I love to sleep and will sleep nine hours a night if I can. Maybe to justify this indulgence, I pay attention to research on the benefits of sleep and recent studies are showing that sleep deprivation likely contributes to Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. So maybe my eight to nine hours of sleep is more like a necessity than an indulgence.
It turns out that sleep is the brain’s cleaning cycle, according to these recent studies. We have long known that sleep helps us form new memories and that lack of sleep can decrease our ability to concentrate and learn new things. But these new studies have demonstrated that if we are chronically sleep deprived, our brains build up junk that it is correlated with dementia and some other age related memory issues. Evidently, part of the reason we sleep is so the brain can divert its energy to cleaning up the debris that results for our day of mental aerobics. In a study using mice, the sleep-deprived mice has impaired memory compared to the normal mice and their brains showed accumulation of proteins associated with Alzheimer’s disease. So if we don’t get enough sleep we are aging our brains faster and putting ourselves at risk for neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s disease. If you want to read more details on this new insight, check out this recent New York Times article.
With 80% Americans getting an insufficient amount of sleep, this increased risk for dementia has to potential to be to a serious health crisis. Some people are choosing to sleep less because they are trying to fit more into their busy lives. I have told hundreds of my patients that they need to set themselves an earlier bedtime so they can make sleep a bigger priority. I will even have them set an alarm to help them remember to start their before bed rituals so they will get to bed early enough.
Others want to get their health restoring sleep but are suffering from insomnia. For this group, there are many natural strategies that may help. Often I have patients start by taking some magnesium at bedtime. Magnesium deficiency can contribute to sleeplessness, anxiety, depression, irritability, and muscle cramps. If this isn’t enough, I might add a calming herb like passionflower or California poppy. Others might benefit from taking the amino acid tryptophan shortly before bed to help them make more melatonin, the sleep hormone. Finally, consider a bedtime snack to keep your blood sugar steady through the night and make sure you have a very dark bedroom.
There are many other health benefits to getting a good night’s sleep. If you need more reasons, read my blogs on the connection between insomnia and blood sugar and the link between stress and sleep deprivation.
Nearly all of us suffer from occasional sleeplessness. For those who experience it more often, insomnia may be taking a serious toll on their health. In the short term, lack of sleep causes fatigue, irritability, and reduced ability to concentrate the next day. Long-term insomnia can also contribute to serious health conditions like heart disease, diabetes, depression and weight gain. Because of these serious health risks, it is important to figure out what is causing the inability to sleep, whether it is a medical condition, worry, or low blood sugar, just to name a few.
Now there is a new twist on an old favorite: lavender essential oil has long been used topically for calming and as a sleep aid. Since it can work through inhalation or absorption, many people unwind at bedtime by rubbing it on their temples or putting a few drops on their pillow. Recently, lavender essential oil became available in softgels for internal use to help with anxiety and insomnia. In a study involving over 200 participants, 77% of the people taking this new lavender product saw a reduction in anxiety or insomnia. It took up to 2 weeks for some to see the benefits for anxiety, while it was up to 4-6 weeks for consistent sleep improvements. So, this new form of lavender might be worth considering for those who find anxiety interfering with a good night’s sleep.
I swear that I feel a little more relaxed just enjoying this picture of lavender.
Because of the serious impact stress can have on our health, stress-reducing herbs are becoming nearly as important as a multivitamin. An example that might be right for some people is Magnolia, a relaxing herb that has been shown in studies to be effective at reducing nervousness and anxiety in 78% of participants. Magnolia was also shown to improve sleep and without side effects like withdrawal symptoms or sleepiness the next day. In fact, magnolia can help enhance cognitive function and memory, partially by helping protect the brain from inflammation and oxidative damage. Magnolia contains powerful antioxidant compounds that are being studied for possibly enhancing other anti-cancer treatments. Magnolia is also a mild anti-nauseous herb. Traditionally, magnolia has been used for low energy and emotionally related digestive problems.
Even more interesting is the research done on the combination of Magnolia and Phellodendron, sold under the name Relora. In addition to reducing anxiety and perceived stress, Relora was also shown to reduce cortisol, the stress hormone. Cortisol can become increased in some people when they are exposed to chronic stress. Elevated cortisol levels contribute to many serious health conditions like osteoporosis, diabetes, depression, low immune function, and weight gain. Though lower cortisol may not be enough to lead to weight loss by itself, higher levels of cortisol can make weight loss harder to achieve. Also, there is some evidence that lowering cortisol might reduce stress related eating. So for the appropriate person, Relora could be a boon for both weight loss and overall health.
Posted in Herbs
Tagged adrenals, anxiety, belly fat, chronic stress, cognitive support, cortisol, diabetes, insomnia, mental-health, nootropic, obesity, sleep, stress
Skullcap is one of the relaxing herbs that are native to the Southeastern United States. These herbs are known as nervines, and they both calm and tone the nervous system. Because of this calming effect, skullcap is used for mild cases of anxiety. Its active components have also been shown to bind serotonin receptors in the brain, so skullcap might be a good addition for other mood issues, such as nervousness with fatigue or depression. Skullcap can also help restless sleep and improve how deeply one sleeps. For sleep, it sometimes works better to take this type of herb a few times throughout the day as well as before bed.
Skullcap can also plays a role in herbal pain formulas. It has mild analgesic and inflammation modulating properties. Because it can also dilate cerebral blood vessels, it is indicated for headaches, especially those located at the base of the brain or forehead. It is also chosen for nerve related pain, like neuralgias. Skullcap may help reduce spasms and is used for some types of tremors. Because of its anti-inflammatory benefits, skullcap is combined with astringent and antiseptic herbs for use with periodontal disease. Finally, skullcap is a digestive stimulant that is particularly chosen for nervous stomachs.
Please note that our recent dry summers have affected the availability and price of some herbs like skullcap that are mostly harvested from the wild in this part of the country.
And for those of you who are trying to figure out the secret theme of my last 15 blogs (except the one on Medicinal Kitchen Spices), here is a hint: Where do I live?
Posted in Herbs
Tagged anxiety, frontal headache, health, inflammation, insomnia, nervousness, neuralgia, pain, relaxing herbs, serotonin receptors, sleep, sleep architecture, tremors
Passionflower is a relaxing herb that is native to Arkansas and other southeastern states. It is a close relative of passion fruit, but that species doesn’t have the calming action of passionflower. Even though the plant is named passionflower, we actually use the leaves of this vine before it flowers. One of the most common uses of passionflower is to ease mild cases of anxiety. Some even use it for depression associated with obsessive-compulsive tendencies or circular thinking. It is also used for insomnia, especially when the sleep issues are related to worry or overwork and exhaustion. Passionflower may also increase the quality of sleep.
The key to using passionflower is that it works best for symptoms where there is either restlessness or nerve irritation at the root of the problem. It mildly eases pain, especially nerve pain. Passionflower can also help relax muscle spasms. It has even been shown in studies to reduce the tendency for seizures. Other studies have shown the use of passionflower to ease mental symptoms associated with drug withdrawal, including nicotine and alcohol. Passionflower has also been used for heart palpitations that are related to nervousness.
Though the holidays are a time of joy for many, they can be trying for some. The combination of shorter days and holiday stress can contribute to winter blahs, more technically known as seasonal affective disorder. St. John’s wort is one of the most popular herbs for mild depression, and it can also be a good choice for seasonal affective disorder. St. John’s wort has multiple actions on the brain. It increases the activity of serotonin, one of the main neurotransmitters associated with contentment. St. John’s wort additionally improves the availability of norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter that helps us feel alert and energized. Finally, St. John’s wort may reduce the production of cortisol, the stress hormone that is linked to some types of depression. Because of these amazing actions, many studies have shown St. John’s wort to be nearly as affective as some of the most common anti-depressant medications for mild to moderate depression.
Among its lesser-known uses, St. John’s wort may help other mood issues like anxiety. St. John’s wort might help activated the brain receptors for GABA, a calming neurotransmitter. Because of this calming action, St. John’s wort has also been used for sleep disorders like insomnia. St. John’s wort not only affects the brain, but also can benefit nerves throughout the body. A common use is for nerve pain, especially when due to injury or from shingles. St. John’s wort has some anti-microbial benefits that particularly help it fight viruses in the herpes family to which shingles belong. But before you decide to try this helpful herb, there are a few warnings to pay attention to. St. John’s wort should be avoided by people with bipolar disorder or any other form of mania. Also, St. John’s wort may interact with some medications to make them less effective, including birth control pills. Finally, St. John’s wort shouldn’t be used with most of the anti-depressant medications because of potentially dangerous side effects.
My blog last week was about the connection between sleep deprivation and blood sugar issues. My goal was to encourage people to sleep more to help improve their overall health, but some people know they need more sleep but are struggling with insomnia. There are two different patterns of insomnia. Some people have trouble falling asleep. For others, the issue is staying asleep. Today I am focusing on this second type of insomnia known as sleep fragmentation. As I mentioned in my blog last week, insufficient sleep can lead to elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol, but sleep fragmentation can in turn be due to increased levels of cortisol. Stress can increase cortisol levels and shift peak cortisol production to later in the day, which may interfere with sleep. Our cortisol level is supposed to decline throughout the day so it doesn’t keep us awake at night. In addition, stress and worry can contribute to the sleep disturbance by keeping people up if they wake in the night.
Cortisol is produced by the adrenal glands in response to stress and low blood sugar. Herbs known as adaptogens can help balance adrenal output of cortisol. Examples of these herbs are ashwagandha, rhodiola, and astragalus just to name a few. Some people benefit from including these herbs to their sleep protocol. These herbs don’t necessarily have an immediate effect. They are taken during the day on a regular basis to help tone the adrenal glands and compensate for the effects of long-term stress. They may even increase energy during the day.
Another related issue that can interfere with a good night’s sleep is blood sugar. If blood sugar drops during the night, the body releases cortisol and adrenaline to help raise it. Then these stimulating hormones can wake us up. For this issue, a healthy, balanced snack before bed may help us sleep through the night.
Using healthy food choices to maintain a steady blood sugar is important because of the relationship between blood sugar and cortisol. Low blood sugar can cause cortisol release. This cortisol can interferes with sleep, which leads to further increases in cortisol. Cortisol has several effects on the body including interfering with sleep and contributing to insulin resistance so it can throw off our blood sugar further. This is yet another reason we all need to continue to focus on healthy foods, good sleep, and stress reduction. I hope you get some of all of these this weekend.
As I have said before about menopause, no every herbs works equally well for every woman. We have to look at the unique attributes of each herb and compare them to the experience of each menopausal woman. The herb I wanted to highlight today is motherwort. As the name implies this is a useful plant for mothers. Particularly, it is used for overworked mother who could use some mothering themselves. Among its other attributes, motherwort is calming and soothing to the nerves. It can help with insomnia due to anxiety, which I frequently see in mothers and other patients. Motherwort can also be useful as part of a protocol for hot flashes, but it is more likely to help those where anxiety and insomnia are also part of the picture.
As we begin to go through menopausal changes, our menstrual cycle among other things can go haywire. Premenstrual symptoms that we haven’t had since our teenage years can return or completely new symptoms can arise. Motherwort can be useful here too. Motherwort can help relieve premenstrual tension and discomfort. Most menstrual cramps are partially due to inadequate circulation in the pelvis. Motherwort may help calm menstrual pain by both reducing spasms in the uterus and improving blood flow to the pelvis. Motherwort might work best for cramps that are accompanied by a scant menstrual flow and again where anxiety or stress is part of the picture. Motherwort needs to be used for several months for the best benefit. But please don’t let the name motherwort mislead you into thinking this is an herb for pregnant women. It is not recommended during pregnancy since it can cause uterine contractions.