WHAT IS KEEPING YOU UP?
“I can’t sleep” is one of the most common complains I hear from clients.
If you can’t fall asleep or stay asleep you are most likely suffering from insomnia. Generally sufferers take longer than 20 min to fall asleep, 3 or more times a week, or struggle to stay asleep throughout the night.
The first thing I want to share with you is YOU ARE NOT ALONE. About 10% of the population suffers chronic insomnia and another 30-50% have occasional episodes. I myself was part of that club at one point in time and it still occasionally happens when I have too much on my mind.
The second thing is that THERE IS USUALLY A REASON and identifying it is not as difficult as people think.
But before we get into that let’s first understand a few things.
How your body regulates sleep
Your body follows what is called a circadian rhythm, a wave like pattern involving the hormones Cortisol and Melatonin in opposing patterns.
Cortisol is your get up and go hormone. It slowly starts rising 2-3 hours after you fall asleep hopefully reaching its peak in the morning making you feel ready for the day ahead. From here cortisol starts a slow descent over the course of the day making space for Melatonin to start to rising preparing you for sleep.
Melatonin is not just the hormone that promotes sleep, it is also considered an anti-oxidant, it supports gut function and contributes to blood pressure and blood sugar regulation.
When these two hormones are in balance, dancing harmoniously together, you have a nice restful sleep-wake cycle.
But there is a catch! Melatonin is secreted largely in response to darkness and our evening cortisol levels decrease in quiet environments.
Unfortunately our frenetic lifestyle, constant stimuli and blue lights are making it harder for the body to start winding down to allow for melatonin production and cortisol reduction, which you need to get you ready for sleep. From TV to video games to checking social media and emails or working late … we are no longer exposed to the low level lighting and quietness needed to prepare us for sleep.
Another thing that supports melatonin production is being outdoors in natural sun light within an hour of waking. Most of us go from bed to car to office and hardly see the sun!
Why is sleep so important?
Although you may feel like you are doing nothing when you sleep, it is a very busy time for your body.
It is when your body runs the “background checks” on all systems to make sure they are functioning well; it is when your hormones are replenished, toxins are processed and tissues are repaired. Let's not forget about giving your immune system a chance to reset too.
As cortisol levels decrease, the body manages the effects of all the stress you accumulated during the day and gets you ready to have a better day.
Your hunger is controlled by hormones that are delicately balanced whilst you sleep, lack of sleep leads to lack of balance, which may lead to cravings. Have you ever noticed that you eat more when you haven't slept?
Lack of sleep may also contribute to moodiness, fatigue and difficulty concentrating. Studies show that there is a marked connection to increase in human error related accidents and motor accidents, with fatality and injury rates similar to those of driving under the influence.
So not only is sleep important to our health and wellbeing but also to our safety and happiness.
Factors that contribute to Insomnia
There are several lifestyle factors as well as medical conditions that can contribute to sleep troubles. Some of these are:
• A diet high in processed foods, alcohol and sugar
• Chronic stress
• Poor sleep hygiene (too much light at night, no bedtime routine, working late)
• Mental health issues such as anxiety & depression
• Restless Leg Syndrome or Sleep Apnea
• Chronic Pain
• Digestive issues
• Travel or shift work
• Age (melatonin levels decrease with age)
• Exposure to EMF and blue light from our devices
• Some medications.
What you can do?
Considering how unpleasant it can be to be sleep deprived and how much of a toll it can take on the body, most people reach a point where they either self medicate or ask for help from their physician to get some sleep.
There are many OTC and prescription products available to you today to help with sleep. Unfortunately what most of these products produce is a “chemically induced” sleep, it is not the restful sleep your body needs to rest and repair. Research also shows that sleeping pills only extend sleep duration by 5-30 min.
Moreover, like any other medication, sleeping aids have side effects. These may include:
• Dry mouth
• Stomach ache
• Increased risk of disease with long-term use.
On 30th April 2019, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that a class of sleep medications (sedative-hypnotics) used to treat insomnia, will require to carry a black box warning stating the drugs side effects. Ambien (zolpidem) and Lunesta (eszopiclone) are some of the commonly used drugs that fall under this umbrella, but not the only ones.
Most of the time these products act as a Band-Aid, not really fixing the underlying issue of why you are unable to sleep.
In the majority of cases I see, lifestyle changes are enough to bring significant improvements and work effectively without side effects. Simple changes like:
• Turning off all screens 1-2 hours before bed
• Having a bedtime ritual; this could be a herbal tea or a hot bath or snuggling up with a book
• Avoiding caffeinated drinks after 2pm
• Trying to spend 15-20 min in daylight within an hour of waking
• Having a mindfulness practice or other stress management practice
• Not eating or exercising within 3 hours of going to bed.
• Turning off the Wi-Fi in your home.
In other cases, nutrient imbalances may be at play and some supplements may be used short term to address those.
In other cases still, it is not so simple and we need to investigate a bit further to find the root cause.
POOR SLEEP CAN BE AN INDICATOR OF IMBALANCES IN THE BODY.
Most of the time when you can’t sleep it is because your body is:
• Responding to something happening inside it or
• Reacting to something you are doing (like being constantly on the go and never having down time)
Our lifestyle habits have an impact on what happens inside the body, it is all connected!
That was certainly a problem for me when being constantly on the go and not giving my body adequate time to rest and repair started giving rise to deeper imbalances. What started with a bad habit of going to bed late and never saying no coupled with significant levels of stress, ended up with a much more serious hormonal imbalance.
But for some of my clients it can be the other way around, where a functional imbalance in the body gives rise to poor sleep, which sometimes gets progressively worse as the body screams for attention!
Where may the root cause of poor sleep be?
The root cause can usually be found in three main areas:
• Hormonal imbalances,
• Blood sugar imbalances,
• Immune system activation (for example, gut infections or allergies).
Cortisol and Melatonin are hormones. As all hormones in the body communicate together an imbalance in any one of them will lead to changes that may affect all of their levels or function.
In particular, Cortisol is involved in our stress response so if you are under a lot of stress this hormone will naturally rise and may prevent the rise of melatonin. This is why we often can’t sleep when we are worried about things or have had a stressful day.
Women often experience poor sleep around the time of their cycle or during peri-menopause and menopause because of changes in sex hormone levels. Balancing out the hormones to avoid the crashes may bring improvements to your sleep quality.
Insulin, is also a hormone. It is responsible for lowering your blood sugar levels. Together with other hormones (including Cortisol) it maintains the correct level of sugar in the blood.
When this system is not working appropriately it leads to blood sugar imbalances that may contribute to night-time waking. You may be waking up hungry, startled or with a headache. This situation can also be aggravated by lifestyle and dietary choices, especially drinking alcohol or eating a lot of sugar.
Supporting your hormonal system is not only possible but may also lead to significant improvements in your sleep quality and quantity.
Your immune system remains active at night, mostly replenishing itself and running its “background checks”. However, if you are eating foods that you are sensitive to at dinnertime or if you have hidden infections you may not be aware of, your immune system may be working much harder at night. This will not only take away from the time it needs to recharge (potentially weakening your immunity), but it may also impact your hormonal system and your blood sugar levels ultimately causing disruption to your sleep.
A healthy immune system is an important component of your overall health, including good sleep.
So what is keeping YOU up?
If you are struggling with sleep and have tried everything to no avail, don’t despair. Most of my clients end up in front of me after seeing countless practitioners and being told all their tests are normal and it’s all in their head.
I am here to tell you it is not all in your head and together we can get to the root cause and strengthen your body to help you restore healthy, restful sleep.
The first step? Book an appointment here.
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When Food Intolerance Is Not The Answer
Sometimes we get stuck on the idea that one aspect of our lifestyle can heal all.
I see this happen particularly with foods. Since food intolerance tests have become so popular and accessible more and more people are removing foods from their diets and genuinely think that only this one thing will heal them.
My personal experience and my training say this isn’t always the case.
Food reactions may well be implicated in the symptoms you are experiencing, in fact they quite often are. But your symptoms could also be indicators of your body struggling to handle stress due to:
• Nutrient deficiencies,
• Digestive enzymes insufficiencies,
• High toxic load,
• Intestinal infections,
• Hormonal imbalances.
Nothing in your body works independently from the rest, there are always interconnections that mean it is important to look beyond the symptoms and beyond the obvious to try and establish the root cause.
Food intolerance tests are not diagnostic. This is the very reason the allopathic medicine community often dislikes them because, taken in isolation, they may cause more confusion and damage than they resolve.
Whilst the traffic light colours make it look simple for anyone to interpret a food intolerance test, it is actually not that simple. The test results may be influenced (amongst others) by:
• Your gut health:
• Your hormone health,
• Your ability to detoxify,
• Medications you may be on and
• Last but not least the current state of your immune system.
Food Intolerance tests were developed to help ascertain if a food may be having a negative impact on wellbeing. Most of them test levels of antibodies against certain foods present in our blood. Antibodies are formed when our immune system comes into contact with something it considers a threat (rightly or wrongly). In the case of food you could say the body is “overreacting” to something that is considered normal.
These tests are a tool that allows you to explore your diet and helps you make adjustments that may support your wellbeing and healing, not a diagnosis.
Rapid advances are being made in this field and now genetic testing is also easily available to see what diets are best suited to an individual based on their genetic make up. Whilst these tests are not quite the same as food intolerance tests, I personally believe that we still have a long way to go in terms of accurately interpreting DNA results, as this research is still relatively new. There is much more we don’t know about our DNA than we do know.
Whichever test people choose to do or are encouraged to do the result is often not at all what was intended! Amongst my clients I often come across people who become:
• Scared of food (which may easily degenerate into a food disorder such as orthorexia),
• Depressed about food,
• Socially isolated because of the food choices they think they have to make,
• Malnourished because of the limited diet (which actually often gives rise to a whole host of new symptoms)
But worse of all … they still don’t feel great despite all the eliminations.
I also see this in celiac clients who initially feel amazing after eliminating gluten but over time they regress and drive themselves crazy trying to figure out where hidden exposures may be.
Sometimes there are hidden exposures or cross-reactions, but often the problem goes deeper and requires more than just dietary intervention.
In my experience, removing foods alone only provides short-term relief. This is indeed important, often essential, but not enough. To properly address imbalances in the body you need to look at your whole lifestyle and include interventions on many levels. You need to look at your movement, your stress levels, your relationships, your relaxation practices, your sleep and your ability to have fun to name a few.
You need to look at hidden stressors as I discussed last month (scroll down to see last month’s post on stress), which may be having an impact on your gut health and contributing to your food intolerances.
You need to actually look at helping the body heal and whilst removing offending foods is a very important first step, it is only a step and depending on your level of imbalance may not be enough to help the body heal.
So are food intolerance tests and elimination diets useless?
Absolutely not! They are a very important tool in my tool kit and that of many other healthcare practitioners, but they are not diagnostic. It is not a stand-alone test that provides all the answers.
Elimination diets are essential tools along the healing journey, but the food intolerance test or even the reasons you feel better when on an elimination diet require further investigation.
In my practice, I use them to tweak the diet and to help provide relief, whilst we also work together on other aspects of lifestyle. I often use them in conjunction with other functional tests to help ascertain progress in certain areas. In some cases it is a starting point or what made a person come see me in the first place.
We are all individuals and each case will be different. What role a food intolerance test can play in your healing journey will be different from your friend’s or your neighbour’s or even other family members.
Whilst many of us are allergic, sensitive or intolerant to known inflammatory foods such as gluten, dairy or sugar, I do not believe the majority of us should live on very restrictive diets, which eliminate healthy whole colourful foods long term. I believe in getting to the root cause and helping my clients lead a balanced healthy life.
If you need help finding balance in your life and you want help banishing your symptoms forever book an appointment here.
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STRESS, the Good the Bad and the Ugly
What does stress mean to you?
When you think about stress you conjure images of work deadlines and conflict, emotions running high, endless traffic jams and too much to do in too little time!
This is of course an adequate representation of a large part of the stress we experience.
But with statistics showing that over 50% of doctors visits are caused by or related to stress it may be important to look at this a little closer.
Your body is an amazing machine, one that is calibrated to perfection to work within certain parameters (homeostasis). When life takes you outside those parameters, out of balance, the body will work hard to return to them, as that is where the body operates at its best.
From this perspective stress is ANYTHING real or perceived, internal or external, which takes the body out of balance.
Real or perceived? What’s that about?
Let’s back up a little.
Your stress response is a protective mechanism, it is activated when you feel threatened and sense fear or danger.
For your ancestors that was represented by a predator or some natural disaster that threatened their very existence. The mechanism is designed to give you focus and energy to quickly think of a survival plan, fight or run for you life.
It is that same mechanism that you activate day in and day out every time you experience stress.
For our caveman ancestor these stressful occasions were usually followed by a period of calm where their body returned to a balanced state, but sadly for us the picture is rather different.
Stress begins the moment you are awakened by a loud alarm clock and follows you throughout the day from the school run, to the office and the traffic jam and the difficult meeting and the paperwork and that phone call you have been dreading to make … let’s not forget making sure you manage all of the kids activities and you don’t forget any pickups, make sure a good meal is on the table and look presentable for the person who chose to spend the rest of their life with you (unless you are too exhausted by that point which only adds to the stress).
Most of these things are not life threatening (unless you’ve forgotten a child somewhere then your life may be at risk …), but you perceive them as DISTRESS (BAD stress) and therefore our body reacts to them as if they were life threatening. The body activates all the systems required to fight or run … but most of the time you are sitting in the car or at your desk …
Your body is mobilising nutrients and energy to run and but you are sitting in a traffic jam … your blood pressure rises, your blood sugar rises (eventually leading to belly fat increase as it is not being used to run!), your digestion doesn’t work as well as it should, parts of your brain (like memory) are not as efficient … basically when the body activates the stress response anything you don’t need to run or fight is dialled down.
The silver lining here however, is that these effects are often caused by “perceived” stress. Therefore, if you can change your internal dialogue, it you can manage your response to your daily life … then most of this stress can be managed and the negative effects significantly reduced.
Working on mindfulness, perception and finding meaning is a big part of my work.
What about this internal or external business …
Most of us only think of stress in terms of something that happens to us rather than something that is happening WITHIN us.
Like I mentioned before, as far as the body is concerned anything that takes it out of balance, which prevents it to function optimally is a stressor.
So when your hormones are out of balance, when your blood sugar is all over the place, when you have food allergies you ignore because they are inconvenient …. you are putting stress on the body.
Stress can be physical like a slipped disc or an injury, emotional like anxiety or lack of a sense of purpose, or chemical like the toxins we are exposed to, a food allergy or toxins from a gut infection you may not even know you have.
Some of those are hidden stressors: imbalances in your hormonal, immune, digestive and detoxification systems for example. The ones you cannot see but play havoc on our health and lead to what I like to call metabolic chaos®.
Metabolic chaos® is what happens when those hidden stressors are allowed to continue over time. The body will keep trying to bring itself back to balance, but unless it is being nurtured through good food and adequate sleep and balanced exercise and stress reduction techniques to manage the “external” stressors then it will eventually start to struggle to function as it should and that’s when things can turn UGLY.
You start not quite feeling yourself, maybe you have some odd symptoms … something is not quite right but you can’t put our finger on it and of course you are not “sick” so a visit to the doctor usually result in being told you are FINE, except you don't feel fine!
To complicate matters further the symptoms you may be feeling may be far removed from the trigger that is causing them. You may, for example, be intolerant to a food but get a headache instead of a tummy ache or get anxiety instead of diarrhoea. The link with the food/gut is not necessarily obvious. For me it was debilitating muscle pain … it was my body’s way of saying slow down I can’t keep up!
It can be a bit of a maze to navigate. I help my clients reduce stressors both internal and external to give their body the best chance to heal itself.
Is it all doom and Gloom?
Of course NOT! The stress response itself is GOOD, in fact it’s great.
It is the reason you are alive today, the reason we as a species have survived to evolve. It is your survival and warning mechanism.
Stress can also be good. For example, stress we refer to as EUSTRESS such as balanced exercise, or the nerves before an event that help you prepare and perform better; the excitement you feel when you experience certain things like sky-diving (provided you are a willing participant) or the feelings you get when you graduate, get married or have a baby.
Stress can help you rise up to the occasion, it can be your friend, it can help you grow, it can make you stronger and it can strengthen your connection with others.
But it all depends on your perception!
What can you do today to help transform your stress?
• Practice deep breathing for a few minutes every day
• Keep a gratitude journal
• Spend time in nature as often as possible
If you want to explore your relationship with stress and the effect it has on your health book an appointment here.
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What Is Leaky Gut
Click here to read an article I wrote for edoctors about Leaky Gut, how it can manifest and simple steps to look after the health of our digestive tract.