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Insomnia: Is it your psychology or your biology?

Insomnia: Is it your psychology or your biology?

There can be such a strong temptation to view insomnia purely as a symptom of psychological distress – I know, I have been there! And whilst, yes, of course, sleepless nights can be the result of worry, I don’t believe that is the case with the vast majority of insomniacs who have difficulty getting a good kip night after night.

This post is really a word of warning. Viewing insomnia solely through the prism of life’s worries and pains can lead the sufferer down a rabbit warren of outward thinking, blame, therapies and can even lead to poorly made life-changing decisions. I am all for resolving, expressing, forgiving, journaling, praying and using other tools to bring internal peace but my own and professional experience has taught me something very important: your physiology, i.e your biological status or your metabolic health, STRONGLY influences your mental health and your sleep. I can tell you that understanding this has helped let many people “off the hook” of eternal worry, anxiety, low mood and, yes, you guessed it, insomnia.

So let’s take a rather typical list of symptoms from an insomniac: worrying, fearful thoughts which delay sleep onset, waking with a racing or thumping heart and often racing mind, bad dreams, even nightmares, anxiety or low mood during the day, sometimes even feelings of paranoia. They sound like a pretty convincing set of manifestations of stress do they not? As I said in the beginning, these can indeed be symptoms of severe emotional distress but in my opinion this is not what is happening with the majority of insomniacs.

In my experience and opinion, insomnia is a problem of the internal environment, not the external one. These physical symptoms are a side effect of your body’s attempt to fix a problem, namely keeping your cells, which make up the tissues that make up your vital organs, energised throughout the night. Take away the need to be “fixed” and you can sleep all the night through.

Cortisol and adrenaline rise through the evening and into the night, and factors such as low glycogen (glucose stores in the liver), low salt, high serotonin and endotoxins, cause adrenaline and cortisol to shoot up even higher.

And what is the effect of adrenaline on the brain? A racing mind, with the fight or flight mode driving more fearful, dread thoughts. And the effect of adrenaline on the heart? A more forceful and faster rate. This is why you become more aware of your heart beat than you would normally. Again, anxiety can be greatly reduced by learning how to curtail these fight or flight hormones. And low mood? Who wouldn’t be in a low mood with night after night of non-restorative sleep?

And what about nightmares or bad dreams? From my experience and knowledge of how the body works, but not something that I can provide a study for, it is my understanding that whilst you are in the REM stage of sleep (the moment when you are most likely to dream), under the influence of physiological stress and raised stress hormones, your dreams turn stress-full, literally” fight or flight”. Here is an interesting excerpt “The major emotion studied in relation to epinephrine (adrenaline) is fear. In an experiment, subjects who were injected with epinephrine expressed more negative and fewer positive facial expressions to fear films compared to a control group. These subjects also reported a more intense fear from the films and greater mean intensity of negative memories than control subjects……Overall, the greater amount of epinephrine is positively correlated with an arousal state of negative feelings.” Mezzacappa E, Katkin E, Palmer S (1999). “Epinephrine, arousal, and emotion: A new look at two-factor theory”. Cognition and Emotion. 13 (2): 181–199.

Your hormones, namely your stress hormones, have an awful lot to do with the way your interpret your environment and everything to do with how you sleep.

In my early twenties, when my insomnia was at its worst, nightmares were a common feature of my already very distressing nights. I see this too amongst some of my patients, who are also often very concerned about their own nightmares, concerned that it is an indication of a deeper psychological problem. But with the right care and nourishment these patients do not have another nightmare. Why? I believe it is because it’s the high stress hormones that are being tackled, not their external emotional stressors or past psychological traumas, of which most of us can admit to having a few.

What is the right care and nourishment? In my experience, the management plan for such a scenario always includes a combination of herbs and stress-lowering foods and lifestyle modifications. So that’s:
1. eating enough carbohydrates (e.g. starchy foods like potatoes and rice, fruits, honey, even sugar) throughout the day, approximately 150g or more depending on your energy expenditure
2. salting food (at least one and a third teaspoons of salt per day)
3. drinking a warm sweet milky drink before bed
4. cutting out foods which may cause an immunological reaction (that’s most commonly wheat)
5. having a small snack between meals such as: fruit, dates, cheese.
Finally, if a client is experiencing chronic low energy and has a low stress threshold, I often prescribe the herb Ashwaganda somnifera (somni meaning sleep in Latin). I may also prescribe a combination of Passiflora incarnata (Passiflora) and Escholtzia californica (California Poppy) to be taken before bed. It’s very effective.

My advice to you, if you’re struggling to sleep, is to view your sleep disorder with curiosity. The root cause may not be residing in your head at all.

Since childhood herbs and natural medicine have been a significant and poignant part of my life. As the daughter of Scotland's longest practicing medical herbalist I am the UK's only second generation medical herbalist I have a life time of first hand experience observing the power of herbs for a wide variety of health conditions. With over 15 years experience working with a Bachelor of Science (Hons) in Botanical medicine I aim to support, stimulate and enable a journey of healing and recovery. Combining evidence-based science with traditional botanical medicine with good nutrition as the bedrock, applying stress management strategies and medical laboratory testing as appropriate, are all used to achieve restored health.

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