If you haven’t had a look at “Part 1”of my Blog series on sleep, go and have a read.
In this second installment of my tips on how to achieve better sleep, we add to the evidence base from my first post. Have you tried any of the strategies yet? Are they helping? Leave a comment, I’d love to hear about your experiences and enjoy these tips.
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Humans have evolved over thousands of years to survive within a predictable pattern of existence governed by light and darkness. This cycle has always controlled our sleep cycle (circadian timing system) and it’s no surprise that this sleep cycle is heavily impacted by the amount of sunlight we get.
As counter intuitive as it may sound, getting MORE natural sunlight during the day will actually help you sleep better!
Our body clock (circadian timing system) is no different to any other clock. It tells our body the time and regulates when certain things need to happen and releases chemicals and hormones to control processes like digestion, immune function, blood pressure, mental function.
All of these controlling functions are regulated within the Hypothalamus which is considered the master gland or control centre of our body. This gland controls hormone release, hunger, thirst, fatigue, body temperature, and the sleep cycle.
What does this gland and sun light have to do with better sleep?
Well, light is the signalling stimulus for this gland to “get active” and sun light is the most effective and specifically tuned light source to elicit the most reaction. This reaction is designed to kick off production of optimal levels of day time hormones and neurotransmitters that regulate our biological clock.
Too little light during the day and/or too much artificial light at night will negatively impact your sleep.
The main cause for this disruption is the compound “Serotonin” which is a powerful neurotransmitter. This chemical is commonly known for being the happiness chemical and is a foundation in many anti-depressant drugs because of this impact on mood and cognition.
95% of Serotonin is located in our gastrointestinal tract with production heavily impacted by our diet and activity levels but also by natural sunlight!
Simply explained, sunlight activates nerves in our eyes to trigger the hypothalamus to signal production of more Serotonin. This is the natural sync we have with nature when we lived out in the wild and were part of the food chain.
Research has shown light deprivation has significant impacts on our health and on sleep. A simple difference in exposure between office workers who sat near a window compared to those with no window showed a difference of 173% exposure to natural light in a day and sleep around an hour less at night on average!
Sunlight deficiency has shown to lead to lower energy levels, low motivation, less activity and depressive thought tendencies.
Serotonin is the daytime hype chemical and it works in shift with Melatonin which is the counter chemical which the Pineal gland and some other body tissues release at night to help calm the body in readiness for sleep. This chemical as explained in Part 1 under the section the “DARK SIDE” and is impacted by light exposure and is the counter balance to many daytime hormones.
These two chemicals are essentially our up-and-go and switch off chemicals for day time activity and sleep. However, there is one more important chemical which has an impact on our Circadian cycle and that is the stress hormone Cortisol. This chemical has a number of impacts on the body which are negative such as excess fat storage and is a marker of high stress, but it in itself is not a bad chemical. In fact, we need it to keep are circadian timing system working properly. See, Cortisol is used like a caffeine hit for the body in the morning to get us up and active by increasing when the “sun rises” and as it gets dark, Cortisol levels naturally drop to signal that it is time for rest, recovery and sleep.
In conjunction with light changes between day and night we have the chemicals Cortisol and Melatonin which are your counteractive couple which should be like a pair of shift workers, when one is high the other is low regulating day and night time body activity, and then Serotonin which is the stimulant for day time activity. These three are working optimally to sync with sunlight and night time to regulate our body function.
You can now probably get an idea of how our modern, artificially manipulated world is having significant impact on our sleep and health!
Here’s some tips to help get back in top of your body sync!
Don’t fear sunlight. It has many positive health and sleep impacts and you don’t need all day exposure. Be smart and make it part of your daily routine!
Well I’m up early most mornings . . . 4.30am is almost my standard daily wake up. Most people think I’m crazy, but the funny thing is, firstly it helps me be productive and get more done in my day, secondly and most importantly for this topic, getting up early will help you sleep better!
“Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.”
I have spoken about the human patterns of sleep, waking and the circadian sleep system and yes, this tip is again focusing on our biological clock.
Humans are not nocturnal creatures by nature. Our eyesight sucks at night vision, no matter how many carrots you eat. Our sense of smell and hearing are not what we call powerful when comparing to nocturnal creatures who hunt at night. We are biologically designed to dominate the day and hide in caves at night and sleep!
So when it’s dark we hide and sleep and should be waking just on sun rise so those day time hunters don’t get us either! Millions of years of biological programming doesn’t go away after 300 years of pubs, night clubs and TV watching! Our DNA still wants us up early!
Basically, and research supports this notion, people who rise early, just before sunrise are demonstrated to be more productive, alert, creative and guess what, report to sleep better than those who consistently sleep in!
So how do we become a morning person?
Other benefits of getting into an early to rise sleep pattern is that it helps to stimulate your endocrine system and in a short time will adapt to kicking on at that time each day. This is then coupled with aiming to get to sleep within about 30 minutes of the same time each night to help set the sleep component of the cycle in place and your body clock will set these markers and start to operate very effectively and efficiently at getting you to sleep, allowing you to sleep longer, deeper and take less time to wake up!
The secret here is to create better quality sleep in the time you have, not longer hours of poor quality sleep!
As I sit here writing this at 4.30am after having a very rough night sleep thanks to my 6 year old visiting at 1am because she was scared of the sounds the wind was making, I sip on my black coffee with coconut oil like it’s some magic life infusion that slowly brings my body and mind calmly into the new day.
I am sure many of us understand the coffee/ tea / energy drink rituals we create to kick start us when we feel flat or tired, but is this an addiction or just a social expectation we are playing out? What is caffeine really doing for us?
Caffeine is a powerful nervous system stimulant, and this is why so many of us reach for it in some form in the morning or when we are tired! But when it comes to sleep, caffeine can be the devil!
Caffeine itself is not bad, our use of it and how we consume it is what creates the detrimental effects on our health and our sleep.
Our chase for the new buzz drinks and foods to stimulate and trigger addictive behaviours continues to drive and feed our desire for caffeine and when coupled with sugar many of us are fighting an uphill battle against addiction foods!
So aside from the health issues, what does this mean for our sleep?
We are all slightly different in our tolerances to caffeine and how long we feel the effect. Many have spent long nights cramming for exams, finishing late assignments or working fuelled on caffeine drinks to keep them going!
So it shouldn’t be any surprise that coffee effects our sleep quality. Studies have shown that coffee taken anywhere up to 6 hours before bed has a significant measurable impact on sleep quality! This also goes for tea, chocolate and any other caffeine laced drink!
Most people won’t register this effect as the research has shown people impacted by caffeine in the studies reported they slept well and got their 6 to 8 hours sleep. But the studies have shown the time they spend in sleep, had poorer quality, with much less time in deep REM sleep and on average, an hour less time in restful sleep.
This adds up to a very tired, fatigued and confused person who thinks they are sleeping well but aren’t feeling the benefits.
Did you know that caffeine is like uranium!
Caffeine has a half-life. This means there is a latent time where it will remain in your system and have a delay for its effects to completely wear off. Caffeine has a half-life of between 5 to 8 hours depending on your body’s biochemical make up. After this time there is still half the initial amount of caffeine in your system. After another 5 to 8 hours it halves again and so on. So if you keep toping up on coffee through the day you can be fuelling a really bad night’s sleep!
Caffeine effects more than just our nervous system, it also effects our adrenal glands and promotes the release of stress hormones (yes those ones which help wake you up naturally in the morning sun). The problem with a caffeine induced adrenal spike is that you don’t return to a baseline state when it wares off, you drop below that level, hence the experience of the late afternoon or even late morning crash and brain fog!
How do we better manage our caffeine addiction so we aren’t destroying our quality of life and sleep?
Now go and enjoy your morning coffee / tea / caffeine hit guilt free!
One of the biggest ways to improve your sleep quality is to include regular exercise in your day. Exercise has already been shown to be amazing for its ability to release hormones and protect your DNA from oxidation, it has been referred to as the secret fountain of youth and we should all be aware of the health benefits!
For those that don’t understand the physiological process of exercise, I’ll give you the simple version and how it relates to sleeping better. Exercise itself is not the magic which transforms our bodies into sleek, powerful machines, it’s actually destroying and breaking down our body, causing muscle damage through thousands and thousands of micro tears. Sounds horrific but it’s true, and when you leave the gym you are in fact in a worse state than when you walked in. However, it’s through this process our body is then able to do remarkable things.
At the end of a solid workout your blood work and hormone state is in a terrible way. Your stress hormones are elevated, inflammatory markers are up and blood sugar levels are abnormal. If you hadn’t just done a workout there would be serious concern for your state of health!
It is from this state of destruction and damage that our body has the perfect potential state to do amazing things. When we finally allow our body to rest, usually when we go to sleep, our body’s repair mechanisms kick in and it is this process which delivers all the benefits outside of the endorphin spike you get from your workout.
Exercise is a huge health benefit and is essential for a healthy life. But this state is a double-edged sword. You can see the stress a good workout puts the body under, now imagine you add the additional stress factors of life, work, poor diet and lifestyle choice and you end up creating a massive stress overload.
To ensure we get the maximum benefit and not compounded stress from exercise we need to understand the timing of exercise and recovery (sleep and rest days) so that we can both optimise the benefits of our exercise, and also enhance the quality of our sleep and how it relates to stress over all.
As you can see, exercise is a state of stress for the body. If you have been following my sleep blogs you will remember that stress and high stress hormone levels are not going to give you an optimal sleep. You may also remember that our body uses stress hormones as a way to wake us up and make us more alert. Also the fact that exercise raises our core body temperature, which is the opposite of what we need to do for quality sleep, you should start to see a picture of how exercise relates to sleep.
When we think about timing exercise to optimise our health would you think it is best to smash a workout in the morning or evening? Yep, you guessed it!
Exercise is best done after you wake up and the research supports this. A study done looking at sleep for three different exercise groups who exercised at 7am, 1pm and 7pm shows that the 7am sleep group spent up to 75% more time in restorative deep sleep than those other two groups!
Another factor in creating optimal sleep quality, note it is always quality over quantity, is to ensure your exercise routine includes lifting some weight! I mean some real steel, heavy lifting! Firstly, no you won’t get bulky ladies and secondly, lifting weights will trigger your body to release more anabolic hormones that not only help you sleep better, but feel and look better!
Sleep also has athletic performance benefits which makes sleep the best legal sports performance enhancing drug available! Sleep has been shown to improve physical performance, focus and attention, reduce fatigue and improve mood and overall wellbeing.
So even if you aren’t an elite athlete YOU can benefit from these things as well! Here’s how you can get started:
Hopefully I’ve been able to give you some practical information on how to improve your sleep over this two-part series.
There are many other things that can help like;
There are lots of strategies and actionable things you can try to get your sleep better. I hope the information I’ve provided has helped and you see how important and complex sleep and our health can be. We can all do better and we all deserve better sleep!
Have a great end of 2017 and enjoy the festivities!
Author: Vaughan Carder