The Best Medicine Known to Man
We think of sleep as a luxurious pleasure but just like air, food and water, sleep is an absolute necessity. Without it we would die.
Once in a blue moon a client will profess to being a ‘great sleeper’, or that they ‘sleep like a log’. You know those lucky/annoying people! However, nine out of ten times when asked how they sleep, people sigh and say ‘oh not well really, but I’ve never been a great sleeper’. By minimising the problem as if it’s an inherent, unchangeable thing, we set ourselves up to ignore the solutions, because, you know, we’ve always been this way. With increasing knowledge about how crucial sleep is to our health, we can’t ignore what role poor sleep may play in a seemingly unrelated problem. I always make sleep a priority in any treatment protocol.
Let her sleep. For when she wakes up she will move mountains.
There is plenty of waxing lyrical about sleep and its virtues but putting that aside, sleep has so many physiological benefits. Chronic sleep deprivation or insufficiency is when you are regularly getting less than 8 hours sleep in a 24 hour period. If this is you, you will definitely be accruing a sleep debt.
Why it’s so important
Apart from the obvious tiredness (and dark circles) that come with lack of sleep, we are starting to see proof that getting less sleep can contribute to obesity, low immunity, anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, stroke, and diabetes. This increased risk for chronic health conditions seems to be related to the disruption of our neurochemistry as well as some other physiological changes that happen when we build up a sleep debt.
Our bodies have a natural sleep cycle which involves releasing specific hormones at certain times of the day to set us up for a sustained period of sleep at night. This natural rhythm is quite easily disrupted when our body gets the wrong signals at the wrong times. For example:
Electric lights in the evening and minimal natural light during the day
Because we’ve spent most of our evolution outdoors during the day, we work best when the photosensitive cells in our retina are exposed to natural light first thing in the morning and again around midday (when the sun is at it’s highest and brightest). This exposure to light (without contact lenses, or glasses) essentially tells our body what time it is and which hormones to release. It’s how our body clocks are set if you like. Our natural rhythm should be further cemented by diminishing light at night, which due to electric lights, usually happens much too late.
Caffeine is the big culprit here. It’s the most widely used drug in the world, found in coffee, tea, cola, other soft drinks, energy drinks, cocoa and chocolate. A lot of people seem to have an arbitrary time they deem ‘too late for caffeine’ when in actual fact it can effect sleep many hours after consumption. Caffeine stimulates the adrenals to release adrenalin telling the body it’s time to run from the tiger. Not an ideal state for sleep! It can cause rapid heartbeat and anxiety which can leave a person stressed and later effect the quality of sleep. The half life of caffeine is approximately 6 hours. So there is still plenty of caffeine in the body say, 10 hours after consuming it. Even if you fall asleep well, caffeine at any time of the day may have a detrimental effect on sleep quality.
Night time exercise
Although regular exercise is important for good sleep, exercising too close to bedtime increases adrenalin production and delays the release of sleep hormones.
Abnormal sleep hours caused by shift work (or night owl behaviour!)
It turns out our bodies are major creatures of habit. Consistent wake and sleep times really help to establish good sleep. If your job has you working late into the night and sleeping through the day it’s very hard to have a good sleep routine. Your brain gets the wrong messages when you miss out on daytime light and are exposed to bright lights throughout the night. A lot of people end up suffering from Shift Work Sleep Disorder. If you’re waking to a baby try to keep lights low, even keep your eyes closed while feeding and be sure to get some natural light first thing in the morning and also at midday. This pattern will help set baby’s body clock too.
Increased REM sleep (restless, disturbed sleep) is seen in those with anxiety and depression so it’s important to address any underlying cause of poor sleep. Of course prolonged poor sleep can eventually lead to anxiety and low mood so identifying the root cause can be tricky. Also consider sleep apnoea, and blood sugar imbalance.
Expose yourself to natural light as soon as you wake up. Get outside for a few minutes while you eat your breakfast to set your internal clock.
Get outside at lunch time without sunglasses. You only need a few minutes of unshielded natural light to guide your body clock.
Once the sun has gone down, keep electric light low. Use lamps instead of bright ceiling lights. Interestingly, the new energy efficient bulbs emit a type of light (blue light) which delays melatonin release, an important sleep hormone.
Avoid looking into computer screens and other devices such as phones and ipads after dark. The blue light they emit effects our circadian rhythm by delaying the release of melatonin. Keep technology out of the bedroom as much as possible to avoid passive exposure to this type of light while you sleep.
Try to get to bed and wake at the same time every day (I know that wont be easy mamas!)
Keep the temperature between 18-20*. Overheating is not conducive to good sleep. Further to that point sleeping naked has been shown to promote better quality sleep, especially if you have a partner doing the same! Turns out skin to skin time is not only good for babies (which makes perfect sense actually).
Avoid caffeine. Remember caffeine is reasonably high in dark chocolate and cacao products too. Watch those gorgeous raw cacao slices and anything with cacoa nibs. Green tea does contain some caffeine too. See how you go avoiding caffeine altogether for a week or so. You’ll survive, it’s not a nutritional requirement!
Alcohol tends to make you fall asleep faster but leads to waking during the night. It’s been shown to reduce the restorative non REM sleep cycle. This is when our hard working neurons get to restore their powers, so the long term cumulative effects of having a wine with dinner could be lack of focus and concentration.
Keep blood sugar levels stable by avoiding overeating, especially sugar. If we chow down on a packet of biscuits before bed our poor pancreas has to make a load of insulin to deal with that. When we get a spike of blood sugar, the subsequent crash (low blood sugar) triggers adrenalin release to make us alert so we can hunt for some more food to bring up that blood sugar. This can mean waking in the early hours with a bit of a panicked feeling. Be sure avoid sugar and include protein with your dinner to balance your blood sugars.
Sleep still eluding you?
Sometimes your body gets into a bad habit of falling to sleep late or waking in the middle of the night. In these cases I like to use some of the herbal helpers below to promote the perfect slumber.
As well as having one of the coolest names in herbal medicine, this calming and mildly sedative herb has been used for thousands of years in traditional chinese medicine. It contains specific phytochemicals called jujubosides which act to promote relaxation and reduce anxiety. It’s a common herb in my sleep mixes, especially if hormones are playing a part in disrupting sleep.
One of my all time favourite herbs Withania is wonderful when stress or anxiety may be contributing to poor sleep. It contains a unique substance (withanolides) which over a period of 2-3 weeks will decrease feelings of stress and irritability helping you cope better with everyday nervous system challenges (toddlers anyone?).
Magnesium is also helpful for a lot of people. It’s so easy to become deficient in this important mineral. Causes of deficiency include a high sugar diet as it increases the excretion of magnesium via the kidneys, a lack of magnesium in our soils, consumption of carbonated drink and pesticide residues such as the commonly used glycophosphate act as chelators binding a certain amount of minerals from our foods making them unavailable for absorption. Lastly, poor digestion due to IBS, Coeliacs, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis etc. leads to absorption of magnesium. Foods high in magnesium include nuts and seeds, dark green leafy vegetables, wholegrains and avocados. If you want to take a magnesium supplement be sure to avoid ones containing magnesium oxide. The oxide form will mostly act as a laxative (i.e. it’s not well absorbed) and is often found in cheaper products.
Sweet dreams Mums and Dads. I know it’s often not easy with little people to get enough, but as they say, your future depends on your dreams so prioritise your sleep!