Relax OR Sleep…or Both!
Updated: Jul 19
If you’re reading this because you can’t fall asleep, or stay asleep, you join 35% of Americans who wrestle with insomnia.
Sleeplessness is often talked about in terms of one’s inability to relax and unwind. Racing thoughts, worry, anxiety all make one restless, and can no doubt prevent us from the deep sleep we need.
Other people are so exhausted from worry and daily pressures that it’s hard for them to stay awake when they get home. For these people, their chronic stress is causing them many of the same health issues as chronic sleeplessness, even though they “crash” each night.
With both chronic anxiety and chronic insomnia, people can feel exhausted, experience low motivation to do anything except the bare minimum each day, have poor memory, a poor ability to concentrate, and even chronic infections.
So let’s deal with both.
First, if you need to just chill out during the day, but stay awake, alert, and concentrate, you need to do things somewhat differently than if you merely need to relax in order to sleep. Being relaxed at work or at home is different than relaxing to go to sleep. After all, it wouldn’t be good to deal with anxiety at work, but become sleepy in the process!
Daytime stress can be handled on a physical level through a number of strategies. First, a diet that provokes blood sugar spikes, followed by coma-like drops does us no favors. Yet, when we’re stressed, we tend to want “comfort foods”.
At work, this may mean stocking our desks with candy, chips, soda, and other sweets. When we eat these, we often do get a rush of feel-good hormones that essentially palliate our stress….temporarily. Like, for a few minutes. We feel good just long enough to forget the pressure we’re under, but in a few minutes, we can become irritable and even more stressed out.
A better choice is to eat a solid diet of good protein, good (comforting!) fats, and slow-burn carbs. Slow burn carbs are the vegetables, berries, and pseudo grains such as quinoa and buckwheat. These provide fuel, but they digest slowly and tend to last. This is contrasted with sugary sweets and processed foods like chips, which are like a quick-striking match that lights quickly, but burns out quickly.
Exercise is excellent – almost mandatory – for dealing with stress. James Loehr and other researchers have found that exercise not only can have an immediate relaxing effect on the body and mind, but it can also have an effect on long-term stress responses. This means that you develop a kind of “shield” against stress the more fit you become. The “stress” of exercise, in effect, insulates you from daily chronic stress when done consistently.
A couple of superstar supplements are universally appreciated for their ability to buffer our stress responses. L-theanine is an amino acid found in green tea that is known to actually change our brain wave patterns, putting us in the mode of relaxed concentration. When taken with the Indian herb ashwagandha, which also has cortisol-lowering effects of its own, a person can expect to feel relaxed without being drowsy. Both of the nutrients work synergistically at different levels to provide a predictable solution to the problem of being “wired but tired”.
L-theanine is interesting because it tends to enhance other nutrients it is paired with. BioActive Nutrients has a product called Chill that does what the paragraph above describes. But when used in the right amounts with other sleep-inducing nutrients, it can help the body prepare for sleep.
One of the best nutrient combinations that herbalists use for sleep is valerian root plus lemon balm. This combination has been studied and has shown to induce sleep as well as one of the most well-known prescription sleep agents on the market. Yet, it’s extremely safe for nightly use without any known side effects.
GABA is a neurotransmitter that is like the body’s own “downer”. Some neurotransmitters are excitatory, meaning they “excite” the body and mind with energy. GABA does just the opposite. It is associated with the “rest and repair” parasympathetic nervous system. It relaxes the body and allows it to go into a mode in which all self-healing happens. It is released in the evenings and helps draw us down for sleep. (NOTE: Supplemental GABA needs helper nutrients for it to absorb better and cross the blood-brain barrier. Vitamin B-6 is commonly combined with GABA to help this absorption.)
In my own experience, it’s better to “stack” multiple nutrients together rather than rely on only one for things like sleep. Since theanine, valerian and lemon balm, GABA and chamomile all work slightly differently from one another, combining them makes sense for a comprehensive approach to sleep quality. I like the aptly- named Bioactive Nutrients Zzz’s product for a sleep combo that really works.
I hope it goes without saying, but scary movies, caffeine, and heavy meal… aren’t going to help your sleep campaign! I also hope we know that the darker the room, the better. Using our devices at night can cause a special problem. Computers, tablets, and phones all emit “blue” light, and this type of light interferes with our body’s ability to make the sleep hormone melatonin. There are blue light-blocking glasses you can wear if you must use your devices at night that aren’t too expensive. Check Consumer Reports for a few recommendations. There are also apps that supposedly help block blue light, as well, but many of these merely darken the screen rather than actually block blue light. Buyer beware. The ideal thing to do is just shut them down for the best shut-eye.
Chilling out, whether in the day or night, is a great idea. Our bodies and minds work better with less stress rather than with more. Too many people think that stress and insomnia are just things we should muscle through. This is such a mistake. Healing simply does not take place naturally without stresslessness and sleep.
So Chill out. Get some Zzz’s. And heal.