Dr.Karol, MD

The doctor with alternative solutions


Insomnia: Causes and Natural Solutions

In order to fall asleep and stay asleep we must be calm both physically and mentally. Without this balance we will have a hard time falling asleep and maintaining sleep. Anything that overstimulates our brain will negatively impact our sleep cycles. The most common causes of sleep disturbances generally stem from stress, environmental stimuli and in some cases substance abuse.  Too much stress or a hectic home environment can preoccupy our brains to the point of insomnia. This is especially true with work or tasks that deal with a great level of responsibility.

New York City at night

Of course there are natural methods to help facilitate sleep. First sleep in a dark environment (light inhibits the release of melatonin, the sleep hormone in our brain). A great way to relax before sleep is by meditation, reading a relatively boring book, taking a hot bath or shower, drinking a warm glass of milk with honey (milk contains tryptophan which stimulates sleep and honey contains simple sugars which also facilitate sleep). If you need something stronger you can opt for melatonin, tryptophan or herbal teas that contain valerian, hops, chamomile or passion flower. All of these are well known sleep herbs.



A word about alcohol: Alcohol is a neural depressant. This means that it acts as a depressant on the brain. It relaxes the nerves and the brain. When you stop drinking there is a rebound effect in the opposite direction. The brain is overstimulated and you will have problems sleeping for a while. This usually lasts a few days up to a couple of weeks (depending on how much and how long you have been drinking for). Drinking more alcohol will temporarily help in this situation. But you don’t want to do this as it will lead to alcoholism. Try the natural options listed above. If you still have major problems sleeping look into the use of medical marijuana for insomnia. You can legally get a prescription and it is an effective method for insomnia (especially the indica strains that are high in CBD content).

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Remember also that other deficiencies (other than melatonin) can also lead to sleep problems. The most common type is the deficiency of the B vitamins. Try a B complex vitamin before sleep and you may notice a significant difference. Try not to eat a large meal right before bed and be sure to exercise at least a few hours before bed (right before can cause over-stimulation). Again, hot milk and some simple sugars (in the form of honey for example) induce sleep, while stimulants such as coffee, chocolate, black and green tea can inhibit sleep. Of course, also steer clear of stimulating illicit drugs such as cocaine, amphetamine, etc before sleep (and at times if possible).

Finally, try and stay away from over-the-counter sleep aids or prescription sleeping pills if possible, as they can be highly addictive. If you must use something strong try medical marijuana. But remember it may leave you drowsy in the morning. Till next time.


Dr. Karol

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Alcohol and Insomnia: Breaking the Cycle

Over half of all Canadians have insomnia, the medical term for problems falling asleep, waking up at night, being unable to go back to sleep, and very early morning wakings.

People who suffer from insomnia feel tired in the morning, are irritable, have a lack of concentration and thus lower work performance throughout the day. These effects stimulate our brains to do something to make us feel better and to take the edge off. The most common go-to remedies are junk food, coffee, smoking and alcohol. All four of these things bring short-term, temporary relief but all they also worsen the insomnia in a vicious cycle. Usually the initiating factor is stress, which leads to poor quality sleep, and sometime afterwards alcohol consumption to reduce the stress.

The Trouble with Alcohol
Alcohol (or ethanol in chemical terms) is a neural inhibitor and a depressant. It inhibits communication between brain cells. This is in contrast to stimulants like amphetamine and cocaine, which increase communication between nerve cells.

Alcohol binds to our brain receptors called Gama Amino Butyric Acid (GABA) receptors. This is one of the neurotransmitters in the brain. A neurotransmitter is a chemical molecule that nerve cells use to communicate between each other. GABA normally inhibits nerve cells. This has a calming effect on our mind. This effect of GABA is also conducive to falling asleep and maintaining good quality sleep. Melatonin is another major compound responsible for sleep. What is important is that alcohol binds to the GABA receptor at a different site from GABA on the same receptor.

Alcohol and the Brain
So how is this connected to alcohol? Well, as mentioned above, alcohol binds to the same receptors as GABA. But here is the interesting part: Whenever you stimulate a receptor by the molecule that binds to it, the brain reacts by increasing the number of receptors. This is the foundation of what is called drug tolerance. As a person uses a drug, (in this case alcohol), it requires progressively more and more of the drug to achieve the same effect. This is due to the brain increasing the number of receptors. Of course such a process takes months, as new receptors require new protein synthesis from the genetic code.

When a person drinks on a regular basis, the brain reacts by increasing the number of GABA receptors. But the amount of GABA in the brain stays the same. It is the alcohol and not the GABA that causes the increase in receptors. A normal amount of GABA in the brain will have a lesser overall effect on the brain because the number of receptors has increased due to alcohol. The consequence is that GABA will have a weaker effect. Since GABA is an inhibitory and a relaxing compound, the consequence of it having a weaker effect will be the opposite, i.e. anxiety, nervousness, and in the context of this blog, difficulty falling asleep and maintaining sleep. The difficulty of maintaining sleep in this scenario stems mostly from very vivid dreams.

The Vicious Cycle
So what do people reach for when they cannot sleep? Often it is alcohol. This compensates for the weaker effect of GABA due to increased receptors, and does bring relief in the form of sleep, albeit temporary. But the effect will be a hangover in the morning and further increase of receptors. This will require more and more alcohol to achieve the desired effect of “good” sleep. This is one of the ways to achieve complete alcohol dependence, otherwise known as alcoholism.

Breaking Free
So what is the healthy solution? There is only one: Complete abstinence from alcohol so that the number of GABA receptors in the brain return to normal. This takes anywhere from a minimum of one to three months. You will be able to tell when you achieve this when you begin sleeping normally without any alcohol. Unfortunately, the first few weeks will not be fun. Without alcohol and with GABA’S weaker effect, your quality of sleep will not be good.

But look on the bright side. You are doing something extremely healthy. You are breaking away from the vicious cycle of alcohol-sleep dependence and regenerating all of your organs that have endured the negative effects of alcohol.

This is just another example of the cycle of life and the balance of nature, or as Isaac Newton said, “What goes up must come down”.

See you next time.
For more sage advice from Dr. Karol and for natural health product recommendations, visit vitarock.com