Adequate sleep is as essential to our wellbeing as a healthy diet, exercise, and stress management, but unfortunately for many it is difficult to achieve. A recent survey by the National Sleep Foundation shows that sleep difficulties occur for 75% of us at least a few nights per week. This is alarming because our long-term health depends on the regeneration that occurs during sleep.
When we sleep our body regenerates its supply growth hormone, the “anti-aging hormone.” This nightly ritual serves to stimulate tissue regeneration, liver cleansing, muscle building, the breakdown of fat stores, and the normalization of blood sugar levels. When your sleep cycle is interrupted, so too is your body’s production of growth hormone. Chronic sleep loss also alters our immune system function, putting us at higher risk for colds, flus and maybe even cancer. People with sleep difficulties also tend to suffer from fatigue, weight gain, high blood pressure, decreased concentration, and irritability.
So why do we have so much difficulty sleeping? The truth of the matter is that there are many (by some counts, over 60) different potential underlying causes to an individual’s sleep disturbance. Determining the cause can be complicated, but with a thorough history, physical exam, and the help of functional medicine testing the cause can typically be determined and addressed. Our motto should be: Rather than medicate the symptom, let’s get to the bottom of the problem.
One of the best tools I have found for resolving sleep difficulties is sleep-specific neurotransmitter and hormone testing. Many neurotransmitters (the chemical signals in our brain) and hormones are necessary at certain levels to achieve sleep, and imbalances in any one of these may lead to sleep disturbance.
For example, serotonin is one of the most important neurotransmitters for sleep because it is needed to initiate sleep. So, for those having difficulty falling asleep, a serotonin deficiency may be the culprit. Therefore using natural supplements such as tryptophan or 5-HTP (both of which are building blocks of serotonin molecules) can increase serotonin and as a result improve sleep.