I finally got some sleep last night and wow, do I feel amazing today. I say this with a smile on my face, a spring in my step and the energy to take on whatever comes my way.

How about you, have you gotten any z’s lately? Ah, the restorative power of sleep…

Few would argue that a peaceful night of slumber, or not, can make all the difference on how we think, feel and even look the next day—just ask a typical college student or a new mother.

“I’ve gotten to the point where I am actually delusional, especially toward the end of the semester when you have finals due and everything is piling up… it can get kind of scary,” said Sonoma State University Senior Rachel Barnacle, who averages four or five hours of sleep a night, sometimes less, sometimes more.

“You feel a difference with your mental clarity, but at the same time it’s hard to prioritize sleep ’cause you can go without it. And even when I try to take a nap during the day, my mind immediately starts racing with everything I have to do,” she said, adding that it reminds her of the times she lays awake in the middle of the night “trying to solve all the world’s problems.”

Sleep deprivation has been accused of playing a part in weakening the immune system, tumor growth, diabetes, weight gain, inflammation, depression and memory loss, according to experts.

“Sleep is one of the most important things for a person’s physical health. It is one of the four pillars for our health care, along with diet, exercise and stress management,” said Sutter Health integrative family physician Sean Zager, who works at The Institute for Health and Healing, an integrative medicine practice within Sutter Health that provides conventional and complementary medical care.

The “four pillars” are very much interrelated, and there are many ways on a biochemical level that sleep disturbance affects our health negatively, Zager said, citing, for example, hormone imbalances.

“So relating back again to some of those four pillars of health care, it has been shown that insufficient sleep is associated with lower levels of a hormone called leptin. This is a hormone that signals to the brain when it has enough food; it signals satiety after eating. So when levels of this are low, we tend to overeat. In addition, insufficiency of sleep is associated with higher levels of a chemical called ghrelin, which stimulates appetite. So these are mechanisms that have been identified to show how sleep disturbance can lead to overeating and ultimately weight gain,” Zager said.

It has also been shown that sleep deprivation can lead to poorer food choices, he said, noting this might be part of the reason why there are increased risks for conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity with chronic sleep rhythm abnormalities.

Cortisol, a hormone that is produced in the adrenal glands in response to stress, is another one that can get out of whack with sleep disturbance, “leading to an increased sense of stress and a lack of ability to manage it,” Zager said. “With cortisol imbalance there is a much higher risk for mood instability and anxiety.”

There have also been studies on the necessity of sleep to consolidate memory, the doctor said. “During our day, while we are awake, our brains function to encode memory; but during sleep, in addition to the many functions of the brain during sleep, one is to consolidate memories. During the day it is as if we are typing our memories into our computer, but it’s at night when those memories are being saved,” he said.

Lack of sleep can also lead to decreased immune function and an increase of inflammation in our bodies, according to Zager.

Specifically, if we are sleep-deprived, our one type of immune cells, known as T-cells, decrease, while pro-inflammatory immune cells, such as cytokines, increase. This would help to explain higher incidents of infections in people who are sleep-deprived and higher levels of inflammation in their bodies, which can manifest in any system, including our neurocognitive, gastrointestinal, endocrine and cardiovascular systems,” he said.

Ironically, the knowledge of knowing we are potentially damaging our health by not sleeping enough could be one more stressor. So what’s a person to do?

Zager said he approaches sleep disturbance or insomnia the same way he approaches “every condition under the sun.”

He starts by looking at those “four pillars” to make sure the other three pillars—regular aerobic exercise, a healthy diet and tools for stress management—are attended to.  He would then look at natural options that encourage sleep, including mind-body techniques, such as clinical hypnosis and guided imagery, guided meditation, biofeedback and breathing exercises. And in these natural therapies he would include an alternative approach to care, such as acupuncture and massage therapy for relaxation.

There are also some basic tips, which include, but are not limited to, making sure the bedroom and the bed are quiet and comfortable, the room is dark, the room temperature is on the cooler side (between 60 and 68 degrees). It’s also wise to be not too full or too hungry when you go to bed and to avoid caffeine, sweets, nicotine, alcohol and watching television (which stimulates the brain) for at least four to six hours before bed.

“I would talk to my patients about what they are doing in the couple hours before bed, encouraging them to stay away from a screen of any kind and generally focusing on relaxation before sleep,” Zager said, noting there are also several natural remedies that promote sleep, including herbs. An additional option, he said, could be a trial of melatonin one hour before bed “as this is a chemical produced by our brain naturally to support our sleep cycle.”

Traditional Medicinals’ Teas
Chamomile and passionflower are among the herbs used in Nighty Night tea made by Traditional Medicinals, a Sebastopol-based company with a nationwide presence that, according to its mission statement, has been “passionate about connecting people with the power of plants” for over 40 years.

The company, established in 1974 by co-founders Rosemary Gladstar and Drake Sadler, currently makes 65 different teas to support an array of issues, including two which are intended to promote a good night’s sleep: Nighty Night tea and Nighty Night Valerian tea, which are among the brand’s top-selling teas.

“There are several herbs that can help with occasional sleeplessness,” Zoe Kissam, herbalist and associate brand manager at Traditional Medicinals, said, referring to herbs like passionflower, valerian, chamomile, catnip and linden.

“Our teas our formulated by herbalists who have extensive training and knowledge in traditional paradigms of herbal medicine, and here at Traditional Medicinals we are committed to using pharmacopoeial quality herbs whenever possible. It’s a standard that our herbalists rely on for quality, purity, strength, identity and composition.” Simply put, she said, “This standard helps us to do what our teas claim they will.”

The herbs used in these formulas have also stood the test of time, or as Kissam said, they “have been used for hundreds of years to help with occasional sleeplessness.”

The benefit of using herbs to help promote sleep is that they are a “natural way to support the body systems,” she said. “Herbs can be a gentle way to get your body’s own natural ability to do something back on track.”

“We have over 60 teas to promote everyday wellness, from a line of teas formulated for women or the need for a good night’s sleep, digestive disturbances or just a nice cup of tea that fits into a daily routine. We’re widely available, from health and natural food stores to Target. We want to make herbs accessible to everyone, and that’s exciting to us,” Kissam said.

For instance, teas that support relaxation include Lemon Balm, Chamomile with Lavender, and Cup of Calm as well as their newest blend, Stress Ease Cinnamon, all formulated for daytime relaxation.

While Traditional Medicinals has a teaching garden on its West County property, with a wide representation of many of the plants used by the company, the herbs used in Traditional Medicinals’ teas are not estate-grown but come from “the environment they are native to, which helps ensure that the constituents naturally found in the herbs are intact—meaning not too weak, or too strong, for the gentle benefits they provide,” Kissam said.

Each of the herbs goes through “at least nine tests and as many as 15 to ensure the quality, purity, strength, identity and composition,” she noted.

Asked if she ever has trouble with sleep disturbance, Kissam said, “Oh yes, I just had a baby.” SD