While you probably recognize that nutrition and exercise are vital to finding better health, restful sleep is just as important. (1) Actually, scientists relatively recently discovered physiological proof that we need sleep – to flush our brains of toxins! (2) And that’s why getting better sleep is top on my list on battling bipolar disorder naturally.

The nights leading up to my first, full-blown manic episode, were filled with exciting ideas and so very little time was spent on sleep. The first night I slept about 7 hours, then 5, 3 then no hours. The 10 days I spent in the hospital after that are a bit of a blur… After being released, I used several prescribed medications to manage my condition. One of which was to help me sleep.

Ever Get Sleepy After Eating Turkey?

While I recognize the usefulness of prescribed pharmaceuticals, I prefer to use them only when necessary (which harmonizes with the Hippocratic Oath regardless of its peculiar origins.) So after a few months I discussed tapering the prescribed sleep med with my doctor. Thankfully they were supportive and with a little more research I came across a supplement called l-tryptophan – yes! the same stuff found in turkey that everyone thinks makes them sleepy!

At the time, my local pharmacy carried it as an over-the-counter supplement. I took the opportunity to ask the over-night pharmacist about it and he practically jumped across the counter to get a bottle of it for himself. It was off the market in the past because of some quality issues. Needless to say, he was quite excited to see it available again.

Hit that pillow

Better Sleep is Possible

With that vote of confidence, I started taking l-tryptophan nightly. After about 30 minutes I start to feel sleepy and within an hour I am ready to hit my pillow. What’s amazing is that in the morning, I don’t feel a bit groggy. I wouldn’t say I’m jumping out of bed because I am still NOT a morning person. But I’ve taken other sleep-aids like melatonin and wake up feeling like I was hit by a truck the next day – not so with l-tryptophan.

How L-tryptophan Works

Many people take l-tryptophan under the guise that it will eventually turn into serotonin in the brain. Then after a methylation process serotonin is converted to melatonin which helps to regulate our circadian rhythms. Well, I don’t think that’s exactly why it works in my case with bipolar 1.

Example A
L-tryptophan > converts to 5-HTP in liver > crosses blood brain barrier & converts to serotonin > via methylation converts to melatonin which helps regulate circadian rhythms

Neurotransmitter testing revealed that I have an excess amount of both dopamine & glutamate but an adequate amount of serotonin. Glutamate is an excitatory chemical – makes sense that this would be high in bipolar disorder patients, right? Unfortunately increased levels of glutamate can cause death to neurons in the brain (i.e. memory loss.) But here is the best part, l-tryptophan can help to inhibit glutamate.

How does it do this? Through the kynurenine pathway l-tryptophan gets transformed into kynurenic acid which is a glutamate recepter antagonist. (3) In other words, it inhibits glutamate from binding to those receptors; hence, allowing my brain to calm down and get some better sleep!

Example B
L-tryptophan > converts to kynurenine > converts to kynurenic acid (a glutamate recepter antagonist) inhibiting glutamate (an excitatory brain chemical)

3 Ways to Better Sleep

Taking a supplement is only a small part of the equation. Here are 3 ways to ensure you get better sleep:

  1. Create a nightly routine. My routine consists of chamomile tea, a relaxing, lavender foot rub, listening to the soothing sounds of gentle rain, and meditating on 3 things that I’m grateful for (which I include in my prayer.) The closer I stay to this routine, the better I sleep. So think of the best night’s sleep you’ve ever had. Now what did that day consist of? Can you replicate it in any way?
  2. Keep your bedroom a sanctuary. My bedroom is my dedicated place to relax. I never, ever do any work there. To keep any light from sneaking through I use black-out curtains. You could also use a sleep mask but I can’t stand having anything on or near my face. During a recent Amazon Prime day we found this mattress on sale and it is heavenly. And I don’t even go on vacation without my tempur-pedic pillow.
  3. Get active. Even if it’s just a 15 minute walk each day. My walking-buddy helps keep me motivated to stay active. The time we spend together talking and walking is so precious. And when she’s unavailable, I do my best to take my dog Bender on a walk, even if it’s just around the block. Look at that face! How could I say no to this little guy?!
Bender ready for a walk
Furry friends, like Bender, are great walking buddies. It helps when they have impeccable fashion sense like this little guy.

3 Things to Avoid for Better Sleep

Those are the do’s for better sleep. Here are 3 things I avoid doing that are just as important:

  1. Avoid stress-inducing entertainment. This is very unique to each person. We all have our own quiks as to what gets us nerved up. For me, I can’t even handle detective shows. Don’t get me wrong – I love solving mysteries and puzzles! (Like how to treat bipolar disorder naturally) But when there’s horrific crimes involved or stressful situations are portrayed, I get too into it. I feel what they feel, including all the stress. I decided instead to watch entertainment that helps me stay stress-free, rather than induce it.
  2. Limit screen time after sundown. Yeah, so this is one of the hardest ones for me. There’s been a lot of research on how blue light affects our sleep. (4) It can really throw off our sleep cycles (5) so I do my best to limit the amount of screen time after the sun goes down. We live in such a hyper-connected world though, so to help with this, iPhone users have a simple setting called Night Shift which automatically adjusts the colors of your display to the warmer end of the spectrum at night. Or there’s also these amber glasses that help to block out blue light.
  3. Monitor caffeine intake. Personally, I cannot drink caffeine after 2PM. If I do, I have the most difficult time shutting off my brain when it’s time to sleep. My husband used to think this was an anomaly. But my 23andme DNA test revealed that I don’t metabolize caffeine well. That means that once it gets in my system, it has a difficult time getting out. I even limit my chocolate intake after 6PM just to be safe.

In Review

For better sleep I enlist the help of the following items:

Walking with a loved one

And here is # 7: Enlist Help from Loved Ones

Those items are great and help a lot. As noted above though, my husband and friends are invaluable to getting better sleep. My husband is a morning person so I get up EARLY to consider a scriptural thought with him which sets the tone for our day. And when he sees that I’m pushing my limits, he reminds me that I need my rest and I do my best to humbly comply. And remember my walking-buddy? Yes, you need to find one, even if it’s a furry-friend.

Do Your Best!

Did you notice an ongoing theme here? I do my best, but it’s never perfect. On occasion, I still have those nights where my brain doesn’t want to shut off because I’ve strayed away from taking care of myself. That’s OK. That’s when I check through this list and note where I can make improvements. If you’re one of those people, like myself, that prefers a downloadable checklist, sign up for that below.

What helps you get better sleep? Please share your secrets and comments below!