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The Healing Significance of Sleep

Lack of sleep is extremely detrimental. Here's some sound sleep advice.

Like millions of others, I know what it’s like to be sleep deprived. I have struggled with insomnia for years and have progressed from sleep deprived to sleep obsessed. I’m fixated on getting a good night’s sleep.

I don’t recommend my level of preoccupation. But a healthy commitment to sleep would do every body good. The fact is, if sleep is not on your radar, you are missing a significant opportunity to experience wellness at the deepest level. Unfortunately, many Americans are missing out. They remain sleep deprived and suffer significant health consequences as a result.

Paying a Serious Price

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently called insufficient sleep “a public health epidemic.” More than 35 percent of Americans get less than 7 hours of sleep per night, according to the CDC report.

Recent research linking lack of sleep to weight gain makes for compelling headlines, but the dangers of sleeplessness go far beyond weight gain. In fact, just one night of less than six hours of sleep negatively affects the expression of more than 700 genes the next day. This detrimental genetic expression leads to:

• Weakened immunity

• Increased inflammation

• Increased oxidative stress

• Decreased cell repair

• Increased insulin resistance

All of which contribute to the leading causes of death in the United States—including cancer, heart disease and diabetes. In one study, women who slept less than six hours per night had a 62 percent increased risk of developing breast cancer compared to women who slept seven hours per night. And these results have been duplicated with other cancers, as well as cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

Isn’t it remarkable that even one more hour of sleep can have such dramatic effects on health?

As a cancer survivor, I work hard to prevent a recurrence. So when I continued to struggle with insomnia, I started taking Ambien, thinking I was doing my body a favor. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The Sleeping Pill Nightmare

A large-scale study published by Daniel F. Kripke, MD, and his colleagues at the University of California, San Diego, found that people who take sleeping pills such as Ambien, Lunesta, and others had a 35 percent increased risk of developing cancer.

That’s right. The pills I was taking to avoid cancer recurrence were actually increasing my risk of cancer. By a lot.

Kripke’s research, as well as other published studies, also indicates that taking sleeping pills will increase your chances of dying early—not only from cancer, but from any cause.

You can see the dilemma. We know that lack of sleep is extremely dangerous to our health, and yet the medical treatment is equally damaging.

Some Dreamy Advice

My solution was to quit taking Ambien cold turkey. And after several tries, I was finally successful. As I weighed the pros and cons, I realized that I could offset the negative effects of an occasional sleepless night, but I could not justify increasing my cancer risk by 35 percent. I also worried about the other side effects of sleep medications, such as memory impairment and loss of brain function.

The following tips have helped me secure more shut-eye, and I hope they will help you, too.

• Be careful of caffeine and alcohol intake before bed, because both can disrupt sleep.

• Control blood sugar levels by eating a complex carb snack like oatmeal or whole grain cereal. Also, foods high in tryptophan like turkey, milk, cottage cheese, chicken, eggs, or almonds may also help promote sleep.

• Practice proper sleep protocols: dark room, no work or TV in bed, and avoid stressful conversations before bedtime.

Kicking it up a Notch

For people who have been on prescription sleeping pills, the tips above may not be enough. I have found additional insomnia relief by taking some specific dietary supplements that target sleep. Here are some things I’ve learned.

• There are many supplements to choose from. Finding the best regimen for you is an individualized process that requires trial and error. One of the most widely studied natural sleep ingredients is melatonin. Quality of melatonin supplements can vary dramatically, so you may need to try a few different brands, forms, and dosages. Talk to your doctor about increasing the dose beyond the typical 3 mg if you have been on prescription medications (I take 6 mg at night). Melatonin should work within a couple of nights (and maybe even the first night), so don’t struggle through an entire bottle before changing brands. I’ve had good luck with an herbal melatonin called Herbatonin and also a timed-released form.

• For anxiety-induced insomnia, I use an ingredient called Suntheanine. Solid research demonstrates the anti-anxiety and relaxation effects of L-theanine (specifically this form of L-theanine). I also take a unique combination of chamomile and cabbage leaf extract made by MetaOrganics.

• Remember dietary supplements will not work like drugs. You can’t take a dietary supplement and expect to be sleeping 15 minutes later. Most supplements should be taken at least 30 minutes to an hour before bed. They work more gently and may not knock you out completely like a prescription drug.

Getting a drug-free good night’s sleep is not always easy. But I keep on trying because I know the stakes are high.

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