Welcome back for part three of my top ten health tips series. Today’s topic deals with how critical it is to get adequate rest each night. Sleep is that often overlooked component in a healthy lifestyle. A good nights sleep helps you to be more mentally alert and gives you the physical energy to accomplish your daily responsibilities. Numerous studies show that a lack of sleep negatively impacts insulin sensitivity which is going to cause you to crave (or consume) more sugar. Sleep optimizes your hormone functioning including natural anabolic hormone levels which play an important part in recovery from exercise.
I don’t want to lump us all into the same bucket because some people have trouble going to sleep while others can’t stay in a deep sleep. Did you wake up this morning feeling tired? That is a sign that the quality of sleep is poor. High stress levels are a common reason behind some sleep difficulties which we talked about in part two of my health tips (found here). The first tip in case you missed it was drinking more water…which you will want to drink the majority of your water in the first half of the day because I don’t want you getting up to go pee in the middle of the night!
The most common underlying causes of chronic sleep issues are:
- Chronic stress or an over-stimulated nervous system.
- Hormonal imbalances (adrenal, thyroid and reproductive hormones in particular.)
- Poor diet (too much sugar, processed and refined foods and the common foods that cause sensitivities: gluten and dairy.)
- Stimulants or substances that can affect sleep (alcohol, caffeine, medications, recreational drugs, herbs, and even some vitamins.)
- Gastro-intestinal dysfunction
- Chronic pain
- Sleep Apnea
If you listened to the UW podcast you will have learned that sleeping depends on rhythms. Don’t just think that night affects sleep. We need to connect day and night activities to help us sleep well. With that being said, here are sleep tips by daytime, evening, and nighttime.
The goal for daytime is maintaining a sense of calm, getting some sunshine and avoiding stimulants.
- Wake Up Right: Sleep researchers at the Mayo Clinic believe that if you need an alarm clock to wake you up, it’s a sign that you’re not sleeping right. Alarm clocks interrupt the sleep cycle and prevent sleep from completing naturally, pushing sleep problems into following days. Minimize the use of alarms as much as possible (I know work and kids don’t always comply).
- Take Breaks: Time for reflection in solitude. It doesn’t need to be long, just take 5 minutes to focus on breathing (yoga anyone)…this is really about helping counter our over stressed lives.
- Sunshine Every Day: Natural sunlight is the best signal for our sleep cycle. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that it’s actually light itself that governs our sleeping patterns. As sunlight enters our eyes it regulates and resets our biological clocks, which involves triggering our brains and bodies to release specific chemicals and hormones that are vital to healthy sleep, mood, and aging. Studies show that adults across America are spending less than one hour outdoors each day, far less than in the past. Try to get at least half an hour of regular exposure to natural sunlight a day.
- Exercise: Exercise is one of the best defenses against insomnia because it increases the amplitude of our daily rhythms. It signals the body to promote deeper sleep cycles. Both aerobic and anaerobic exercise work well. The best time to exercise is 4 – 6 hours before bedtime, but studies also show that people are more likely to stick to a routine if they exercise first thing in the morning. In general try to avoid exercising after 8pm as it may be too stimulating to your body and make it more difficult to get to sleep.
- Drop Caffeine: Caffeine, even in small doses, blocks sleep neurotransmitters. If you have a problem with sleep, you must cut out all caffeinated beverages, even your morning cup of coffee. The effects of caffeine can last up to seven hours.
- Breakfast like a King, Lunch like a Prince, and Dinner like a Pauper: Your digestive system function peaks at lunchtime, so most of your food should be eaten by then. Your metabolism slows down in the late afternoon, leaving you poorly prepared to digest a large dinner so have a small one. Eat it early, at least three hours before going to sleep. This will give your body a chance to recover and rebuild.
The sleep cycle is not a game of red light, green light. Don’t expecting to go from full speed to a standstill without slowing down first. You should prepare for sleep by giving your body the right signals. It takes time to produce the sleep neurotransmitters needed by the brain’s sleep center to release the hormones that will allow you to sleep. Reducing stimulation in the evening before going to bed boosts the production of sleep hormones. Taking some time to wind down and prepare your environment before hopping into bed will encourage a good nights sleep.
- Create an Electronic Sundown: By 10 pm, stop sitting in front of your computer or TV screen and switch off all other electronic devices. They are too stimulating to the brain and inhibit the release of sleep neurotransmitters.
- Prepare for Sleep: Dim the lights an hour or more before going to bed, take a warm bath, listen to calming music or soothing sounds. Remove any distractions (mental and physical) that will prevent you from sleeping.
- Practice a Relaxation Technique: Too much stress is one of the most common causes of sleep disorders so learning to relax is key. Many people tell me they can’t switch off their racing minds and therefore have trouble sleeping. Do some breathing exercises, restorative yoga or meditation.
Creating consistency and optimizing the sleep environment are essential.
- Create a Regular Routine: Going to bed around the same time, even on weekends, is the most important thing you can do to establish good sleep habits. A regular sleep rhythm reminds the brain when to release sleep and wake hormones, which in turn effects all the other hormones, ultimately effecting our overall health.
- Keep the Room As Dark As Possible: Our bodies need complete darkness for production of the important sleep hormone, melatonin. If your bedroom is not pitch dark when you go to sleep, it interferes with this key process and disrupts your circadian rhythms. Even the tiniest bit of light in the room can disrupt your pineal gland’s production of sleep hormones, disturbing your sleep rhythms. Look around your bedroom for glowing indicator lights and try to remove or cover them: alarm clock read-outs, charging indicators on cell phones or PDA’s, the monitor on your computer, battery indicators on cordless phones or answering machines, the DVD clock and timer etc. Cover all the lights of any electronic device and use dark shades or drapes on the windows if they are exposed to light. If any of this is not possible, wear an eye mask.
- Keep the Room Cool: Lowering ambient temperature sends a feedback signal to the brain’s sleep center that it’s nighttime, and that it needs to release more sleep hormones. A sleeping temperature of 60 to 65 degrees is best for most people, even in the winter. In hot weather, use a floor or ceiling fan to create a breeze, or an air-conditioner set at about 70 degrees.
- Block Out Noise: If noise from the street, an upstairs neighbor, pets or a snoring bed partner is a problem, try using earplugs, an electronic device that makes “white noise” or a fan that hums to drown out the surrounding sounds.
- Do Not Rely on Sleeping Pills to Fall and Stay Asleep: Sleeping pills mask sleep problems and do not resolve the underlying causes of insomnia. Many sleep studies have concluded that long-term use of sleeping pills, whether prescription or over the counter, do more harm than good. They can be highly addictive and studies have found them to be potentially dangerous. If you have been taking them for a long time, ask your doctor to help you design a plan to eliminate them.
- Don’t Use Alcohol to Fall Asleep: Because of alcohol’s sedating effect, many people drink to promote sleep. Alcohol does have an initial sleep inducing effect, but as it gets broken down by the body it sends the wrong metabolic signals which can cause you to wake up later on. It usually impairs sleep during the second half of the night leading to a reduction in overall sleep time.
- Take Nutrients That Calm Down the Nervous System: Instead of sleeping pills or alcohol, try some supplements or herbs that have a calming effect half an hour to an hour before bedtime. Magnesium (300-600 mg) can be helpful as can calcium. The amino acids, L theanine (100-500mg), 5 HTP (50-100mg), taurine and GABA, and herbs like lemon balm, passion flower, chamomile, magnolia and valerian root can also help.
- Try Some Melatonin at Night: For some people, melatonin can be extremely helpful. The dosage I usually use is anywhere between half a mg to three mg right before bedtime (sublingual tablets are better than oral). Melatonin is good for initiating sleep, not maintaining it.
- Don’t Make Sleep a Performance Issue: Often just thinking about sleep affects your ability to fall asleep. What happens frequently is that the way we cope with the insomnia becomes as much of a problem as the insomnia itself. It often becomes a vicious cycle of worrying about not being able to sleep which leads to worsening sleep problems. Like so many things in life, it is about letting go and going with the flow. If you can’t fall asleep, don’t fight it.
Why’s Sleep Important?
In case you haven’t figured out yet, sleep is important for a lot of reasons. Who is worried about cardiovascular disease? Here are some highlights from an article regarding a recently released CVD study from Lisa Nainggolan. “Wake-up call: Quality and quantity of sleep are important for CVD risk” (Found at theheart.org.)
Geneva, Switzerland – Those who sleep badly, and not for long, have a 65% increased risk of cardiovascular disease—and an even greater risk of coronary heart disease—compared with normal sleepers, according to new research presented at the EuroPRevent 2011 meeting this past weekend.
Researcher Marieke Hoevenaar-Blom(National Institute for Public Health and the Environment, Bilthoven, the Netherlands) explained that several investigations have found an increased risk of CVD in short sleepers compared with normal sleepers, but this is the first study to take into account whether people rise feeling rested. The results should help confirm that suboptimal sleep is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, something she says is not widely appreciated in the cardiology community.
“The message is that you have to assess sleep, and especially sleep quality, when you see a patient, because it might be a risk factor for cardiovascular diseases,” Hoevenaar-Blom told heartwire. “When a patient is sleeping poorly, you can very easily fix that,” she noted, although she acknowledged that this involves figuring out what is causing the sleep disturbance. However, simple advice—such as restricting intake of caffeinated drinks after a certain time and not watching TV late—can often be useful, she suggested. Is sleep quality a modifying factor in association with CVD?
In the Monitoring Project on Risks Factors and Chronic Diseases in the Netherlands (MORGEN) study, Hoevenaar-Blom and her colleagues explored the combined associations of sleep duration and quality with CVD and CHD incidence.
The message is that you have to assess sleep, and especially sleep quality, when you see a patient, because it might be a risk factor for cardiovascular diseases.
“In conclusion, short sleepers have an increased risk of total CVD and CHD; the risk in short sleepers is the largest when they are not rising rested; it’s really the combination” that is important, she said.
Just to Recap!
You need a minimum of seven hours of sleep in a dark room without electronic devices! It is during sleep that your body’s innate healing capacities kick into full gear. Your immune system gets revitalized. Hormones and metabolism are balanced, and general maintenance, fine-tuning and repair of all bodily systems are performed. A good night’s sleep, not just once in a while, but on an ongoing basis, is absolutely critical for your good health.
Have a great night’s sleep!