate or green tea could be filled with it. And be careful about a “night cap.” According to Hibbs, alcohol decreases the quality of sleep.
While Hibbs feels that no one dietary supplement is ideal for correcting a lifetime of sleep abuse, a few have been shown to be helpful. Valerian, passion flower, lemon balm, poppy and chamomile are relaxing, sleep-inducing herbs. Melatonin often works for people deficient in this hormone, and a drop of lavender essential oil on wrists and temples before bed can be calming. Hibbs also recommends that insomniacs check out acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine, a combination that has brought relief to many of his patients.