It’s a new year and time to reboot, refresh and refocus on the things you can do to improve your overall health and well-being. One of the most important controllable factors is sleep.
Most adults require 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night to achieve or maintain good health. Unfortunately, people worldwide just aren’t getting that much shuteye. According to the 2019 Philips Global Sleep Survey—answered by over 11,000 adults from 12 countries—approximately 62 percent of adults don’t feel they sleep well. And the average amount of weeknight sleep they get is just 6.8 hours. It’s no surprise that a significant number of patients with cancer report they are not sleeping well, either.
Why is this important? Regular, quality sleep is more than just a luxury; it’s critical to your health. Sleep affects all areas of your well-being, from metabolism to immune function. Deep, restful sleep allows your body to renew and repair damaged cells and helps you start each day refreshed and alert.
While we sleep, our bodies are busy repairing muscles and tissues, bolstering the immune system, releasing hormones that regulate appetite and aging, recharging our brains, and so much more! A good night’s sleep improves mood and general outlook on life, and studies show that insufficient sleep is more detrimental to your health than lack of exercise.
Lack of sleep causes various negative effects and symptoms, from poor concentration, brain fog and anxiety to increased appetite, weight gain, body aches, and bouts of cold and flu. People who don’t get enough sleep may also be at increased risk for cancer.
Lack of sleep causes your body to produce less of the sleep hormone melatonin and fewer natural killer (NK) cells. NK cells are one of the immune system’s frontline defenses against cancer, and melatonin has cytotoxic effects on cancer cells. Furthermore, sleep deprivation increases cortisol levels and triggers inflammation, which causes insulin resistance and weight gain—all risk factors for cancer. Several studies have linked poor sleep to an increased risk of developing prostate and breast cancer, including more aggressive forms.
The good news is that several solutions available to you—even starting tonight—can help you get better rest.
To help you get the sleep your body so desperately needs, it’s essential to examine what might be causing the sleeplessness in the first place. Here are some of the most common and overlooked reasons you may not be sleeping well.
Both long- and short-term stress can negatively impact sleep. A busy brain is a sleep thief, and if you are stressed, your mind is likely going a mile a minute.
Try listening to soothing music or meditative audio before bedtime to combat racing thoughts. Download meditation programs onto your computer or smartphone or use one of several calming apps that can be purchased for a nominal fee. You can also try other calming techniques, such as deep breathing, aromatherapy and meditation.
Stress-reducing supplements are an option as well. For instance, phosphatidyl-serine reduces late-night wakefulness by lowering cortisol levels.
Sleep apnea affects roughly 100 million people worldwide. Apnea literally means “without breath,” and sleep apnea causes brief moments when an individual stops breathing during slumber.
It is a treatable condition that can be diagnosed at home or at a sleep study clinic. Sometimes, shifting sleep positions and avoiding alcohol and medications that make you drowsy are enough to treat it. Losing weight if you’re overweight is also recommended.
For more severe cases, your physician may recommend CPAP therapy. CPAP stands for “continuous positive airway pressure.” The device is worn at night to keep airways open and promote regular breathing, and CPAP is the gold standard in sleep apnea treatment.
Lack of exercise & poor nutrition
Exercise and diet are key pillars of overall health, so it should come as no surprise that lack of physical activity and poor nutrition play a role in how well you sleep. Exercise discharges stress hormones that may otherwise build up in the body and disrupt sleep. Furthermore, exercise can disperse anxious energy and help you feel more tired and prepared for a good night’s slumber. (Don’t exercise too close to bedtime, or it can keep you up.)
When it comes to food, eating junk food or foods that you’re allergic or sensitive to promotes inflammation and can rob you of deep, restful sleep. Most people don’t eat a well-balanced diet chock-full of vitamins and minerals. As a result, many are woefully lacking in the nutrient department.
One key example is magnesium. A deficiency in this vital nutrient not only contributes to poor sleep but can also cause restless leg syndrome, anxiety, and tense or sore muscles. Take a serious look at the quality and quantity of foods you put into your body. A good multivitamin and mineral supplement may be required to fill those nutritional gaps.
Several prescribed and over-the-counter medications can interfere with sleep. Talk to your doctor about any medication you take if you’re having trouble sleeping. Be aware that although sleep medications and antidepressants may help in the short term, they may be detrimental in the long run.
These meds have been shown to deplete levels of mood-and sleep-enhancing neurotransmitters like serotonin and cause long-term sleep problems. Many of these medications also have serious side effects like memory loss, dizziness, rapid heartbeat, dry mouth, depression, constipation and moodiness, to name just a few.
Medications prescribed for sleep can also decrease your body’s production of a vitamin-D-binding protein called GcMAF. Without doing a deep dive into biochemistry, GcMAF activates cells essential to the immune system and tissue repair, such as macrophages, which are responsible for fighting off infection and disease, and it can also be used as an immunotherapy. Any medications that hinder its production by interfering with the immune system, such as steroids and chemotherapy, should be avoided long term.
Hormone & neurotransmitter imbalances
Hormonal imbalances appear in several forms, from PMS, thyroid issues and adrenal insufficiencies to metabolic syndrome and diabetes. These fluctuations, whether caused by stress, environmental toxins, illnesses, aging or other factors, manifest in a wide range of symptoms, including headaches, fatigue, depression, weight gain—and insomnia.
I suggest you work with a skilled integrative physician and have your hormones and neurotransmitters tested by a reputable lab. Diet and lifestyle changes, detox regimens, specific nutritional supplements and bioidentical hormones can often correct these imbalances.
Electromagnetic pollution, caffeine & alcohol
In today’s plugged-in society, electromagnetic pollution is becoming an increasing problem. Reduce your exposure—and improve your sleep—by unplugging all appliances in your bedroom and turning off your cell phone and Wi-Fi connection. Better yet, turn off your circuit breakers at night if that’s feasible.
Avoiding caffeine at night is a no-brainer. It stimulates the nervous system, and its effects can last up to eight hours. Look for hidden caffeine in beverages such as non-cola sodas, chocolate and “natural” energy drinks. If you must consume it, do so only in the morning.
While it may seem relaxing to have an alcoholic beverage at night to relax and unwind, even one drink can disrupt sleep patterns in sensitive individuals. People tend to fall asleep more quickly but are affected later in the night when they drink alcohol.
Now that we know what causes insomnia and fitful slumber, let’s examine strategies for sound sleep.
Proper sleep hygiene
An environment conducive to good, deep, uninterrupted sleep is essential. Creating a sleep sanctuary is easier than you may think. Start by making your bedroom as dark as possible. Invest in blackout curtains, unplug glowing gadgets, dim your alarm clock, and consider adding an eye mask if light is still coming into the room. If you are sensitive to noise, use earplugs.
Go to bed at a reasonable time. Ideally, bedtime should be around 10:00 p.m. Studies show the body removes toxins most effectively and produces the most melatonin between 10:00 p.m. and 2:00 a.m.
Getting your body ready for sleep each night also goes a long way toward promoting restful slumber. Take a hot Epsom salt bath, reduce your exposure to blue-light-emitting screens and devices at least two hours before you turn in, have a cup of chamomile tea and don’t exercise in the two hours before bedtime.
A variety of herbal supplements have been proven helpful for sleep. My personal favorites are valerian, hops, lemon balm, chamomile, passionflower and lavender. Most people tolerate them well, and they work by relaxing the nervous system. Some are contraindicated with certain medications, so be sure to consult your doctor when deciding which ones are right for you. Available in capsule or tea form, herbal remedies are an excellent, safe option for promoting sound sleep.
Amino acids can also help relieve insomnia and restless sleep. Supplements such as 5-HTP, L-tryptophan and GABA are especially beneficial if you experience brain chemistry imbalances. 5-HTP works by increasing serotonin levels. This process is vital as this neurotransmitter regulates sleep, mood, energy and more. L-tryptophan is a precursor to 5-HTP. Some find it works well alone, while others use it with 5-HTP for restful sleep.
You may need to experiment to find what works best for you. Note that if you are taking antidepressant medication, you need to consult your doctor, as these medications also affect serotonin levels and may be contraindicated. Use as directed by your physician.
GABA is another option if the other amino acids don’t do the trick. This calming amino acid is often referred to as “natural Valium” as it is a natural sedative. Again, consult your doctor, as this supplement is contraindicated in some individuals in certain situations.
Perhaps the best-known sleep-related supplement is melatonin. Naturally produced in the pineal gland, this hormone is made at night in the presence of darkness. Exposure to bright light and blue light from TV screens, computers and smartphones inhibits melatonin production. You can increase your body’s natural production of the hormone by reducing exposure to these light sources late at night.
You may also take supplemental melatonin to boost your natural levels and improve your body’s sleep-wake cycle. Look for melatonin wherever supplements are sold. (It’s the only hormone legally sold over the counter in the US. For Americans it’s wise to consult with your physician regarding usage and dosage. Too much can interrupt sleep, and melatonin is contraindicated in certain conditions.
Melatonin as a supplement is banned in the UK, but you can get ahold of homeopathic preparations of melatonin at homeopathic pharmacies.
While I was undergoing treatments with Dr Connealy for bladder cancer, she always told me how important it is to get enough sleep. For most of my 40-year-career, I was a respiratory care practitioner. I worked nights and slept only five hours a day, so my sleep rhythms weren’t normal. I’d come home from work and go to bed around 7:00 a.m., get up by noon, and head back to work at 6:00 p.m. I did this for many years and relied on lots of caffeine to keep me going.
I noticed that the night-shift nurses whom I worked with were generally tired and tended to put on weight. And even though I had always been a slim person, I was starting to get a belly by the end of my career.
Since I no longer work nights—and now sleep seven or eight hours regularly—my outlook on life has dramatically improved. I have more energy and no longer feel like I’m missing out on life.
In addition, I practice good sleep hygiene, don’t eat or drink within three hours of bedtime, and get to bed by 11:00 p.m. I have also cut out coffee and drink green tea instead, and I believe I sleep a bit better because I’m no longer being constantly stimulated and am not as amped up all day.
I’m doing well now, all my cancer test markers are low, and I wake up in the morning with a smile on my face.
Most patients find that putting these sleep hygiene techniques into practice and experimenting with these nutritional supplements helps them achieve deeper, more restful slumber. Rarely, when these methods don’t work, I will prescribe a non-addictive sleep medication, such as melatonin, Amantilla (tincture of valerian), 5-HTP, theanine or GABA.
I prefer to avoid prescription meds whenever possible. However, I firmly believe sleep is essential and that restorative rest is a must for healing. So, sleep medication in the short run may be warranted when all else fails.
Many of the supplements discussed in this article can be purchased online or found in health food stores. You can also order high-quality products through our store by visiting PerfectlyHealthy.com.
Leigh Erin Connealy, MD, is the medical director of the Cancer Center for Healing and the Center for New Medicine in Irvine, CA. Dr Connealy’s multidisciplinary treatment protocols, team of healthcare professionals, and holistic approach to health and healing have made the Centers the largest integrative/functional medicine clinic in North America, visited by more than 70,000 patients worldwide. Author of The Cancer Revolution and Be Perfectly Healthy and a sought-after speaker who has appeared on numerous TV and radio shows, webinars and podcasts, Dr Connealy has been named one of the Top Functional & Integrative Doctors in the US.
Since 2010, the Cancer Center for Healing has helped tens of thousands of patients live better, longer, healthier lives. We can help you, too. Visit us at CancerCenterForHealing.com to learn more. To find an integrative cancer physician near you, a great resource is the American College for Advancement in Medicine. Their website is www.acam.org.