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Sleep-why we need it and how to get it

As I stare out at the morning darkness here in my home at 6am, seeing just a sliver of the sunrise peaking over the horizon, I am filled with peace and hope for a new day. But to be honest, I am also wishing I was still curled up in my bed getting another hour of sleep! I want to write about sleep because over the last 5 years of my Naturopathic education, sleep problems have been the most common complaint of patients and also one of the most important foundations of health.

Insomnia is the most prevalent sleep disorder in the United States and there has been a significant amount of research done over the years linking it to cardiovascular disease (3), DM2 (2), obesity (5), decreased neurocognitive functioning, and anxiety/depression (4). Sleep disturbance has a wide variety of etiologies and will be different for each person, but I want to present some sleep basics as well as some common troubleshooting that will hopefully get you thinking about improvements you could make in your life to get more zzzz’s. These are all recommendations and any medical advice should always be discussed with your healthcare provider

Basic sleep hygiene

  1. Follow the natural sun rhythms: Get outside in the late afternoon to see the sun setting, lower lights and screens at night (switch to the flux setting) and avoid them 1 hour before bedtime, step outside when you wake up and look up to the sky to greet the day with feet on the earth.

  2. Have a regular bed and wake time and do not push yourself to stay up after the initial signs of sleepiness.

  3. Exercise during the day, not late at night

  4. Limit alcohol and caffeine

  5. Create a relaxing sleep environment: try not to read, watch TV, be on your phone, eat, or lie in bed awake too long. If you have been lying awake for more than 15-20min, get up and go to something quiet until your sleepy and then go back to bed. (1)

  6. Stress management is key and will look different for everyone, but if a racing mind and anxiety while lying in bed is your complaint, this will be at the core of your care plan.

Troubleshooting: in addition to the basic sleep hygiene….

*Can’t fall asleep:

  • What may be happening: Many times, this is due to a racing mind or trying to unwind from the day. Anxiety, stress, uncertainty all can play a part here.

  • The solution:

  • Pay special attention to #6 of basic sleep hygiene.

  • Epson salt baths with lavender essential oils

  • Calming teas. There are many herbal remedies that are called nervines which do what they sound like, relax the nervous system. Some examples are lavender, chamomile, valerian, hops, passionflower, avena, lemon balm, kava kava, scutellaria, and nutmeg. (1) Consult your Naturopath or herbalist for dosages and recommendations specifically for you.

  • Nighttime gentle yoga, breathing exercises or meditation. There are Apps for this! Try visiting for some breathing exercises

  • Magnesium supplementation can help as well, consult your Naturopath for dosages and recommendations. (1)

*Wake at night and can’t get back to sleep

  • What may be happening: Many times, our blood sugar will start to go down in the middle of the night. Our body normally corrects this no problem, but if we are depleted in cortisol (adrenal fatigue/chronic stress) epinephrine steps in to do the job, which you can imagine gives our body a bit of a jolt and can wake us up.

  • The solution: Try having a small protein snack right before bed. Have some of it ready by your bed when you wake as well. Nuts or a non-perishable item is what you’ll want to shoot for.

*Wake feeling tired even though you got 7-8 hrs

  • What may be happening: Even though you are in bed for the right amount of time, you may not be getting enough QUALITY sleep.

  • The solution:

  • Have you been told you snore? Wake often and don’t know why? Consider a sleep study which will help determine if you have obstructive sleep apnea, a common condition. Take this questionnaire here

  • Comfortable bed and pillow are a must!

  • Try shifting your window of sleep to go to bed earlier and rise earlier, or troubleshoot what works for you

  • If it is the winter months, try a natural sunrise alarm clock, many types and options are available.

So long story short, sleep difficulties are tiring (no pun intended…OK yes it was), but many times if you go back to the basics you can find some relief and a happier more energetic you :)


  1. Bastyr Center for Natural Health. Healthy Sleep Habits Handout. Revised 5/2010.

  2. Chaput J-P, Després J-P, Bouchard C, and Tremblay A. (2007). Association of sleep duration with type 2 diabetes and impaired glucose tolerance. Diabetologia. 50:2298-2304.

  3. Javaheri S, Redline S. (2017) Insomnia and the Risk of Cardiovascular Disease. pii: S0012-3692(17)30134-4. doi: 10.1016/j.chest.2017.01.026. [Epub ahead of print]

  4. Medrano-Martínez P, Ramos-Platón MJ. (2016) Cognitive and emotional alterations in chronic insomnia. Rev Neurol. 2016 Feb 16;62(4):170-8.

  5. Taheri S, Lin L, Austin D, Young T, Mignot E. (2004) Short sleep duration is associated with reduced leptin, elevated grehlin, and increased body mass index. PLOS Medicine. 1(3): 21-217.

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