Poor sleep not only makes us grumpy, hungry and lethargic, it can be deadly. A study by researchers in Australia showed that being awake for 18 hours produced an impairment equal to a blood alcohol concentration of .05, and .10 after 24 hours. In most states, .08 is considered legally drunk. Consider that roughly 86% of Americans commute by automobile to and from work, according to 2013 U.S. Census Data, and you realize that's a lot of people on the road potentially impaired from poor sleep.
Interrupted sleep—prolonged wakefulness up to 4 times a night over 8 hours is equal if not worse than the damage caused by insomnia—an inability to fall asleep. The impact to the four-stage 60-90 minute sleep cycle may actually be worse than insomnia because when the sleep cycle is interrupted the sleep cycles starts over again, potentially inhibiting your most deeper and more restorative sleep phases.
What can you do to make sure you get to sleep and stay asleep?
Eat consistent balanced meals through out the day and especially at dinnertime. Your blood sugar may be dropping in the middle of the night causing your body to wake you up.
Nighttime hypoglycemia caused by eating too many carbohydrates such as pasta and bread, skipping meals, eating large meals and eating late at night can lead to a blood sugar surge and plunge that cause you to wake as the blood sugar drops.
Watch alcohol intake at dinner and after. Your wine or alcohol at night may be the culprit. True, alcohol often reduces the time it takes to fall asleep and increased deep slow wave sleep (SWS) in the early part of the night that is restorative but it impairs the later sleep stages and the ability to get into REM sleep where memories and learning occurs. Keep your alcohol to no more than 1 for a woman at dinner and 2 for a man should reduce the likelihood alcohol may affect your sleep.
“ However, men are not immune to hormone changes that may affect sleep.”
Check your hormones. Fluctuations of hormones such as estrogen, progesterone and testosterone during women’s cycles, pregnancy and during menopause are likely culprits for interrupted sleep. This points to why women are more than twice as likely to have interrupted sleep and insomnia than men. However, men are not immune to hormone changes that may affect sleep. There is strong evidence that falling testosterone levels increase a man’s chances of having sleep apnea—a sleep disorder where the airway is obstructed.
You may have adrenal fatigue. Stress causes a surge in adrenal hormones called adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones are designed to make you alert and ready fight or flee. Normal adrenal activities are highest in the morning and lowest at bedtime. Chronic stress can cause abnormal fluctuations in adrenal function, low blood sugar and an inability to stay asleep as will abnormally high or low cortisol.
You may be low on vitamin co-factors and the proteins required to make your sleep neurotransmitters melatonin and gaba. Sleep is regulated on a circadian rhythm by the brain and adrenal glands. Melatonin, the sleep neurotransmitter is made from serotonin, which is made from the amino acid tryptophan and the vitamin co-factors: vitamins B6, B12, folate, niacin and the minerals iron and magnesium. A shortage of these nutrients will leave you with fewer ingredients to make your sleep chemistry. Additionally gaba, the most abundant calming neurotransmitter in the brain, plays a role in keeping you asleep as well as convert glycogen into glucose in the brain. Gaba also depends on adequate B6 levels.
“ A shortage of these nutrients will leave you with fewer ingredients to make your sleep chemistry.”
You may have gastrointestinal reflux (GERD) and your only symptom is interrupted sleep. GERD occurs when acid from the stomach backs up into the esophagus, sometimes causing a burning sensation or chest pain. However, not everyone gets symptoms. Interrupted sleep or chronic cough might be your only symptoms. Before you run off to take an antacid, a doctor should check your esophagus for damage as this can lead to other health issues. Then you need to look into potential diet and lifestyle triggers, such as eating too much and eating late, eating spicy or acidic foods, and checking for undiagnosed food allergies and sensitivities.
Your medications and or supplements might be leading to interrupted sleep patterns. Beta-blockers for high blood pressure or asthma medications are well-known culprits for sleep issues. Opioid drugs often prescribed for pain can lead to sleep apnea. Supplements known to be stimulatory like ginseng, gotu kola and licorice can also put the breaks on getting a good night sleep. Vitamins B12 and B6 taken at night can lead to vivid dreams that can wake you up. It is best to take those in the morning.
Betty Murray, CN, IFMCP, CHC is a Certified Nutritionist & Certified Functional Medicine Practitioner with the Institute for Functional Medicine, Founder of the Dallas-based functional medicine clinic Living Well Dallas and Executive Director of the the Functional Medicine Association of North Texas. A master of the biochemistry of the body, Betty teaches her clients how to utilize nutrition for autoimmune diseases, digestive disorders and weight loss. Connect with Betty on Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest. Click here to get your free "Guide to Going Gluten Free – everything you ever needed to know to Go Gluten Free!"