WHY ARE OUR BRAINS BUSY WITH THOUGHTS AT NIGHT?
One of the most frequent causes of being unable to shut off our thoughts at night is because we’ve got our smart devices on before bedtime. Not only does this disrupt your sleep/wake cycle, it also tells your brain to wake up. So whether we’re reading work emails, watching a crime video or the evening news, or even just trolling social media – pinning, tweeting, liking things – you’re activating your brain and language and emotion centers to stay awake and start running a marathon.
DO YOU HAVE A BUSY BRAIN?
So let’s start with what I call the ‘busy brain.’ When we we are in the busy brain state, we can find ourselves overthinking, and in the situation of, “I can’t shut my thoughts off at night.”
THE CASE FOR NIGHTLY DIGITAL DETOX
The first step is what I call digital detox; removing the distractions. Digital devices create a busy brain from the blue light emitted from phones and computers, the worry we feel about emails, and the electromagnetic frequencies given off from devices.
This is a relatively new phenomenon brought on by this age of digital hyper-connectivity. As we start 2014, reports of insomnia are worsening in our population while profits from products promising sound sleep are skyrocketing. In early 2012, the American Medical Association recognized that “exposure to excessive light at night, including extended use of various electronic media, can disrupt sleep or exacerbate sleep disorders.”
Therefore, exposure to electronic stimuli and disrupted sleep are scientifically linked, and sleep problems have many more negative consequences than many might realize. A lack of sleep has been clinically linked to weight gain, depression, increased anxiety, heart disease and a whole host of other medical problems. Sleep deprivation also has been documented as a cause of car accidents, work-site injuries and poor job performance. Sleep is sacred, and it is essential for health — mind, body, and spirit.
If falling asleep or staying asleep is a problem, we need to unplug. The distractions of emails and social media are not the only problem preventing us from quieting our minds. Even the blue light emitted from our electronic equipment has been scientifically shown to disturb sleep by suppressing melatonin.
BUST UP THE BUSY BRAIN
If the thoughts are still going on, introduce the cognitive behavioral therapy exercise of writing down your to-do lists (see Busy Brain List Exercise below).
After that, typically if the brain is still wired, it’s a sign that maybe the cortisol levels and other markers of inflammation are elevated in the brain.
ARE THERE REALLY SUPPLEMENTS OUT THERE THAT CAN HELP ME FALL ASLEEP AT NIGHT?
It is not uncommon when I am speaking around the country, or especially when folks come to see me in clinic at the Center of Natural and Integrative Medicine here in Orlando, Florida, that they arrive with a bag full of supplements. They typically say, “Dr. Romie, if you’re going to hand me one more supplement, ain’t none of them going to work. Just toss them.” Or another popular one I hear often, “Well, let me just pick one at random and see if it helps me to fall asleep.”
Along with the trial and error of over-the-counter supplements, and no clear instruction of proper dosage, there is also a common fear of prescription medication and long-term dependency in individuals that seek help with falling asleep.
So, what are the supplements that actually work? I will go over the ones I trust and recommend in this blog post, but keep in mind, not all supplements are created equal. Pinpointing what’s going on in this season you’re in will help determine which supplement may be the best for you.
WHEN MELATONIN WORKS (AND THE CORRECT DOSE)
It’s in these ‘busy brain’ cases that we find melatonin is actually really beneficial. Melatonin works best when started at a dose, believe it or not, of three milligrams. I mention that because most of the over the counter melatonin you find is a fraction of that. So, be mindful when you’re looking online or in the supplement store, you want a dose of at least three milligrams for adults. Melatonin has been found beneficial in studies to be effective in the following situations:
- reseting the biological clock to fall asleep earlier in the evening.
- help prevent symptoms of jet-lag
- help with middle of the night awakening
Where melatonin does not typically help is if it is used as a medication to fall asleep like sedatives. While some people benefit from a side effect of sedation, this is not the common use of serotonin.
When you’ve been sweating, are dehydrated, or if you have any alcohol in the evening, your magnesium levels are depleted. A magnesium deficiency can occur with levels dropping, and this is a mineral which affects chemical reactions in the brain negatively. With low levels of chronic magnesium due to nutritional deficiencies or depletion occurs a drop in serotonin level occurs in the brain. Chronic magnesium deficiencies causes symptoms in the entire body, and in the brain leads to:
- migraine headaches
- worsening PMS symptoms
- anxiety and mood disorders
- worsening depression
In these cases, we can measure magnesium levels in the blood or saliva. Using magnesium glycinate to can negate this deficiency. Magnesium glycinate is the most gentle formulation to avoid stomach upset.
My go-to trusted brand is Natural Vitality CALM (this is not an advertisement). I suggest starting with a smaller dose than what is listed on the label in order to minimize digestive irritation. Magnesium is wonderful, and also very sedating. It helps balance those chemicals in the brain that can be off when we have a busy brain, as well as any that have been depleted during the day from sweating, dehydration, and drinking alcohol.
The third thing I often prescribe to patients in low dose, if they have an anxiety disorder and a little bit of insomnia with it, is something known as 5HTP. 5HTP is a natural precursor for serotonin, which is a feel-good hormone. It can, in low doses of starting at 50 milligrams, help you fall asleep and stay asleep. Now, this drug is contraindicated and should not be taken if you’re on an SSRI or SNRI, antidepressant medication.
* And always please consult your physician and talk to them before taking any of these supplements.
OTHER SUPPLEMENTS FOR SLEEP
Additional supplements you’ll find on the market, that are very commonly listed as sleep aids, are lavender, chamomile, passionflower, and lemon balm. If you’re going to look for any of these supplements, I tend to recommend them in combination therapy.
Two of my favorite brands are as follows:
- Sleep Already from Fundamental Earth
- Best Rest from Pure Encapsulations.
Each is an all-in-one supplement that includes several ingredients to help you fall asleep and stay asleep. Please note, I don’t have any financial incentive to recommend any of the brands listed below, however, I do know about the quality of the products as I have used them myself and often recommend them to clients.
Holding the intention for peaceful sleep,
**Before starting any over the counter medications, supplements, or prescription medications please speak to your physician**