Treating sleep disorders with functional medicine

Sleep is fundamental to our health and wellbeing. It’s the time when our bodies repair and reset. So it’s hardly surprising that sleep deprivation is linked to chronic health problems.

A lack of sleep can interfere with our mood, immune system, productivity, and hormones. It can sabotage our efforts to lose weight by increasing hunger, increasing fat storage and creating insulin resistance. This in turn increases the risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

The two most common sleep disorders are insomnia and obstructive sleep apnea.

Insomnia

Insomnia is characterised by difficulty falling asleep, frequently waking in the night, waking too early in the morning or waking feeling tired. It can lead to irritability, reduced productivity and problems with memory and concentration. These symptoms can be short term (for example as a reaction to stress) or they can become chronic causing long term sleep disruption.

Common causes of insomnia include:

·       Significant life stress or emotional upset

·       Depression or anxiety

·       Illness e.g. arthritis, heartburn etc

·       Physical discomfort or pain

·       Environmental factors like noise, light, or the room being too hot or cold

·       Medications e.g. those used to treat colds, allergies, depression, high blood pressure, and asthma

·       Disordered sleep schedule e.g. shift work or jet lag.

Traditionally insomnia is treated with sleeping tablets. While these can help to reestablish a healthier sleep pattern, they often have negative side effects and they don’t address the root cause of the insomnia.

Sleep Apnea

Obstructive sleep apnea happens when something partly or completely blocks your upper airway during sleep. Breathing usually resumes with a loud gasp, snort, or body jerk. You may not sleep well, but you probably won’t be aware that change in breathing has happened. However, the condition results in poor quality sleep and reduces the amount of oxygen your cells receive during the night. This mean you wake feeling incredibly tired.

The most common obstructive sleep apnea warning signs include:

·       Daytime fatigue

·       Dry mouth or sore throat when you wake up

·       Headaches in the morning

·       Irritability

·       Memory and concentration problems

·       Restlessness during sleep

·       Snoring

·       Waking up suddenly and feeling like you’re gasping or choking

Sleep apnea is more common in those that are overweight or obese, have a thick neck, or have smaller airways in your nose, throat, or mouth. It can also happen if you have enlarged tonsils or a larger than average tongue. Other risk factors include diabetes, smoking and drinking alcohol.

Severe sleep apnea is treated with a breathing mask called a CPAP machine which keep a constant pressure of air in the airways during sleep to stop them collapsing. However, losing weight, addressing underlying health problems and making lifestyle changes can also help to stop this condition occurring.

The functional medicine approach to sleep problems is to work out why they’re occurring and address the root cause to restore healthy sleep.

The first step is to look at sleep hygiene. This includes assessing your sleep schedule and your habits around bedtime to identify factors than might be negatively impacting on your sleep. Your functional medicine practitioner can then create a targeted plan to improve your sleep hygiene and encourage a healthier sleep pattern.

Assessment of nutrient intake is also helpful as deficiencies in certain nutrients can make it more difficult to get to sleep or stay asleep.

Stress levels, hormone imbalances and imbalances in neurotransmitters (brain messages) can also contribute to poor sleep. Functional testing can be used to look assess your sleep wake cycle as well as the levels of key hormones and neurotransmitters to identify imbalances that might be interfering with your sleep. Your functional medicine practitioner can then put together a tailored protocol or diet changes, lifestyle adjustments and supplements to restore biochemical balance and good sleep.

Stress management is also key. We all know we should spend more time on self-care but sometimes there’s so much going on it’s difficult to make the time. However, it’s still important to make sure your body is supported. A functional medicine practitioner can advise you on herbs and supplements to support you through the stressful period. They can then help you put in place a structure to better manage stress in the future.

If obesity is contributing to your sleep issues, body weight management can also be addressed as part of your functional medicine protocol.

The same applies to other health issues that might be disrupting sleep or causing pain. The purpose of functional medicine is to treat the whole person, not just their symptoms. This means providing support for underlying health conditions as well as working directly on improving sleep.