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Deprived of sleep? Read why sleep is vital for good health

Many modern people are insomniacs, which prompts us to grab the medicinal quick-fix to numb our hypervigilant brains. However, our reliance on a drug to anaesthetise our mental disharmony comes at a substantial cost. Benzodiazepines or the Valium derivatives, the most commonly prescribed sleep-inducing medications, erode memory function if taken for a protracted period of time and there is evidence linking long-term Valium use with an increased risk of Alzheimer’s.

Antidepressants, also used for their sedative effects, lead to weight gain, freeze sexual fervour and further unravel brain circuitry that’s already scrambled. For those needing industrial-strength tranquilising there’s always Stilnox, the elite athlete’s go-to soporific, which, aside from reports of sleep walking, hallucinations and binge eating, has been connected with traumatic injury and, more alarmingly, an increased risk of Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s and a range of cancers when used continuously.

The need for sleep

Research indicates you need eight hours of sleep every night not only to refresh your brain but also to reboot and regenerate your nervous system as well as your immune surveillance, which protects you against invading organisms and fledgling cancer cells; and also stimulate the hormones that furnish energy and prevent weight gain. When you sleep, you consolidate new information in a long-term memory bank and you eliminate cellular junk that has accumulated during the day, especially amyloid-beta, the toxic chemical associated with Alzheimer’s.

Sleep disruption carries with it the increased likelihood of developing diabetes, obesity and heart disease.

Deprive someone of sleep for just one night and the immune system already becomes unhinged. Vital immune combatants that fight infections weaken, making you more vulnerable to being struck down by marauding insurgents. Research confirms that more prolonged sleep deprivation increases the risk of respiratory infections. An impressive long-term study conducted in Finland has revealed that poor sleep patterns in midlife, either sleeping fewer or more than eight hours a night on average, and/or the regular use of medications called hypnotics to induce sleep was associated with more pronounced cognitive decline in late life.

Melatonin and insulin, the master hormones that regulate your eating behaviour, are in turn regulated by your sleeping patterns. Poor sleep unravels these hormones, making you eat more, ironically feel less energised, gain weight and, not surprisingly, become increasingly depressed. This makes you a sitting duck for a medical industry poised to dole out medications to palliate your distress. Yet this Band-Aid approach ultimately compounds your disequilibrium. Antidepressants can, for example, make you put on even more weight.

Research confirms that, if you don’t improve your sleeping patterns, you are in for some serious pain. Restricting sleep in males to five hours per night for one week impairs insulin function, the hormone responsible for blood sugar control, which could ultimately lead to diabetes. In fact, the evidence confirms that sleep disruption carries with it the increased likelihood of developing diabetes, obesity and heart disease. If we are going to halt the relentless march towards a host of diseases caused by the insomnia pandemic, including dementia, and resist our dependence on the devil that is the doctor’s prescription, then we must find natural strategies that restore healthy sleep patterns.

The hormones

We need to begin by implementing a program that re-establishes viable production of melatonin, the master hormone that regulates your sleep-wake cycle. Not only does melatonin control your sleeping behaviour, it also sees to it that you make serviceable amounts of insulin, which in turn regulates how much you eat, your emotional state and your reproductive behaviour.

To manufacture melatonin you need to expose yourself to sunlight during the day and maximal amounts of darkness at night. Most of us aren’t doing this, especially in the evening when our slavish devotion to television, the internet and our smartphones sees that we are flooded with artificial light, which switches off natural production of melatonin. For those who need to remain electronically connected, wearing special glasses that filter out blue light can assist with maintaining melatonin synthesis, but this would still pale compared with the benefits of complete darkness.

Another hormone that conspires to neutralise melatonin is cortisol. This hormone is synonymous with stress, but making adequate amounts of cortisol sees to it that you get out of bed in the morning energised and ready to meet the day, while toning it down at night helps your brain to mellow so you are primed for sleep. The need to be constantly engaged has turned the daily production of cortisol on its head. Not enough in the morning and too much at night means you begin the day fatigued and end it wired, making it almost impossible for melatonin to disengage our agitated nervous systems.

The nutrients

Magnesium and vitamin B12 in optimal amounts can assist with beating insomnia. For those wishing to establish whether their levels of the hormones melatonin and cortisol, as well as magnesium and vitamin B12, are out of line, these can be measured.

The herbs

Hops and valerian are proven drug substitutes that, together with melatonin and cortisol balancing, can become your sleep saviours.

Michael Elstein

Michael Elstein

Michael Elstein is a Fellow of the Australian College of Nutritional and Environmental Medicine. Anti-ageing medicine is his current passion and he is the author of Eternal Health and You Have The Power, which are available as e-books through his website.

Dr Elstein has just attained a Masters in Nutrition from RMIT university located in Melbourne. He treats those who suffer from fatigue, insomnia, weight gain, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders and menopausal dysfunction. He utilises diet, nutritional therapy, hormonal interventions and herbal remedies.

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