We know sleep is important for helping us to be our best selves, and for healing from trauma, but how? It isn’t enough to know that sleep is important, because we’ve all tried things to help us sleep better. Often lack of sleep makes us more on edge, moody, hungry, hyperactive, and withdrawn. We make more mistakes when aren’t sleeping well, and then we get more stressed out over those mistakes because we have less ability to handle stress when we are tired.
Although it can feel impossible to get a restful night’s sleep, especially when one’s body is living with the chronic effects of trauma, there’s good news: we’re not stuck with poor sleep, because there are things we can do about to help us get the best sleep we need for our best chances for healing.
This is Part 2 of our review on how sleep is a sensory experience and how our environment can help, or hinder, the transition of our nervous system into the “rest and digest” parasympathetic state needed for sleep.
Frequently, those of us who have histories of trauma also have trauma bodies that are habitually stuck in the two other nervous system states: sympathetic (anxiety and anger) or dorsal vagal parasympathetic (collapse and freeze) states.
By changing our internal and external environments, we change the sensory input into our nervous system, it can change its state, and it has the power to change our sleep experience!
In Part 1 we covered the sensory factors of our external environment including light, temperature, sound, and touch.
Today we are going to cover the sensory input from the internal environment including hormones, chemicals, and the digestive tract.
Sensory Factor #4: Blood Sugar Levels
Our blood sugar levels aren’t something we’re consciously aware of, but believe me, our nervous system is very aware of it!
When your blood sugar levels drop low or drop too fast, it causes your nervous system to go into survival mode. Our brains and bodies depend on sugar to make energy (ATP), so when there is a lack of glucose in your blood it will stimulate your nervous system to set off alarms that there is a threat in your life.
What we feel is anxiety, irritability, sometimes fatigue, and as our brain lacks its fuel, we lose our mind – we can’t think right. Often times, you might not know that this is your blood sugar level, but, thankfully, your nervous system will usually create some instinct to go eat something. You might think you’re just having low willpower again as you give in to your cravings for that donut, dessert, or other high sugar food that will raise your blood sugar level fast.
If your experiencing this drop in your blood sugar at night, you’ll wake up!
The best way to make sure this isn’t a factor in disrupting your sleep is to eat a dinner with plenty of quality protein and fat that helps keep your blood sugar levels stable. If you’re going to eat dessert or a meal high in carbohydrates, avoid eating carbohydrates (sugar) without protein and fat!
It has been found that a teaspoon of honey can help you sleep. I will often have a teaspoon of honey in mint tea before bedtime, and this is very relaxing. However, this is the most sugar I’ll have now before bedtime and has been a helpful change for me to sleep better.
Sensory Factor #5: Your Specific Clock: Chronotype
Our bodies are biological systems of habit. Establishing a sleep-wake cycle is one of the best things you can do for improving your quality and quantity of sleep.
According to Dr. Michael Breus, the best thing you can do is get up at the same time everyday. Getting up at the same time everyday is even more important than going to bed at the same time.
What’s the best time to go to bed and get up?
There are different chronotypes, and the best time for each person does depend on their genetics that runs in their hormones, core temperature, and blood pH levels.
To find your specific chronotype and find out what’s your body’s natural clock for bedtime and waking up, you can take this assessment.
If your work schedule doesn’t allow you to follow your natural chronotype, the power of habit can still be applied to optimize your hormones and sleep cycle. You can still train your body and hormones to switch to the schedule you need. It will be a little harder than following what your body would naturally do, but it’s still possible.
The power of habit is so strong that if you eat a snack or meal at the same time everyday, pretty soon, your metabolism and hormones change and you start to salivate and feel hungry about 30-15 minutes before your snack time.
The same power of habit holds true for sleep. If you’re consistent about maintaining a sleep-wake schedule for yourself for 21 days, your body will follow your lead and the power of habit will be on your side to help you fall asleep.
The key point for sleep is keeping the same sleep-wake cycle everyday. You can’t change your schedule on the weekends and expect your body to maintain the power of habit!
Once you’re established in your schedule though, I guarantee you that you’ll feel better, more refreshed, and less tired during the day even though you’re not getting your mornings to sleep in.
Sensory Factor #6: Internal Chemicals
In Part 1 of this Help Me Sleep blog, we talked about the sleep hormone, Melatonin, that’s also called the darkness hormone.
Levels of melatonin are highest at night when it’s stimulated by the dark. Melatonin helps regulate our core body temperature, which also changes at night to facilitate the repair and rejuvenation work the body does while we’re asleep.
Melatonin is a hormone that’s made from the brain chemical (neurotransmitter) Serotonin.
The serotonin system is often imbalanced in those with histories of trauma, and certainly in anybody with drug addiction, mood disorders, and intestinal problems involving gut inflammation, including Crohn’s disease, diverticulitis, leaky gut syndrome, and others where the inflammation affects the gut bacteria.
The Serotonin system is the target of the first line of drugs for depression and anxiety, the SSRI’s (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors).
If you fall into one of these categories of imbalances in your serotonin system, your melatonin production will be off, as will your sleep.
One of the easiest ways to help your system get the right sensory input from the melatonin hormone is to help its production by increasing the serotonin levels at bedtime.
There are two supplements that increase your serotonin levels, 5-HTP and Tryptophan.
This is a precursor to serotonin in the brain. This can be taken in smaller doses throughout the day for anxiety and depression. Larger doses at night can be taken to help make melatonin and therefore, help you get a more restful night’s sleep.
The doses that I generally have people start with are 200 mg in the evening. If they don’t experience any negative side effects from that dose, it’s safe to increase the dose. I’ve taken up to 600 mg at bedtime and then 100-200 mg a few times during the day when I needed maximum support of my serotonin system.
There was also a point in my life when I was on an SSRI antidepressant, and while I no longer found it as helpful as when I had first started taking it, (I was having difficulty getting off of it without becoming moody and tearful all the time) I used 5-HTP to get off the SSRI successfully over a period of a month.
Tryptophan is another way to increase the serotonin levels and thus, melatonin levels.
Tryptophan does have limitations in its absorption, and other protein will compete for the receptors getting into the brain. Insulin does help tryptophan cross the blood brain barrier, and insulin is the hormone produced in response to eating carbohydrates or sugars. Since we already discussed the dangers of eating sugar before bed, I tend to use more 5-HTP than tryptophan since 5-HTP doesn’t have these absorption or transportation issues.
You can just take melatonin, but due to the natural variations in its levels over the course of the night, taking it at bedtime will disrupt this pattern. There have been times when I have taken melatonin for a period of time to try and get back on track faster! If you decide to take melatonin, take the lowest effective dose as the larger doses (>3 mg) tend to be too disruptive and will impact your ability to stay asleep and leave you waking up tired.
Adrenalin and L-Theanine:
Those individuals with histories of trauma who still see threat and danger everywhere in their life will constantly have adrenaline running through their system as they see those new threats.
There’s a supplement that doesn’t stop the body from making adrenaline, but does block its usual downstream effects.
This supplement is called L-Theanine.
It’s especially known for its ability to stop the racing thoughts at bedtime! Did you know those were caused by adrenaline still rushing through your blood?
For the average person who has sleep problems, the first recommendation I make is to start taking 5-HTP and L-Theanine 30 minutes before bedtime. This combination has been a miracle combination for many and it can be all they need sometimes!
One mother of 4 told me after her first night of trying this combination: “This is the best sleep I’ve ever gotten!” While this is not true for everybody, this is a simple enough place to start. But if it isn’t enough, then we can try other things.
Nervous System Relaxation: GABA, Magnesium
When the nervous system is in high alert from the chronic effects of trauma, we can help calm it down through the use of magnesium and GABA.
Magnesium has direct calming effects on the nerves. While the main form of magnesium you’ll find in a store is magnesium oxide, this isn’t the best form to take unless you also have digestive issues and are using it to help relieve constipation.
The best form of magnesium that is absorbed and actually gets into the tissues and nervous system is the chelated forms. The chelated forms end in “ate”. For example, Magnesium malate, glycinate, threonate are chelated forms of magnesium that will be absorbed well in supplement form.
Magnesium sulfate from Epsom salt baths are also great ways to calm the nervous system down before bedtime. In fact, when I was a therapeutic Mom doing the attachment parenting with an 8 year old girl, we were also doing daily yoga, and we would have fun in the Epsom salt baths by practicing the “Happy Baby” position! It gave us some good laughs!
I’ve found a Magnesium supplement that contains 3 different kinds of chelated forms of Magnesium. They all have slightly different effects on the body, so rather than rotating between the different forms of magnesium, I like that I can take 3 different kinds in one capsule.
GABA is also a supplement you can take to calm the nervous system down.
GABA is the chemical in our nervous system that inhibits activity rather than activates. I haven’t had as much success with GABA for sleep as with 5-HTP and L-Theanine, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try it if the other two aren’t quite doing it for you.
Some people have a negative response to GABA, because of their genetics that turns it into glutamate, an activating chemical in our nervous system. It’ll actually cause more anxiety. Because of this effect, I recommend people start with a low dose and then if they have these genetics, the anxiety is more manageable and will only last a few hours before the GABA is out of their system.
A low dose would be 250 mg.
It’s common for people to take up to 1000 mg of GABA over the course of one day, and those who are using it to manage withdrawals from benzodiazepines, alcohol, or marijuana take even higher doses.
Sensory Factor #7: Digestive Tract
As I have mentioned before, those of us with histories of trauma have more problems with our guts! We tend to have more sensitivities, more inflammation, and higher levels of pain with any stretching of our intestines with things like inflammation, gas, and constipation.
It’s best to stop eating 2 hours before bedtime for the best sleep.
Our nervous systems controls our digestive tract. Our digestive tract needs to be done with its work for the day in order for our nervous systems to be able to rest and not be getting signals of pain.
If you’re having inflammation or gas, I would recommend you take activated charcoal capsules to help alleviate that so your nervous system can rest easier. You can take 1-2 activated charcoal capsules to help with any intestinal inflammation or bloating.
This concludes both our discussions on sleep and creating the right sensory experience for your nervous system to help it get out of that high activation states and into the relaxation state for restful sleep.
I really do encourage you to make sleep a priority this next year, and one at a time, try these different tricks out.
The returns you will get are way beyond what you’ll invest in figuring out what your nervous system needs for quality sleep. Your health, mood, focus, and energy will be so much better, allowing you to do more of the meaningful things you struggle with doing now.
You’ll notice how life and relationships are easier when you’re getting restful sleep, and you’ll see yourself starting to make different choices, because you now have the energy and focus to live life differently.
I look forward to hearing what you try and what ends up working best for you!
To Good Sleep and Healing,