One of the main characteristics of chronic fatigue syndrome (AKA ME/CFS or myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome) is non-restorative sleep. No matter how much sleep someone with ME/CFS gets, they just don’t feel rejuvenated. They may sleep 12 hours and still wake up bone tired.
One of the major factors contributing to non-restorative sleep is lack of deep, dreamless sleep during the night. During deep sleep, brain waves slow to delta waves (0.5-4 hertz), eye movements slow, and it is very difficult to be awakened. This kind of deep sleep is required for energy restoration, brain detoxification, tissue repair and immune strength. Without it, sleep isn’t rejuvenating.
How Non-Restorative Sleep Impacts People with ME/CFS
People with ME/CFS are more likely to hover in rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, where most dreaming occurs. Or, they may stay in an even lighter, more irritating form of sleep; tossing and turning and waking up when someone so much as breathes funny. REM sleep is important for processing memory. It’s not, however, used to repair and restore the brain and body as much as deeper sleep. (I doubt anything beneficial is taking place during tossing and turning.)
Sleep problems like missing out on deep, restorative sleep can worsen ME/CFS symptoms, and it is a risk factor for other illnesses as well. There’s a reason sleep deprivation is considered torture! It’s a vicious cycle — if the brain and body don’t have a chance to self-restore at night, we become more vulnerable.
Living with ME/CFS isn’t easy. However, there are some simple things you can do to help put your sleep cycles back in order and get the deep, nourishing sleep your brain and body require to mitigate symptoms. It starts with understanding the relationship between our circadian rhythm, the hormone melatonin, and our mitochondria — and, how we can support health in all three.
What is the Circadian Rhythm?
The circadian rhythm is the 24-hour waking and sleeping cycle shared by all living beings (including plants). The human circadian rhythm is maintained in part by our pineal glands, located deep in the brain. The pineal gland contributes to circadian rhythm by secreting the hormone melatonin — which tells the body it’s time to relax and go to sleep. Melatonin also helps the body drop into deep sleep, where healing and repair occurs.
Melatonin’s Importance to our Mitochondria
As it turns out, melatonin is not just a sleep hormone — it’s implicated in important aspects of energy production and maintenance as well. The reason being, melatonin is intimately connected with the health of our mitochondria.
Mitochondria are cell organelles that are responsible for creating most of our energy. In essence, mitochondria break down food, combine it with oxygen, and produce energy as a result. Without functioning mitochondria, we would die within seconds. Most people with ME/CFS have some dysfunction in mitochondrial energy production.
Melatonin helps maintain healthy mitochondria (and corresponding strong energy levels) in a few different ways besides supporting deep sleep:
- Melatonin assists with mitophagy (mitochondria + autophagy) – a process that preserves healthy mitochondria by breaking down and repairing damaged ones.
- Melatonin is a powerful antioxidant. It penetrates mitochondria and protects them from oxidative damage. By comparison, other antioxidants, like vitamins C and E, are not taken up by mitochondria.
- Melatonin has anti-inflammatory properties that benefit mitochondria.
- Melatonin helps regulate mitochondrial bioenergetic function.
Symptoms of ME/CFS can be helped by keeping levels of melatonin high at the right times, leading to a healthy circadian rhythm and strong mitochondria. Here are some easy ways to work toward this:
1. Use blue light blocking glasses at night:
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Our circadian rhythms are connected to the cycles of day and night, light and dark. As the sun sets and our world darkens, melatonin levels rise, getting us ready for sleep. At least, they used to before we started spending all our time indoors watching Netflix at night.
Too much blue and green light from electronic screens makes it hard for the body to know when to raise melatonin levels. Even light from LED light bulbs can interfere with melatonin production.
The good news is (as long as you don’t mind your kids making fun of you) you can wear blue light blocking glasses, starting at least an hour before bedtime. The absence of blue light tells your body to raise melatonin levels. Blue light blocking glasses are easily available online, with a wide range of price and quality. The downside is that they turn everything orange, but deep sleep is worth it.
2. Get out in sunlight, especially in the morning:
Bright, full-spectrum light in the morning helps tell the body to wake up and get active, decreasing melatonin levels. Try to get outside in the morning, ideally without sunglasses or UV blocking corrective lenses, and get some sunlight for twenty minutes or so.
If it’s too dark where you live or you need to be indoors, there are special full spectrum bulbs available that help as well. They are nice to have in an office or workspace, too.
3. Supplement with melatonin or its precursor:
Melatonin supplements are inexpensive and readily available without a prescription. (I take 10mg every night, and so do my kids.) The precursor to melatonin, 5-HTP, is available as well. Ask your doctor to suggest a reputable brand, and the right dosage. You can take melatonin or 5-HTP an hour before bedtime, or you can take it in the middle of the night if you wake up and have trouble falling back to sleep. Just avoid taking it before you want to wake up, as it can affect how alert you are.
Hopefully these tools will have you sleeping more deeply and assist with your ME/CSF recovery. Sleep is good medicine. Enjoy some deep z’s starting tonight.
Shona Curley lives and works in San Francisco. She is co-owner of the studio Hasti Pilates, and creator of the website www.redkitemeditations.com. Shona teaches meditation, bodywork and movement practices for healing Lyme disease, chronic illness and pain.
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Srinivasan V, Spence DW, Pandi-Perumal SR, Brown GM, Cardinali DP. Melatonin in Mitochondrial Dysfunction and Related Disorders. International Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease. 2011 May 04; 2011. doi: 10.4061/2011/326320