by Steven Horne, RH(AHG)
Insomnia is widespread in America. About one-half of all Americans suffer from some degree of insomnia and about one-third suffer from life-disrupting insomnia.
There are many causes of insomnia, but one of the reasons why insomnia may be such a big problem in modern society is artificial lighting. To understand why, let’s take a look at how we fall asleep naturally.
Your pineal gland is part of an internal “clock” that helps to regulate sleep and wakefulness. The pineal gland is light sensitive, which is why it is sometimes referred to as the third eye. When it gets dark, the pineal gland starts to convert a neurotransmitter called serotonin into the hormone melatonin, which helps you fall asleep.
This means that increasing serotonin and/or melatonin levels in the brain at bedtime can aid sleep. It also means that we fall asleep better when it is dark.
The bad news is that even a 100 watt light bulb generates enough light to inhibit melatonin production and keep you awake. So, in this article, we’ll explore the use of 5-HTP, melatonin and darkness in helping you get a good night’s sleep. We’ll start by looking at tryptophan, the precursor to melatonin.
Tryptophan and Carbohydrates
The creation of melatonin begins with an amino acid called tryptophan. The amount of serotonin in your brain is directly dependent on the amount of tryptophan that enters the brain.
Tryptophan is a very large amino acid, so when it has to compete with other amino acids in a high protein meal, only small amounts of tryptophan enter the brain. So eating heavy protein meals late at night inhibits sleep, although a light protein snack is fine.
What helps is to have a more carbohydrate-rich meal in the evening and a more protein-rich meal at breakfast. Of course, I’m talking about complex carbohdrates like vegetables and whole grains.
Most people do the opposite. They eat cereal and other carbohydrates for breakfast and heavy protein at night. It’s clear that this is not the way the body was designed to eat, since hydrochloric acid levels (which are needed to digest protein) are highest in the morning and lowest in the evening.
So, if you want to sleep better eat your higher protein meal at breakfast and save your carbohydrate-laden meals for the evening. (It also helps to make sure you finish your evening meal at least three to four hours before bedtime. If you do eat late at night, take digestive enzymes to ensure that you digest your meal before you try to sleep.)
5-HTP, Serotonin and Melatonin
When tryptophan enters the brain it is converted to 5-HTP (5-hydroxy-tryptophan) and then into serotonin. 5-HTP is available as a supplement and can be used to directly increase serotonin levels in the brain. This makes it helpful for both depression and insomnia. To use 5-HTP for insomnia, you need to take it a couple of hours before bedtime so there is time for this conversion to take place.
In order to get the serotonin to convert to melatonin, you need to get things dark. So, about one-half hour before bedtime, dim all the lights and turn off the computer and the TV. Read with a reading lamp or listen to some music that helps you relax.
When you do go to bed, make your bedroom as dark as possible. Get dark drapes to block out street lights or other outside lights. If you can’t do this, you may even want to try wearing a sleep mask. This will help the pineal start to convert the serotonin in your brain into melatonin.
The Pineal Gland and Sleep Cycles
When you go to bed at a regular time, it helps promote the production of melatonin. The body tends to get into a rhythm of sleep and wakefulness, so having a regular bedtime helps “set” your biological clock to start producing melatonin at bedtime.
Of course, when you change time zones, especially in international travel, this disrupts your biological clock and your cycles of sleep and wakefulness. Melatonin as a supplement can come in very handy in this situations because it can help to “reset” your biological clock.
When you arrive at your destination and it is time for bed, take melatonin and again, darken the room as much as possible. This will help you body adjust to the new sleep cycle.
The safety of melatonin for short term use is well-documented, however, since taking melatonin is a form of hormone replacement therapy, I don’t recommend it for long term use. It’s much safer to increase serotonin levels naturally and use darkness to create melatonin.