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Ask the Nutritionist: I feel like a zombie thanks to insomnia — help!

In the first of a weekly column, licensed nutritionist Nonie De Long answers a question about menopause and insomnia
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Dear Nutritionist,

I’m a very fit, health-conscious 52 year old vegetarian woman going through menopause.

I can handle the hot flashes and night sweats, but the insomnia is killing me.

I’ve been monitoring my sleep with an app on my smartwatch, and I have only been getting around two hours of good sleep per night for months now. So I’m a zombie in the morning, and I try not to nap in the daytime but I can’t seem to get out of this.

I read melatonin helps and tried that but it seemed to make my sleep worse, if that’s possible.

Is there anything natural I can do before turning to medication? I don’t want to get dependent.

Sleepless in Mississauga

Dear Sleepless,

Two hours is definitely not enough sleep to be restorative, so I understand your frustration!

You’re accurate in thinking this may be related to menopause. Many women experience a decline in their sleep quality during menopause, which obviously impacts their overall ability to cope and function.

And, you’re wise to try a natural solution before a pharmaceutical sleep aid, not only because those can indeed be habit forming, but also because they don’t address the underlying health problem.

Such medications can be helpful when used for a short period of time, say in a crisis, under the guidance of a physician. But for more prolonged sleep dysfunction it’s better to address any underlying imbalance.

To that end, I have a couple suggestions for you to try. If you’re taking any medication I encourage you to speak to a pharmacist or licensed nutritionist before taking any supplements to ensure they do not interact.

First, melatonin was a good idea! Many studies have validated the benefits melatonin can have on sleep quality and regulation, and it’s a powerful antioxidant to boot!

It’s a hormone that declines as we age, so supplementing as we age makes sense. However, clinically I’ve found it often takes two weeks or more of consistent use before benefits are seen.

And it can be excitatory in some people — usually as the person acclimatizes to using it — and often fading after the two-week mark. In a select few people it doesn’t seem to help at all.

Four weeks is a sufficient trial. If wakefulness continues past then, I recommend discontinuing.

The dose I suggest is a three milligram sublingual tablet, taken an hour before bed. However, I never recommend melatonin alone for sleep.

I suggest taking it with a professional grade supplement that contains herbs and vitamins like skullcap, L-theanine, and 5-HTP that have been shown to enhance sleep and relaxation. A good herbal blend relaxation tea can also be of benefit, if waking to use the bathroom does not contribute to the sleep problem.

I also ask clients to switch their daytime coffee for organic green tea and to ensure they cut it off by 2 p.m., so it doesn’t interfere with sleep. Green tea contains the amino acid L-theanine, which has been shown to increase the production of brain chemicals that improve relaxation, mood, and sleep.

It’s also smart to ensure all lights in the home are warm bulbs and are dimmed after 6 p.m. Blue light interferes with the body’s circadian rhythm, which regulates when we feel sleepy and wakeful. Our eyes interpret blue light as sunlight, which triggers the release of hormones to wake us up. Any screen that is on after 6 p.m. should be auto set to the “filter blue light” mode. Some people are extremely sensitive to this stimulation.

Relaxing is the job of your parasympathetic nervous system and there are other things you can do to provoke it: meditation, prayer, stretching yoga, rocking, swinging, snuggling with a person or pet, watching a fire, taking a long, slow walk, listening to calming music, diffusing lavender essential oil, and having a long bath.

If you are particularly stressed, these can be very important to restoring your peace and sleep.

A good test is to go for yoga and a massage or a spa day. If you sleep well after that, the problem is likely in your body’s inability to relax or shut down, in which case these methods can help greatly.


Nonie Nutritionista

Nonie De Long is a registered orthomolecular nutritionist with a clinic in Bradford West Gwillimbury, where she offers holistic, integrative health care for physical and mental-health issues.