Understanding your sleep patterns and getting enough sleep is crucial for our bodies to be able to replenish, rejuvenate and regenerate. It is when we are at sleep that our bodies and organs have the best opportunity to do this.
Your brain also, goes through and sweeps away information that is not being used, each night.
Each night we experience sleep cycles which consist of rapid eye movement (REM) and non-REM (dreaming) sleep. The first cycle is usually between 70 and 100 minutes and the average length of the second and later cycles is about 90 to 120 minutes. The reason for this cyclical pattern, is not known but in order to feel rested and re-energised upon waking, we need to experience, on average, between 4-6 of these cycles a night.
When we don’t get enough sleep, or the quality of sleep we get is substandard (broken, the consequences show up in a variety of ways……
- shorter concentration span
- difficulty focusing
- greater effort needed to apply critical thinking
- decision-making can become more challenging
- increased irritability
- lower motivation
- general perspective and attitude can become more negative
- normal routines feel more difficult
- lesser productivity and efficiency
- unwanted changes in appetite
- changes in eating behaviour
- blemishes on skin and pigmentation
- duller complexion
- slower motor skills
- increased proneness to accidents or injury
- increased caffeine intake
- increased cravings for fast food which provides short, quick bursts of energy yet nutritionally lacking
- mood swings
- quick temper
- low, flat mood
- can become more argumentative
- wanting to socially withdraw and be isolated
The above symptoms and signs are unfortunately all too familiar for most of us.
There are many things that can disrupt our ability to sleep. We want to fall asleep, stay asleep, enjoy full sleep cycles but any number of things can upset this. Let’s look at a few things and how we can combat them to overcome their negative influence on our ability to sleep.
Change the Light…use nature as your cue
Historically, we experienced working in natural light and the natural rhythms of when the sun rose and set.
When it starts getting dark outside, the hypothalamus in our brains, signals to the pineal gland to start producing melatonin and drop the body’s temperature to prepare for sleep.
Melatonin (derived from serotonin) is an amino acid/hormone considered to be the body’s natural pace-maker. Your mood, and how you think and feel every day depends on the pineal gland which produces this hormone and your quality and duration of sleep is affected by how well it produces this. Too little and your sleep quality and duration will be deprived, too much and you can awake feeling lethargic and groggy.
Now with artificial light through light bulbs, high-definition televisions, ipads, laptops and any number of lighted electronic gadgets, we’re exposed to a lot more light over a 24-hour period, and a lot less darkness. This creates unnatural situations for our internal time keeping and biological pace-setting mechanisms of the body – circadian rhythms.
Blue light specifically operates at a wavelength which instigates the complete opposite to what we want. It is emitted by our TVs, ipads, laptops, mobile phones and other similar devices.
Research has found that exposure to blue light suppresses the production of melatonin more than any other type of light. It is believed that the shorter wavelengths in blue light is what causes the body to produce less melatonin because the body is more sensitive to this type of light.
Light kickstarts the pineal gland to say to the body: “It’s time to wake up.” In the morning, when light is sensed, the body is told to warm up and to produce hormones like cortisol and serotonin that wake the body up. Light can be sensed anywhere on the body, which starts the signalling to the brain to wake-up the body.
- Avoid any exposure to blue light 30 to 60 minutes prior to bed. That means, no TV, tablets, computers or smart phones
- Dim the lights and use natural light where possible in the evening
- Look to engage in reading (excluding kindles and tablet readers) relaxing material which lets the mind flow, without needing to work too much, crosswords, puzzles etc. are all good, whilst individuals who suffer from anxiety find mindful colouring-in books helpful.
- For sleep, lie in completely blackness, use eye-masks and block-out blinds
- Refrain from having a television in your room. The bedroom is for sleeping, not entertaining (well, certainly not that kind of entertainment, anyway!)
- Physically move slower at night; don’t rush around, slow down your walking pace, move softly
- Consider taking melatonin supplements – consult your GP or health practitioner about this
Alcohol makes you more likely to wake during the night, leaving you feeling less rested in the morning.
Since alcohol is a potent muscle relaxant, it can also increase risk of snoring and snorers usually experience a restless sleep. Studies show that alcohol increases slow-wave “deep” sleep during the first half of the night, but then increases sleep disruptions in the second half of the night.
What are your Drinking and Eating Habits?
What we eat has a vast impact on not only our physical well-being, but our mental well-being. The ‘sugar rush’ or ‘post-lunch dip’ after having eaten a carbohydrate lunch (e.g. a sandwich or pasta) are classic examples of how what we eat can affect our energy levels and our mood.
For those thinking they’ll just have a glass of their favourite wine, or gin and tonic, scotch to make them drowsy before bed, think again!
Tryptophan is an amino acid which is consumed through the food we eat, but converts to serotonin upon reaching the brain. When we have enough serotonin, we experience better energy levels, better mood and better mental and cognitive balance. At night time, serotonin undergoes a metabolic conversion to produce melatonin, which induces sleep.
So what we eat and when we eat it, can also help to improve our ability to fall asleep and stay asleep.
However, simply eating foods high in tryptophan will not result in increased serotonin; it needs to combine with other amino acids to be absorbed into the brain to be able to be converted into serotonin.
Coupling carbohydrates with certain foods high in tryptophan, is also important.
Insulin is released with the consumption of carbohydrates, which increases the absorption of other amino acids into the heart, muscles and organs meaning there is a higher ratio of tryptophan to be carried and absorbed across the brain barrier.
- Foods such as pumpkin seeds, turkey, steak, chicken, nuts, sunflower seeds, eggs, pineapples, tofu, milk, salmon, bananas are all high in tryptophan (be mindful of food allergies and intolerances and consult your doctor and/or nutritionist for a fuller range of foods that also consider your dietary and weight management needs and goals)
- Avoid processed sugar and synthetically sweetened drinks and food (yes, that includes donuts…sigh)
- Avoid eating at least 2 hours prior to bedtime otherwise your gut and intestines are busily working to digest your food as opposed to being able to shut down and rest for the night
- Avoid alcohol and any stimulants containing caffeine at least a couple of hours before you are looking to fall asleep
- Avoid cigarettes before looking to get to sleep
- Consider that food preparation also greatly affects the nutritional value and nutritional benefit you’re looking to achieve. Check out food preparation classes in your area or jump online to research to find out more.
Exercise and Movement
There exists a plethora of research looking at the benefits of exercise upon improving sleep taking into consider a multitude of variables. Dr Matthew Buman and Dr Abby King conducted a research review of over 60 research studies with special emphasis on randomised controlled trials and experimental studies that help to inform for whom (eg, age, fitness characteristics), under what conditions (eg, light exposure, time of day), and by what means (eg, type, intensity, duration) exercise optimally affects sleep. (2010).
Their review concluded that moderate amounts of exercise, which can be obtained through a variety of means such as brisk walking and resistance training, are sufficient to improve sleep quality.
The Sleep Health Foundation recommends that whilst undertaking vigorous exercise in the evening is fine, exercising too late can be problematic. So strengthen your wind down routine with relaxation and meditation techniques.
The American Sleep Foundation also ran a poll in 2013 finding that over 75% of poll-takers reported having a good night sleep over a two week period, compared with 56% of non-exercisers reporting the same experience. In addition, they found vigorous exercisers (79%) reported they did not experience symptoms associated with insomnia, waking up too early or finding it difficult to fall back asleep if they awoke in the middle of the night. In addition, 69% of vigorous exercisers reported not having any difficulty falling asleep.
Exercise is a key influencer upon your ability to fall asleep, stay asleep and enjoy a good quality sleep.
Whilst on a weekend health retreat, my hosts advised that in amongst unplugging from technology, reading only physical books (this did not include Kindles!), spending time outdoors in nature talking with the cows, sweating out toxins in the wood-fired sauna then relaxing muscles in the magnesium pool….to move….s….l…o…w…..l….y.
Brush your teeth mindfully and slowly,
Eat your food mindfully and slowly,
Where ever you were walking to, walk slowly.
Do everything you would normally do….more slowly.
By managing your speed of movement helped tell your brain, to slow down, wind down and be calmer.
The impact was profound. You had no option but to feel more calm and sleeping was wonderfully nourishing.
- Look to engage in moderate exercise for between 150-180 minutes at least, per week. If you have any physical ailments or concerns about movement, always check with your doctor and or physiotherapist to determine the best type of movement for you
- Deliberately slow down your movement when it comes close bed time
- Engage in a relaxation routine, do deep breathing exercises (see Three Ways to Reduce Anxiety Fast!) or do a meditation session
- Listen to calming music, that is mood neutral and without words or dialogue