Note: This article was originally published on ProHealth.com
One of the worst symptoms that I’ve endured throughout the years in my battle with Lyme disease is insomnia. At times inconvenient, at other times grievous, insomnia has been a wicked, constant companion that has stolen from me many years of productivity, sanity and peace. Most people can endure a bad night or two of sleep, but when you can’t get more than a few hours of shut-eye for weeks, months or years on end, such exhaustion tries even the strongest of souls.
Fortunately, as I’ve recovered from Lyme, I’ve been able to find relief from sleeplessness, and while I still don’t get a solid 8 hours every night, which is really what my body needs, I can count on a solid 6.5-7 hours most nights (if I do everything right) which is good enough for me. If I slip up though and eat junk food, stay on my computer past 9:30 PM, or allow the struggles of life to get to me, then I can fall back into insomnia’s grip. But I no longer go through my days fatigued, tormented and depressed because I’m sick with exhaustion.
It took me many years of trial and error and pain to find some real answers to the problem of sleeplessness, which plagues so many with Lyme disease and chronic illness. In people with Lyme disease, the reasons for insomnia are many and include such things as inflammation, neurotoxins in the brain and body, hormonal imbalances, neurotransmitter imbalances, pain, poor gut health, electromagnetic pollution and more. To make matters worse, most doctors prescribe sleep medication to their patients, which, while I believe is useful and even necessary at times, makes the body’s chemical imbalances even worse. I took anti-depressants and sedative drugs to sleep for nearly eight years, and it took me several years to heal my brain and body from the effects of those, and the process of weaning off of them was excruciatingly difficult.
Had I known back then what I know now, I believe that the process could have been made much easier, but the good news is, I now have a good arsenal of strategies for sound sleep that have given me my life back, and which I hope will help other people with Lyme disease, as well. Indeed, I’ve learned enough about this topic to write a book—and perhaps I will someday!—But for now, I’ll share just a few highlights about some of the tools that have helped me, in the event that you find them helpful, also.
First of all, the usual advice that’s given to people with insomnia is to do things like take a hot bath, drink a warm glass of milk, or take some valerian root herb. These strategies can be helpful, but for people with severe neurological disease, they are seldom sufficient. For me, I found all of the following additional tools to be useful and necessary:
1) Balancing the hormones. If your thyroid function is too low or too high, you may not sleep well at night. If you have an imbalance of progesterone relative to estrogen (common in peri-menopausal and menopausal women), you won’t sleep well. Similarly, if you have adrenal exhaustion, which can cause either too high or too low cortisol levels, you may not sleep. For this reason, it’s a good idea to have your doctor order a complete hormone panel and correct for any imbalances using bio-identical hormones, herbal remedies and nutritional supplements. This can include things like bio-identical thyroid hormone, pregnenolone, DHEA, 7-keto DHEA, progesterone, adrenal glandular supplements, or nutrients such as Vitamin C, pantethine and phosphatidyl-serine. You’ll want to work with your doctor to find out what remedies would best benefit you, based on your lab results. Most good integrative doctors do hormone panel testing.
2) Having a protein snack before bedtime. Adrenal fatigue and Lyme disease often cause the body’s blood sugar levels to be unstable, which means you may not be able to get through the night without your body awakening you and screaming for some glucose. The conventional advice is to not eat too close to bedtime, but for me, and others I know with Lyme disease, a protein snack right before bedtime can make for a longer, and better night of sleep. I will often have a chicken leg or beef stick from US Wellness meats, which sells clean, organic high-quality animal protein. Nuts are also a great protein snack.
3) Replenishing and restoring neurotransmitter levels with amino acids. Lyme disease causes neurotransmitter imbalances that create symptoms of insomnia, depression, fatigue and brain fog, among others. Balancing neurotransmitters with amino acids can help to restore sleep, along with a myriad of other symptoms. Amino acid therapy, in fact, was one of the most important things that I did to recover my health.
Amino acids such as L-tryptophan, 5-HTP, L-theanine and GABA all aid in sleep, but they must be balanced in the body so I don’t recommend taking random amounts of these nutrients or they may not work. They also require certain co-factors for the body to be able to use them and create neurotransmitters from them. Nutrients like magnesium, vitamin C and P5P are among these. Many people with Lyme disease also have genetic mutations that don’t enable them to properly break down and synthesize neurotransmitters, so I recommend doing genetic testing, along with amino acid and neurotransmitter testing to find out what your body needs.
You can compensate for genetic mutations by taking certain nutrients that aid in amino acid synthesis and neurotransmitter metabolism, such as SAM-e, methyl B-12 and methyl-folate but you’ll want to get tested and work with your doctor to determine precisely what you need. Randomly taking nutrients isn’t a good idea and can even backfire on you and make symptoms worse. You may respond poorly to amino acid therapy without the proper methylators and co-factors, and while testing can be expensive and laborious, I have found that it’s well worth the time, effort and investment. Amino acid therapy can even help you to wean off of sleep medications and anti-depressants.
4) Lowering electromagnetic fields (EMFs) in your environment.
I regularly interview integrative cancer doctors for a podcast interview that I host for the Alternative Cancer Research Institute, and time and again, these doctors tell me that many people don’t sleep well due to the prevalence of electromagnetic fields in the environment. EMFs from Wi-Fi, microwave towers, cell phones, smart meters, power lines, disrupt sleep by causing imbalances in the body’s electromagnetic field. I found that doing all of the following helped me to sleep better:
a) Turning off the circuit breakers in my bedroom
b) Turning off my cell phone, cordless phones, and Wi-Fi router at night
c) Using Graham-Stetzer filters throughout my home. Graham-Stetzer filters block the EMFs that are transmitted via smart meters through the wall wiring. For more information, see: www.stetzerizer-us.com.
You can find more information on how to lower EMFs in your home in my 2014 book, Create a Toxin-Free Body and Home, which I co-authored with Lee Cowden, MD.
5) Lowering inflammation and high glutamate levels. When the body is inflamed, it doesn’t rest. Whether from pain or high glutamate levels caused by disease, inflammation guarantees a bad night’s sleep. To combat inflammation, avoid allergenic foods in your diet, and ask your doctor about taking an anti-inflammatory supplement such as curcumin, turmeric or low-dose aspirin, before bedtime. L-theanine and alpha-ketoglutaric acid are two supplements that help to lower glutamate, an excitatory neurotransmitter that disrupts sleep and which is caused by Lyme neurotoxins.
In addition, I recommend working with your doctor to improve your gut health, as most of the body’s neurotransmitters are made in the gut, and ensuring the health of your gut will help to ensure the health of your brain and neurological system.
Finally, I encourage you to do a relaxing activity before bedtime, such as reading a good book, praying, meditating, or journaling—anything that will help you to empty your mind of worrisome thoughts that could keep you up at night.
Sleep is the foundation of health, and by discovering the underlying causes of sleep deprivation, you will be empowered to find solutions and recover not only from insomnia but also from all other symptoms of Lyme disease.