Great Sleep….Simplified!

What do I mean when I say “great sleep”?

Getting to sleep easily…Staying asleep…Dreaming…Waking refreshed in the morning, feeling rejuvenated, awake and ready to go. If this isn’t happening then your sleep is not optimal … you are not getting the recovery time that you need and your body and mind are not rejuvenating. The great thing is that there is so much you can do that is easy and natural if you understand what your body needs to get great sleep.

Why is sleep so important?

To put it simply…sleep is the down time your body needs to heal…..Regeneration and Rejuvenation. So, if you are not sleeping, your are not healing and inflammation is being produced. Quality and quantity of sleep are equally important. Sleeping less hours of high quality deep sleep is about the same as sleeping long hours but light sleep. We want both.

First of all lets look at some common, easy at home “fixes”.

        • Limiting caffeine during the day.
        • Limiting late in the day.
        • Not getting overstimulated.
        • Taking a bath or drinking some calming herbal tea to relax.
        • Sleeping in a dark room… limiting light exposure at night.
        • Limiting carbohydrates/sugar late in the day or at dinner.

The list above are things can be helpful and may do the trick, but if they are not, then we dive in deeper to find the whyThere are 4 main biochemical pathways that I think about when determining why someone may still be having difficulty getting great sleep. Most of these pathways involve the neurotransmitters…

    • Serotonin/Melatonin and cortisol
    • Dopamine/Norepinephrine/Epinephrine.
    • Glutamate/ Gaba.
    • Histamine.

It is when these neurotransmitters and cortisol are imbalanced that symptoms  of insomnia, anxiety, depression, and irritability can occur.  Balance is the key and the perfect orchestration of all of these are what happens each night for perfect sleep. Let’s take a look at each one and see why they are so important to help orchestrate a perfect night sleep!

Serotonin /Melatonin pathway and Cortisol

Serotonin is the main calming neurotransmitter. I think of it as sitting at the top telling all the other excitatory neurotransmitters to calm down. When your serotonin level is adequate, then you feel like you have your bubble of Utopia (forest or nature) surrounding you. You can see the stress but it isn’t in your face. You can feel calm, peaceful, happy and sleep is easy and rejuvenating. When your serotonin levels are low, then your Utopia bubble is very small if it even exists at all. Stress can feel in your face. There is a higher chance of feeling anxious, worried, irritable, depressed and difficulty sleeping. All you may want to do is go to bed and pull the covers over your head to escape. Chronic stress chews through your serotonin and can cause depletion. Serotonin is the precursor to Melatonin and melatonin is the main hormone needed to sleep. It is also a fantastic antioxidant. So stress can lower serotonin levels and then lower melatonin.

Another interesting note is that 90% of serotonin that the body needs is made in the gut, but you can’t take the serotonin that is made in the gut and put it in the brain for calming. If there is stress in the gut for any reason… poor diet, imbalanced flora, antibiotic use, NSAID use and many others…then the basic building blocks that are needed to make serotonin get used up and so there is less for the brain to use to make it’s own supply.  Well, what can we do to help these levels?  “Live a life of very little stress” is what some will say…and this may be ideal but it may not be realistic. Healing your gut is imperative but still may not be enough. 

5-HTP  or 5 Hydroxy tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin so taking 100 mg of 5 HTP in a controlled release tablet can be very effective. Giving yourself more of the basic building blocks to make serotonin just makes sense. I see amazing results in sleep, anxiety, irritability, and depression. A reason that I like the controlled release form best (Peace Assist is my favorite) is because it is released slowly and gently through out the day or night instead of one big lump. I like 5-HTP better as opposed to taking tryptophan because there is a chance that tryptophan can go to a neurotoxic metabolite known as quinolinic acid… so why take the chance.  (Please be aware that taking 5HTP is not advisable to take along with any medication that is a SSRI unless you are under the care of your health care professional.)

Taking Melatonin at bedtime can be helpful for insomnia also.  Melatonin is made in the body from serotonin. It is at its peak at bedtime and then will be the lowest in the morning. Melatonin levels are opposite cortisol and actually healthy cortisol levels in the AM will stimulate healthy melatonin levels at night. Cortisol is from the adrenal glands and low cortisol results from having tired adrenal glands. I like the Melatonin CR from Xymogen because it is in a biphasic sustained release formula. This means that a substantial dose is released initially and then the rest is slowly released throughout the night to mimic the body’s own natural rhythm.

Cortisol again is made from the adrenal glands and there is a rhythm to how the body makes this hormone. It should be high in the morning so we wake with energy and then it declines throughout the day and is the lowest at night. When our adrenal glands get tired than the production of cortisol gets imbalanced. What we can see is low cortisol in the AM and so you wake in the morning feeling tired. We can also see it take all day for your adrenal glands to make cortisol and at night it finally comes up. When we see this picture people feel tired all day and then at night when it is time to go to bed they feel like they finally wake up. It can be so frustrating! For this picture, supplementing adrenal support in the morning can be very helpful. I love Adrenaliv from Xymogen to support adrenal function.

Dopamine/ Norepinephrine/Epinephrine pathways

These are the main excitatory neurotransmitters. When in balance, they give us energy, zest for life and helps us think. But too much, especially norepinephrine and epinephrine(or adrenaline) can be the main cause of insomnia, anxiety, and irritability. These can feel like you drank too much coffee and feel wired and jittery. Some people either have a tendency to either make too much or they don’t break them down fast enough. Making too much can be due to too much stress, drinking too much caffeine, taking too many methyl groups, ( methyl B12, Methyl folate, SAMe). Some people can’t break epinephrine down fast enough, either due to genetic variations that slow the enzyme that breaks it down or nutritional deficiencies, meaning that they lack the cofactors (non-protein chemical compound that is required for an enzyme’s activity….”helper molecules”) needed to optimize the breakdown. Magnesium and SAMe are the main cofactors needed in this pathway. However,  magnesium needs to be in the form that can cross the blood brain barrier and breakdown the epinephrine that is in the brain for calming the nervous system. My all time favorite product for this is BrainMag. It has three types of magnesium that are easily absorbed;

    1. Magnesium malate
    2. Bisglyciate
    3. Threonate

It is the threonate form that crosses the blood brain barrier to calm the epinephrine in the brain that calms the nervous system. This is always my first go to product for anyone with sleep issues and 9 times out of 10 it works wonders.  SAMe is another cofactor needed. Most of the time your body can make the SAMe needed and so supplementation of this is not my first step. SAMe is also a methyl donor and so needs to be taken with caution.


Glutamate is another excitatory neurotransmitter that is made in your body and we get it from foods and Monosodium glutamate, better known as MSG. MSG is a fermented flavor enhancer. Food producers label MSG under several names, including yeast extract, hydrolyzed protein, glutamic acid and sodium or calcium caseinate, processed foods and artificially flavored foods.  Too much glutamate will cause insomnia, irritability, and perfectionism. Some people, due to genetic variances, will tend to make more Glutamate than others or they don’t break it down easily to the calming neurotransmitter GABA. Taking things like L theanine found in green tea can bind to glutamate receptors making it less effective and making you feel calmer.

For those that fit this picture (insomnia with a “perfectionist” nature) I would suggest trying Mind Calm from Xymogen. It has the Gaba, L theanine and taurine, Magnesium and inositol to round out the calming effects. It can be added to Optimag Neuro for the perfect nighttime sleep cocktail.


Histamine is found in many foods and our body makes it as a response to injury, like in a bee sting. Too much histamine can be a major contributing factor causing insomnia. There are three main pathways the body uses to break histamine down. If someone has genetic variances and specific nutritional deficiencies, then these pathways are slowed down and histamine remains high and can result in excitation and insomnia. You may know that you have a histamine issue if you don’t sleep well after eating a diet high in histamines like wine, beer, sushi, aged cheese, salami, vinegar, kombucha, soy sauce and many others.  This is where anti-histamines are helpful. So, if high histamine is your issue then limiting histamine foods can be helpful but this approach can be limiting and exhausting for a long term solution. A better approach is to optimize the pathways that breakdown histamine making sure that all the needed cofactors are available… a good B complex, multi minerals and Vitamin C.

DAO Assist from Xymogen is a supplement that provides the DAO enzyme which is one of the main enzymes needed to break down histamine.

How do you know which pathway is effecting you? We test!

This is where it can get really exciting. We don’t have to guess. We can test your Neurotransmitters with an easy urine test… Neurotransmitter panel from Labrix.  This has been very helpful when it isn’t apparent which neurotransmitters are causing the issues. This test checks your Serotonin, GABA, Glutamate, Norepinephrine, Epinephrine, Histamine, and Cortisol. It is an easy urine test that you can do at the time that you are not sleeping well to determine exactly what is happening and which to target. Figuring out your sleep just got easier.

Earlier I mentioned the imbalance could be caused by nutrient deficiencies. Testing your micronutrients is also available with the Micronutrient panel from Vibrant America. This tests 35 different nutrients at a cellular level telling the last 4-6 months of your nutrient status. This can help us see the picture if low nutrient are causing the problems. Nutrients are the cofactors needed to optimize the biochemistry. If some are low then that may be why there is imbalance. Repleting low nutrients is the long term solution.

The bottom line is that great sleep is foundational for health. It doesn’t have to be a mystery of why it is not optimal. Learning the biochemistry and repleting what the body needs can help you get the great sleep that is is needed for optimal health.


Dr. Heidi Hook, ND

Born and raised in Auburn, California. Dr. Heidi Hook is a 1996 graduate of Bastyr University and is the owner of Auburn Naturopathic Medicine. Her practice focuses mainly on discovering the underlying causes of illness that is specific for each person.

Natural Health News

Get the latest health news from our doctors delivered directly to your inbox.

More Natural Health Reading

Get Exclusive Hand Picked Products From Our Clinic to Your Cupboard

We’ve hand picked the best products we could find for ourselves, our families, and our patients. Now we’ve made them available to you too.

Get Busy Living Again

Don’t let another doctor tell you “you’re fine” when you know you’re not. Instead, work with a doctor who will dig deep to find the root cause of your problem, so you can get busy living again.

Learn more about working with us.
Don’t let another doctor tell you “you’re fine”


Get Personally Evaluated


Get a Wellness Plan


Get Your Health Back