The amount of sleep you get at night doesn’t just determine whether you’ll feel energised or exhausted when you wake up in the morning. It can also have a big impact on your overall health.
Although we naturally think of sleep as a time of rest and recovery from the stresses of everyday life, sleep is actually a dynamic activity, during which many processes vital to health and well-being take place.
In our fast-paced and busy lives, trouble falling asleep and staying asleep seem to affect a great number of people. Common triggers can include lifestyle, diet, exercise, medical disorders, stress, mental health and medications.
Other factors that may precipitate insomnia in susceptible individuals may include caffeine, alcohol, recreational drugs, late exercise, late meals and the sleep environment.
Sleep is an essential and fundamental factor in your overall wellbeing as this is when the body restores and regenerates in ways that are just not possible while we are awake. Sleep is the time when the body secretes many important hormones that affect growth, regulate energy, and control metabolic and endocrine functions.
Although everyone’s individual sleep needs may vary, seven to eight hours each night is a recommended goal.
The hormone most closely linked with the circadian system is melatonin, which is made by the pineal gland in the centre of the brain. The body’s own melatonin production is essential to circadian rhythm regulation, and the maintenance of daily sleep-wake cycles.
It is incredibly important to kickstart the sleep cycle by turning off the lights and using black-out blinds or an eye mask in the bedroom. This is because the change in light causes messages to be sent from the eye to the brain telling it that more melatonin should be produced. The melatonin winds the body down to a more lethargic and sleep-ready state.
Without melatonin, it would be impossible to achieve relaxed, restful sleep and so the body would not be able to go through the restorative processes that typically take place in bed.
Before we had light bulbs and lamps in our homes, our circadian rhythms were dictated by natural light. People would wake with the first light of day and retire to bed early in the evening as the darkness fell.
The invention of artificial light however allowed people to make use of the evening after the sun went down. This change to our daily schedules is thought to have brought about changes in our sleep schedule, pushing our bedtime ever later.
Different wavelengths of light have been shown to affect human physiology and sleep cycles in different ways. Blue light, a short-wavelength light, has been singled out as more significantly disruptive to sleep than other colours on the light spectrum.
Modern light bulbs and electronic devices like computer monitors and television sets, cell phones and tablets produce large amounts of blue light and may disrupt your internal clock if you’re exposed during the evening reducing both the quantity and quality of your sleep.
If you want to be stronger, happier, and more productive, focus on improving your sleep. Thus, the first step to improving sleep is to create a night time routine that tells your body that you are preparing to go to sleep. Over time, if you’re consistent, your body will start the process of gearing down automatically.
LIGHT: Expose yourself to sunlight in the morning. The bright, natural light signals your body that it’s daytime. This helps to set and calibrate your body’s internal clock. Light’s impact on physiology is scientifically well established. The type and timing of exposure to light is important. Artificial light though does not have the same effect as unfiltered sunlight.
EXERCISE: Exercising as part of your regular routine can contribute to healthier, more restful sleep and increases the amount of slow wave sleep you get where the brain and body have a chance to rejuvenate. However, exercising too close to bedtime does not allow for the body to rid itself of the cortisol spike it experiences during exercise. Schedule your exercise activities for morning or early afternoon.
DIET: Eat healthy, whole, unprocessed food. Digesting food takes tremendous amounts of energy and diverts blood flow away from the brain. Once you eat, your metabolism fires up, all the energy is going into digestion (and not sleep), which makes it difficult to sleep soundly. Try to eat at least 3 hours before bedtime.
CAFFEINE: Caffeine promotes alertness by inhibiting chemicals in the brain that promote sleep. Caffeine is absorbed rapidly into the bloodstream and reaches peak levels withing 30-60 minutes. Its effects, however can then last for several hours after and it may even take up to 24 hours to fully eliminate caffeine from the body. To avoid sleep disruption, restrict your caffeine consumption primarily to the morning hours.
ALCOHOL: While alcohol might induce sleep, the quality of sleep is often fragmented during the second half of the sleep period. Alcohol increases the number of times you awaken in the latter half of the night when the alcohol’s relaxing effect wears off. Alcohol prevents you from getting the deep sleep and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep you need, because alcohol keeps you in the lighter stages of sleep. It is also very common to wake between 1 – 3am due to the liver that has to process the alcohol.
BLUE LIGHT: Blue light from computers, tablets, phone screens, TV screens etc., can suppress melatonin production at night, which in turn confuses your circadian rhythms. Blue light wakes you up and tells your brain that it is daytime. Ideally, switch off devices at least 3 hours before bedtime, reduce the brightness or use blue light blocking glasses. Dim lights to the lowest light possible to see.
ARGUING: Avoid late night discussions or arguments before bed as they can act as a stimulant, making sleep difficult. The rush of adrenaline and cortisol you get when you start arguing may prevent you from falling or staying asleep. The stress from arguing can lead to insomnia by causing hyper-arousal in your body and mind.
HAVE A BATH: Relax in a warm bath before bed. Adding some soothing Epsom salts and essential oils to your evening bath can help relax muscles and the nervous system and can significantly improve overall sleep efficiency. Sip on nervine herbal teas such as chamomile, valerian, skullcap, lemon balm, kava, withania, passionflower, oats or lavender.
MEDITATION: An overstimulated mind doesn’t want to drift off to sleep. An overactive mind ruminates, replaying scenarios over and over again. Meditation, deep breathing, or other simple relaxation exercises can help to relax the mind and nervous system encouraging more restful sleep.
COMFORT: Make your bedroom a haven for sleep. Have soft sheets, warm blankets and a pillow that provides adequate support for your regular sleep position.
DARK ROOM: Reduce as much light from your bedroom as possible, including all of your electronic devices. If you have streetlight coming into your bedroom, consider investing in blackout shades.
TEMPERATURE: Most people sleep better when it’s cool; others sleep better at a neutral temperature. Find what works best for you and do your best to regulate your bedroom to that temperature each night.
REGULAR BED TIME: Our bodies like regularity. Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day and night. While it might be unrealistic to do this seven days a week — try to be as consistent as possible. If you’re consistent, your body will know when to release calming hormones before bed, and stimulating hormones to help you wake up. You’ll feel sleepy when it’s time for bed and wake up more refreshed, often without needing an alarm.
There are many great supplements that can help with relaxing the nervous system, helping with restlessness and sleep quality. Some of these are available in formulations such as our “Synergy Amino Calm” made in our lab. If you plan to try some of these suggestions below give them a few weeks before you evaluate whether they are beneficial or not as it can take some time to build up levels of these nutrients in the body before they help with enhancing sleep quality.
Not only can magnesium help you get to sleep, but it plays a part in helping you achieve deep and restful sleep as well. Insomnia, restless sleep and waking frequently are common symptoms of magnesium deficiency. Magnesium calms the nervous and muscular systems.
There are several types of magnesium supplements offering unique benefits and absorption levels. One of best magnesium’s for sleep is magnesium glycinate which we make in the lab as it is easily absorbed by the body. Take 200-400mg elemental magnesium before bed.
Melatonin works closely with your body’s circadian rhythm to help prepare you for sleep. Melatonin levels start to rise in your body when it starts to get dark outside, signalling to your body that it is time to sleep. A prescription is required from your health provider and is compounded in our lab. It can take a few weeks though for Melatonin to improve sleep quality so give it time to work.
L-Theanine promotes relaxation and facilitates sleep by boosting levels of GABA and other calming brain chemicals. L-Theanine also reduces levels of chemicals in the brain that are linked to stress and anxiety.
GABA (Gamma-aminobutyric acid) is a neurotransmitter that helps send messages between the brain and the nervous system. It is thought to have a natural calming effect and can reduce feelings of anxiety by decreasing neuronal excitability which can help to promote good sleep.
Glycine can help quiet the mind and help with “overthinking” which can contribute to difficulty getting off to sleep. Glycine supplementation may help with a more restful, restorative sleep.
Taurine is one of many naturally-occurring compounds in the body that, like melatonin, increase in response to prolonged periods of being awake. Biochemically, taurine activates GABA receptors in a brain region known to regulate sleep, and it is involved in the creation of melatonin in the pineal gland.
Inositol taken before bedtime can improve sleep quality, helping with falling asleep and quieting the busy mind.
There are many great herbs for sleep such as Chamomile, Valerian, Hops, Kava, Passionflower, Skullcap, Withania, Oats, Lavender and many others! These herbs are all relaxing herbs and help to calm the nervous system and help with insomnia and promote a better night’s sleep. A specific mix can be made by your practitioner. Alternatively, there are many herbal sleep teas available that can be enjoyed after dinner to promote relaxation in the nervous system.
Naturopathic medicine can offer some excellent, personalised solutions for sleep disturbance. There can be many reasons for poor sleep so come in and talk to one of our expert Naturopaths who can suggest the right treatment for your particular sleep problem.