As someone who damaged their immune system in her early 20′s from sacrificing sleep, please take it from me and make this a priority if you have issues with your sleep cycle. Our immune system will successfully deal with many things until we sacrifice sleep, diet and sunlight. My sleep issues got worse after having kids and nursing and it took awhile to get my sleep cycles corrected.
I am not a doctor, and any decision you make is yours and yours alone. You should always consider seeing a doctor or another certified health professional. But these are natural ways that have helped me. (I’m allergic to many medications, so these are avenues my doctors have helped me find to do.) I put this out there in case it might help others find a direction in solving this problem.
1. Melatonin. It’s an over the counter “vitamin” (synthetic hormone actually). Melatonin does not make you sleep per se, it will improve the quality of your sleep, help you get to that deeper REM and help regulate your internal clock again. If you have not dreamed in a while (as is the case for many exhausted people), the first few nights you will likely have a rush of wild dreams as your psyche downloads. Some people may not experience this. A lot of people do. Make sure you have plenty of time to sleep when you first start taking melatonin so there’s proper time to be at that deep level of sleep. Two hours will not work.
Melatonin is created from serotonin, so if you don’t have enough of one, you likely don’t have enough of the other. L-Tryptophan (an amino acid found in food like turkey) can also be found over the counter and is what the body uses to make serotonin, which is then converted to melatonin at night. If at any point you start waking up again in the middle of the night while taking melatonin, take a smaller dose or don’t take it. It does seem to build up in the system. Melatonin is processed through the liver, so keeping your liver healthy is also a good idea. Avoid alcohol for awhile, consider milk-thistle to support liver health. Also, low levels of serotonin are associated with increased carbohydrate cravings, depression, heightened sensitivity to pain, and troubled sleep patterns.
The smaller dosages (mcg) of melatonin did not work for me. But 5mg did. Don’t take it unless you are going to get at least 6 hours of sleep. And take it an hour before you want to go to bed. Today, I don’t need as much or as often (in fact I rarely take it) and I’m much less chronically exhausted. But it was a life saver when my son started sleeping through the night and I still couldn’t.
I recommend you search some medical sites about melatonin to give you more information as well.
2. Light destroys melatonin in the body, especially the blue spectrum (though serotonin levels do increase during light exposure – sunlight being best). An hour before bed start turning off and dimming your lights. Also, no computer use during this time is also best, as the whole light issue is specific to your eyes. Staring at a computer screen is staring right into a source of light. The last lights you leave on should be yellow tone or even candle-light, avoid blue tone like the daylight bulbs you find. Do not leave a candle burning while you sleep. If you must use night lights, use red bulbs. Completely darken your room.
3. Go camping (tent, not cabin). Seriously, when you do not artificially extend your day with lights and the conveniences of modern life, your body will naturally try to sync up with the sun and other creatures around you. You’ll likely wake with dawn too. A night or two of camping have helped reset my internal clock.
4. Try not to eat a meal within 4 hours of going to bed. That being said, some people benefit from a simple glass of milk before bed. No sugar, caffeine or apples too close to bed. Apples contain a substance better than coffee for keeping you alert. Whenever I have to drive for a trip, I take a bag of apples to eat while I drive. Works like a charm. Don’t eat them before bed.
5. Probiotics. Some people have trouble sleeping because something’s going on in their digestive track. Probiotics will help iron that out. And oddly, they do have a relationship to correcting in the gut whatever is decreasing proper serotonin/melatonin production.
Good luck, talk to a doctor and hope you get some sleep!
Book: Somer, Elizabeth, M.A., R.D. Food & Mood. Henry Holt and Company, LLC, 1999. (Page 144 on serotonin)