In 2017 Jeffery Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael Young won the Nobel Prize in physiology for their work on circadian rhythms, also known as the internal body clock. Circadian rythyms control sleep-wake cycles, taking cues from the sun. When sunlight enters the eyes, the production of cortisol, the fight or flight hormone, is triggered. Early morning light has an abundance of blue light which is especially helpful for cortisol production and increased energy. It prevents sleep. Sleep is induced when the light dims. Witnessing sunset, or being outdoors at dusk promotes the release of melatonin, which promotes sleep. Being out of sync with circadian rythyms can disturb sleep.  Manmade light is partly responsible for the disconnect. Compact fluorescent bulbs, LED lights, television screens, computers, tablets, and other electronic devices emit predominantly blue light and can cause sleep difficulty by keeping cortisol levels high at night when they should be lowest.  Many modern devices offer options to filter out the blue light. Paying attention to light plus a few other key factors can help you sleep like a baby.

  1. 1.    Spend time outdoors Go outside and drink in the beauty and balancing effects of sunrise and sunset.  Avoid screens after sunset or use blue light filters. If you experience insomnia, at the very least, avoid all screens for 1 hour prior to bedtime. 
  2. 2.    Create a bedtime routine Go to bed around the same time every night, and get up around the same time, even on weekends. Bedtime becomes hardwired into your brain and soon the brain is entrained. Sleep that takes place before midnight is more aligned with our natural rhythms and therefore more restorative. A bedtime of 10 or 11pm is about as late as you want.
  3. 3.    Physical activity Get some exercise every day; walk, dance, whatever you enjoy.  Exercise helps to restore the balance of neurotransmitters that regulate activity, sleep, and mood.  Morning exercise helps to increase energy throughout the day and makes for a better nights rest. Do not exercise before bed.  Exercise raises cortisol and can interfere with sleep. 
  4. 4.    Balanced diet Keep your blood sugar balanced to help stay asleep all night. Late night blood sugar crashes are stressful for the brain and can wake you. Avoid eating before bed. Digestion raises body temperature and interferes with sleep. 
  5. 5.    The sleep environment:  A cool, dark, quiet room is most conducive to sleep. The body temperature drops while we sleep and being overheated can wake you. Nightlights are best avoided, but if they are necessary, use dim red lights, to keep melatonin levels high. Create an association with the bedroom and sleep. Use the bedroom exclusively for sleep or sex.  Do not watch TV, work, or play games in the bedroom. Reading a relaxing book is the one exception. 

These therapeutic lifestyle changes, TLC’s, can help even the most recalcitrant insomniac enjoy regular restorative sleep without medicines, herbs, or supplements. Sleep aids can be helpful while you are creating healthful new habits, however, once the habits are integrated, the aids become unnecessary.  Seek the advice of your doctor or holistic practitioner before using over the counter or natural sleep aids. Some popular over the counter sleep aids are associated with an increase risk of dementia.  Adequate sleep protects the brain against dementia, helps to lower blood pressure, control blood sugar, and prevent depression. Everything feels better after a good nights sleep!

During my training as a Naturopathic Doctor at the National University of Natural Medicine in Portland OR, I learned much of what a family practice doctor learns, plus nutrition, herbal medicine, homeopathy, counseling and hydrotherapy.  Our profession is guided by a unique philosophy:  address the cause; believe in the healing power of nature; emphasize the role of doctor as teacher; treat the whole person; prevention; and of course, first do no harm.  In my 17 years of practicing medicine, I have had the honor of witnessing dramatic improvements in people’s lives as they integrate health-giving habits.  Sleep, good eating habits, and exercise, are the fundamentals of optimal health.  Herbs and other natural therapies work best on this foundation. Take steps towards creating the habits to feel your best..