Improve Your Sleep
You know the feeling when you’ve had a good night’s sleep – you’re alert, you have energy, you just feel better. You’re ready to conquer the world. When you sleep poorly, even just for one night, things just aren’t quite right: your thinking is a bit foggy, your energy is down, your patience is diminished and you just don’t feel like exercising or eating your veggies.
Quality of life is greatly diminished and health is affected when our sleep is poor, particularly if this is a recurring trend. I consider sleep as vital and fundamental as water and proper nutrition.
Part 1 – Sleep
Sleep is a vital component to our well-being. It is as important as water and good nutrition. Unfortunately, many of us do not get enough sleep and what we do get is often poor quality.
Deep, Restful Sleep in a Nut Shell:
- Promotes muscle recovery
- Promotes tissue repair
- Promotes mental acuity and reaction time
- Increases memory
- Is needed to clear debris from the brain (see below)
- Is promoted with regular exercise
- Facilitates fat loss
- Promotes better food choices
- Helps regulate blood sugar levels
Poor Sleep in a Nut Shell:
- Promotes an increase in overuse injuries
- Decreases muscle mass
- Reduces testosterone
- Reduces sex drive
- Can lead to depression
- Can cause weight gain
- Favors bone loss
- Increases food cravings
- Adversely affects hormones such as ghrelin (making us hungrier) and leptin (making us expend less energy)
- Affects blood sugar levels
- Heightens emotions
- “Effort discounting” – with even 1-2 hours less sleep, even after having exercised and having a certain “gold standard” plan, we are less likely to make an effort towards something we value (ie: making a good food choices)
Part 2 – Sleep Routine
How much sleep do I need?
- Generally most people need between 7-9 hours per night, with 6 being the absolute minimum
How to Ensure a Good Night’s Sleep:
- Create a ritual – a SLEEP ROUTINE:
- Timing: Try to go to bed at the same time each night, waking up at the same time each morning
- Duration: Strive to get the same number of hours of sleep per night, based on your needs
- Intensity: Proper intensity of sleep during all phases of the sleep cycle will be dictated by having adequate light exposure during the day (ideally a minimum half hour of direct sunlight which will anchor your circadian rhythm), adequate physical activity, lowered light exposure at night
Step 1: Choose the number of hours of sleep that you feel is right for you (ex: 8 hours).
Step 2: Determine what time you need to get up in the morning (ex: 6:00am).
Step 3: Based on the time you need to get up in the morning, back track by the number of sleep hours you need to determine the time you need to be sleeping by. For example, if you need 8 hours sleep and you need to get up by 6:00am, you should be sleeping by 10:00pm.
Step 4: Prepare and implement a pre-sleep routine that you can adhere to every night. This will help you relax and shut down. Ideas may include:
- Choose a specific time to start winding down (ex: one hour prior to sleep time)
- Try to avoid any electronics (TV, computer, Smart phone) one hour before bed. This should be a time when we’re winding down. The light (blue light) and images emitted by electronics are very stimulating for the brain making it harder for the pineal gland to produce melatonin – see “melatonin” below. There are apps that exist that eliminate blue light. Try using an app like this at night on your phone/tablet if you must use them.
- No TV or other electronics IN the bedroom. Remember that your bedroom serves two functions: a place to sleep and a place for sex. That’s it. It’s not a TV room, an office or an entertainment centre.
- Make sure your bedroom is cool and dark
- Have “black-out” curtains or blinds to make your room as dark as possible
- Turn the temperature down at night
- Don’t keep your phone by the bed (if you use it as your alarm, consider getting a separate alarm clock so that you are not tempted to check your phone for messages/texts and also so that you are not disturbed by the beeps and pings made by your phone)
- Dim lights in the house (this helps with the secretion of melatonin (see below))
- Read a book
- Use a scent to help induce sleep (the repetitive use of a scent can be a powerful trigger to help induce sleep)
- Drink a calming tea such as chamomile 1 hour prior to sleep
- Prepare what you need for the next day (food, work notes, to do lists, etc)
- If you have a busy mind, try having a notebook next to your bed and take a few minutes to jot down what you will be doing the next day, any to-do items, any thoughts that might keep you awake for fear of forgetting them, etc. The idea is to put in writing those things that might race through your mind and prevent you from sleeping. Think of it as a “brain dump”.
- If you have an iPhone, use the bedtime feature to alert you when it’s time for bed (or time to start your pre-sleep routine).
- Epsom Salt bath or shower
- Make sure you have a bright work environment during the day
- Try to spend at least half an hour outside every day (we want to have as much natural light during the day, and as much darkness at night)
- Regular exercise has been proven to assist with improving sleep
Step 1: Hours of sleep needed:________________________
Step 2: Wake up time: _________________________
Step 3: Sleep time: _________________________
Step 4: Sleep Routine:
Part 3 – In Depth Look at some Aspects of Sleep
Sleep is part of a circadian rhythm. A circadian rhythm is a repeatable, 24hour process. This rhythm is dependent on timing of light/dark cycles of the environment.
The circadian rhythm works with cyclical activities like behavior, cell growth and repair processes, and many various activities in the body.
The timing of this rhythm is dependent on a master system in the brain which synchronizes the light/dark cycle of the environment. There are also “clock cells” in all our tissues and cells in the body. These cells along with our master clock in the brain keep our body “in time” and doing the “right behavior” at the right time of day.
Over 15% of the human encoding genome is regulated by the circadian rhythm. What this means is that genes are being turned on, so they’re active and doing what they’re supposed to do during a function, or they’re being turned off so that they’re not active, according to this rhythm.
There are therefore a huge amount of processes going on in the body (metabolic, behavioral, etc.) that are controlled by the circadian rhythm. There is literally no part of the body that goes untouched when we’re not getting good sleep or when the light/dark patterns are thrown off (too much light stimulation at night, shift work, spending too much time indoors in artificial lighting, too little time outside in natural light, etc.).
We repair a lot of cellular damage when we sleep. Certain enzymes and antioxidants are all being turned on when we sleep helping with the repair processes.
Researchers have found that poor sleep and mis-timed circadian rhythms can lead to a four-fold increase in cancer risk, significant increases for diabetes, metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease, memory issues. Sleep is a must-have!
It is during sleep when we repair damage that we have accumulated during the day. One way for the body to repair damage is by activating melatonin.
Melatonin is a hormone that is produced in the pineal gland (in the brain). It gets stimulated and secreted when the light starts to dim and it gets dark out, telling the master clock of the brain that night-time activities should start. It essentially starts to prepare the body for sleep. Melatonin’s production is inhibited by light therefore it needs darkness to be secreted.
Melatonin activates and regulates over 500 genes including those necessary for repair, for antioxidant function, etc. Melatonin has also been associated with reduction in cancer and aiding in those who already have cancer.
The Glymphatic system is a system of vessels found throughout the brain that extend from our cerebral spinal fluid. This system is activated when we sleep. When we are sleeping, the body is able to squirt cerebral spinal fluid up throughout the brain via these vessels. This in fact “swells” the brain with fluid and “washes out” the cellular debris that has accumulated in the brain throughout the day. These toxins that are being cleared out during sleep via the cerebral spinal fluid are, amongst other things, proteins that have aggregated (clumped) that can lead to plaque if not eliminated (plaque that has been associated with Alzheimer’s disease). Research has found links to Alzheimer’s disease in those with poor sleep (perhaps because they are not regularly clearing out cerebral debris every night).
This process of clearing out the debris in the brain takes a lot of energy. We can’t do it effectively when we’re awake (because there is too much stimulation during the day). Therefore when we’re sleeping energy requirements are lower and can be directed toward the glymphatic system.
There are bacteria in our gut that are also on a circadian rhythm. When our sleep is disrupted, the circadian rhythm for these bacteria is also disrupted and affects our metabolism (the way our food is broken, digested and assimilated, etc.).
Obesity, Cravings, Blood Glucose
Poor sleep has also been linked with increases in obesity, diabetes and abnormalities in hormones that regulate hunger (ex: we feel hungrier even though we’re not).
Further studies have shown that the pleasure centres in the brain of those who are sleep deprived or who have poor sleep patterns, are hyperactive (they “light up like Christmas trees”) after sleep loss. These people are more likely to crave or desire foods that are energy-dense (lots of calories) and nutrient-poor (few good nutrients). In other words, foods like doughnuts, ice cream, pizza, etc.
Even 1-2 hours of lost sleep can change our eating behaviors. We are more likely to make poor choices when even slightly sleep deprived.
Boston, Gabriella. (2016). You Snooze, you lose? Think again. Washington Post. http://news.nationalpost.com/health/you-snooze-you-lose-think-again
Pardi, Dan & Patrick, Rhonda. (2015) Sleep, Daylight Anchoring, and Effects on Memory & Obesity.
Patrick, Rhonda PhD. (2015). Nutrigenomics, Epigenetics, and Stress Tolerance. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qvNLNl7oJnM#t=11