But, How Do I Get to Sleep???

We have all experienced a sleepless night or two worrying about an exam or job interview, or wondering how to pay the rent. But family members of active alcoholics and addicts often find that sleep eludes them much more chronically and dangerously. Whether you are anxiously lying in the dark waiting for our teenage daughter to come home safely, albeit high, or hoping against hope that a husband won’t be violent when he stumbles home drunk at 2 AM, living in an addicted family creates serious barriers to deep restful sleep.

In this article I want to explore some typical sleep barriers and propose safe, natural solutions available to everyone.

The very first step in supporting sleep is to take time to identify the actual causes of insomnia so intervention can be targeted effectively.

    • Actual Danger and Realistic Fear: Other than when we collapse into exhausted sleep, our bodies are hard-wired to stay alert and awake in the face of danger. If you are in a situation of actual danger, the first step is to create a safety plan and have a bag packed with ID, keys and extra clothes. Know what you are going to do and rehearse it with your children if necessary.  This, by itself, may help your nervous system to settle down, allowing you then to take further care of yourself with the nutrients below, along with proper sleep hygiene.
    • Depleted Neurotransmitters: Neurotransmitters are the brain chemicals which manage our moods and behavior. Certain ones wake us up, and others tell our brain it is time to sleep and bring relaxation to both body and mind. They are created by amino acids which come from the protein we eat but can also be bought at any vitamin store. They are depleted by stress.
  • Serotonin, which turns into melatonin, turns off the anxious, agitated worry and obsessive thinking which can both keep us awake or wake us up at 3 am.  Supplementing with the amino acids L-Tryptophan or 5HTP before bed or during the day can quickly help to raise serotonin levels. Especially if you are a shift worker or crossing time zones, adding 3 mg Melatonin can help your brain reset for sleep. If you are on an SSRI antidepressant such as Prozac, please consult with a practitioner trained in the use of amino acids first. 
  • GABA is responsible for lowering physical tension, relaxing the muscles, and filtering out distracting stimuli.  You can buy GABA by itself (start with a low dose of about 200 mg then build if needed) or in combination with other support amino acids such as taurine, glycine or inositol. It could help if you have trouble falling asleep due to stiff and tense muscles and general restlessness. 
    • Depleted Vitamins and Minerals: Sufficient amounts of vitamins and minerals are required to turn amino acids into neurotransmitters and allow our body and brain to function optimally. These get depleted by stress and lack of proper food. We recommend a good quality multi-vitamin and mineral formula along with extra zinc, B6 and magnesium as needed. 500 mg of magnesium citrate or magnesium glycinate before bed often helps to relax muscles and promote sleep as well. Certain herbs, such as chamomile, valerian, avena sativa, linden flowers, passion flower, and hops are high in relaxing minerals, and a cup or two of such soothing teas often relax both body and soul before bed. 
    • High Cortisol Levels: Cortisol is a product of our adrenal glands which wakes us up in the morning and gives us energy to get us through the day. It is then supposed to drop at bedtime so that we can sleep. If we have been under continuous stress, our cortisol production tends to drop in the morning, making it hard for us to get up and going, but spikes at bedtime, giving us a second wind, and preventing sleep. This is most effectively tested using a 4-point cortisol saliva test, available online through many companies.  However, testing is often not needed as the symptoms are very clear! The amino acid L-Theanine at 100-200 mg seems to have the ability to block cortisol at bedtime, along with the other arousing chemicals –  adrenaline, norepinephrine and glutamate. These chemicals can cause us anxiety and agitation during the day as well and theanine can be used to bring calm at any time. Seriphos, a form of phosphatidyl serine, and ashwaganda have also been used to lower cortisol at bedtime and promote sleep. Finally, guided imagery tapes for sleep and relaxation, such as those by Bellaruth Naperstak, have also been shown to lower cortisol levels at bed-time, by teaching the body to relax.  
    • Hunger:  Many times, we feel too upset to eat, or simply don’t have the energy or time to cook and eat a nourishing meal in the evening. While we may not feel hungry (tummy hunger), going more than 4-6 hours without protein and other healthy food will drop our blood sugar levels to the point that our adrenal glands shoot out adrenaline and cortisol to compensate. These chemicals will keep us from falling asleep or may wake us up in the middle of the night.  At that point we may toss and turn for hours. Having a non-sugary snack such as a glass of milk, a banana with unsweetened peanut butter, or another protein/complex carbohydrate combination before bed, or when awake in the night, will frequently bring on deep, restful sleep within 20 minutes. Some people, but not all, find that 1000 mg L-Glutamine without food will help turn off that adrenaline response to low blood sugar at night, as it does during the day. 
  • Physical Pain:  There are many useful natural approaches to soothing chronic and acute pain which will be thoroughly addressed in a future article. However, the amino acids L-Tryptophan, GABA and D-Phenylalanine can all help before bed.
  • Lack of Sleep Hygiene:  Sleep hygiene is the term we use to describe the environment required by the body to settle into sleep. Dr. Breus, a sleep expert, has many helpful articles on proper sleep hygiene. The basics include reducing blue light from electronic screens at least one hour before bed and eliminating most if not all light from the bedroom to support melatonin production.  Making time for self-care before bed is crucial, though often very difficult. Creating a sleep ritual followed every night signals the brain that it is time to let go, relax and sleep. These rituals might include a shower, teeth brushing, letting the dog out, prayer and meditation. Some people fall asleep to relaxing music or while reading a novel. They are unique to you!

I hope that these suggestions are helpful. For more information, please contact Christina Veselak, LMFT at 303-888-9617. To find a Certified Recovery Nutrition Coach in your area, please go to  Academy for Addiction & Mental Health Nutrition Recovery Coach Directory.


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