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Article - When your Sleep is not Deep by Su-lin Sze
Su-lin Sze


Medicinal Herbalist, Iridologist, Nutritionist & Holistic Movement Instructor


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When your Sleep is not Deep

One in four of Australians suffer from some sort of sleep disorder. 66% of these people are female. Lifestyle, chemical/brain imbalances, stress and dietary factors can either directly cause or aggravate a sleep disorder, making it extremely difficult for the body to regain natural sleeping patterns or even rebuild adequate amounts of chemicals and nutrients necessary for healthy sleep.

Inadequacy of sleep is called insomnia, of which there are two types. The first type called Sleep Onset Insomnia, and relates to difficulty falling asleep in the first place. The second type, Sleep Maintenance Insomnia relates to waking once or several times a night. For a person suffering sleep apnoea this could be up to 200 times! It doesn't matter which type you might experience. Both are highly disruptive to your health and can adversely impact energy levels, mental acuity, mood swings, motivation, resilience to infections, anxiety, pain tolerance and eating habits. Lack of sleep also causes premature ageing.

Causes of Sleep Disorders

Sleep Onset Insomnia
Sleep Maintenance Insomnia
Stress, poor nutrition, eating late, chronic anxiety, emotional tension, change in sleeping environmental, overactive mind, fear of insomnia or inability to let go into sleep, noise, high cortisol levels (adrenal problems), Parkinson’s disease, restless leg syndrome, arthritis, hyperthyroidism, asthma, indigestion, breathing difficulties, pain or discomfort, consuming caffeine after 3pm, alcohol.
Low mood, chronic depression, change in sleeping environmental,  sleep apnoea, blood glucose problems (hypoglycaemia), fear of sleeping, asthma, pain or discomfort, use of some prescription or recreational drugs, alcohol. Kidney and heart problems can also cause waking during the early morning hours, ask your practitioner if you suspect this relates to you!

Considering that we have so many natural medicines for sleep at our disposal, it is concerning that 95% of insomnia patients presenting for medical treatment receive a prescription drug. Is there simply a lack of awareness that safer and natural alternatives exist, or have we begun to assume that a 'magic bullet' for sleep does in fact exist, which will whisk us away with the pixies on demand without repercussions?

The use of such drugs to ‘treat’ insomnia has increased over the years while use of other interventions such as counseling and herbal medicine has reduced. Studies reveal that drugs prescribed for sleeping disorders can have serious side effects and should only be used once other measures have been taken. The exception is individuals suffering from acute trauma or grief.

Regaining the balance
To treat a chronic sleeping disorder holistically means looking at sleep habits, environment for sleep, lifestyle (including occupation), nutritional and neurotransmitter deficiencies, addictions (alcohol, sugar, caffeine primarily), chronic illness and appropriateness of natural treatment options.

Sleep habits vary considerably from person to person. As we age we need less sleep. If you travel often or have irregular working hours such as shift work, your sleep quality will suffer, especially as you age. Aim to go to bed only when you are tired, at roughly the same time each night to help your body understand when it is time to unwind and drift into sleep. It’s not a matter of training only your mind to fall asleep, it’s about acknowledging the complex organic world inside your skin, that relies on chemical interactions and a sense of balance, in order to function properly.

You can quickly improve your sleep by creating the right environment in your bedroom. Splash out on a great mattress, make sure you’re warm or cool enough, eliminate noise, and if necessary remove any electrical devices from the room. If you have a television, don’t put it in your bedroom. Pop a few drops of lavender oil or rose geranium oil into your oil burner and close your eyes. A facial and breath meditation is a fabulous way to help your body let go. Soften your facial muscles (including your jaw and eye sockets) one by one as you exhale through your mouth.

Moon Lifestyle choices have a large impact on sleep.
Try to keep regular work hours and avoid working into the night, which can stimulate production of stress hormones keeping you on the alert. If you work at a desk or regularly exert your mind, your liver may be less than happy.

Support your liver function with regular moderate physical activity such as swimming, yoga, dance, tai chi or jogging as opposed to running and sudden exertion sports.

Start the day with half a lemon squeezed into lukewarm water, and eat plenty of raw and fresh foods.

I find that most clients with insomnia have both nutritional and neurotransmitter deficiencies. Common nutritional deficiencies to look out for are calcium, magnesium, chromium and tryptophan. Calcium and magnesium are essential for healthy muscle contraction and relaxation. Taking a supplement before bed can help with insomnia. Chromium is a mineral that helps regulate blood-glucose, and is essential for anybody who experiences late afternoon fatigue, sugar or savoury cravings, and irritability. You’ll find it in egg yolk, mushrooms, yeast (brewers), white fish, whole grains, apple peel and parsley. Tryptophan is an amino acid found in soy products, fish, turkey, egg whites, spirulina, amaranth, banana, dates, figs, milk, nut butter and yoghurt.

Common neurotransmitter deficiencies associated with insomnia are melatonin, GABA and dopamine. Neurotransmitter deficiencies are likely if you also experience anxiety, panic attacks, addictions/cravings, binge drinking or binge eating, mood swings or impulsive behaviour. 
For occasional sleeplessness you can take 5mg of melatonin one hour before bed but doing this more than a few days in a row may actually worsen a neurotransmitter imbalance. 5HTP is used to relieve insomnia and depression with great results, and can be prescribed by your health practitioner under supervision.

Seeing a naturopath or herbalist about insomnia will not only provide you with a smoother and safer pathway to better sleep and better energy, it will also benefit your body systemically because the approach is holistic. Digestive and liver function are often enhanced as a result. It will also ensure you are properly diagnosed and do not receive inappropriate medicines. Fear of sleeping, high stress and chronic anxiety are good indications that counseling or psychotherapy may be useful and there is no shortage of well qualified counselors to help you unwind and understand better the causes of a sleeping disorder. I highly recommend counseling in conjunction with natural medicine.

If you prefer an energetic approach, consider the homeopathic coffea for an overactive mind, nux vomica if you are irritable, and your sleep worsens after alcohol and food, often waking around 3 – 4 am. The remedy lycopodium is useful for persistent thoughts about work, frequent dreams, and sometimes talking and laughing in ones sleep.
I like the Bach Flower remedies for acute situations causing insomnia, such as white chestnut for worrying thoughts circling through the mind, scleranthus for indecision and elm for overwhelming stress.

Finally, watch out for these substances which can make a sleep disorder worse: garlic, chilli and other spices late at night, caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, certain prescribed drugs such as antidepressants, jet lag, appetite suppressants, taking a multivitamin at night, degongestant medications and thyroid hormone replacement drugs. Also avoid tyramine containing foods which stimulate the brain such as sugar, sausage, potatoes, ham, eggplant, tomatoes, chocolate and wine.

I couldn’t finish this article without talking about herbs! When it comes to choosing the best herbs for sleep, it ultimately depends on the case in question. Not all herbs are suitable for all individuals and professional advice should be sought. Some of the herbs I commonly use in my practice are lime flower, valerian, passionflower, chamomile, skullcap, California poppy, hops and of course my favourite, balm.

May you deepen in your sleep…naturally.

· The Clinicians Handbook of Natural Medicine, (2002) J pizzorno Jr, M Murray, H Joiner-Bey, Churchill Livingstone
· Bioconcepts literature
· Janice Charles, Christopher Harrison, Helena Britt (2009) “Insomnia” Australian Family Physician Vol. 38, No. 5, p.283
· Balch P (2000) Prescription for Nutritional Healing 3rd ed Avery Publishing
· Tancred (2005) Healthy Vitamins and Minerals, Lifetime Distributors, Australia

Su-lin Sze

For more information and how to contact Su-lin
Tel: +61 (0)2 9386 1060


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