When we fall asleep at night, we are designed to stay asleep until the next morning, when we should wake refreshed and ready for the next day’s action. Small noises and sensations should not wake us up and neither should pain nor the desire to wee. Part of our brain stem, called the Reticular Formation, is an information highway running between the brain and the body, and it conveys, amongst other things, information about the background stuff that we are not aware of – breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, walking pattern and so on. When we are awake, the Reticular Formation is firing constantly, keeping us safe and alert; at night it’s tired out and we need profound sleep for it to recover.
When it does not shut down properly all night, basically it’s waking us up warning us of danger – from without or from within.
For many people, they lie awake at night sadly day-dreaming of waking refreshed and ready for the next day’s challenges. There are very many causes of insomnia and, to really improve sleep quality takes a multi pronged attack. For now, here are ten possible causes of frustrating sleep.
- Too much caffeine too close to bedtime
- Too much stimulation during the evening
- Too much booze
- Poor sleeping environment
- Poor digestion
- Excessive stress
- Chronic illness
- Chronic anxiety
- Lack of magnesium and/or melatonin.
Some of these are more easily addressed than other: why after dinner coffee is made from the strongest beans is a complete mystery to me. Caffeine is a powerful stimulant and whilst some are more susceptible to its strength, to help achieve profound sleep, it should be avoided after 4pm at the latest. Green Tea is not so bad since the theanine it contains is actually a caffeine antagonist.
Too much stimulation before bedtime: this is becoming better known and includes avoiding screens for a while before going to bed; installing apps on phones and computers that cut out blue light in the evening; no strenuous exercise within a few hours of bed.
Too much booze: well that’s one well up for an experiment: no booze = better night’s sleep? Incidentally, to be sure of the result of the experiment, we do have to go for a good few nights booze free, especially if we have been having rather too much fun for a little while now.
Poor sleeping environment. We are designed to sleep in caves where we are safe from bears. Which means the bedroom should be completely dark and free of electronic gizmos, computers and TVs. If that is not possible, do turn the electrical stuff off at bedtime. One of the oddest things I come across is people complaining of not sleeping well – but insisting they like a light bedroom, so have skinny curtains or no curtains at all – the Danes adore gauzy white curtains which do not cut down the light; not so bad in the winter months, but blooming awful in the long summer days. To me, flimsy curtains are utterly bonkers – and worth an experiment: poor sleep – get the bedroom as dark as possible and see if that improves things! When I’m away, I use a light proof silk eye mask.
Poor digestion: this can be invidious. We wake and we don’t really know why. Yes, if we have gut ache, why we are awake is obvious. But the guts/liver can be quite unhappy but we are getting no pain; we will have other symptoms: for example, bowel troubles of any kind; bloating; back ache; breathlessness linked to poor breathing patterns.1
Trauma; how we deal with trauma, both physical and mental, is individual. Many of us hold past trauma in the body, remaining permanently in the position of shock, which is characterised by elevated and rounded shoulders, stiff neck, tight jaw and knees turned in. Also being still in trauma really messes with the guts, so calming down the trauma will improve gut function no end. It is worth bearing in mind that the trauma can have happened at any time in life – right from birth onwards. A very fast birth, a very slow one, forceps delivery, breech or caesarian section have permanent effects on the cranium and/or coccyx which will lead to long term pain and dysfunction, slowly getting worse as the years roll on. Of course, there are the obvious physical traumas, the worst being head or coccyx trauma along with horrendous mental trauma.
Excessive stress: wired but tired. A horrible state to be in. Life hurtles past during the day, you are sleep deprived and hanging on by the scraggly fingernails; come bedtime, you flop into bed only to stare at the eyelids, completely unable to let go and get a good snore on. The causes of excessive, long term stress can actually lie in previous trauma – leading to us getting too stressed by stuff that is not so important and the stuff that is important is overwhelming. So undoing the trauma will help regain a balanced reaction to the normalities of life. And, of course, finding ways that destress us help: exercise – vigorous or gentle – meditation, mindfulness, breathing techniques; there are an increasing amount of choices.
Chronic anxiety is even more related to held trauma. In the vast scheme of things, does whatever it is bothering us now really matter? If we are finding that wearing dark glasses is very comforting, or wearing light ear plugs to reduce the noise help, we should do those things but also recognise that these are red flags and Something Must Be Done to calm the brain down and restore normality.
Chronic illness. Well, there you go. If you are reading this, you are already looking for alternatives to the long, pharmacological crawl to death. Keep on trucking and searching for the answers you need; the brain is very powerful and very complex; the better it works, the better things are, no matter what else is going on.
Lack of magnesium and/or melatonin. Magnesium is the calming mineral; and due to agrochemicals, we are increasingly short of it2 One of the side effects of insufficient magnesium is inability to sleep well. When people first start taking a high class magnesium product like Poliquin Brand Ubermag, they feel the effects in vivid dreams, which subside after a few nights. When taking Ubermag for the first time, we have to slowly increase the dose, not because of unwanted bowel effects, but so the body gently acclimatises to more normal levels of magnesium.
Melatonin: as we age, we slowly produce less of this hormone and sometimes we simply don’t produce enough, no matter what our age. Melatonin is produced in a seesaw with cortisol: it is produced in the later part of the day so we wind down properly; from about 2am, cortisol levels slowly rise so when we wake in the morning we are raring to go. A combination of melatonin and Ubermag goes a long way to producing a decent night’s kip.
So here we have a few ideas about causes of insomnia, and many are interlinked, which means tackling the problem needs persistence and a fair amount of sleuth work. But it is possible to sleep well without using sleeping pills – I can testify to that.
- Incidentally, we should produce a nice big turd every single day – in one plop or several – and the turd should be nicely formed and easy to pass. The underlying guts should be flat and not distended, even if that lovely flatness lies beneath a comforting layer of blubber – which means that some people think they are fatter than they really are. Backache is a sure sign the guts are not working properly. If you do cardio, you can breathe well, only getting out of breathe on extreme exertion. Why the guts are in pain is a blog of itself, but a good place to start is with dietary experimentation: cutting out the leading causes of gut irritation: wheat,dairy, eggs, the onion family, fruit, red meat (if you can’t eat this, it is a sure sign of problems with breaking down protein). [↩]
- In days of yore before agrochemicals were invented, things went round and round; dung was rotted down and put back on the land for fertiliser. This meant that nutrients were recycled. Now we have modern agrochemicals that have nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium so the plants grow very quickly. Magnesium is only added if the leaves turn yellow – which is showing a dire shortage of the mineral. The plants take up the nutrients they need from the soil, but, as time goes by, these nutrients, including magnesium, are not replenished, so the quantities left in the plants, in the animals that eat the plants, including us, slowly drop. [↩]