We’ve all been there. Those nights when sleep doesn’t come easily. Nights when we’re wired and tired and can’t fall asleep. Nights when we wake up at 3:00 a.m. and can’t get back to sleep. Nights when we repeatedly wake up tossing and turning. Then when we finally fall into a restful sleep, the alarm goes off and we get up feeling exhausted.
Sleep issues are a common complaint among our patients. Why does this happen and how can we start sleeping better?
The important benefits of restorative sleep
Numerous studies shine a light on how important deep restorative sleep is to our well-being. Many repair processes occur during sleep, especially during the deepest stages.
- Cerebrospinal fluid clears metabolic waste from the brain
- Memories formed during the day are solidified
- Tissues are repaired
- Cells are regenerated
- The liver metabolizes and detoxifies
- Important hormones are secreted, including human growth hormone
Poor or inadequate sleep has been linked to conditions such as weight gain, metabolic syndrome, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke and Alzheimer’s disease.
To understand why we have problems sleeping, we need to first understand how our bodies are hardwired. All systems in our bodies are regulated by a 24-hour internal clock. These are called our circadian rhythms. They regulate our sleep and waking, our hormones, our digestion and our immune system. When we live in sync with these internal rhythms, our bodies work well. We have energy during the day and sleep well at night. When we get out of sync with them, we start to have problems.
We’re hard-wired to be sensitive to light. Our ancient ancestors woke as the sun came up and spent the day outdoors in the bright light, called blue light. As the sun went down, the light became less bright and more red. Then they would see by moonlight, starlight and possibly by the low light of a fire. There were no bright indoor lights, TVs or other bright screens allowing them to stay up being active.
Our cortisol levels follow this trajectory of light, rising as the sun rises and stays bright through the early afternoon. Cortisol is our “awake and alert” hormone. As the day wears on and the light starts to dim, cortisol levels start to slowly fall. As the light becomes redder and it becomes dark, cortisol levels drop and melatonin, our sleep hormone, levels begin to rise. This combination of low cortisol and high melatonin allows us to get our best sleep.
What disrupts our circadian rhythms?
We live in a much different world than our ancient ancestors, but we’re still hardwired in the same way. This conflict between how we live now and how our bodies are programmed is the major reason why so many people have sleep issues today.
These factors all contribute to dysregulated circadian rhythms and poor sleep:
- Not getting enough daylight. We spend much of our day indoors in artificial light.
- Napping too much or too long. Napping more than 90 minutes during the day can disrupt nighttime sleep.
- Not eating regularly. Skipping meals can put you on a blood-sugar rollercoaster. This raises cortisol, which affects sleep.
- Not getting enough movement and exercise. Movement helps us release calming neurotransmitters and hormones that relieve stress and promote relaxation.
- Blue light in the evenings. Blue light from screens mimic daylight and signal to our brain that it’s time to be awake.
- Alcohol or caffeine. Both alcohol and caffeine raise cortisol levels. Too much too near to bedtime can make it difficult to sleep.
- Shift work. Working the night shift is in conflict with the body’s natural tendencies to sleep at night.
- Interruptions during sleep. Children, pets, noises, lights and other interruptions disrupt the flow of the natural stages of sleep.
- Chronic or acute stress. Physical, mental and emotional stressors increase cortisol and interfere with our sleep.
How to practice good sleep hygiene
It might surprise you to learn that getting a good night’s sleep starts in the morning. Good practices in the morning and during the day set you up for your best night’s sleep. Practices that mimic our ancient ancestors’ lives tap into the way we’re hardwired and set us up for success.
Good daytime habits
- Aim for 7-9 hours of sleep per night. Honor the practice of allowing enough time to relax and sleep.
- Go to bed and wake up about the same time every day. The body loves regularity in all things, especially sleep. Staying up late or sleeping till noon on your days off make it harder to stay in a good rhythm on the other days.
- Get as much daylight as possible during the day, especially in the morning and evening light. Remember, our ancestors were outside much of the day. The bright blue light of the day signals the brain to be awake and alert. The redder light at sunset signals the brain that it’s time to wind down and sleep.
- Avoid caffeine after noon. It takes time to metabolize caffeine and many people still feel its effects many hours later.
- Avoid alcohol after dinner. Too much alcohol or drinking it after dinner can cause increases in cortisol while you’re sleeping. This causes waking in the middle of the night.
- Limit naps to less than 90 minutes or don’t nap at all.
- Get some form of exercise every day. Whether it be intense or restorative, the body was made to move every day to relieve stress, work muscles and release endorphins.
- Eat a full balanced dinner and stop eating 3-4 hours before bedtime. Eating dinners with plenty of protein and healthy fats ensures that your blood sugar doesn’t drop during the night, waking you up. You can also include foods that promote good sleep.
Winding down at night
Good sleep hygiene continues into the evening and night. Your actions after dinner directly affect your quality of sleep.
- If you get up to go to the bathroom most nights, stop drinking liquids by 8 pm to minimize nighttime trips to the bathroom.
- Ideally, turn off screens 2 hours before bedtime and dim the lights. Screens emit enough blue light to signal to our brain that it’s daytime.
- When it’s not possible to turn off screens, wear blue-light blocking glasses in the evenings.
- Avoid anything mentally stimulating at bedtime.
- Have a relaxing bedtime routine. For the last hour before bedtime, engage in activities that are slow-paced such as having a cup of relaxing tea, a warm bath, intimacy, reading, listening to music, journaling, stretching or meditating. Doing this every day solidifies the habit and signals the body that sleep is coming.
- Keep the temperature cool. Sleeping in a hot room keeps body temperature higher so that it’s harder to stay in a deep sleep.
- Sleep in complete darkness. The presence of light both through the eyes and the skin breaks down melatonin. Cover any lights from the clock or electronic devices.
- Some people prefer to sleep with white noise, while others prefer complete silence. Either way, it’s a good idea to remove anything that can make noises that disturb sleep, such as the phone.
Getting restorative sleep is one of the pillars of good health, just as important as eating well, exercising and managing stress. Follow these sleep hygiene guidelines to ensure that you’re set up for your best night’s sleep every night.
At Radiance Functional Medicine, we believe that food is medicine. We hope that you will allow us to help you heal your gut, balance your hormones, or find a way of eating that helps you thrive! Schedule an appointment to get started. Whether you are looking for a Nutritionist or Functional Medicine Doctor in Denver or your local area, we see patients in person and virtually. Call our office at 303.333.1668 to schedule your Initial Consultation.