Essentials of Sleep


Dr. Lisa Polinsky

Ideally, we spend about one third of our lives in restful, restorative sleep and awake feeling fresh and ready for the day.  Yet estimates of 40-50% of Canadians complain of difficulty achieving a good night’s sleep.

On average 8+ hours of sleep are ideal.  If we adjust for the seasons and light exposure perhaps longer hours of sleep in the winter (9 hours) and less when the days have longer light (7 hours).  Fully 5 hours of uninterrupted sleep are needed to achieve deep REM sleep which is considered the most restorative and beneficial time for the body.  If you have light sleep, interrupted sleep or don’t allow enough time then this essential, basic healing process is weakened.

Sleep deprivation is different than true insomnia.  If your schedule is such that you do not allow enough time to sleep – common for many busy people – then you are more in the ‘deprivation’ zone.  Simply focus on creating a window of more time available for sleep.  If you take more than 30 minutes to fall asleep, wake for more than 30 minutes in the middle of the night or wake 30 minutes earlier than you need to in the morning you likely are suffering from a form of insomnia.

In addition to the obvious symptom of increased fatigue sleep difficulties are more likely to be correlated to:

-heart disease


-increased blood pressure

-depression, irritability

-reduced memory, attention issues




Naturopathic Doctors commonly address sleep issues as they can be a hurdle to optimal function of many other health systems – endocrine, immune, hormonal, digestive.   Options for treatment include simple ‘sleep hygiene’ recommendations, gently sedating herbs and nutrients, nervous system support and in some cases stronger prescription medications.  The goal of restoring the ideal sleep rhythm cascades to so many other benefits that it is of primary concern.

The Circadian Rhythym is managed by the hypothalamus which manages alternating states of wakefulness and the drive for sleep.  Shift work, travel, stressful life events and exposure to light can alter this.  Melatonin which is secreted by the pineal gland helps with the signal for sleep induction and is lowered by bright lights both in the room and outside with ambient light.  Having just passed the Summer Solstice we are in the time of year of highest light exposure and often sleep is more erratic and elusive at this time


Helpful Sleep Hygiene for everyone:

-darken your room with black-out curtains

-reduce room temperature

-dim lights in the evening before retiring to bed

-have a fan in your room for the cooling and ‘white noise’ effect

-avoid alcohol, smoking, caffeine later in the day as these impact sleep

-Exercise earlier in the day (3 hours before bedtime)

-Create a regular sleep/wake schedule with onset of sleep ideally before 11:00 p.m

-Monitor what you read/watch before bed. (consider a ‘media fast’)

-Consume a small amount of protein before bedtime to limit blood sugar drops at night which can lead to frequent waking and night sweats.

If the above are not enough to assist you in achieving a better sleep state then seek naturopathic care to customize treatment options.  Difficulties of sleep onset in the evening require a different treatment plan than do difficulties of frequent waking at night.  Given that sleep issues are often related to other health concerns the individualized approach yeilds the best results.  Many have already tried melatonin or Valerian on their own by the time they come in to seek care.  Given that medications tend to suppress REM stage sleep, have drowsy side effects and provide a ‘band-aid’ like approach that masks the underlying issue they are often used for much longer timeframes than is ideal.


Options for treatment may include:

-testing for adrenal function (Eg.high cortisol can reduce sleep onset)

-testing for neurotransmitter levels (eg. Low serotonin can impact melatonin)

-sedative herbs at sleep time

-minerals such as magnesium at bedtime

-determining and removing food sensitivities

-shifting exercise routines

-managing emotional stress

-nervous system support (homeopathics, acupuncture, cranio-sacral treatments)

If sleep is eluding you, enlist the care of a naturopathic doctor to help you reclaim restful sleep.