Tired? Seems to be the norm these days. Never getting enough sleep. Too much on the go. Brain won’t shut off. Everyday the alarm seems to go off earlier and earlier. And somehow this is acceptable. For some its spoken with pride as getting by with less and less sleep is considered admirable. Crazy right? I’ve come to love going to bed early. Especially on a Sunday night, start the week of well rested. But what effect does lack of sleep have on your health, weight, your mood and even all those aches and pains?
The science of sleep is fascinating, complicated and growing. The importance of sleep for all around health should not go unrecognized. For many on their path towards a healthier lifestyle the focus is on exercise and nutrition. Sleep should be factored in in equal importance.
Sleep is necessary for repair and restoration of both our physical bodies and our mental capabilities. Ever recognize after a disruptive night you get a case of the stupid’s the next day? Forgetful, irritable, maybe laugh at nothing or completely foggy and can’t make a decision if you life depended on it. And what about your energy? Dragging your feet, no gas left in the tank to play with the kids or get in a workout? Ever notice how your appetite changes when lacking rest? Craving a few more carbs perhaps?
Lack of sleep has been linked to increased risk of many health issues including diabetes, heart disease, and certain types of cancer. It also contributes to slower metabolism, weight gain, hormone imbalance, inflammation and poor immune function. All of which can be reduced and likely managed if we paid more attention to our circadian rhythm our bodies natural sleep/wake cycle.
For thousands of years we lived in sync with light and dark cycles of day and night. When the sun rises, and light stimulates our skin and eyes, your brain and hormonal system think its morning. Cortisol is released into the system and prepares the body for movement. As the day goes on the levels of cortisol decrease. When dusk falls and darkness set in, cortisol ideally is at its lowest point and melatonin and growth and repair hormones are released. Melatonin is a hormone that stimulates sleep and is regulated by dim light. So to keep it simple, Cortisol is released with bright light to prepare the body for movement. Melatonin is triggered by dim light and prepares the body for rest. Seems logical right? This simple system that our bodies are biologically conditioned for has been distorted in the modern world. In today’s fast paced, do more 24/7 society, we are bobbared with constant light stimulus that disrupt our natural cycles. Late night TV, scrolling through Instagram, working late to meet a deadline all interfere with our bodies natural processes. Lights from our gadgets confuse the body to think it is morning all the time. Cortisol stays elevated in the system and can take hours to clear from the blood stream. This extra cortisol will prevent melatonin the sleep hormone from being released. Our rest and repair systems never get the chance to work at its full capacity and our health pays the price. More and more people complain about lack of sleep and are turning to pharmaceuticals to help them catch some zzz’s. Many of which can be addictive and have limited ability for long term solution.
So what can we do about it?
Tips for better sleep
- Get yourself into a consistent sleep schedule. Make it a priority and you’re more likely to achieve it. Optimal times for rest and restoration are between 10pm and 6am. The physical repairs occur between 10pm and 2am. After 2am, the immune and repair energies are more focused on mental repair. Aim for a consistent bedtime and full 7-8 hours of sleep a night. Days. A. Week. Weekends can easily throw this off but by making sleep a priority for a few weeks your body and mind will adjust and thank you for it.
- Balance your blood sugar throughout the day. Eat less refined and processed foods and more whole foods full of blood-sugar-balancing fiber, protein and good quality fats. This will limit the amount of excess cortisol being released in the body. Keeping your hormones happy and in sync with what your natural circadian rhythm needs will help your body reset its sleep cycle.
- During the day get some sunshine and exercise. These things tell your body it’s daytime; time for being productive, active and alert. By doing this during the day it will help you wind down more easily in the evening.
- Cut off your caffeine and added sugar intake after 12pm. Whole foods like fruits and veggies are fine, it’s the “added” sugar that should be minimized. Both caffeine and added sugar are stimulants that will disrupt hormone secretions. Also avoid alcohol. Although alcohol is a depressant and can initiate sleep, it does not allow for good quality of sleep. Alcohol disrupts sleep hormone production and alters brain activity and acts as a stimulant which prevents deep restorative seep.
- Have a relaxing bedtime routine that starts 1 hour before your “lights out” time (that is 8 – 10 hours before your alarm is set to go off). This would include dimming your artificial lights, nixing screen time. Try reading a book instead of a screen. Keep the subject matter light. No analytical strategies or work related materials. Something that is mildly entertaining or calming to avoid over stimulation. Listening to relaxing low volume music or a guided meditation can also be soothing to quiet the mind.
- Keep the room dark. Omit excess light wherever possible. Unplug and electronics that may have light displays. Use black out blinds and ditch the tv. Remember light even artificial light stimulates the body to think its daylight and the hormones released in response to the light will prevent sleep.
- Keep cool. That’s not the sly attitude I’m referring to although it can’t hurt. I’m referring to the temperature of your room. Lowering the body temperature at night helps you fall asleep and stay asleep. Rising temperatures signals the body to move into a state of alertness in the morning. Program your thermostat to drop a few degrees at night and rise in the morning.