Taming the Mind at Night: Help for Insomnia

By Dr. Linda J. Dobberstein, DC, Board Certified in Clinical Nutrition

October 3, 2016

Taming the Mind at Night: Help for Insomnia
Turning the mind off at night in order to go to sleep is a challenge for many. Intrusive thoughts about the day’s events or the “to-do list” for the next day may pop into the mind. For others, it is simply just being wide awake, unable to sleep without the mind being locked into “busyness.” Disruptions may be for an occasional night, for others it may drag on for extended periods of time related to underlying depression, anxiety, sleep disorders or other concerns. Taming these intrusive disruptions is essential for a good night’s sleep and vitality for the next day for all ages.

Failure to tame the mind or the brain allowing us to get to sleep or stay asleep happens for a number of reasons. Elevated cortisol in the evening or in the middle of the night, estrogen dominance or inadequate progesterone, and histamine excess are some of the factors that lead to sleep deprivation.

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Cortisol and Insomnia

The adrenal hormone, cortisol, has a natural rhythm. The highest concentration of cortisol occurs between 6 and 8AM and from there it declines until the next morning in a healthy natural rhythm. Cortisol is the “rise and shine”, wake me up adrenal steroid hormone. If this rhythm is off, cortisol may peak late in the day, at bedtime or even in the middle of the night, which can cause significant sleep problems.

Cortisol peaking at bedtime causes the “night owl” behaviors and the “wired and tired” feeling that prevents sleep from occurring. Getting a “second wind” in the evening or feeling like 10PM is the best part of the day reflects cortisol levels elevating. Being wide awake when trying to go to bed at night may reflect elevated cortisol levels.

This night-owl response may indicate that the HPA axis (hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal) axis is overstimulated, i.e. it is dealing with high levels of stress and is in crisis mode. It may also reflect cortisol resistance from too many “911” alarm calls in trying to manage excess stress. It may also elevate in response to clinical depression.

Depression is often associated with elevated cortisol in the evening or at night. Researchers have found that individuals who struggle with rumination or constant repetitive intrusive thoughts at night that creates insomnia may be experiencing depression. Addressing the elevated cortisol and high levels of neurological inflammation associated with depression may help address this type of mind on the “gerbil wheel insomnia” or rumination associated insomnia.

Some individuals are also naturally wired with “delayed clock” genes that make them more of a night owl. This is a different response than cortisol elevations at night. 

Blood Sugar, Cortisol, and Insomnia

Cortisol can also spike in the middle of the night. This causes the wide-awake, staring at the ceiling response usually between 1 and 3 AM. This often reflects night-time hypoglycemia. When blood sugar drops too low at night, cortisol levels will spike in response to the stress of low blood sugar. You may or may not feel hungry at this time, but the brain is stressed because of low glycogen stores causing delayed insomnia. This pattern may reflect adrenal glands that are overly engaged at night trying to counter-regulate glucose.

This pattern reflects how well blood sugar, the liver, adrenal glands, and the leptin hormone work together in harmony. Having adequate protein and good fats with some complex, low glycemic index carbohydrates and low glycemic load in three meals per day is essential for the intertwined body clocks and hormonal systems.

Strive for at least half of your ideal body weight in total grams of protein per day. For example, if your ideal body weight is 150 pounds, then aim for 75 grams of protein per day. In this scenario, consider 150 grams of carbohydrate or less per day, and at least 25 percent of calories coming from healthy fats to stabilize blood sugar. This includes quality saturated fats. This helps support healthy glycogen stores, balance leptin, and help with the normal circadian rhythms of the body.

Liver health ties into sleep and insomnia. Chinese medicine has long recognized the liver as being most active between 1 and 3 AM. If the liver is stressed, this can lead to insomnia or waking up between 1 and 3 AM and being unable to get back to sleep. Taking silymarin, dandelion root, and r-alpha lipoic acid during the day can help support healthy liver function. Keep in mind that the liver must detoxify all the hormones that are produced. Having a stuck or clogged liver leads to inefficient clearance of these hormones. Other liver health concerns like cirrhosis or fatty liver are also associated with insomnia. 

Histamine Intolerance and Insomnia

Histamine, the chemical that we think of with allergies, is a neurotransmitter. It promotes wakefulness like dopamine, serotonin, glutamate, acetylcholine, and norepinephrine. This is why anti-histamine medications like Benadryl, are often used at night to promote drowsiness. Sleepless nights from poison ivy and allergy season occur because of histamine reaction creating itchy skin welts and impenetrable nasal congestion. The high levels of histamine also affect the nervous system rendering a fitful night’s sleep.

Histamine is broken down by compounds that support methylation. Lack of adequate methylation can cause histamine levels to be chronically elevated. Some individuals struggle with the DAO (diamine oxidase) enzyme not working properly. This causes histamine to build up in the system. This can manifest as poor sleep, trouble with seasonal affective disorders, some types of depression, and feeling “ramped up” or overstimulated. Other symptoms may include asthma, digestive symptoms, headaches, eczema, hives, psoriasis, sinus congestion, menstrual difficulties, and intolerance to alcohol.

Pepperoni pizza and beer and poor sleep the night afterwards is often chalked up to indigestion associated with these foods. Certainly that is one aspect, but the tossing and turning may be a result of high histamine levels from these foods. Gluten, beer, and cured, smoked meats are histamine-rich foods. Other foods high in histamine include fermented foods, kombucha, pickles, wine, yogurt, mature cheeses, cured, smoked, and fermented meats, fermented soy, tomatoes, spinach, and canned fish products.

In addition to removing or reducing high histamine containing foods from the diet, there are several nutritional compounds that help suppress or quench high histamine.

Counting sheep, fighting with pillows, reading at night are all different manners of trying to cope with insomnia but do little to help the body with these scenarios described above. Persisting insomnia where the brain “fails to turn off” is a symptom of something out of balance. Elevated or out-of-sync cortisol levels are extraordinarily common with today’s stressors. Hormone imbalances are increasing common too. Cortisol, hormone and histamine levels and DAO gene expression can be measured if needed or desired. Quenching the stimulatory fire and taming the mind that results in a deep, blissful sleep is the goal. Consider using some of the nutrients to help you tame your mind at night!

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