Written by Bec Farah, Naturopath
The 1st to 7th October is Sleep Awareness Week and here at The Health Lodge we are excited to share with you the benefits and tips on how to get well-rested nights sleep. There’s nothing better than waking up refreshed and ready to take on the day!
The Sleep Health Journal states that on average, Australian adults sleep approximately seven hours per night, with one in ten sleeping less than five hours and eight per-cent sleeping more than nine hours; a minimum of eight hours is recommended. These statistics are having drastic effects to our every-day functioning and overall health. In practice, at least 50% of patients have poor sleep quality, resulting in them waking up unrefreshed.
Despite growing support that adequate sleep - just like adequate nutrition and physical activity is vital to our well-being, people are sleeping less. The nonstop ‘24/7’ nature of the world today encourages longer work hours and offers continual access to entertainment and other activities. To keep up, people cut back on sleep.
There are several different causes of poor sleep including stress, depression, anxiety, medical conditions, certain medications and pregnancy. Regardless of its causes, poor sleep can lead to a number of physical and emotional issues, such as fatigue and exhaustion, irritability, mood swings, poor focus, memory and productivity, and long-term diseases including obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer. Poor sleep has also been linked to negative eating attitudes and binge eating behaviours. Interestingly, several of these causes of insomnia are in turn driven by insomnia – a ‘which came first: chicken or egg’ scenario.
Now for the good news! Complementary medicine with a focus on lifestyle support, nutrition, and the use of herbal and nutritional supplementation is a safe, simple and effective way to help people improve their quality of sleep and in turn overall health.
What happens while we sleep?
Learning, Memory, and Mood
We’re often advised to ‘sleep on it’ whilst making a decision, grasping new information or learning new skills, and this advice seems to be well founded. While we sleep, our brain is hard at work forming the pathways necessary for everyday function as well as learning, creating memories and making decisions. This also depends of the amount of sleep; studies indicate sleeping eight hours is more beneficial than only six to seven hours.
When you were young, your mother may have told you in order to grow strong and tall, you’d need enough sleeping hours. Turns out, she’s been right all these years. Deep sleep triggers the release of more growth hormones, which contributes to growth in children and boosts muscle mass and the repair of our cells and tissues.
Let’s be honest, we tend to finally stop and rest the most when we’re sick in bed. Your mother was also probably right if she told you getting a good night’s sleep on a regular basis would help keep you from getting sick and help you get better if you do get sick. During sleep, our body creates more hormones that help the immune system fight various infections.
Sleep gives your heart and circulatory system a much-needed rest. A lack of sleep places our body under stress and has been found to reduce HDL levels (healthy cholesterol) and may trigger the release of more stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol during the day. These hormones keep your blood pressure from dipping during sleep, which increases your risk for heart disease.
Is it possible to lose weight while we sleep? Sleep is a powerful regulator of appetite, blood sugar levels, energy use, and weight control. During sleep, the body releases a number of hormones including leptin, which suppresses appetite and ghrelin, a stimulant that decreases appetite. A recent study found that, when healthy young men slept four hours a night for six nights in a row, their insulin and blood sugar levels matched those seen in individual’s who were developing diabetes.
Tips on how to get good nights sleep
We live in a modern, fast-paced world where many factors contribute to poor sleep, hence it is essential to change certain patterns in our routines. Here are some suggestions for better quality nights sleep which in turn improves overall health.
1. Have a good sleeping environment
Do you like your bedroom? If your bedroom is cluttered and dirty, you’re less likely to enjoy being in it. Creating a sleep environment that you love is the first step in optimising sleep onset. Remove anything in your bedroom that might distract you from sleep, such as noises, bright lights, an uncomfortable bed, or warm temperatures. You will sleep better if the temperature in the room is kept on the cool side. Having a comfortable mattress and pillow can help promote a good night’s sleep. If you suffer from insomnia, turn the clock face out of view so you don’t worry about the time while trying to fall asleep. Even a night light or a clock radio is enough stimulation to shut down our melatonin production at night.
2. Stick to a sleep schedule
Go to bed and wake up at the same time each day. As creatures of habit, humans find it difficult adjusting to changes in sleep patterns. Sleeping later on weekends will not make up for a lack of sleep during the week and will make it harder to wake up early on Monday morning.
3. Exercise in the morning
Many studies have shown that physical exertion such as jogging, tennis or swimming can significantly improve sleep quality. Exercising at night can amp you up too much, but exercising in the morning can help give you energy throughout the day. Aim to exercise at least 30 minutes on most days but not later than 2–3 hours before your bedtime.
4. Avoid stimulants
Coffee, caffeine-containing teas, and chocolate contain the stimulant caffeine, and its effects takes around 6-9 hours to completely wear off. Caffeine is thought to block adenosine production (a substance in the brain that triggers sleep). In this way, caffeine fools the body into thinking it isn’t tired. Therefore, a cup of coffee in the late afternoon can make it hard for you to fall asleep at night.
While drinking a glass of red to relax and wind down from the day sounds like a good idea before bed, heavy alcohol use robs you of deep sleep, keeping you in the lighter stages of sleep. Drinking alcohol can also cause you to wake up in the middle of the night when the effects of the alcohol have worn off.
Nicotine is also a stimulant, often causing smokers to sleep only very lightly. In addition, smokers often wake up too early in the morning because of nicotine withdrawal.
5. Store your phones and laptops away from your bed
Constant exposure to Electro-Magnetic Field radiation can alter our melatonin production. Store your phones and other technological devices away from your bed and turn Wi-Fi off before retiring to bed.
6. Eat your dinner at least 2 hours before you go to bed
This gives your body time to digest your meal before you go to sleep. If you’re still trying to break down your dinner when you go to bed, your body cannot focus on rest and repair and may even cause indigestion. Drinking too many fluids at night can cause frequent awakenings to urinate.
7. Take time to wind down before bed
Don’t overschedule your day so that no time is left for unwinding. Watching the news, reading the paper or even working before bed are likely to stimulate your mind too much to be able to have a restful sleep so are best to avoid at least an hour before bed. Instead, dim the lights, have a hot bath, listen to music, read a novel, drink a relaxing herbal tea, write in your journal (to eliminate those circling thoughts) and practice breathing an hour before retiring to bed.
8. Don’t lie in bed awake
If you find yourself still awake after staying in bed for more than 20 minutes or if you are starting to feel anxious or worried, get up and do a relaxing activity until you feel sleepy. The anxiety of not being able to sleep can make it harder to fall asleep.
9. Have the right sunlight exposure
Daylight is key to regulating daily sleep patterns. Going outside in natural sunlight for at least 20 minutes each day allows re-synchronization of your melatonin release at night. If possible, wake up with the sun or use very bright lights in the morning.
10. Don’t take naps after 3 p.m.
A 20-minute nap can help make up for lost sleep, but late afternoon naps can make it harder to fall asleep at night.
11. Certain medications
Some commonly prescribed heart, blood pressure, or asthma medications, as well as some over-the-counter and herbal remedies for coughs, colds, or allergies, can disrupt sleep patterns. If you have trouble sleeping, talk to your doctor and naturopath to see whether any drugs and supplements you’re taking might be contributing to your insomnia and ask whether they can be taken at other times during the day.
As poor sleep is multifactorial, it is recommended to consult with your natural health care professional to address the underlying cause and to support you on your way to restful night’s sleep. Happy sleeping!