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Q: I’m a man in my early 30s and work long hours. I have a stressful job and come home after 7 pm every night. I make dinner and then just want to go to bed. I need my sleep but I either cannot fall asleep, or I wake up a couple of hours later, wide awake. I’ve tried sleeping medication, but that leaves me spaced out and groggy in the mornings. I don’t want to rely on sleep medication but I cannot function without sleep. Please recommend a good alternative remedy for insomnia. P.J.
AJEANNE VAN ZYL REPLIES FOR THE COLLEGE OF NATURAL HEALTH: The combination of chronic stress and disrupted sleep can be harmful not only to your emotional well-being but also to your physical health, especially if it continues over an extended period of time. Stress is often the primary cause of sleep deprivation. Conversely, sleep disturbance places a great demand on the system as a whole, and thereby reduces our physiological and mental capacity to cope with daily stress. An integrative approach in your case requires stress management strategies combined with sleep-promoting strategies to ensure that both concerns are addressed and mitigated. Suggested strategies are:■ Avoid stimulants close to bedtime Caffeine, nicotine and alcohol are mental stimulants and may disrupt the normal sleep cycle. Try to avoid stimulants for at least six hours before bedtime.■ Physical activityRegular exercise promotes a healthy circadian rhythm, reduces the stress response, increases mood-enhancing hormones and enhances cognitive function. High intensity exercise is best in the mornings, whereas relaxing exercises can put your mind at ease at night.■ Sunshine Daily exposure to natural daylight is essential for the production of serotonin (the ‘happy hormone’), which is the precursor hormone for melatonin (the ‘sleep hormone’). When the levels of these hormones are inadequate an individual might struggle to cope with stress (low serotonin) and also struggle to fall asleep and remain asleep (melatonin). Even a 10-minute exposure to direct sunlight can significantly increase serotonin and melatonin levels. Avoid bright screens (computer screen, television, etc.) and artificial lights at least an hour before retiring to bed, as this might reduce the production of melatonin. Dim the lights in your house at night to create a relaxing atmosphere.■ Release your concernsBefore retiring to bed, write down the current relentless concerns that prevent your brain from switching off, and allow yourself to deal with them tomorrow, with fresh mental energy. ■ Deep breathingFive minutes of deep breathing before retiring to bed can significantly calm the nervous system. Try: four seconds inhaling through the nose, hold the breath for seven seconds and exhale for eight seconds through the mouth.■ ComfortAches and pains may be due to an uncomfortable mattress. Exchanging it for a more comfortable mattress may be a long-term investment in your sleep and health.■ HerbsSome popular examples of herbs that have been shown to promote sleep include valerian root, passionflower, Avena sativa (which is also found naturally in whole rolled oats) and hops. See a natural health practitioner who can recommend a suitable herbal remedy.■ Dietary guidelinesFor your current lifestyle I would suggest two hearty main meals for the day: a nutrient-dense breakfast, high in protein, fibre and healthy fats to provide energy, suppress appetite and regulate blood sugar levels throughout the day. The second meal can be taken at lunch-time or even later in the afternoon; once again it should be nutrient-dense and rich in protein, fibre and healthy fats to provide sustainable energy and focus. Eating a heavy meal after 7 pm at night will activate digestive processes and possibly disturb the circadian rhythm. Later on, rather eat a sliced banana with a nut butter spread (which promotes melatonin production and stabilises blood sugar levels) and add a soothing herbal tea (chamomile, chai or lemon balm tea). ■ Magnesium Waking up during the night may indicate a magnesium deficiency, so include lots of leafy greens in your diet. If necessary, consider a high-quality magnesium supplement. ■ Stop trying so hard Allow sleep to overtake you and embrace the joy of entering into a recuperating night’s rest! JEANNE VAN ZYL is a Nutritional Therapist and this month’s guest writer for CNH (College of Natural Health), which trains students across South Africa for successful careers in natural health and offers short courses in a range of natural therapies. www.collegeofnaturalhealth.co.za
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