Trouble Sleeping?

December 10, 2011 in Categories: , , , , by

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After following a paleolithic diet, I think prioritizing sleep is probably the most important thing you can do for both your short- and long-term health.  But sometimes just trying to get more sleep doesn’t really work.  If you wake up frequently at night, have a hard time falling asleep, or wake up super early in the morning without feeling refreshed, here are some ideas that might help.

1.  Avoid sugars in the evening (even from fruit).  Avoid alcohol altogether and avoid caffeine after late morning.  This helps your metabolism slow down while you’re sleeping.
2. Eat a BIG meal about 4 hours before bed.  Research shows that eating a meal that contains dense carbohydrate sources (like starchy vegetables) about 4 hours before bed improves sleep.
3.  Do not eat for at least 2 hours before going to bed.  When you do, you kick up some growth hormones and boost your metabolism right when these things are supposed to be slowing down.
4.  Protect your dim-light melatonin production.  Your body starts releasing melatonin about two hours before you normally go to bed to start preparing your body for sleep.  This makes you feel sleepy and lowers your body temperature.  But, melatonin production can be inhibited by exposure to bright indoor lights.  You can help protect this melatonin production by keeping lights dim in the evening and by wearing amber-tinted gasses (which blocks out blue light) for the last 2-3 hours before bed.  You also protect your dim-light melatonin production by getting outside or using lightbox therapy during the day.
5.  Make sure to have “wind-down” time before bed (not TV) in a dim room.  Read, solve a cross-word, cuddle with a loved-one, do some yoga stretches or listen to music.  It’s important to have a routine that cues your body that you are getting ready to sleep.
6.  Sleep in a cold, dark, quiet room.  Maybe use a white noise generator if your bedroom isn’t very soundproofed.  Dark means REALLY dark:  black-out curtains, no alarm clock light (turn it so it faces away from you), no little LED lights from phone chargers etc.  Duct tape can do wonders for LED lights.  If you use masking tape, you can still see though it, which is useful for alarm clocks.
7.  Manage stress.  Stress increases cortisol, which decreases sleep quality, which increases cortisol.  One of the sneaky ways you can tell if high cortisol levels are a problem is whether or not you need to pee in the middle of the night (high cortisol levels mean the kidneys don’t slow down at night the way they are supposed to–note that once is probably normal, but more than that is indicative of the need to better manage stress).   If stress is a problem, try getting more low-strain exercise, like walking or yoga.  Also eating a moderate-carbohydrate paleo diet (too low is a problem and too high is a problem, so if you aren’t sure, you might want to get a glucometer and start measuring your blood sugars), limiting caffeine especially coffee, getting sufficient vitamin D3, and getting a large amount of dietary omega-3 fats (lots of fish!) will help too.
8.  Take a magnesium supplement before bed.  My favorite magnesium supplement is magnesium glycinate because it’s so highly absorbable.  Natural Calm is a great close second (and cheaper).  The cheaper the magnesium supplement, typically the less absorbable it is, which  and may upset some people’s stomachs or cause diarrhea since any unabsorbed magnesium acts like a stool softener.  It also helps to eat more dark green vegetables during the day.  Plantains are also very high in magnesium. Other herbal remedies which may help (and don’t contain gluten which is common in herbal sleep aids) are: Bach’s Rescue Sleep, Bach’s Rescue Night, and Gaia SleepThru.
9.  Try melatonin.  Of course, check with your doctor first.  Melatonin is the hormone normally produced by your pineal gland that is the dominant player in regulating your circadian rhythms. It normally peaks at night, but taking a little extra (go low dose, 0.25-1mg) will help you sleep more soundly.  I recommend a sublingual tablet (stay away from the extended release capsules unless your doctor suggests it) when you start your wind-down time (less than 30 minutes before bed).  Be warned that bright light after you take it will be very confusing for your body.  It can take anywhere from 3 weeks to 3 months to reset your circadian rhythms, so one you feel like you’re sleeping well, you can wean off the melatonin slowly.
If none of these ideas help, or you need more information, I suggest checking out the book Lights Out: Sleep, Sugar, and Survival by T.S. Wiley.


This is so helpful! I particularly appreciate that none of the sleep supplements recommended in point 6 appear to contain Valerian, as I am among those in whom that herb acts as a *stimulant*! (Took it one night when I was already drowsy enough to fall asleep [falling asleep is almost never an issue for me-its the staying asleep/sleeping soundly that I struggle with] and soon felt my brain pull right up out of drowsiness such that I never really slept all night long. Ugh!) My stepmother has experienced a similar effect.

I just listened to a Chris Kresser podcast where he talked specifically about this sleeping patter and its relation to adrenal fatigue, with suggestions for supplement to take. He mentioned the ingredients in Gaia Sleep Through and the Gaia line of adrenal support supplements specifically. You can probably find the specific info by searching through his podcast transcripts (sorry I don’t remember exactly which episode in was).

I will definitely track that down. I ordered a bottle of Gaia Sleep Thru earlier today. I’m trying to come off of cortisol by gradually decreasing my dose (under doc’s supervision), so I want to make sure I’m doing all I can to support my adrenal function.

Not sure how to subscribe to comments other than by commenting. I’m also interested in this question of melatonin for those with autoimmune diseases. Thanks!

I’m confused about this, too. I would like to use melatonin occasionally for those frustrating times when I don’t know what I’ve done to keep myself awake but I just can’t get sleepy. But I have Hashimoto’s, and when hanging around with people on the Hashimoto’s 411 Facebook group, I’ve learned a lot and was surprised to find out that melatonin is a “no-no” for us. I can’t remember why, just now, but I’d like to have a definitive answer from The Paleo Mom because at this point I consider her my expert! =)

Sarah discusses taking melatonin on page 258 of The Paleo Approach. The summary is that a smaller dose (.25 milligrams, not slow release) can be used for a short period of time, but that using it should only be considered after you’ve implemented the other diet and lifestyle changes outlined in the book (including spending time outside during the day, wearing amber tinted glasses, sleeping in a dark room, and eating glycine and tryptophan-rich foods). If you’re interestsed in learing more about what is included in The Paleo Approach, you can read more about the book here: — Tamar, Sarah’s assistant

Thanks, Tamar, that’s very helpful! I need to work harder on some of those other tactics, but it’s good to know I won’t completely ruin my progress with a tiny bit of melatonin once in a while.


Rather than going to the hassle and expense of blackout curtains and duct tape to black out your bedroom, just spend $10 on a sleep mask. It does the same thing – keeps the lights out of your eyes. Plus, if you have to get up in the middle of the night for some reason (sick child, whining dog), you won’t be in a pitch black room and you’ll be able to see where you are going.

Thanks Christina! Another question. I was looking into the herbal sleep aids recommended by Sarah in the article above. The Bach’s Rescue Sleep contains grape alcohol and the Gaia SleepThru contains ashwagandha. Can you please confirm that both of these are not AIP compliant?

Has anyone ever had any issues with melatonin causing intense cramping in the middle of the night/early morning? Every time I try it, I get the cramping so bad I can’t even move!
I just went to my colon hydro-therapist today and she said she has the same problem! We checked the ingredients on both supplements and it’s all safe! No corn, dairy, fillers of any kind, gluten etc.

I definitely struggle with stress management. I pee several times a night.
I recently discovered a sensitivity to fish (I have a patch of eczema that turns bright pink, swells and becomes painful when I eat shrimp and cod, salmon is fine. Any suggestions for other ways to get omega 3’s?

Not trying to be funny – have you ever slept with a mask on? I can’t. 🙁 Can’t get over the “something’s on my face and around my head” feeling.
I just started blacking out my room after reading the “Lights Out” book Sarah suggested above. If that book doesn’t scare you into minding your sleep and carb intake, nothing will, lol.

I don’t have trouble falling or staying asleep, but I definitely have trouble waking up! No matter if I get 7, 8, or 9 hrs of sleep (usually I get around 7), I always feel “dead” in the morning. Making myself get up is only possible because I have to get to work! Also, it is easier for me to get up if I have LESS sleep (5-6 hrs). But regardless, I never feel actually refreshed. Is this possibly indicative of a hormonal imbalance? I know it’s possible to wake up refreshed because it has indeed happened to me on occasion! It’s crazy, I feel like I’m on a happy pill…I want that every day!

Have you been tested for adrenal insufficiency? Your diet and sex hormones can also affect how well you wake up, so it’s really something you’ll need to work with a doctor on. – Christina, Sarah’s assistant

For me feeling ‘dead’ in the morning and not being able to physically get out of bed for 1-2 hours is a sign I am hypothyroid. I do have hypothyroidism and just got a medication change and am slowly getting better. I also sometimes feel happier and have more energy when I get only 5-6 hours (but I do still feel “ragged”, and it’s not a good day for anything mentally taxing like job interviews, exams etc.) It’s weird!

Hmm.. I take melatonin 5 mg a nite and have been for yrs… I also take a homeopathic remedy called Insomnia by Newton Homeopathics… This works pretty well for me as I am already doing almost everything suggested except the amber glasses.. will start using those as well. I do want to check out the Gaia aids as I am positive I suffer from adrenal issues. I am doing the AIP protocol, started before Thankgsiving and have been pretty compliant except for a couple of days.. Will go full bore after the holidays. I get the feeling I should get off the melatonin??

I am using the Paleo Approach to help my RA… I love my sleep, and generally I sleep well, don’t have trouble getting to sleep and don’t wake through the night. The only trouble I had with sleep was that I rarely felt refreshed in the morning (getting up at 05.30 for work).

However, now I have a 9 week old little boy whom I am breastfeeding, so I’m up 2-4 times in the night with him… I have definitely noticed an increase in my pain/fatigue, any tips on how I can get by? As I still get sleepy in the evenings, and still get to sleep quickly when I get to bed… It’s just my nights are broken.

Thanks, Nina

Excellent content. After 9 hours of sleep I still feel tired so this will hopefully improve sleep quality.
There are sveral typos, by the way. 🙂

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