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The Science of Sleep

By September 27, 2020Uncategorized


Like many things in women’s health, sleep is multi-faceted. In order to get to the underlying cause of sleep multiple pieces must be addressed.

We are going to walk through the parts of the body that become affected by sleep disturbances triggered by stress.

Our internal sleep cycle happens in a rhythmic manner based on the rotation of the earth around the sun. We have evolved to be “programed” by the light/dark cycles of our earth. During sleep, critical cellular functions related to immunity, cellular repair, reproduction, cell division, heart rate, and glucose metabolism are happening.

Sleep affects genetic transcription in a rhythmic or circadian fashion.

Biological processes affected by sleep restriction include Oxidative stress response, Cellular metabolism, Gene expression and the Inflammatory response.

The Circadian Rhythm becomes upset in response to stress of all kinds.

When the rhythm is out of balance, it affects parts of brain and the endocrine system including the hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenal glands.



It depends on the person…Optimal sleep length varies by individual.

We know that we need a minimum of 4 hours of sleep to ensure non-impaired cognitive function…. Short sleep duration of less than 6 hours is associated with Obesity, Cardio Vascular Disease, Diabetes, Impaired cognition, and cancer.

Sleep quality is important, longer sleep is not necessarily correlated with better daytime alertness or well-being.




Connective Tissue Effects:

  • Weakened muscled and fat deposition
  • Increased water retention
  • Bone loss
  • Chronic joint inflammation, and injuries, joint dysfunction

Towards the end of spring we had an influx of patient concerns revolving around arthritis. Many people were reporting body stiffness, tissue tension, and painful joints.

Stress and lack of sleep can cause connective tissue effects.


Endocrine Effects:

  • Hypothyroidism
  • Insulin resistance and Diabetes
  • Hypoglycemia
  • Abdominal weight gain

One in three menopausal women have a thyroid condition. Abdominal weight gain and visceral fat is at an all-time high. It is well known that people who go to bed after midnight have higher body mass index and body fat percentage.


Neurological Effects:

  • Dominance of the sympathetic nervous system
  • hypertension
  • gastric spasticity
  • cardiac arrhythmia’s
  • Mood disturbances with elevations in cortisol
  • Memory impairment

Stress caused from lack of sleep has brain effects. Moods become unsteady, there is memory loss and elevations in blood pressure.


Gastrointestinal Effects:

  • Decreased healthy bacteria such as lactobacillus and bifidus
  • Increased pathogenic bacteria such as E. coli and Enterobacter
  • Decreased peristalsis and increased spasticity
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Intestinal peristalsis (leaky gut)
  • Dysbiosis (imbalance of pathogenic flora)

Gastroenterologist’s are the busiest specialists in the country. It has been well documented that the effects of chronic stress and lack of sleep wreak havoc on the digestive system. Resting and digesting go hand in hand.


Immunological Effects:

  • Altered immune response promoting an imbalance of immune cells leading to increased antibodies and auto-immune response
  • Cortisol decreased immune health of digestive system resulting in increased infections
  • Decreased natural killer cells
  • Cytotoxic activity resulting in decreased surveillance of viral infected and cancerous cells

 The bulk of the immune system is located in the digestive system. When digestion is imbalanced immunity goes down. When immunity goes down it leaves us wide open for acute infections but also chronic ones like cancer.


Cardiovascular Effects:

  • Women with high stress have a 100% increase risk of death from stroke or coronary heart disease

Monday is the most popular day to have a heart attack. People report disturbed sleep on Sunday nights as they anticipate the work week. Stress causes an increased strain on the cardiovascular system.

Sleep medications fall into the category of hypnotics. Hypnotics trigger a type of brain induced amnesia. There is some discussion as to how well they actually work and whether they allow for the rhythmic, cellular healing properties found within the cycles of sleep to take place.

In natural medicine we rely on alternative therapies that work with the body to restore balance and promote the natural rhythms of the body.


5 Non-Hypnotic ways to Support Sleep:

  • Sleep hygiene – This is about establishing a regular sleep and wake pattern. Being mindful to avoid stimulants after 12 noon, to avoid napping, take part in vigorous exercise earlier in day, not eating past 7pm, allowing for adequate exposure to daytime light, and establishing a relaxing bedtime routine by keeping the bedroom dim, cool and quiet.
  • Nutrition- Certain nutritional deficiencies have been shown to disrupt sleep. Items such as iron, B- vitamins, and making sure the thyroid and adrenal glands are properly supported.
  • Nutrients – There are certain supplemental nutrients that promote sleep including; melatonin, glycine, gaba, magnesium, L-theanine, 5HTP, and phosphatidylserine
  • Botanicals –Herbs that help relax the nervous system are passionflower, valerian, skullcap, kava kava, lavender, and chamomile.
  • Adaptogenic herbs help normalize the stress response and allow for healthy sleep;  holy basil, schisandra, ashwaganda, and rhodiola.
  • Hormones – A proper balance of estrogen, progesterone, thyroid, adrenal hormone levels is important for good quality sleep.


Wishing You Well,

Dr. Purcell
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Dr. Andrea Purcell

A trusted and well-respected Naturopathic Doctor, Dr. Purcell has been in private practice for over twenty years. Dr. Purcell is a published author and has a women’s specialty practice for hormone balancing, weight loss, mystery illness, and gastro-intestinal concerns. Dr. Purcell assists her patients by identifying the underlying cause of disease and removing obstacles that impede the body's natural ability to heal. Drugs and surgery are used as a last resort. She believes that increasing health on the inside shines through to the outside.