Insomnia, Liver Function, & Stress

“At night, I can’t sleep. In the morning, I can’t wake up.” —Unknown

After many years of treating symptoms, taking supplements, drinking teas and guzzling tinctures, following rigid healing diets, counting macros and still laying in bed, wide awake, I much prefer to start with the root cause when I can.  I like to experiment until the gears click, taking what I learn from every evidence-backed source.

When it comes to sleeping through the night and unraveling the claws of insomnia, the experiments continue to shift the needle. The goal?  To sleep like a baby, wake up like a spring lamb.

What starts to work for a few weeks suddenly shifts with the season, the moon cycle, a new supplement, or sometimes in response to the components of my dinner.  But, I seem to have a firm grip on what leads to what and can modulate my sleep-inducing inputs depending on the day.

Can you relate?

When it comes to managing our stressors and mitigating their effects, sleep trumps all.  It is sleep that restores us, renews us, repairs us, communicating with our cells to turn certain genes off and turn others on.  Deep sleep is like meditation for our cells: a true necessity when it comes to living and functioning well.

For so many, especially those with complicated gut imbalances, low thyroid function, anxiety, highly stressful jobs, what have you, deep and restorative sleep is not part of the picture.  Without it, the vicious circles of crumbling health start spiraling faster.  

Commonly, people find themselves waking up from 1-4am, drenched in sweat, heart pounding, mind pulsing, hungry, thirsty, thinking too far ahead.

The Impact of Stress

As is typical in a compromised metabolic state, cortisol and adrenaline (innocently) step in to fill in the biochemical gaps.  These stress hormones mobilize glucose from the tissue when the liver fails to do so or when the liver is trying, but has unfortunately run out of its glycogen reserves.  

The classic feeling of “wired and tired” characterizes the high stress, low metabolic state which is stealthily becoming the norm for the masses.  Thank goodness for strong cups of coffee to at least serve as a bandaid to endure another day. 

But, what if we didn’t have to grin and drag our tired souls along each day? What if we could get to the root and drop into sleep the way we used to as care-free toddlers?

For people with low thyroid function, their daily production of adrenalin might be 30 or 40 times higher than is optimal.  This cocktail of stress hormones disturbs sleep and increasing heart rate as it perpetuates the sympathetic state of fight or flight, which further adds to the state of chronic stress and further sleep debt.

As I’ve discussed previously in the connection between thyroid function and liver health, oftentimes, a compromised gut (crowded with parasites, yeast, bacterial overgrowths, food sensitivities, heavy metals, the list goes on…) leads to an overworked and inefficient liver and a sluggish thyroid.  This is a multi-directional relationship, as decline in one organ leads to further destruction in another.  

For instance, producing and storing glycogen in the liver requires adequate thyroid function, so when the gut is inflamed and overflowing with toxins, over-burdening the liver with excessive tasks of clean-up and detoxification, the optimal conversion of T4 to T3 just doesn’t happen.  This is just ONE hole in the chain, but with massive repercussions, like sleep disorders and gut dysfunction.  The compromised thyroid signals the gut to slow down its waves of peristalsis, increasing the build up of further stress hormones and bacterial byproducts, welcoming pathogens, disease, heavy metal accumulation, fermentation, swamping the liver with even MORE chores to handle.

As a result, the liver cannot properly function, losing its ability to store glycogen to carry out its 500+ roles.  As  the mountainous toxic load builds up further, and the body reads this as a MAJOR STRESSOR.   

ALERT ALERT! 

The next, most logical reaction? The brain tells the adrenal glands to release even more adrenaline and cortisol to start breaking down proteins to make into glucose.  As cortisol rises, it further inhibits the conversion of T4 to T3, which is responsible for the cellular production of energy (ATP) and carbon dioxide.  The seemingly simple cycles, when faulty, dig us deeper into physiological stress and mayhem.

Ever tried to sleep when the fire alarm above your bed is going off?  In some ways, high adrenaline and cortisol sends alarm bells throughout your system, creating a biochemical alarm that carries throughout your entire being.

On top of these alarm bells, our emotional reaction to the lack of sleep compounds the matter.  The adrenalin triggers nightmares, waking us up, feeding more worry, drenching us in sweats.  The body interprets all stressors by increasing stress hormones, preparing to mobilize and meet the demand.  Repeatedly responding to imagined stressors  sends us into an even more compromised metabolic state, leading to less sleep and yes, you guessed it, more circles conducive to feeding the spirals of stress. 

Let’s pump the breaks, mitigate the stress, and get some of that deep, luxurious sleep.

STEP 1: Soak up that SUGAR.

  • Make sure you’re eating enough carbohydrates before bed.  So many diets advocate for limiting carbohydrates, restricted windows of eating, or finishing your last meal 2-3 hours before bed.  I am asking you to experiment and see what happens if you have a moderate dose of easy to digest carbohydrates, paired with a fat and even a small amount of protein just before heading to bed. (A cup of milk with a splash of maple?  I bowl of berries with a dollop of cream?  A chalice of orange juice paired with a nice scoop of cottage cheese? All served  in your favorite vessels with a pinch of salt, of course. What delights YOU?  What is your favorite bed-time snack?  What does your body want?)
  • The conversion of T4 (inactive thyroid hormone) to T3 (active thyroid hormone) is dependent on enough glucose (sugar!) and stored glycogen (sugar!) in the liver. Carbohydrates are critical for the thyroid and liver to work in tandem to keep your stress hormones and toxin load down, therefore quieting the internal alarms and keeping the chaos at bay.
  • Sugar, like salt, can help lower cortisol. If you find yourself continuing to wake up in the middle of the night flooded with stress hormones, a simple combination of sugar and salt could be your ticket back to bed.  My favorite? A spoonful of raw honey with a sprinkle of salt.  I’m usually back to sleep in just a few moments.  
  • Frequent meals throughout the day that contain adequate amounts of carbohydrates to keep your liver fueled can also help prevent any surges in stress hormones.  When healing, more frequent eating is generally a good rule of thumb.  That’s right: more food, not less.  When stress is high, restriction is counter-productive.  

STEP 2: Mind your vitamins and minerals

  • Salt can help to lower adrenaline.  In order to circulate calming neurotransmitters, chloride is pumped into your cells.  Without adequate dietary salt, the cells actually pump chloride out of the cell and lead to excitation, alertness, and subsequently, a feeling of jittery stress as adrenaline and cortisol rise.  Forget what you’ve heard about limiting salt.  Listen to your grandma and your taste buds: salt your food to taste, and even add a dash to your filtered drinking water.
  • Magnesium, potassium, and calcium can help lure you into slumberland.  A combination of ripe fruit, juice, very well cooked greens and their broth, shell-fish, cacao, and grass-fed dairy products will help you meet these nutritional targets.  I’m also quite the fan of epsom baths, foot soaks, and topical magnesium to boost magnesium levels and prep your cells for deep rest.
  • Vitamin D, a hormone-like, fat-soluble vitamin, is essential for deep sleep!  Deficiencies in vitamin D and sunlight exposure are comorbid with sleep disorders, on top of other metabolic concerns that might also interrupt falling into deep, restorative sleep.

STEP 3: Amplify your attention to amino acids

  • Glycine is recognized as an inhibitory and calming neurotransmitter, helping to promote natural sleep and balance out the pro-inflammatory effects of amino acids that are abundant in muscle meats, like cysteine and methionine. 
  • Glycine is abundant in bone broth, gelatinous cuts of meat like oxtail, and shank, scallops, and pork rinds.  About 35% of the amino acids in gelatin are glycine. 
  •  Homemade marshmallows or a warm cup of salted, previously gelled bone broth might be the perfect combo of glycine and sugar to send you off to sleep.
  • If you’re planning to have a hefty serving of meat with dinner, as I tend to do, make sure to balance it with 5-10 grams of gelatin or even 3-4 grams of glycine to balance the flow of amino acids into your system.  Experiment.  More might be needed, depending on the levels of pre-existing inflammation in your tissues or your unique load of stress.
  • Is gelatin, collagen, or glycine actually making you feel more alert when trying to wind down?  This paradoxical reaction is something I experienced, hinting at an underlying metabolic dysfunction.  Don’t despair.  Getting to the root cause is possible with enough tinkering and pro-metabolic tweaks.  Patience and curiosity pays off in this boat.

STEP 4: Pass on hard to digest foods in the evening

  • Eating a big bowl of popcorn, broccoli, beans, spicy peppers and pork sausage isn’t the most intuitive night-time snack.  With any difficult to digest foods combined with fermentable fibers, gas and endotoxin build up as the microbiome feeds.  The result?  Lighter sleep, more gas, more frequent awakenings, more absorption of toxins through the permeable gut barrier, and higher stress hormones and inflammation as a response to it all.  As delicious as that bowl might sound, opt for more easily digestible, blended foods that you know you digest well: channel your inner toddler!

STEP 4:  Celebrate the CO2

  • Carbon dioxide retention is necessary for optimal usage of oxygen within the cell.  Without enough oxygen, tissues lean towards lactic acid production, which sets off the same cascade of alarm bells from the systemic stress and inflammation.  Low thyroid function, lack of sugar, high stress hormones, a lack of vitamin D and minerals can all contribute.  Aside from correcting the aforementioned imbalances, many find improvement in their sleep when they close their mouth and breathe slowly in and out of their nose.  Read more about the fastest way to release stress with your breath and consider taping your mouth shut before sleep if you can’t keep your lips closed.

STEP 5: Purge those parasites with persistence

  • Aside from increasing the leakiness of your gut, stress hormones, and immune system alarm, parasites can stealthily alter your circadian rhythms and release toxins like ammonia that  irritate and inflame your nervous system. In fact, the toxins these bugs release add yet another burden to your liver, increasing the chance you might wake up from 2-3am. 
  • These parasitic scoundrels tend to be more active around the full-moon, possibly explaining why so many individuals with parasites find themselves awake and alert with the changing of the moon cycle.  The less you sleep, the weaker you become, and the more hospitable you become to even more parasites and infections, and yes, more metabolic decline.  

STEP 6: Slow yourself down

  • The mind has a profound effect on the cascade of chemicals released.  If you’re one of those people who have all of the nutritional and metabolic factors checked off the list, your wifi turned off, your blackout curtains closed and you’re still unable to sleep or waking up every night, brain rewiring is your new best friend.  In my experience, brain rewiring has helped move the needle that even the most nutrient-dense diet failed to reprogram.  By training our minds to think and perceive differently, the body can enter new terrains to change and ultimately heal.  

Is any of this helpful? I’d love to hear from you.

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