Quality sleep of seven to nine hours might seem like an elusive luxury to most, but getting good sleep could be more important in contributing to overall health than exercise and diet combined. Estimates of over 80 percent of Americans not getting enough sleep, and 60 million Americans suffering from sleep disorders, makes improving sleep a top health priority.
Chronic, or even mild, sleep deprivation increases cardiovascular and diabetes risk, impairs cognitive function, depresses the immune system, makes weight loss much harder and increases one’s risk of obesity, depression and anxiety, to name just a few. On the other end of the spectrum, sleeping well increases life expectancy, reduces inflammation, improves memory and attention, helps with weight loss and maintenance, stabilizes blood sugars and is anti-aging.
Concerted focus on aspects that improve sleep quality and efforts to ensure regularly achieving seven to nine hours may be the most important thing one can do for achieving and maintaining good health.
Signs You Sleep Well
If sleeping well, you should fall asleep relatively quickly, within 15 to 20 minutes, and your sleep should be relatively continuous throughout the night. While you may have no trouble falling asleep, the real question is how rested do you feel when you wake up? Do you need the caffeine to get started, or are you groggy or slow to get moving? A restful night should leave you feeling refreshed in the morning and alert throughout the day.
Sleep isn’t just recovery time for the body, it is the only time that the brain is able to clear waste proteins accumulated throughout the day. It is why you feel sluggish, foggy and have a slower reaction time after a poor night’s sleep, as the brain’s connections are clogged from waste it was not able to clear.
Getting good sleep may not start in the brain, but rather in the gut. The microbial makeup and health of the gut, known as the microbiome, is incredibly pivotal to brain health and sleep. The microbiome actually sends a hundred times as many messages to the brain as the brain sends to the entire body, and is why the digestive tract is now being called the second brain. Healthy gut bacteria are responsible for producing over 90 percent of serotonin in the body, along with other critical neurotransmitters like dopamine and GABA. Serotonin is the precursor to the critical sleep hormone, melatonin. Amazingly, the gut contains 400 times more melatonin than the pineal gland that produces melatonin in the brain.
Factors like antibiotics, sugar, medications, processed foods, food intolerances, environmental toxins and continual stress all adversely affect the microbiome, making it a hostile environment for good bacteria. These stresses on the gut put the inner ecosystem out of balance and can downregulate the production of serotonin. This not only lowers your “feel good” hormones throughout the day, it in turn lowers melatonin production, resulting in poor sleep at night.
Optimizing the health of your gut may be one of the most impactful things you can do for sleep and overall health. Avoiding sugar and processed foods, reducing carbohydrates and consuming a wide variety of vegetables is a good place to start. Additional support for the microbiome can come through fermented foods, quality grass-fed proteins, bone broths and healthy fats like coconut and olive oil. There are over 1,000 species of bacteria contributing to every function in your body. With more bacteria cells in the gut than human cells in the entire body, the expression “it’s all in your head” needs to change to “it’s all in your gut.” Better sleep may be from a healthier gut.
Our sleep-wake cycles, or circadian rhythm, are not only influenced by our gut, but also by physical activity and light. When light touches our skin and/or goes through our eyes, the signal to wake is initiated. This used to be a natural process with the sun rise and set. Artificial light, computer and phone screens have greatly altered this cycle, disrupting the natural rhythm. It is important to understand this aspect and use light to one’s advantage. Try getting sunshine and light as much as possible during the day and greatly reduce light exposure in the evening. Blue light from your television, phone and computer screens is especially disruptive. Glasses that filter blue light could be an invaluable tool if using screens in the evening.
Silent Sleep Disruptor
EMF (electromagnetic field) radiation pollution is a hidden and powerful sleep disruptor. Laptops, tablets and cell phones are some of the biggest culprits, but any wireless device, along with all electrical devices (television, alarm clocks), contribute to EMF pollution and sleep disruption. Minimize exposure by turning cell phones off, removing wireless devices from the bedroom and turning Wi-Fi off during sleeping hours.
Your Body’s Critical Cue
Dr. Jarrod Spencer, sports psychologist in Bethlehem and founder of Mind of the Athlete, shares an important physiological cue from our bodies. “In the evening, we will invariably have a large yawn towards the end of the night,” he says. “That yawn is the signal that the brain is releasing melatonin.” Dr. Spencer states that at this point you are done for the evening. The brain is signaling the entire body to shut down and prepare for sleep. This is when you should begin your evening wind-down routine.
Dr. Spencer encourages patients to pay attention to when this happens, as it is the direct signal from the body. The brain has released melatonin and is preparing itself for sleep. To disregard this and continue feeding the brain stimulation, via television, computer screens or other brain-stimulating activities, will alter the natural sleep-cycle process and can result in poor sleep quality, trouble getting to sleep, restlessness and impaired recovery.
Quality sleep doesn’t have to be elusive and should never be an expendable commodity. Paying attention to your body through the foods you eat, the light you utilize and the nightly signals it gives can set you up for a more restful sleep and a healthier life.
10 Keys to Improve Sleep
- Practice diaphragmatic breathing through the nose with a longer exhale to help switch the body out of fight-or-flight to rest-and-repair.
- Maintain a consistent sleep/wake schedule.
- Create simple wind-down rituals before bedtime (a cup of herbal tea, a bath or reading a book—not Nook!).
- Utilize light during the day and minimize exposure to light and screens in the evening.
- Get moving and exercise daily.
- Hydrate throughout the day; don’t wait until bedtime to catch up.
- Avoid caffeine after lunch.
- Avoid alcohol as it creates fluxes in blood sugar throughout the night, building stress and not allowing for deep recovery sleep.
- Create an inviting environment for sleep in your bedroom: Keep your bedroom dark (any light touching skin is a signal to wake), and keep all electronics away from the bed—preferably outside of the bedroom, minimizing electromagnetic frequencies that disrupt sleep.
- Turn off your Wi-Fi at night to reduce EMF disturbances.