Insomnia is the Worst!

luxury-hotel-rooms-pamilla-cape-townI was on vacation with my sweetheart this past week, and spent two long nights in a hotel room when I could.not.fall.asleep! What to do? It was so exhausting, and of course set my mood and energy levels off for the remainder of the trip.

When I evaluate sleep from an Integrative Medicine perspective, I usually break it into –

  1. unable to fall asleep
  2. unable to stay asleep.

The former tends to have a different set of causes and therefore medications than the latter. Sleep is complex and involves multiple body systems working together including endocrine, neurological, immune, musculoskeletal, and mental/emotional at the very least! Each person with chronic insomnia will benefit most from individualized treatment, but here are some generalizations to improve sleep.

First, as boring and arcane as it sounds, sleep hygiene is important. Hygiene is a strange word to associate with sleep, IMHO. It sounds weird and uncomfortable, but “sleep hygeine” is a general concept that encompasses the environmental and behavioral aspects that are known to improve sleep quality and promote restful sleep. For example, my hotel room was too hot both nights. Maintaining a comfortable room temperature preferably cool with fresh air, is known to improve sleep quality. A darkened room without blinking or other lights within eyesight and a peaceful bedtime routine are also examples of sleep hygiene.

untitled     To fall asleep, sedatives are the key. Valerian is the strongest herb for sleep support. This herb was mentioned by Hippocrates in his writings, and is one of the oldest sedatives known. It has numerous studies supporting its use for sleep. The essential oils in valerian appear to provide its sedative activity, while the valepotriates exert a regulatory effect on the autonomic nervous system.  Although more than 150 constituents have been identified, none appear to be solely responsible for valerian’s effects, suggesting many compounds may act synergistically. Valerian’s mechanisms of action are not completely understood.  Valerian interacts with neurotransmitters such as GABA and produces a dose-dependent release of GABA. Valerian also inhibits the enzyme-induced breakdown of GABA in the brain.

GABA is my other secret weapon for falling asleep. There are two on switch neurotransmitters (dopamine and acetycholine) and two off switches (gaba and serotonin.) When the off switch is stuck on, sleep becomes difficult. Taking GABA as a supplement improves GABA levels in the brain, quieting the mind. Benzodiazepenes like Attivan and hypnotics like Ambian also work to increase GABA levels, as does Valerian. *Don’t use these all together as they can depress respiratory function as a cocktail.

images7OHBNK29Difficulty staying asleep can be more complicated to treat than falling asleep. Taking sedatives at 2 – 4 am can result in morning grogginess. From my experience, early waking (3am) is often related to a dysregulated cortisol clock, or, put simply, stress. Cortisol is the primary stress hormone produced by the adrenal glands. It runs on a 24 hour clock, and should be highest at 8am, and slowly drop during the day and rise at night. With emotional and/or physical stress, travel to different time zones, or shift work, the cortisol clock can become dysregulated, peaking earlier and earlier, creating an too-early wake up signal. Adrenal support is key. I often use herbs like ashwaganda, L-theanine, rhodiola, relora, and more to help regulate adrenal hormone production and heal imbalances. Cortisol is complicated, and balancing requires an in-depth look at ones lifestyle, mental health, stress coping techniques, exercise patterns, blood sugar and more. Therefore, treating stress and adrenal health in relation to sleep is best with an individualized approach, as “cookbook” medicine rarely gives optimized results.

For really tough sleep cases, NeuroScience labs makes a neurotransmitter panel to assess what is causing the night time wakefulness. Blood sugar disorders, sympathetic nervous system activation, cortisol dysregulation, hormone imbalance, anxiety, depression, grief, and more can all be part of the “perfect storm” of insomnia. Find a Naturopathic Doctor in your area to unravel the depths of your sleep mystery.

Umbrella_GraphicFinally, energetic medicines like acupuncture and homeopathy can be invaluable for unlocking sleeps depths. We are quantum physics humans, we do not operate in straightforward paradigm. Sometimes sleep issues go back to childhood dysregulation or other “never been well since” life events. These more energetic medicines can work to correct these deep imbalances by integrating unresolved issues that plague your subconscious when your guard is down. Psychotherapy and cognitive behavioral strategies can also be used to unravel sleep and stress mysteries.

I was lucky: once I was able to come down from the stress before my trip, and relax into my holiday my sleep improved, and I even got to sleep in for a change! What do you need to get that beauty sleep you so desire?

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The Lost Art

I am sick in an invisible way that people cant really see, and I don’t really feel – much. I can take a pill and make it mostly unnoticeable. Except for the fact that my hair falls out in handfuls with a certain kind of stress…

I consider myself an expert in self-care. And yet, I can hardly find the time to do the “little” things that I know could help. Like, nettle hair rinses, getting at least 8 hours of sleep every night, taking my fish oil, and eating more protein. Instead, I keep myself too busy and dull myself with things that make me feel better for a few hours, but never in the long run. I have fallen into the mindlessness of  modern health care where I want a pill to do the work of healing for me. Dammit!

We all have levels of health maintenance we are willing to do on a regular basis. Vitamins, exercise, water, organics, therapy, whatever. We each have a certain degree of self care required to maintain the status quo of daily function. But, what happens when that balance is tipped and we need to actually recover from an illness, injury, or accident?

I offer you an invitation to step off the rat wheel of everyday living, and create a luminal space for healing. A luminal space is an anthropology term that refers to a period of time “outside of time” – a step out of everyday living. Some health crisis force this through body fluid effluvia that ties one to the bathroom, or physical disability that prevents mobility. Too often we are able to power through a cold, or anxiety attack or injury and do not engage in the art of self care to allow actual healing. This is what snowballs into chronic illness / disease or chronic pain.

I have been “sick” for at least 9 months, but I haven’t made more than a few half-hearted efforts to engage in deep self care. I have taken lots of prescriptions and had lots of blood tests, but is that truly healing medicine? I finally broke my baby toe last week, and have been suddenly forced to slow down by immobility. I am doing hydrotherapy, making castor oil packs, cooking and eating good food, meditating, saying no to social engagements I don’t deeply want to do, and getting sleep. These are some of the cornerstones of deep self care.

It is very difficult to give ones self approval to close the door on society and expectations and family, and friends, and chores, and domestic duties, and distractions, and choose to do something solely for the self instead. We are culturally programmed to take care of business, pleasure, family, kids, dogs, and our homes before we take care of the inner self. If you are sick, at any level, you will heal faster, and better if you take the time to practice deep medicine by taking the time to take care of your self.

I am here to help you do that. And, I give myself permission to offer that same wisdom and practice for my self. The pills and the maintenance are not enough. We must engage the luminal, lost art of deep self care for complete health and healing.

 

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#TTC Obsession – Confessions

Getting pregnant is scary and exciting. The process of wanting to conceive and then waiting to find out…. not priceless. I am intimately aware of this as a Naturopathic Doctor with a focus on In/Fertility. I have also been privately preparing for this moment of my late 30’s when I am ready to conceive.  I have treated and supported many women through this process already. And here I am, alone with my OPK stick in the bathroom, discerning the workings of a secret universe. CONCEPTION.

I am amused at my complete immersion in the consuming nature of trying to predict my own ovulation. I cannot believe how often I think of the subject. I am constantly turning the information over in my mind. I read fertility forums online to gather information; I delve into friends’ personal experiences. Medicine looks so different when one is the patient! Suddenly there are a thousand things I do not know… Ovulation Predictor Kits are only the beginning.

And, in the obsession of pregnancy, it becomes everywhere. Books and television remind me that women have been torturing themselves about the ability to get pregnant forever! First, it was conceiving a boy, and whether or not the First Son would be born.  With rampant infertility, the collective obsession has turned to the BFP and away from gender preference.

We want to be able to control this event with every ounce of heart and mind. We are so used to be able to create what we need, if we only put enough effort into the act! It is maddening to have to develop techniques like trust and patience to achieve our highest goal…. and yet that is what it comes down to in the end. Do we hold the ultimate responsibility of whether or not life occurs in our very body?  It is appears to be the hugest responsibility, and yet it is one we cannot. create. on. our. own.  As my friend said yesterday, “We are accomplished and often privileged women! Powerful creations, and yet…” we cannot read what should be the simplest signs of all from our flesh. Are we ovulating today? Are we pregnant? It’s a huge pressure.

For same sex couples and single folks, there is the additional stress of genetic material to procure. The art of conception (often) looks very different for lesbian and gay couples. Not only will the inseminations need to be precisely timed, but the acquisition of said tools of conception must also be arranged. The cost of becoming pregnant begins with the very first try, an additional ingredient in the pressure-cooker of preparation. (In a call-out to women with biologically male partners, I do understand that when women hit the fertility clinics, we are all in the same machine.  The sex or gender of our partner becomes much less relevant although issues of accessibility to and cost of genetic material remains an additional stress.) It’s a wonder any of us become pregnant at all! But we do, in every increasing numbers.

The minute details, test results, and potential scenarios become an endless gerbil wheel of anxiety. It is important to step back from your own fertility and restore some normalcy to your daily routine. I was wound up over the timing of what was only a pre-cycle. Imagine how physically stressed out I could be for the real thing! One of my friends advised me after her first birth – make it fun. Try to relax around it. And she laughed knowing how hard that would be. I suggest distracting yourself as much as possible from thinking the same old anxious thoughts.  HOW? Listen to music that makes you sing. Watch a movie that engages you. Make time for friends or family who you like talking to and who are interesting. Write in a journal so you can get the thoughts out of your head and onto paper. The less time that is spent obsessing about the timing or prediction of said events will be in your best interest overall!

There is no conclusion to the story. The (new brand of) OPK kits wait for next cycle in my bathroom cupboard. I am going to pray for myself, light candles of hope, and continue to make the daily small offerings I do towards pregnancy – high quality prenatal vitamins, DHA essential fats, green tea, and other things appropriate for my personal care. My sweetheart and I also have a plan B, and C in place to rely on. When I get in the hamster mind of prediction anxiety again, please remind me of this post. Stress inhibits Ovulation!

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A Note from Behind the Curtain

So many patients are looking for answers. As a doctor I know that the best answers are in each individual. Usually, we do not want to know the real answer. We want a pill, or a cream, or a smoothie containing the essential nutrients that will add up to the ultimate results. Dont get me wrong – products will help. Testing can uncover imbalances and deficiencies to be corrected and appropriate formulations to improve symptomology. However… until you are actually ready to change something – that thing- – which needs changing in your personal landscape, it is unlikely that you will find your own true answer to health. I will use myself as an example.

After I graduated from Naturopathic Medical School in 2000, I opened a clinic in downtown Toronto with some of my classmates. Over the next 12 years I developed my professional identity, grew my patient base, and pursued my personal passion of fertility medicine. I had a wonderful partner, a beautiful home and fantastic friends. I was never fully content, despite my abundance. I doubted my career and profession, and was constantly seeking something outside of myself to fill the inherent void. No amount of adrenal supplements, detox regimes or magnesium quieted the inner voice. This was not an organic condition, it was a calling that took me many years to acknowledge.

Eventually, I moved to Portland Maine in March 2011. I sold my clinic, left my clinic faculty position, and my sweetheart and I parted ways. Here, life is different. I smell the ocean every day. I do yoga (occasionally.) I walk the dog. I drink green tea. I am redefining myself as a Naturopathic Doctor and am inspired by the new turns my professional identity is taking. I am becoming a better doctor – the best version of myself. It has been a massively stressful process to redefine my life in my late 30’s. However – the gray hairs are worth the evolution. I am happy in a way I have never been. And it is not because my physical, emotional, or mental health has changed drastically. It is because I have found my own answer.

Not everyone’s answer will involve so many miles and such upheaval. The answer to your own health and wellness questions may simple or complex. Part of my job as a Naturopathic Doctor is to look beyond pills and dietary restrictions to see your truth behind your curtain, and support you in finding your own evolutions. If I can do it, I am sure to believe in you.

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Resolving an Arthritis Flare – for My Dad

Chronic inflammation can cycle into snowballs of pain that catch us off guard. For those with a familial tendency towards rheumatism, arthritis can become quite severe. Joint inflammation usually takes the autoimmune form of rheumatoid arthritis or the inflammatory/ immune joint presentation of osteoarthritis.

An acute osteoarthritis presentation can be effective managed with Naturopathic Medicine. To follow is a recipe for resolution of an acute (meaning, immediate or aggressive) flare up of arthritis that may be causing moderate to extreme pain and inhibiting mobility.

1.You will need to rest as much as possible for 7-10 days. Plan to stay home and lay low whenever possible. Get up every 2-3 hours (except while sleeping) for 10-20 minutes of stretching and gentle exercises like walking in nature, Pilates, or gentle yoga. Wii Fit balance and core strength exercises are fun and support rehabilitation.  Plan your life accordingly. You may need to work from home if possible, reschedule activities, and modify your lifestyle during this time. Remember that this is necessary to address the pain. It is likely your pain and inflammatory levels will be up to 50% resolved by the tenth day of treatment. During this time, also take a daily bath, soaking the affected joints for up to 20 minutes.  I recommend using Epsom magnesium bath salts with 10-15 drops of lavender essential oil or a bath salt of your choice. Follow with 20 minutes of icing the affected joint.

This plan will not cure your arthritis. Your will continue all conventional medications used during the treatment although you may be able to decrease pain medication as needed. This does not replace the need for surgery or other scheduled plans prescribed by your physicians and specialists.

1. For the 7-10 days spent at home, you will follow an Anti-Inflammatory Diet. This is best continued until joint replacement is successful; however, it is crucial during the initial rest window. Studies have proven that nutrition is directly linked with inflammation. By eliminating foods known to increase systemic inflammation, you can reduce your own inflammatory load. This allows your body to begin healing. For more information on The Inflammatory Diet set up an appointment with Dr. Masina Wright ND. http://thewrightdoctor.com/contact-information/

2. Zyflamend Nighttime- 2 capsules 3 times daily. This is a modern formulation of 6-10 botanicals to treat inflammation, joint pain and rheumatism using herbal medicine. New Chapter has combined these into an effective and well researched formula called “Zyflamend.” http://www.newchapter.com/zyflamend The PM version also contains a small amount of relaxing herbs which are helpful for supporting a restful attitude during your healing. You may continue this for up to one year’s duration before a break is needed.  This product is safe to take with most narcotic and non-narcotic pain medication including Vicodin, Oxycodone, Ibuprofen, Tylenol 3 and Ibuprofen. However, do not drive while taking this formulation. If you must drive, use the Zyflammend original formula.

3. Nordic Naturals Omega Joint Plus – 3 capsules daily with or without food. This is a premium joint care formula containing the required daily 1500mg of glucosamine sulphate as well as anti-inflammatory levels of EPA and DHA. The product is expensive at ~$50/bottle for one month supply however, it is worth it. Switch to this product during your first month of resolution treatment for best results, even if you have other fish oil or glucosamine supplements. http://www.nordicnaturals.com/en/Products/Product_Details/514/?ProdID=1548

During your 7-10 day rest time, you can take your other supplements as well, or take a supplement vacation and focus on the above products only to streamline your protocol.

This is the skeleton treatment plan. This is a great place to start! As a Naturopathic Doctors, we individualize every treatment plan to fit each patient’s unique identity. If you do not get the results you are looking for or have trouble adhering to the program, consider seeing a ND in your area. In addition to the above protocol, specific neutraceuticals to address sleep, anxiety, digestion, or other issues may also be prescribed in a consultation. Classical homeopathy is also extremely useful in complex cases. It is safe with complicated pharmaceutical treatments and provides lasting results.

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