Sleep Guide: for your hormones, your weight, and more…
Michelle Dowker, MSc, ND
Sleep is an important restorative practice that is essential for optimal wellness of all systems of your body. You know that sleep is important and that you don’t feel well when you don’t get it. Unfortunately, in our fast-paced, modern world filled with technology, sleep is often the first thing we sacrifice.
After all, we all only get 24 hours each day. Why not try to fit as many things as possible into these 24 hours? Perhaps you have an important project that is due tomorrow. Well, you can always cut out a couple of hours of sleep to get it done, right? Unfortunately, this is how more and more people are viewing sleep. They see it as an annoyance or an interruption to getting more things done in a day.
However, some people are trying to prioritize sleep. They really want to get more sleep or want to sleep better, but they continue to wake up feeling unrefreshed. Some may be trying to achieve the suggested seven to nine hours of sleep per night, but just can’t seem to fall asleep or stay asleep.
Perhaps the stress in their lives is interfering with their sleep, there may be hormonal imbalances at play, or there are things that they need to change to get the sleep their bodies crave. If you think hormonal, medical, or other physiological issues might be interfering with your sleep, seek help from a qualified professional. Dr. Wrigley is an excellent example of a health professional with many years experience helping people overcome hormonal, metabolic, and physiological issues that may be preventing them from getting good-quality sleep.
Sleep is a necessity. Getting adequate, quality sleep is just as important as what you eat. It allows your brain and body to recover after periods of wakefulness.
Specifically, sleep restores your body’s ability to function, to repair body tissues, create hormones, consolidate memories and learning, and regulate mood. Not getting enough sleep is linked to numerous health concerns and diseases.
Here are some of the many negative health implications of not getting enough sleep:
Hormones – A hormone called, cortisol is produced by your adrenal glands. It is commonly referred to as one of the “stress hormones.” Cortisol increases with lack of sleep, and it also makes it harder to sleep. Normally, your cortisol levels should be highest in the morning so that it is easy to wake up, and lowest in the evenings when your body prepares for sleep and as it sleeps. High levels of cortisol, when it should be low in your body, is linked to weight gain, obesity, diabetes, and more.
Some other important hormones that are affected by lack of sleep include ghrelin and leptin. Ghrelin is the hormone that tells you when you are hungry, and that it is time to eat. In contrast, leptin is a hormone that tells you when you are full, and that it is time to stop eating. Unfortunately, when you don’t get enough sleep, ghrelin increases and leptin decreases, affecting your appetite and food choices, putting you at risk of weight gain.
Many women experience disrupted sleep due to a change in hormone levels – less production of estrogen and progesterone. These sleep disruptions tend to affect the quality of sleep, not the time spent sleeping. Hot flashes, sweating, and drenched sheets can wake women up from sleep, resulting in next-day sleepiness. Insomnia is also a common complaint of women in this stage of life, and can be attributed to hormonal shifting.
Lowered Immune System Functioning – Your immune system is what protects your body from germs. When your body encounters germs, your body goes to work to fight off the invaders. However, when you don’t get enough sleep, your immune system does not function as well, increasing your susceptibility to colds, flu, and other ailments. Your immune system cannot produce the germ-fighting cells that it needs when you aren’t getting enough sleep. Your body is effective at restoring these fighter cells when you sleep.
Increased Risk of Diseases – Although the exact causes are not known, lack of sleep is linked to high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and increased inflammation in the body. All sleep-deprived individuals are at risk of this, but people with sleep apnea tend to have even higher rates of heart disease than those without the medical problem.
Hopefully, the importance of sleep and how it impacts your physical and mental well-being is becoming clear. With that being said, you need to make sleep a priority. Think about how much better you will feel, and what you can accomplish if you work on improving your sleep.
Here are some tips on how to learn to prioritize your sleep, and how to get to bed at a reasonable hour:
- Establish a bedtime routine – Just as children benefit from routines, so do adults. It is beneficial to create a routine where you start getting ready at least an hour before lights out. This may include having a bath (not too hot though, as this will raise your body temperature), getting into your pajamas, trying a deep breathing or meditation exercise, and reading a book.
- Set up a pleasant atmosphere – You want to set up your bedroom so that it is cozy, and so that you enjoy retreating to it at the end of a busy day. Pay attention to the colors of your walls. Choose calming, soothing paint colors such as soft grays, lavender, or sage. Set up a lamp with a soft yellow or red light. Avoid lights that emit blue wavelengths. Decorate your walls in such a way that it adds to the beauty of the room.
- Recognize the difference between being busy and being productive – Have you ever found yourself wasting time at the end of the day, because you are tired, but it feels like it is too early to go to bed? For example, you might be surfing the internet or checking your emails for the 15th time that day, but you aren’t doing anything productive. Instead, you are just keeping yourself busy. Learn to recognize when you are doing this, so that you can spend your time more wisely, and you don’t steal time from your bedtime routine.
- Remind yourself of this saying, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” – When you look around your house at the end of the day, you can always find something else to do before you head off to bed – dirty dishes in the sink, crumbs on the floor that need to be swept, or another email waiting to be answered. This is never going to change. Realize that there will always be things that don’t get done in a day and that you can start fresh the next day after a good night of sleep.
- Avoid emotional and financial conversations before bedtime – Evenings are not a good time to be having difficult conversations with friends or family. Talking about your financial situation, such as your outstanding credit card balance, should also not be done before bedtime. Instead, these conversations, including texts and emails, should be reserved for daytime when you have the energy, and when they are not going to cause you extra stress right before it is time to fall asleep.
- Caffeine cut-off times – You know that caffeine should be limited before bedtime, but when exactly in the day should you stop drinking caffeinated beverages? It is probably earlier than you realize. A general guideline is no later than 2 p.m, and for some, as early as 12 pm. This is because studies have shown that consumption of caffeine even six hours before bedtime, can cause disturbances in sleep quality. Although you may not notice the effects of the caffeine when you go to sleep, your body’s sleep quality will still be poorer. Therefore, recommendations include drinking caffeinated beverages in the morning hours and very early afternoon. And don’t forget that caffeine is also found in cola, hot chocolate, cocoa, and some over-the-counter and prescription pain medications.
- Limit alcohol intake – Although alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, and causes you to feel sleepy, it actually disrupts your sleep quality. Your body does not enter the deeper sleep cycle, which is necessary to restore your energy for the next day. In addition, as the alcohol wears off, your brain “reboots” causing disruption in the normal brain wave pattern that allows for quality sleep.
- Go to bed at the same time every night – give or take 20 minutes. You have, no doubt, heard this advice before. By doing so, you can actually train your body to wake up without an alarm.
- Have sex before sleep time – Sleep hygiene experts tell you to reserve your bed only for sleep and sex. However, let’s take it a step further. Studies show that sex, in conjunction with orgasms, is a great way to end the day before you nod off. This is because sex can distract you (be sure to put away your phone and other electronic devices!), and it promotes the release of “feel-good” hormones that relax you and reduce your perception of pain.
- Set up your bedroom environment – In addition to setting up a pleasant setting that is cozy and has calming colors, you need to limit the light in your bedroom before you fall asleep and during sleep. Even the light from your alarm clock can negatively affect your sleep, so cover the light emitting from it. In addition, be sure to use room-darkening shades over the windows. Keep the room quiet. If you live on a busy, loud street, for example, you may need to create white noise using a fan, or you can use an app. Keep your bedroom temperature lower, as this will promote better sleep.
- Get up after 20 minutes in bed, if you haven’t fallen asleep yet – There is no point to staying in bed tossing and turning. All it does it frustrate you, which impedes the goal – falling asleep. Instead, it is better to get up and do something quiet and avoid using bright lights. Try taking your mind off the issue by reading a book (not a tablet or smartphone as the blue light emitted will increase your wakefulness), meditating, listening to calming music, or doing some relaxation exercises.
Blue light is found in the sun (as well as other color wavelengths). Blue light has a shorter wavelength, and it is energizing and mood enhancing. When this light hits your eyes in the mornings, it sends signals to your brain telling you that it is time to wake up. This is because photoreceptors in the back of your eye pick up the light wavelength and relay a signal to your brain to tell it to stop producing the sleep hormone melatonin.
Traditionally, when the sun sets, light becomes increasingly dim, and the change in light frequency picked up by those photoreceptors tell the brain to start producing melatonin for the night.
Unfortunately, you continue to be exposed to blue light even when the sun sets. This is because of artificial lighting and technology (TV’s, computers, tablets, etc.) in your home. The invention of the light bulb and other technology has tricked your brain into thinking that it is still daytime.
It results in increasing your evening alertness, as well as changing your body’s biological clock (also referred to as the circadian rhythm) and hormones so that sleep is delayed. In fact, any artificial light exposure in the evening is an issue. Even dim lamps can emit enough blue light to disrupt your sleep rhythms!
Obviously, it is difficult to survive in today’s world in total evening darkness. You could read by candlelight, but that is probably not possible when you have worked all day and have evening responsibilities with your children, for example.
So what steps can you take to avoid or reduce blue light exposure in the evening?
- Avoid the use of technology at least two hours before bedtime. This means not using your computer, tablet, smartphone, and television, for example. These items all emit blue light, and prevent the production of melatonin, the latter which is needed to cause you to become sleepy.
- If you absolutely have to use technology or to be in bright light in the evening, use blue-blocking glasses. These can also be useful for evening and nightshift workers. Be sure you buy them from a reputable supplier. Your optometrist may be an invaluable resource to make specific recommendations. You can also find them sold online through various outlets.
- Maximize exposure to light during the day. It appears that maximum daytime light exposure results in lessening the effects of being exposed to light at night. Plan to take a walk outdoors over your lunch break at the same time every day. This same-day exposure to sunlight can aid your body’s internal clock.
- You can adjust the colors of your screens on your smartphones, computers, and tablets to warmer, shorter wavelengths. Set it up so that it happens automatically every evening, and results in less exposure to blue light at this time.
- Choose lightbulbs that emit less or no blue light, and emit more reddish or warmer hues.
- During sleep, cover any lights on your alarm clock or other devices at night. Use room-darkening shades to avoid exposure from streetlights or your neighbor’s lights. Wear a sleep mask.
- Go camping – Whether you like camping or not, this is one of the best ways to avoid blue light exposure at night. It is also a great way to reset your body’s biological clock.
Reduce your temperature for a better night’s sleep
In preparation for good sleep, your body’s internal temperature must drop about a degree. This normally starts to occur around 90 to 120 minutes before sleep is to occur. Fortunately, in most circumstances, you can manipulate your body’s temperature. Knowing this, here is what you need to do to allow this to happen:
- Avoid hot showers and hot baths right before bed – Keep the temperature of the water from warm to cool. In fact, in summer, take a cool shower or go for a cool swim.
- Avoid exercising right before bed – This is something that you have always heard, but do you really know why this is an issue? It is because, not only does exercise stimulate you, it will also make you feel excessively warm to sleep. If possible, try to exercise earlier in the day. If that is not an option, and it often isn’t for everyone, then you can help your body cool itself by taking a cool shower after your exercise workout.
- Avoid excessive clothing before and at bedtime – Another way to help your body cool down in the evenings is to leave your arms and legs exposed.
- Don’t use hot water bottles and heating pads close to bedtime – The same applies to too much bedding. In colder climates, if you want to warm up your bed before getting in, then put a heating pad in it for a few minutes before you get in, but then turn it off. Otherwise, its heat is bound to wake you up later.
- Lower the temperature in your home – With timers on thermostats, you can set the temperature in your home to be lowered a couple hours before bedtime. This will also help with reducing your core body temperature, making it easier to fall asleep, and stay asleep.
While you sleep, aim for a room temperature of no higher than 70 degrees F. 65 degrees F seems to be the most ideal, but you may have to experiment to find what suits your sleep the best.
What about supplements?
Natural supplements can be an effective tool to improve your sleep when used in combination with other components of sleep hygiene. Because even natural products can exert strong biological effects, it is wise to consult with a qualified practitioner before starting to use them. This is especially important if you are using other herbal products or prescription medications.
A naturopathic doctor can be an invaluable resource to educate you on lifestyle habits, changes you can make, as well as the most appropriate suitable natural supplements that may help you. Dr. Wrigley would be happy to help you find a supplement that works best for your needs.
As you’ve learned here, sleep is just as important as healthy eating and physical movement. Unfortunately, many people are not getting the quality sleep that their bodies require.
Medical conditions – physical or psychological – can sometimes be the cause. Fortunately, things can be done to improve your sleep, even if you have a medical condition. If your sleep does not improve, no matter what you try, you should speak to a health professional as there could be underlying medical or psychological problems.
However, not all sleep problems are caused by medical issues. Many are the result of poor sleep hygiene and lifestyle choices, such as the use of technology and artificial lighting before bedtime. By making changes in your environment – via lighting and temperature control, as examples – your sleep can improve.
If you’ve tried all the strategies listed here and you’re still struggling with your sleep, know that there’s help available. Click here to see some of the ways we can help. If you’re not sure, please feel free to contact us.