Very few of us are getting a good night’s sleep! I guess its not surprising with the stressful lives we are leading. Getting to sleep, staying asleep and waking up refreshed is seemingly a rare luxury these days.
Insomnia is so common, it has become normal. But lack of sleep doesn’t just make us cranky and tired, chronic poor sleep is actually linked with obesity, diabetes, depression and heart disease!
Scientists still don’t have comprehensive answers to why we need sleep, but they do know what happens when we don’t get enough sleep. Studies have shown that animals deprived entirely of sleep lose all immune function and die in a few weeks. Recent research on mice seem to shows that sleep is when the brain clears out all the junk we accumulate during waking hours. No wonder we feel better after a good night’s sleep!
And this is what lack of sleep does to our hormones.
- Increases HUNGER hormones – we have 2 important hormones that regulate our appetite; Leptin which tells the brain that we’re full, and ghrelin which tells the body to eat. Guess what happens when we don’t get enough sleep? Leptin decreases and ghrelin increases. So your body thinks you are starving, and either wakes you up to eat in the middle of the night, stores fat just in case you need it for energy, or makes you eat like crazy the next day. Here's a great article by Dr John Briffa about the effect of poor sleep on obesity.
- When leptin levels are low, your THYROID slows down your metabolism, making you tired and increasing fat storage.
- Lack of sleep can increase INSULIN resistance, the condition leading up to diabetes
- Poor sleep stresses out the body, increasing CORTISOL (which stops you sleeping, aaarrghh!).
Science is showing that sleep deprivation has a massive effect on our health, and chronic lack of sleep has a cumulative effect (you can’t get your missed sleep back!).
And it's not just about quantity of sleep. Quality matters more – uninterrupted sleep allows you to go through the REM and non-REM sleep cycles so that you get the best chance for the body to do its rest and repair job.
So how can we all get better sleep? Here are 11 ideas you can try;
1. Kill the lights – Our body clock (circadian rhythm) is designed to wake us up with light and put us to sleep with darkness. Artificial light interferes with this natural process and reduces the amount of our sleep hormone melatonin. It also increases cortisol and affects our sex hormone production. Reduced melatonin makes it really hard to get good quality sleep. So we need to make our bedrooms pitch black, get some black out blinds and turn off any electronic lights (blue light has the most effect on melatonin). Even the smallest pin prick of light can be enough to disrupt our melatonin signals. And eye masks won’t be enough, as we have light detectors in our skin all over our bodies, telling the brain the sun is still up so don’t make any melatonin! If you have to get up in the night, try not to turn the lights on as this will signal to your brain that its time to wake up. Keep a pen light by your bed to guide you.
2. Go to bed earlier – The hours before midnight are the most restorative, so 10-10.30pm is an ideal time to get to sleep. Try going to bed 15 minutes earlier each week to train your body. If that’s impossible for you, then fix your bed time and keep to it as much as possible.
3. Get comfy – Keep your room cool and your bed comfortable – too hot/cold temperature can disturb your body clock. Make sure your bed is comfortable. Wear soft fabrics.
4. Remove TV/phones/laptops – keep your room TV free, and charge your phone or laptop in a different room if you can. Or if you have to keep them in your room, keep them away from your head and shut them down at night. EMF’s (electro magnetic frequencies) can interfere with your sleep (and brain!) and those little lights can reduce your melatonin.
5. Calm your mind – going over and over things that have happened or are planned in the future can stop anyone sleeping. Best to write it all down to get it out of your head. Turn off TV, laptops, phones – watching the news, emailing or surfing the net before bed is going to excite your brain cells (and depress them!), so try to avoid at least an hour before bed. Put on a relaxation or meditation CD.
6. Avoid alcohol 4-6 hours before bed – great for getting you off to sleep initially, but as alcohol wears off it has a stimulatory effect at about 3am! It may be hard to get back to sleep afterwards. It also messes with your production of serotonin (the precursor to melatonin).
7. Limit caffeine –we all have different tolerance levels to caffeine, and as we age our tolerance decreases. It can take 3 days for caffeine to clear from the body, so try decaf for a week and see what happens with your sleep. Caffeine is also a diuretic so you may find you don’t have to get up at night if you eliminate it. Watch out for caffeine in soft drinks, energy drinks, chocolate, tea and coffee flavoured products.
8. Eat a low GL diet, especially for your evening meal– avoid quick release carbohydrates (eg white bread, potatoes, sugar, processed foods) as these cause spikes in insulin, which raise stress hormones.
9. Have a bath – Try an Epsom Salts bath before bed (1 cup poured into warm water) for about 20 mins. Rich in Magnesium Sulphate, a known muscle relaxant, your skin will absorb what you need.
10. Supplements – tryptophan is a protein that helps make melatonin, our sleep hormone. Food sources include whey protein, meat, fish, dairy, nuts and seeds. L-theanine is a calming nutrient found in tea (black and green), Magnesium helps to relax the body and increase GABA (a calming neurotransmitter). Valerian is a herb that has long been used for sleep issues. Always check any supplement programme with your doctor or health practitioner.
11. Apps – Try one of the many Apps now available to help you sleep. Here's a selection of the best; Withings Aura, Dreampad, Sleep Genius, The Alarming Clock, Jawbone Up, Sleep for Cheap, The Sleep Infuser.
So is it time you got your zzzz's?
Lars E. Laugsand, Lars J. Vatten, Carl Platou, and Imre Janszky Insomnia and the Risk of Acute Myocardial Infarction: A Population Study, Circulation. 2011;124:2073-2081
Obal and Kruegar, 2001, Hormones, Cytokines and Sleep Spiegel, K., Knutson, K., Leproult, R., Esra Tasali, E., and Van Cauter, E., (2005). Sleep loss: a novel risk factor for insulin resistance and Type 2 diabetes. Journal of Applied Physiology, 99(5), 2008-2019.
Schernhammer ES, Schulmeister K. Melatonin and cancer risk: does light at night compromise physiologic cancer protection by lowering serum melatonin levels? Br J Cancer. 2004;90(5):941-3.
Spiegel, K., Tasali, E., Penev, P., and Van Cauter, E., (2004).Brief Communication: Sleep Curtailment in Healthy Young Men Is Associated with Decreased Leptin Levels, Elevated Ghrelin Levels, and Increased Hunger and Appetite. Ann Intern Med, 141, 846-850.
Taheri S, Lin L, Austin D, et al. Short sleep duration is associated with reduced leptin, elevated ghrelin, and increased body mass index. PLoS Med. 2004;1(3):e62.
Knutson,K., Spiegel, K., Penev, P., Van Cauter, E., (2007). The Metabolic Consequences of Sleep Deprivation. Sleep Med Rev, 11(3), 163–178. Reiter, R., (1994). Melatonin suppression by static and extremely low frequency electromagnetic fields: relationship to the reported increased incidence of cancer. Rev Environ Health, 10(3-4), 171-186.
Dr John Briffa (2012) Can lack of sleep contribute to obesity? [Online]; http://www.drbriffa.com/2012/02/10/c