Without adequate sleep we can’t perform at our optimum level. Yet when life and work gets busy we all sacrifice our sleep to create more hours in the day. While this may seem like the only viable option to accomplish what we need, the truth is that those additional hours aren’t used efficiently. Lack of sleep easily impacts our mental, emotional and physical wellbeing. Nourishing sleep allows us to let go of tension and recharge our body, helps keep our hormones in balance and ultimately allows us to perform at our peak the following day.
Good sleep depends on certain hormones being present at the appropriate time. The good news is that there is a great deal we can do to support this natural cycle and become more efficient at getting the benefits we need.
The physiology of sleep depends largely on cortisol (the stress hormone) following its natural diurnal rhythm. This means cortisol peaks in the morning, slowly drops throughout the day and hits its lowest point at night. This allows us to wake up feeling refreshed and fall asleep without issue at night.
Because it is the stress hormone, cortisol levels elevate in response to stress, activating our ‘fight or flight’ response. This is incredibly useful for survival. If we have to fight a tiger or run from it to stay alive, cortisol gives us the energy and resources to try and make that happen. It sends glucose to our muscles for energy, increases heart rates and respiration while slowing digestion, elimination and reproduction (these are not vital for survival in the short-term). If it’s pumping at the wrong times however, for instance at night time or is chronic, you will have difficulty falling and staying asleep.
So managing stress levels is essential if you want to get a good night sleep. Stress comes in many forms and stress can stem from both internal and external sources. External sources are often more obvious like a fight with our partner or a big deadline at work. Internal stressors cause the same reaction in the body but are often harder to recognize. These include blood sugar imbalances, eating foods to which we are allergic or sensitive, pathogenic infections, and structural imblances in the body such as an injury or spinal misaglignment. Identifying any of those issues and correcting them is key for supporting sleep.
The other major hormone at play when it comes to sleep is melatonin. Melatonin works on the opposite rhythm to cortisol, meaning it hits its highest point in the evening and should be at its lowest point in the morning. Melatonin is produced by our brain and in our gut. It is largeley responsible for regulating our sleep-wake cycle.
So why is it that many of us feel sluggish in the morning and wired and tired at night, unable to fall asleep or stay asleep? Poor dietary choices, certain lifestyle habits and unmanaged stress all contribute to a disruption of the natural timing of these hormones and ultimately lead to sleep issues. One of the biggest disrupters is overworking, late night working and sacrificing our sleep to ‘do more’. The good news is that simple changes can help get us back on track and performing at our best.
So here are my top suggestions for helping you get a good nights sleep –
- Stabilize blood sugar. Do you ever have poor sleep after a night of drinking? This has a lot to do with fluctuating blood sugar levels from alcohol. Foods can cause the same disruption or help us to balance blood sugar. Eat a healthy balanced dinner containing good quality fats and protein. Skip the sugar, processed foods and alcohol when you can help it.
- Eat carbohydrates at night. Sounds counterintuitive but it’s not. Eating carbs at night helps produce seratonin which relaxes and helps prepare you for sleep. It also helps ensure you don’t end up with low blood sugar which will cause a stress response in the body resulting in nighttime waking or difficulty falling asleep.
- Help your body produce melatonin. Avoid bright lights and stimulating activities as all of these interfere with signals to your body that it is nightime. This means turning off electronics, tv, cell phones around 8:30pm.
- Exercise early in the day if possible. Ideally find time before work or during lunch to do vigourous exercise. Excercising at night will increase your energy and make it hard to unwind.
- If you do have to exercise at night make it gentle and relaxing types of exercise. Yoga or gentle walking is perfect for the evenings if you want to promote restful sleep.
- Dim the lights in your house. This coorelates with #4. Dim lights help your body recognize it is evening and melatonin should be produced. Use this time to unwind – listen to relaxing music, take a hot bath or shower or burn some relaxing essential oils to help you chill out.
- Use anti stress nutrients. Magnesium is the ‘anti-stress’ nutrient and can be very helpful before bed on its own or in combination with calcium for helping unwind and aiding sleep. Melatonin is another good sleep aid supporting the body in regulating sleep/wake cycles.
Jessica E Williams, MSc