Dr. Doni, author of The Stress Remedy, explains how, when your nervous system is imbalanced, you won’t sleep well. She explains how to return to balance and sleep.
We started off this series by discussing 12 possible causes of insomnia. So far, over the course of this sleep series, we’ve looked at a number of causes of poor sleep and insomnia. We’ve seen how food sensitivities, leaky gut, weight gain, and eating high carb/high sugar foods are all common causes of inflammation and how inflammation can cause any number of health issues, including insomnia and sleep issues.
This week, we are going to look at how inflammation affects the nervous system and how the delicate balance of the biochemical messengers in our nervous system (neurotransmitters) can be thrown off track and how taking the right nutrients can help bring them back into balance.
When I discuss wakeful sleep with patients, although they have a sense that the cause of their sleep problems might have something to do with a racing mind, they usually don’t consider that it has anything to do with their nervous system. Perhaps because the nervous system is thought of as a far-off, untouchable location in the body, many people believe they have no control over the chemicals (or neurotransmitters) that affect our sleep, mood, energy, and focus (such as serotonin, dopamine, GABA and glutamate). However, it is possible to measure the levels of neurotransmitters in your system from a simple urine sample and address imbalances using the right nutrients and herbs1.
Only certain, specialty labs offer this service, and most practitioners are not aware of the availability and usefulness of the test, even though it has been available for clinical use for over a decade. As with many functional tests, neurotransmitter testing is not available in New York State so, if that’s where you live, you’ll need to choose a practitioner who practices in another state.
I’ve been intrigued by neurotransmitters and urine testing for over ten years. In lectures to health professionals and in an article that was published in 2009, I presented what I found, through my experience in practice, to be one of the keys to success with many health issues, including anxiety, depression (and post-partum depression), PMS/PMDD, and insomnia—the careful balancing of neurotransmitters (and cortisol) with the use of nutrients and herbs.
First, what is evident in the research is that many neurological and mental health conditions, including insomnia, are caused by inflammation in the nervous system2. This inflammation can even originate in the gut and go straight through the blood/brain barrier to the nervous system. In this case, it is likely that something you are eating is causing the inflammation and is directly responsible for throwing off your sleep and your mood. You can read more about this here. Stress itself, whether physical or emotional, can also increase inflammation and disrupt neurotransmitter levels.
It all sounds pretty awful but, the good thing is that this all means we can do something about it. Once we know what is causing the problem, we can make changes to rectify the situation. We can change what we eat and we can take additional nutrients to help rebalance our neurotransmitter levels and bring them back to normal.
What do neurotransmitters actually do?
Put very simply, neurotransmitters either stimulate or calm us. It’s important to have a balance between the two. If you have too much of the stimulating neurotransmitters during the day, it could cause anxiety; at night, it could wake you from your sleep with thoughts of what you need to get done, or even give you nightmares. On the other hand, if you have too little of the calming neurotransmitters, you may feel jittery and restless.
So you see, it’s not possible to guess whether you have too much stimulation, or too little calm. The only way to know for sure is to measure your levels. In many cases I find there is more than one imbalance throwing off patients’ nervous systems.
For example, serotonin is a calming neurotransmitter and if your levels of it are too low, it can cause sleep issues (this is common if you have leaky gut as serotonin is made in the gut). If, at the same time, your glutamate (the most stimulatory neurotransmitter) levels are too high, then your mind will be racing right when it’s time to sleep. Combine this with a high cortisol level at night (when it should be low) and you’re sure to be up all night.
Balancing your neurotransmitters is a complex and delicate process that often requires fine-tuning and adjusting to match your body’s needs. It’s too much to try and sort it out on your own—it’s far better to work with a practitioner who is trained in the use of nutrients and herbs that support you back to balance.
How do I balance my neurotransmitters? What is the process?
It is always important to start by calming your nervous system first. Whether you need to increase your GABA (a very calming neurotransmitter that I refer to as your “stress buffer”) or lower your adrenaline (a stimulating neurotransmitter: think stress, flight or fight), we’ll always begin by calming your nervous system before moving onto the next step.
A perfect example is (again) serotonin. It is made in the body from the amino acid, tryptophan, which is turned into 5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan) which is, in turn, made into serotonin. For some people, especially when serotonin levels are extremely low, it is important to start by taking tryptophan, even though it requires more steps to turn it into serotonin, because a more gradual transition is needed. Others can start right in by taking 5-HTP, which is why you’ll often find it in sleep formulas and protocols. I suggest first testing your levels, and then working with a practitioner who can help you to figure out whether you need serotonin support, and how to support it in the best way for you.
Another example is norepinephrine (also known as adrenaline), which can be elevated due to stress, or to a genetic mutation that makes it harder for your body to get rid of it. There are several possible options for getting norepinephrine back to optimal levels. While it can make you over-stimulated when levels are high, it can make you forgetful and tired when levels are too low. To increase your levels of norepinephrine, we can use the precursor nutrients, phenylalanine and tyrosine, or we can use herbs that support adrenal function. When levels are too high one of the best solutions is often to increase GABA, because as its calming effect increases, adrenaline levels will decrease. See an example product here.
Once you are calmer, and hopefully sleeping through the night, we can move on to helping your body recover from the lack of sleep. Adrenal gland function is often in need of attention when you haven’t been getting good sleep for a period of time. In fact, as contradictory as it may seem, in a person with insomnia, it is quite common to find low cortisol and low adrenaline levels in the morning, when they should be higher than at other times of day. It is only once we have taken steps to calm the nervous system that we can then support adrenal function. Learn more about adrenal distress (also known as adrenal burnout) here.
Getting your neurotransmitters back in balance may take anywhere from four weeks to four years, it really depends on your body—all your health issues and how your body responds to change. As tempting as it may be to quickly raise the neurotransmitters that were low, it could be a shock to your system—so it’s much better to pace yourself and take it slow.
Then, once your neurotransmitters are more balanced, you’ll not only sleep a lot better, but you’ll be sending a balanced message throughout your body, improving your digestion, immune function, hormone levels, and more.
As you can see, it is very complex so it is imperative you work with a practitioner who can take all your individual circumstances into account (including any medications you may be taking that might have an effect or interact with the herbs and nutrients). If you’d like my help, consider setting up a time for us to meet by clicking here.
I love to receive your thoughts, experiences and questions so do, please leave a comment below.
Next time we will be talking about how hormonal changes can affect your sleep, if you wish to receive it direct to your inbox, you can subscribe using the subscription box on this page.
29th January 2015
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- Marc DT1, Ailts JW, Campeau DC, Bull MJ, Olson KL. Neurotransmitters excreted in the urine as biomarkers of nervous system activity: validity and clinical applicability. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2011 Jan;35(3):635-44.
- Haroon E, Raison CL, Miller AH. Psychoneuroimmunology Meets Neuropsychopharmacology: Translational Implications of the Impact of Inflammation on Behavior. Neuropsychopharmacology. 2012 January; 37(1): 137–162.