Although the brain signals us when we haven't had enough sleep through various different ways (headaches, sugar cravings, cognitive impairment, decreased immunity, muscle pain, fatigue etc), if we are ignoring these signals then they're not really achieving anything. Data shows that more and more of us are ignoring these signs and that the percentage of adults who sleep less than 6 hours each night is now at an all time never seen before high.
So is feeling awake and being able to carry out every day tasks all we need to sleep for? Nope, it's not. Historically we've believed that sleep was only required to maintain cognitive function the next day - but we now have compelling evidence that impaired sleep and sleep loss is linked to multiple consequences with astounding public health repercussions. Sleep loss has been linked to hormone dysregulation (specifically leptin and ghrelin, which greatly affects our appetite), impaired glucose intolerance and higher risk of diabetes, and scarily enough, cardiovascular disease. Sleep loss is a large contributor to hypertension (high blood pressure), and your risk of a fatal heart attack increases FORTY FIVE PERCENT in individuals who consistently sleep 5 hour per night or less. Collectively, these examples demonstrate wide-ranging consequences of sleep loss on physical health.
When it's day time and we're walking around going about our routine - we’re in a continuous catabolic state (the break down and use of our body for everyday functioning). When we’re asleep, we’re in an anabolic state (our bodies are being repaired and restored in preparation for use the next day). Loads of important healing mechanisms occur while we sleep and these include organ, muscle and tissue repair, improved brain function, hormone balance, strengthening of the immune system, boosting metabolism, increased energy production, and so much more. That sounds kind of important, right? Well it is, but thanks to 24-hour supermarkets, high-stress jobs and facebook - sleep isn’t as prioritised as it should be.
So what can you do to ensure a restful sleep?
There are a number of things we can do here. As always, it starts with viewing health holistically and assessing the true cause of what's making you unable to fall asleep and stay asleep.
-Prioritise looking after your gut health: there are certain neurotransmitters that need to be activated in order for us to fall asleep and stay asleep. One of these is melatonin. Did you know that there is 400 x more melatonin found in our gut, than in our brain? This means that gut health is extremely important in inducing sleep. Serotonin, which is the precursor to melatonin and required for its conversion, is also made in the gut. For more information on how to heal your gut - just ask me!
-Reduce alcohol intake and don’t drink it before bed: Although alcohol has been found to induce sleep, it's also been shown to cause you to spend less time in a restful sleep and therefore contributes to mid-night waking.
-Try and get into a routine. The more you prioritise sleeping and rising at the same time, your body will adjust to making this happen. This is called your circadian rhythm and it’s one of the most important aspects to a proper sleep. Try your best to maintain this routine on the weekends as well.
-Make sure you see the sun in the daytime. Sleeping well at night time actually starts in the morning. Our circadian rhythm works via light and darkness, and getting exposure to daylight stimulates specific physiological functions within our bodies to be awake and alert. These physiological functions release daytime hormones that are needed to regulate our circadian rhythm for proper sleeping later on, once exposed to darkness.
-Activate your blue light on your mobile phone after 9pm - (which is a bright light filter). Stimulating lights tell our brain that it’s time to be alert, active and sharp which is not ideal when wanting to fall asleep. The hormones required to allow us to sleep (melatonin) are activated by darkness. As a result of mobile phones, televisions, alarm clocks and computer screens, many biological processes are being stimulated at the wrong times of the day. When our bodies are exposed to artificial sources of light at night time, the release of hormones such as cortisol are elevated artificially outside of their natural timing, regulated by the circadian rhythm. When cortisol is high, melatonin is low.
-Listen to a meditation for 15-20 minutes before sleeping per night. This might feel silly at first, but once you get into the routine you will miss it when you don’t have it. If your partner will be disrupted, get some earphones - just don’t blare them too loudly in your ears. You can listen to guided meditations or purely just natural sounds found in the environment. Youtube has an abundance of meditations but if you don't find any you resonate with - just ask me.
-Do at least 15 minutes of light exercise per day.
-Drink teas to promote sleep such as chamomile, passionflower or valerian. Make sure they are unbleached tea bags and also without caffeine.
-Breathe slowly. It might feel silly, but it works. Breathe really slowly and try to focus only on your breath. Your mind will wander and that’s ok! But try and bring it back to your breath as often as you can. If you do this for 5-10 minutes whilst you are lying in bed, you relax your central nervous system and allow sleep mechanisms to activate.
-Burn lavender essential oil or chamomile oil for 1 hour before sleeping.
-Create a nice area around you that you feel calm in. Space is so important. You need to enter a calming space that relaxes you, not stresses you out. A cluttered room may affect your sleep.
-Consume proteins rich in amino acids at night time to promote sleep. Examples of some sleep supporting after dinner snacks could be bone broth or grass-fed boiled eggs. Bone broth also contains high amounts of glycine which has been found to induce sleep through thermoregulation. Glycine’s also extremely restorative for your gut - to help that serotonin and melatonin along some more! Some sugar free cookies baked with oats is a great choice too - oats contain tryptophan which is a precursor to melatonin - our neurotransmitter that puts us to sleep! Other tryptophan-rich foods include chicken, turkey, fish, beans, chickpeas, lentils, organic soy milk and other whole grains such as spelt and brown rice. Try using these in your dinner where possible.
-Eliminate all stimulatory agents such as caffeine, sugar, soft drinks and energy drinks after 12pm. Avoid sugar as much as possible closer to the end of the day - as it’s hugely stimulatory to the brain and our blood sugar levels. There’s a catch 22 if chocolate is your favourite night time snack. Compounds found in dark chocolate can be stimulatory, they act in the same way as caffeine. But the alternative which is milk chocolate usually contains loads of sugar! So neither are ideal. Stick with your dark chocolate but reduce the amount you are having to see whether this may be affecting your sleep. Plenty of people get stimulated from these caffeine-like compounds without even knowing it.
-Make sure you are not taking supplements at night time that are stimulatory such as B Vitamins or protein powders containing caffeine or green tea.
-Avoid any simple carbohydrates all together at night time such as white pasta, white bread, white rice, cookies, cakes, biscuits and unrefined flours. These spike your blood sugar levels which has a stimulatory action.