Note: This article was originally published on February 15, 2017: http://www.prohealth.com/library/showarticle.cfm?libid=29944
One of the greatest battles that I’ve faced throughout my journey with Lyme disease has been insomnia. It stole years from my life as I spent over half a decade in the throes of severe sleep deprivation, and another half decade with just enough rest to get by, but not really function.
If you’ve ever battled insomnia, you know how torturous it can be to endure sleep deprivation for months or years on end. Most people can handle a night or two—or even several weeks of sleeplessness without feeling crazy—but let’s face it, when you are really sick, it’s not uncommon to suffer from a lack of quality rest, sometimes for years.
In my quest to find healing from insomnia, I read all kinds of books on sleep, but was often frustrated by the answers that I found in these books, because they seemed mostly targeted to an audience that was otherwise healthy. Some of the advice was helpful, but was nowhere near enough for a mind that was battling neurological disease.
Let’s face it—when you have Lyme disease, a little valerian root, melatonin and/or a hot bath before bed often aren’t enough. And if you’re like me, you may have discovered that the effects of most sleep medications are temporary and often cause you to feel worse in the long run, even if at first they may be helpful.
As I’ve probably mentioned before in other articles, I took sleep medications for years while undergoing treatment for Lyme disease; everything from SSRI anti-depressants to benzodiazepenes; otherwise known as sedative drugs. These medications helped me to stay sane while I took potent anti-microbial drugs and herbal remedies, but the weaning off process was probably even more difficult than the symptoms that I faced from Lyme disease and caused me just as many biochemical problems as the original mess of Lyme disease.
I don’t want to discourage you if you truly need sleep medication, but I want you to know that taking any kind of sleep medication long term can create dependency and the possibility of difficult, protracted withdrawal symptoms once you decide to wean off of it.
I understand though that at times, you just do what you gotta do, but I also want you to know that often, there is a better way! And as part of my recovery, I discovered many better solutions for sleep besides medication, and which went beyond the typically prescribed natural remedies like melatonin and a hot bath.
Don’t get me wrong; melatonin, valerian root and a hot bath are all great for improving sleep, and at times, I have found them to be helpful adjuncts to my sleep regimen, but in my worst moments with Lyme disease, they were not enough. Chances are, if you have struggled with sleep for months or years, as I did, you know about all of the common sleep remedies that are out there, yet not found them to be sufficient for restoring your sleep.
With that said, I’d like to suggest some tools that helped me to restore my sleep-wake cycle to near normal and which you may or may not have tried. I describe these (and other solutions) in greater detail in an upcoming book on insomnia that I will be releasing in March, called Beyond a Glass of Milk and a Hot Bath: Advanced Sleep Solutions for People with Neurological Disease and Chronic Insomnia and which is targeted to those with neurological illnesses. If you would like to be notified of when the E-book is out, click here. (Scroll to the bottom of the page and enter your email in the box right below "Get News and Updates."
First, proper sleep hygiene is essential. If you have trouble falling asleep at night, make sure to get off of your computer, ipad, iphone and other glowing gadgets at least two hours before bedtime. The electromagnetic fields (EMFs) and light from these devices stimulate the pineal gland and nervous system.
Similarly, unplug all of the appliances in your bedroom, and/or better yet, turn off the circuit breakers at night. Electromagnetic pollution is a major cause of insomnia nowadays, unbeknownst to most people, and is one of those stealth toxins that nobody thinks is a problem for them until they get out of their high-EMF environment!
For years, I lived in a sea of electromagnetic pollution, and ultimately, I ended up having to move because it affected my sleep so much. When I finally found a home with lower electromagnetic fields, I began to sleep better. I also purchased some Graham-Stetzer filters, which mitigate electromagnetic pollution that gets transmitted through the wall wiring. I also purchased a sleep canopy, which is a metallic-lined mesh net that drapes over the bed and filters out high frequency EMFs that come from sources such as microwave towers, cell phones and Wi-Fi routers. To learn more about EMF-shielding products, see: www.LessEMF.com.
In addition, some outside-the-box tools that I have found to be incredibly helpful for restoring my sleep-wake cycle over the years include:
· Neurofeedback and Light-Sound Devices. These are devices that modulate and ramp down your brain waves at bedtime. They range from the moderately effective and inexpensive to the highly effective but more expensive.
Lee Cowden, MD, recommends light-sound devices from ToolsforWellness.com. The device slowly ramps down your brain waves until you get into a delta wave pattern, which is conducive to sleep. Light-sound devices are less expensive than neurofeedback devices, which modulate your brain waves based on input from your brain.
Neurofeedback devices also modulate brain wave patterns, but rather than simply lowering your brain waves, they input frequencies to your brain that are based on feedback from your brain.
I have used both types of devices, and found neurofeedback to be more effective for severe insomnia, but light-sound machines adequate for moderate insomnia. In fact, the neurointegrator device from Clear Mind helped me to wean off of years of sleep medication use. For more information, see: www.ClearMindCenter.com.
(note: I receive no compensation from any company for sharing the tools mentioned here). Neurofeedback devices can be quite pricey though, so you may want to try a sound-light machine first if finances are a factor for you.
· Cannabis. I have also found low-THC cannabis to be incredibly beneficial for sleep. Not all states have legalized marijuana for medical use, but increasingly, more states are allowing it. The Indica strains of cannabis in particular, are very calming to the nervous system, and studies show that cannabis provides a multitude of benefits to the body, including nervous system regeneration.
You don’t have to get “high” to enjoy the benefits of cannabis for sleep. Many products on the market contain very little THC (this is the compound in cannabis that has psychotropic effects upon the mind) and are very relaxing and healing to the nervous system.
THC has its own health benefits, but it’s not for everyone and you don’t really need it for sleep, since it’s the compounds called cannabinoids in the plant that induce relaxation and rest. What’s more, long-term studies on cannabis show that it is safe for most people.
There has been a negative stigma surrounding cannabis for years, and while it can be abused like all medicines, the controversy is somewhat unwarranted as it is safer and has fewer side effects than most over-the -counter drugs like Advil PM and Benadryl (both of which have been shown in studies to cause Alzheimer’s dementia with prolonged use!).
On that note, Mary’s Medicinals makes some wonderful products for sleep; I have found both CBD and CBN capsules to work for this purpose. Both contain 5 mg of cannabinoids per capsule and just a tiny amount of THC. For more information, see: www.MarysMedicinals.com.
Cannabis is also available in many other forms, but I find that the capsules are the easiest way to take it for a peaceful night’s rest. You can experiment with different forms to find one that works for you.
· Histamine-Modulating Substances. Excessive levels of histamine and inflammation can be major causes of insomnia, especially in people with neurological diseases like Lyme, as well as in other health conditions. Histamine is a neurotransmitter that is involved in your body’s immune response and is produced when you have an allergic response to something. People with mold illness and Lyme disease often get overloaded with histamine as their bodies get stuck in a perpetual inflammatory, or allergy response. High histamine levels and inflammation in turn, cause sleep disturbances.
If you don’t believe me, consider the medication Benadryl, which is often recommended by doctors as an over the counter sleep aid to block and/or shut down the effects of histamine!
Histamine release is also implicated in mast cell activation disorder (often abbreviated MCAD), a condition in which the body overproduces mast cells, and which is common in those with Lyme disease and mold illness. Mast cells release histamine and cytokines, or chemicals that cause widespread inflammation throughout the body.
Proper treatment for MCAD can shut down a variety of symptoms caused by inflammation, including, you guessed it—insomnia. Even if the only symptom that you have is insomnia, consider that excessive levels of histamine might be keeping you awake at night!
The anti-histamine medication ketotifen, in addition to quercetin and diamine oxidase, were helpful for treating my MCAD and enabling me to get deeper, more restorative sleep. You may find that these or other natural supplements or medications will help to lower your histamine levels and better enable you to sleep.
What’s great about the medication ketotifen is that it is profoundly effective and, unlike other commonly known antihistamines like Benadryl, it isn’t anticholinergic; that is, it doesn’t block the neurotransmitter acetylcholine in the central and peripheral nervous system. Some antihistamines do this, and it is why drugs like Benadryl have been associated with Alzheimer’s and memory loss, since acetylcholine plays a vital role in memory and cognition.
Quercetin, which may be one of the better-known natural remedies for treating MCAD, is described in Lawrence Afrin, MDs book, Never Bet Against Occam. In it, Dr. Afrin says, “It (quercetin) seems to result in reduced production of inflammatory mediators (e.g., leukotrienes and histamine). It may also serve as an inhibitor of tyrosine kinases and other regulatory proteins of interest in activated mast cells.”
Other nutrients that have anti-histaminic properties include: vitamin C, magnesium glycinate, curcumin, Siberian ginseng and holy basil, all of which are believed to help the body to metabolize histamine.
Curcumin, which has been well studied for its anti-inflammatory effects, may be one of the most powerful natural anti-inflammatory substances there is, and studies show that it decreases histamine, in addition to a variety of other inflammatory mediators such as cytokines.
I describe some additional solutions for restoring sleep in an article that I published in October 2015 entitled: “Five Super Strategies for Restoring Sleep in Lyme Disease.” You can read more about those here:
· Balancing the hormones
· Replenishing and restoring healthy neurotransmitter levels with amino acids like GABA, 5-HTP, L-theanine and L-taurine
· Lowering inflammation and high glutamate levels with natural remedies like curcumin, alpha-ketoglutaric acid (which lowers glutamate) and an anti-inflammatory diet
· Having a protein snack before bedtime (especially if you are prone to hypoglycemia).
The above-referenced article is only a starting point for learning about how each of these factors affects sleep, but I encourage you to share about them with your doctor and/or other holistic health care practitioner if you struggle with insomnia. I also describe each one of these in much greater depth in my upcoming book.
These are just a few of the most important tools that I used on my journey back to restful sleep. You may find that using just one of these tools is sufficient for you, or, if you are like me, and your insomnia has been caused by multiple factors, including damage from long-term sleep medication use and neurological illness, you may need to do more than just one thing to heal and re-set your sleep patterns.
For instance, I found that I needed to “stack” remedies, one on top of the other, over a long period of time. I didn’t do 10 things at once, and my body didn’t snap back into getting a solid 7 or 8 hours of rest overnight. My brain had been badly damaged by Lyme and other factors, and it was a long trial-and-error process for me to find things that worked. But, each tool that I used brought me one step closer to the finish line, and I believe that if I can do it, you can, too.
My sleep is not perfect to this day, but if I do everything right (and except for when I travel), I can get a solid 7-8 hours of rest most nights, whereas I used to sleep 3-6 hours for years on end. (And I’m not one of those people who functions well on six hours of rest, never mind three!).
Finally, our sleep is profoundly affected by our emotions and any past history of trauma, so if you suspect that worry, fear, anger and/or trauma are keeping you up at night, I encourage you to find ways to heal or manage those emotions so that they don’t disrupt your sleep. I share some tools for dealing with worry and fear in my upcoming book Beyond a Glass of Milk and a Hot Bath, and will also share them in an upcoming article on ProHealth in the weeks to come.
In the meantime, be encouraged—there are tools out there that can help you to recover from insomnia! There were many times throughout my healing journey when I thought that I would never get my sleep back, and although the process was long and arduous, I finally did. And if I did, then I believe that chances are, you can, too.