12 MONTHS TO A HEALTHIER YOU (MONTH 11)
12 Months to a Healthier You: Month 11, Quality Sleep
Author: Dr. Anne Zauderer
One of the most common symptoms that people have today is fatigue. Everyone is tired. We need our caffeine to rev us up in the morning, our sugar and carbs to keep us going during the day, and our sleep aid medication to get us to sleep at night. It’s quite the paradox that people who are so tired would have difficulty falling asleep! Yet, transient insomnia affects up to 80% of the population, and chronic insomnia affects about 15%1.
Sleep is vitally important to our overall health and well-being. During sleep our body relaxes, our blood pressure drops, and breathing slows down. The body is able to focus on important maintenance processes: muscles and tissues are repaired, hormones that regulate appetite are released (leptin and ghrelin), pathways in the brain for memory and learning are formed, and our detoxification and waste-removing pathways are upregulated. Over time, if the body is not given the opportunity to repair itself at the cellular level, we wake up feeling tired and unrefreshed.
Some of the physical benefits of quality sleep2:
- Promotes skin health and a youthful appearance
- Increases testosterone levels
- Controls blood sugar (by optimal insulin secretion)
- Encourages healthy cell division (therefore preventing growth of cancer)
- Increases athletic performance
An important hormone that helps regulate our circadian rhythm by helping us fall asleep is melatonin. Melatonin secretion is stimulated by darkness. Prior to the invention of the lightbulb, our ancestors would have to stop working when the sun went down. This was a good time for their bodies and brains to “wind down.” This is why, in the evening, our cortisol levels should decrease and our melatonin levels should increase. This pattern leads to us getting tired and preparing for sleep. However, in the modern world we have the ability to keep the lights on after the sun has set. This additional light (especially from the blue end of the spectrum) decreases the brain’s production of melatonin. We get exposed to this additional light not only from our household lights, but also our electronic devices (phones, tablets, computers and TVs). Melatonin production also naturally decreases as we age. Therefore careful attention to light exposure at night and possible supplementation with melatonin might be more necessary the older we get.
In addition to supporting healthy melatonin levels, maintaining proper daytime cortisol levels is also of great importance for quality sleep. Cortisol is one of our main stress hormones. It gets released in response to a perceived stressor, dysregulated blood sugar, intense and prolonged exercise, sleep deprivation, a viral infection, and caffeine consumption. If cortisol levels are too high or too low during the day, this can impact cortisol levels in the evening and at night. If cortisol remains elevated at night, this will disrupt our sleep. Elevated cortisol levels can disrupt our sleep by either making it tough for us to fall asleep or by waking us in the middle of the night with difficulty falling back asleep.
To get the best quality sleep, it is important to maintain healthy levels and patterns of both melatonin and cortisol. A few strategies to help with this are:
- Turn off all electronics 1 hour before bed. Smartphones and computers are now equipped with a setting to filter out blue light when it gets dark.
- Make your sleeping room as dark as possible. Get black-out curtains and cover up all light sources (alarm clocks, phones, nightlights). If you need a night-light, find one that filters out blue light.
- Turn your phone to “Airplane Mode” while you are asleep and don’t keep it next to the bed. Electromagnetic radiation given off by your phone can disrupt your sleep.
- Limit caffeine intake (especially in the late afternoon and evening) from coffee, tea, soda, and chocolate.
- Take an Epsom salt bath before bed. Magnesium has a calming effect on the body and brain. You can also take magnesium as a supplement before bed to boost serotonin and melatonin levels.
- Do not exercise within 2 hours before going to bed. Exercise increases cortisol levels, which can keep you awake.
- Limit stress-inducing activities 2 hours before bed. This can vary by person, but could include activities such as: watching the news, doing job-related work, playing video games etc.