Sleep… Mmmm… blissful, warm, dreamy, regenerative, and often times, elusive!
I wanted to delve into sleep for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, sleep has the power to really restore or maintain your health. Secondly, we literally block it at every turn. In the course of a day, many actions and behaviours will impair our ability to sleep. This is what I want to look at and really challenge you to move sleep a couple of notches up your list.
In Australia, sleep deprivation affects up to 45% of adults. The ‘Sleep Health Survey’ of Australians in 2016 showed a worsening of sleep quality over recent years. While we know some of the benefits of sleep, many remain a mystery to us.
Sleep is amazing! When we get enough we feel amazing! Right? It’s like we plugged our charger into the wall and our little bars are on 100% in the morning. So if we know it’s so good for us, why do we push it to the back?
Here is a reminder of what you get for your sleep investment:
- Improved capacity to manage stress
- Maintains our circadian rhythms
- Regulates our hormones
- Prevents and decreases inflammation
- Healing and repair
- Secretion of growth hormone
- Brain clean up – free radicals are removed during sleep
- Immune system functioning
Growth Hormone: Essentially all production of growth hormone occurs during sleep. This amazing and valuable hormone is important for liver and tissue regeneration, blood sugar regulation, muscle building and breakdown of fat stores. You don’t want to miss out on your dose of growth hormone.
What Happens When We Don't Sleep Enough?
There is plenty of evidence out there for what happens to us when we do not get enough sleep.
Here are a few of the consequences:
- Obesity, increased appetite
- Heart disease
- Type 2 diabetes
- Decreased insulin sensitivity
- Alteration of hormones such as appetite and mood hormones
- Increase in impulsivity, increased likelihood of addictive behaviors
- Less likely to move during the day
- Impaired immune function, increased inflammation
So what are our top sleep sappers? And how can we prime our bodies to get a good nights sleep?
Here are the top ones, and you’re not going to like it:
- Social Media, laptops, tablets, phones
- Lights on in the evening
- Eating too close to bedtime
Your Body Clock
Here is the cheat's guide to our body clock! We have a 24-hour body clock. It is responsible for so many functions within our body: our sleep/wake cycle, our body temperature fluctuations, our hormone levels at any given time, our energy and metabolism. Protecting our circadian rhythms is crucial to good health. These rhythms of our body are regulated in the hypothalamus and melatonin is produced by the pineal gland in response to a command from the hypothalamus. Exposure to light and dark at the right times is a major player in protecting your circadian rhythm and this is where melatonin comes in. Anyone who has ever travelled across time zones knows how awful we feel when our circadian rhythms are disrupted.
To understand why this is a problem, we need to look at how your melatonin works within your body. Melatonin is an awesomely powerful antioxidant, more so than your curcumin and other supplements. And… we make it ourselves, given the right environment.
Melatonin levels in your body start to increase about 2 hours before bed (normally). It makes you feel drowsy and ready for bed. I love melatonin because it plays a role not only in the health of our immune system but also in our gut. Quite high levels are present in the gut and regulate peristalsis, those muscular contractions that move matter through the bowel. In fact, serotonin and melatonin work together to regulate how long food stays within our GI tract or how quickly it moves through. Melatonin has also been shown to help heal gastric ulcers and regulate pancreatic secretions, key for healthy digestion and nutrient absorption.
Ok, so back on track here…Melatonin levels can be dysregulated in some chronic inflammatory diseases and melatonin supplementation may work for some but not for all. We want to restore our ability to make melatonin every day – for its antioxidant effects, its effects on our digestion and its role in regulating our circadian rhythm.
I’ll cut to the chase - exposure to blue light in the evening blocks the release of melatonin, and will, in turn, block sleep. Further to this, we can enhance our evening secretions of melatonin by having exposure to sunlight during the day, particularly the early morning.
- Daytime light exposure - Get outside for at least 15 minutes per day, in the direct sun. Longer is better. We have retinal cells in our eyes that are sensitive to UVB radiation from the sun. This retinal exposure links directly in with the function of those circadian rhythm regulators, the hypothalamus and the pineal gland. It has been shown that if you have daytime sunlight (blue light) exposure, melatonin production in the evening is enhanced.
- Evening darkness – here is the flip side. Keep your space dim in the evenings. Exposure to blue light will block production of melatonin. So you’re all stimulated and wound up and unable to fall asleep when the lights are on. Think about the colour of firelight. It's yellow and this is the type of light we have always been exposed to in the evenings. Our sleep/wake cycles took their cues from our environment for millennia; our bodies are still their evolutionary selves and we do not have mechanisms to cope with the excessive and constant exposure to blue light in the evenings.
What Can I Do?
Right, that was all a bit doom and gloom. So now let’s explore all the amazing things you can do for yourself and your loved ones to promote sleep and gain all the amazing physical, hormonal and metabolic benefits of a well-slept person.
1. Exercise - this can be an amazing answer for sleep. Research has shown it can reduce anxiety (now there's a sleep blocker), increase serotonin and improve slow-wave sleep.
2. Do not eat close to bedtime - This can disrupt the body's metabolic processes. Melatonin suppresses insulin production and there are links between your blood sugar levels and melatonin. We do not want spikes in blood sugar and insulin release close to bedtime. Not eating too close to bedtime can be a simple fix for disrupted sleep.
3. Gut health - restoring the microbiome means restoring your ability to actually produce serotonin and melatonin. It also means taking care of conditions such as parasites or strep which can be very disruptive to sleep. It helps to regulate your insulin, leptin, ghrelin and blood sugar levels, all of which interact with your body and affect your sleep cycle; and of course, the microbiome does play a role in regulating your body clock. If it is healthy, this will aid in the proper function of your circadian rhythm.
4. Live by the light/dark cycles – get out in the sun during the day and let the darkness be part of your night. Your hormones will thank you for it. Who here has been camping and finds a beautiful alignment with our sleep cycles and the day/night cycles of the earth? I know I have.
If you can’t (and we need to be practical here) hack your environment – get some blue light blockers. These amber glasses will cut out the blue light and have been shown to significantly improve sleep. Put them on 2-3 hours before bed. Install f.lux on your laptop or get night shift on your mobile devices. Aim to have screens off after 8 p.m.
How Much Sleep Do We Need?
The research is fairly consistent; we need 7-9 hours of sleep at night. This is actual sleep, not time in bed. It may be that you need 10 hours in bed to get 9 hours of sleep. What affects how much sleep we need? Well, if you have an illness or disease you are managing or recovering from, you may need more sleep than others. In the summer you will require less as you fit in with the cycle of nature and extra sunlight. It also depends on your individual makeup, so listen to your body and its cues.
Should I Track My Sleep?
Tracking your sleep can be done with technology these days - it is a great way to gain insight into the quality of your sleep as well as the length. Track your sleep to gauge your improvements or as a baseline, but a word of warning… well… two words of warning:
- EMF exposure. Ensure whatever method you are using to monitor your sleep, be it an app or your phone, does not use wireless technology. Devices that communicate wirelessly leave you exposed to EMF’s. Aeroplane mode should be used at night and ideally, devices should not be in the bedroom at all.
- Worrying about your sleep may interrupt your sleep. A lot of people get so preoccupied about how much sleep they’re getting that it disrupts their sleep. If this is you and you are finding it all a bit much, you may be one of those people who should not check the clock when you wake in the night and should not over-monitor or micromanage your sleep. Focus on your sleep hygiene and optimising your health and let sleep happen naturally.
Sleep Cues (a good bedtime routine)
Anyone who has tried to get a baby to sleep will know the importance of sleep cues in achieving sleep. I’m talking about routine and consistency here. For example, with babies we make sure:
- Bedtime is consistent
- The lights are out
- They have eaten
- They are clean and
- The bedtime routine is intact
All of these cues embed in bub's brain and say ‘time for sleep now’. It’s exactly the same for adults. Who finds they can’t sleep in a strange house or different room? That's because your cues are missing. Lots of ‘cues’ improve our sleep, or impair it when they’re missing. Smells, sounds, lights - we are trained to sleep with certain conditions intact and yes, adults need bedtimes, too! Developing sleep cues that encourage a good sleep are important. A good bedtime routine or ritual is part of sleep hygiene.
Try some other amazing bedtime hacks:
- Cup of camomile
- Epsom salts bath
- A cup of tea with a spoon of gelatine (glycine in the gelatine may help us sleep)
- Turn your WiFi off
- Do not sleep with devices by your bedside table
- Black out all light from your room
- Keep your bedroom for sleep and sex only – protect that space
Wakefulness At Night
There are some people who have a natural diurnal sleep cycle. Diurnal simply means they sleep until around 1- 3 a.m., wake for a period of time, and then head back off for their second phase of sleep. This can be perfectly normal for some and is thought to be of evolutionary origin. In our hunter and gatherer times, we may have needed to wake to stoke the fire or tend to the babies. The need to wake at night has, in this way, turned into an evolutionary advantage.
What if you are excessively wakeful at night and can’t get back to sleep? You may be waking at night for the wrong reason. For example, if you have gut infections such as parasites, they produce acidic waste which the body has to process, placing stress on the body and liver specifically. This stress state then triggers you to wake. For this you can try keeping apple cider vinegar by your bedside. It will help to alkalise your body and aid in detoxification. Other causes of sleep maintenance insomnia could be the use of alcohol, sleep apnoea, hypoglycaemia, depression, or pain and discomfort. Explore these with your practitioner, or drop a line to Kultured Wellness to ask about restoring your gut health.
That’s great Kirtsy! But I don’t get sleep because I have a baby. I feel like I’m up all night!
I know how hard it can be with a newborn or with wakeful little ones. With all the evidence on adverse health outcomes from lack of sleep it can feel a little frightening. Fortunately, there is some evidence to suggest that you can make gains with napping. Research has shown that napping in the day can also help to cut down inflammation. You can reap the benefits with a 20-30 minute nap wherever you can fit it in. Don’t be a martyr about it, let the washing wait. Life is super busy and when you prioritise sleep the benefits are there for you.
One More Thing - Look After Yourself
Sleep is another barometer of your health; if your sleep is disturbed then it is an indication that you have work to do. Focus on getting yourself healthy, nourished and robust. Live in such a way that your body is in balance with its environment and sleep. We can help you with that.
- Sleep Health Survey 2016
- Is exercise an alternative treatment for chronic insomnia?
- Melatonin: Pharmacology, Functions and Therapeutic Benefits
- The intestinal microbiota regulates body composition through NFIL3 and the circadian clock
- Pizzorno, J.E. and Murray, M.T. (2013) Textbook of Natural Medicine 4th Edition. Churchill Livingstone: Missouri USA. ISBN: 978-1-4377-2333-5
- Gaby, A.R. (2017) Nutritional Medicine 2nd Edition. Fritz Perlberg Publishing: Concord NH. ISBN: 978-1-5323-2209-9
- Ballantyne, S. (2013) The Paleo Approach: Reverse Autoimmune disease and Heal Your body. Victory Belt Publishing: Las Vegas USA. ISBN: 978-1-936608-39-3.