Good sleep - are you getting enough?
Sleep is something we could all do with a bit more of. When I decided to have one early night a week - trying to turn the light out at 10 pm - the result I had from simply having a bit more sleep was remarkable. I had more consistent energy so I could get things done in a shorter amount of time, I was better at prioritising, I had more patience, and I generally felt a lot better.
It’s too easy to watch one more of whatever Netflix obsession you have, and before you know it, it’s past midnight but you think, ah, I’ll catch up on some sleep at the weekend (or not if you have young children...), or you'll have one more coffee in the morning.
So, what needs to happen for us to be able to sleep, and what can we do when we can’t get to dreamland even though we've got into bed? And what’s up with those 4 am wake-up, tossing and turning situations?
You know that poor or too little sleep makes you less productive and uncomfortably tired, but it can also wreak havoc on your hormones and health, so getting that shuteye every night is much more important than we like to think. Did you know that a lack of sleep is associated with all kinds of negative health consequences, including increased risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and Alzheimer's disease?
Studies show that sleep, along with nutrition and exercise, is paramount to prevent disease and to control your weight.
Your body has a finely tuned appetite control system, governed by certain hormones that are affected by sleep. Among them include your hunger hormones ghrelin (that makes you feel hungry), cortisol (your stress hormone that stores fat), and leptin (that makes you feel full). Low-quality sleep can knock these and other hormones out of balance.
If you are not in a state of calm when it’s time for sleep, you will be releasing stress hormones and going into the fight or flight response, and that will prevent you from falling asleep.
The adrenal glands are responsible for keeping you balanced, and they work hard at it. These glands moderate your stress response, regulating your blood sugar, maintaining weight, and moderating sleep and wake cycles.
Healthy and balanced adrenals mean you fall asleep and stay asleep. This also means that your pineal gland produces melatonin that is released into the blood around 9 pm, which is when cortisol levels begin to drop off. We then begin to feel less sharp, and sleep becomes inviting.
When cortisol becomes unbalanced, it affects your whole body and your health, and you feel it.
Lowering your cortisol levels in the evening is one of the most important things you can do. If the levels of cortisol stay elevated, you will feel wired but tired, or you may fall asleep and then wake up at 4 am. But how do we do this?
In my experience, most people who struggle with their sleep are unconsciously doing something in their everyday life that is negatively impacting their ability to sleep at night.
So, the biggest culprits of insomnia, difficulty getting to sleep, or irregular sleeping patterns are blood sugar imbalance, a lack of vital nutrients, and chronic stress.
Five tips to make ensure you get deep and nourishing sleep
1. Make sure you start dimming the light and turning off any devices about 60-90 minutes before your bedtime. Melatonin can then start working its magic and help you feel sleepy, but you need to be in a dimly lit environment for this to happen. This is why melatonin has been called the 'Dracula of hormones' - it only comes out in the dark. Even if melatonin is switched on by the clock, it won't release melatonin in the presence of artificial indoor lighting or sunlight. Blue light is particularly bad, so if you have to use a screen, try adding a filter like F-Lux.
2. Develop a sleep hygiene routine where you slow down as you get ready for bed. Make sure your bedroom is not too warm or too cold. Rub your feet with sesame oil and put on socks before going to sleep. That will begin to calm your system and help support your thyroid function by warming up your core temperature. You could also have a footbath with Epsom salt and some lavender before bed.
3. Stress hormones are very much affected by blood-sugar balance. Make sure you have protein with your meals and snacks. Protein may include fish, eggs, meat, pulses, nuts, and seeds. Before bedtime, have a small snack such as warm milk and honey, or almond butter on an oatcake. This will keep your blood sugar balanced throughout the night help you stay asleep until the morning.
4. Drop the caffeine after lunch, as this can affect your blood sugar balance and many of us can take several hours to fully process the caffeine. There is a considerable genetic variation on that, however. Stick to herbal teas in the afternoon and evening.
5. Don’t forget about the morning light. Getting those early morning rays on your eyelids enforces our natural circadian rhythms. The sun may look yellow, but the light it emits is full-spectrum light. It includes the same blue wavelengths of light that our devices have, but in a much more powerful form. By exposing your eyes to this bright light, you signal to your brain that it's time to suppress melatonin production.
We might think we need the extra time to relax, sort out and do things in the evening, and postpone bedtime, but the opposite is true. The truth is that a better night's sleep will help you relax more, achieve more, be more efficient, and eat smarter.
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