Updated: Sep 5, 2018
I’d planned on the next part of this series to be focused on more sedative-type herbs that help with staying asleep. But the recent creeping up of my own sleep issues, which for the first time in a long time decided to stubbornly not respond to my usual herbal treatments, made me realize I needed to go in another direction. There was a bigger problem here.
With moving to a new state, packing, then unpacking endless boxes, the transition of coming out of four years of intense medical training, trying to keep on a schedule of studying for all of my licensing exams, planning for my future, continuing with two Master’s programs... Even as I write that list, I’m amazed at how blindly unaware I was of how quickly my stress levels were rising. It didn’t click until I found myself laying in bed at 2 a.m., exhausted yet feeling absolutely wired, wondering why my mind wouldn’t cease with its endless loop of thoughts, restless energy running through me, my usual herbal go-to’s doing nothing to ease me into sleep.
So, what was going on? It’s simple: stress. Never underestimate the power of stress and the messed up hormone levels that come running after it to interfere with nearly any and every aspect of your body. Hormones are the messengers of the body, running around telling our organs and organ systems what to do. So when they get out of whack? Better believe you’re going to feel it in unpleasant ways.
I find it interesting that women as a whole seem to suffer more from anxiety and stress-related sleep issues than men. But I’ve suspected for a long time that this is due to the disproportionately larger amount of stressors we combat on a daily basis, in large part thanks to our increased use of makeup and personal care products that commonly have ingredients that disrupt our hormones or burden our body with heavy metals.
How do hormone disruptors and heavy metals get into our cosmetics and personal care products? Well, they can be present as raw ingredients, they can be by-products of contamination, and they can also be formed as a breakdown of purposeful ingredients. Think of that last one as meaning to add an apple to a recipe, but through heat, mixture with other ingredients, or time, part of it magically turns into, say, apple cider vinegar. Unintended, but that’s still what ends up in the final mix. People are exposed to small amounts of toxic heavy metals in cosmetic products every day. Each of these individual doses may be little and seem like no big deal, but the issue is the cumulative buildup that occurs in the body. Daily use adds up, and as metals such as arsenic, cadmium, and lead (the heavy hitters found in a large percentage of cosmetics) aren't things our body is equipped to process and remove from our bodies, they sit in the “storage” zones of our body, such as in fat.
This cumulative effect of repeat exposure of toxic heavy metals is a huge potential health risk, and research set out to investigate this issue has cited no real difference between concentrations of metals in the more expensive makeup and cosmetic products versus the cheaper versions, so spending more money on lipstick doesn’t equate to a better quality product. This is exactly why doing your own research and knowing what’s behind all that pretty packaging is so important.
The connection between these exposures and health issues is something I’ll go into more detail on at a later date, but the take-home I want to focus on today is this: the accumulation of these metals is a health risk, and most of the metals found to exist in personal care products act as endocrine disruptors, meaning that they interfere with the hormone system of the body. And guess what’s also well documented in the research? Endocrine dysfunction and sleep dysfunction go hand in hand.
Sleep and your hormones have a VERY complicated relationship. Some hormone secretions (like growth hormone and luteinizing hormone) are increased during sleep, some decrease (like the rev-up hormone, thyroid stimulating hormone.) But the factors that influence the when and how of how well you sleep are hormones themselves. Cortisol, the stress-hormone I’ve mentioned before, is intimately linked with your sleep cycle, aka circadian rhythm, and normally spikes up in the morning (rise and shine!) peaking in the late afternoon, preparing your body to wind down and catch some Zzz’s. When cortisol taps out, the hormone melatonin comes into the spotlight and helps you lull into sleep.
That’s the healthy pattern, anyway. The big proposed theory of hormones and insomnia is that if the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal, or HPA, axis (aka the key players in your creation, release, and regulation of hormones) is out of whack and overstimulated, it results in a dysfunction in the system, with cortisol being secreted at higher and longer levels than usual, affecting the release of your OTHER hormones, and, ultimately, your sleep.
Just think about it: if cortisol is the hormone that spikes you up to give you an edge on stress, and STAYS up when you’re feeling the pressures of life, can you imagine how that prolonged stress can so dramatically mess with your sleep?
One solution? Decrease the stress.
... easier said than done.
I’ll dedicate some time in the future to the research of just why changing your perspective on stress is so effective at combating detrimental health effects (e.g., meditation, yoga, solid exercise, ACTUALLY being positive.) But it can be daunting and difficult to really achieve this on our own when just saying “peace out!” to our stressful jobs, families, schooling, etc., just isn’t an option. Stress is a big, messy part of our modern lives. I mean, what was I really supposed to do in my position? Decide that I just wasn’t going to move, that finishing my doctorate wasn’t worth
all that hormonal hoo-ha, and write a letter to my medical boards telling them that “I’d love to take my certification test, but my adrenals are acting up so let’s just not”?
Obviously, hard “no” to all of those winning options. So the solution? And how, very recently, I’ve managed to get my sleep back on track?
Extra stress just means your hormonal systems need extra “armor.” You feel the systemic (or full-body) effects of stress because your hormonal systems are getting hit harder than they were prepared for. Basically, they need some backup. And no, I don’t mean switching to a Venti. Caffeine actually stimulates your body to increase cortisol production, so if overfiring cortisol is at the root of your issue, upping your latte intake is only going to worsen that vicious cycle.
Usually, giving my stress-response some help for me translates to using my favorite adaptogenic herb Ashwagandha root, aka Withania somnifera. A lot of the time, consistent use of adaptogenic herbs at a therapeutic dose are all the body needs to really take on long-term stress. Adaptogenic herbs are defined as herbs that have been shown to increase one’s resistance to physical, chemical, and biological stressors. In essence, stress armor.
Obviously, Ashwagandha alone wasn’t cutting it for my lately, so what REALLY helped me get my sleep back together was turning to a combination formula. The combo of Ashwagandha root, L-theanine, and some cortisol-controllers is exactly what my poor body needed to chill itself out. The particular blend I’m taking uses Magnolia, aka Magnolia officinalis bark extract, and epimedium aka Epimedium koreanum aerial extract.
Fun facts about why that mixed formula helped me snooze better:
● L-theanine is great hero-support for sleep, as research has shown it to be helpful in increasing sleep efficiency. Interestingly, it’s been found to be helpful at helping dampen the excitatory effects of caffeine, meaning it can be helpful with combating caffeine-induced sleep disturbances if you’ve found yourself hitting the espresso particularly hard lately.
● Magnolia officinalis bark extract has been found in studies to significantly lower cortisol levels, as well as improve mood state, help with overall stress, reduce tension, reduce depression, reduce anger, help decrease fatigue, and decrease confusion. Basically, it helps with stress and anxiety, and this is why it’s so stellar for anxiety-driven sleep issues.
● Epimedium koreanum was explored in a study on the safety and efficacy of Chinese medicine, and found that E. koreanum had time-dependent effects on helping regulating the oxidant-antioxidant balance in the body, helped with protein and fat metabolism, helped with energy metabolism, and helped with the microflora of the gut. Pretty cool stuff.
So, the take-home for Part 2: If you’re having sleep issues, taking a step back and really thinking about your stress might be the key to finding some relief. Talk to your doctor about testing your hormones, and see if a cortisol-control approach is right for you. It may just be the secret to why "nothing seems to work."
*Though based in research, personal, and clinical experience, the opinions in this article should not be taken as medical advice. Botanical medicine and nutriceuticals should be treated with the same caution and care as pharmaceuticals, as both have the potential for strong, potentially adverse effects and allergic reactions. Please consult a trained herbal medicine practitioner, licensed Naturopathic Doctor, or licensed Doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine before attempting treatment.
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