As the holidays are approaching, our bodies need sleep to stay healthy and sane. After getting up in the middle of the night with my 4 year old the other night, I lay in bed trying to go back to sleep for a few hours. Most of my thoughts were on why I need to get my sleep and what I usually tell my patients who are having trouble in this area. It wasn’t until the last few hundred years that scientists understood the health repercussions of lack of good quality sleep. In fact we now know that sleep is just as important to our body as food and water. Let’s look at some of the science behind this unfortunate situation.
According to Harvard Medical School, studies show that sleeping less than five hours a night increases the risk of death from all causes by about 15 percent. Sleep deprivation is dangerous to your mental and physical health and can dramatically lower your quality of life.
Need another reason to prioritize regular shuteye? Sleep deprivation could be messing with your genes, according to a 2013 study from U.K. researchers. Blood samples taken after just one week of getting fewer than six hours of sleep a night showed changes to more than 700 genes due to sleep deprivation alone, according to the study. Researchers don’t entirely understand the role of each of these genes and what the changes may mean, but at least some affect our inflammatory, immune and stress responses, researchers noted.
Getting too little sleep disturbs appetite regulation. Research at the Warick School of Medicine who studied 28,000 adults and 15,000 children found that getting less sleep doubled the risk of obesity. When you are sleep-deprived your body produces more ghrelin, a hormone that increases appetite, and less leptin, a hormone that tells you to stop eating. They also noted that your body loses the ability to make as much dopamine and serotonin. These are the brain chemicals that produce feelings of comfort and satisfaction. So to compensate you start to crave sugar and high carb foods, or that extra candy bar you have hidden in your cupboard for those special occasions.
Your immune system takes a hit also. A 2009 study found that people who sleep fewer than seven hours each night have almost three times the risk of catching a cold than people who slept for at least eight hours, while another study showed that it can increase your risk of a viral infection by 50 percent.
Another sad reality is that lack of sleep is worse for women than it is for men. Researches at Duke University studied 210 healthy men and women and compared the changes in each group. Women showed higher psychological stress, depression, anger, higher blood levels of C-Reactive Protein (a marker for inflammation) and insulin than the men in the group did. Evidence is also building for the link between higher blood pressure at night that will then last throughout the day and raises the risk for heart attack and stroke.
So how much sleep is enough and how do get better quality sleep? What they have found is that women require six to seven hours and men need seven to eight hours each night. During this time going through the many stages of sleep several times. On average one will go through all the sleep stages every 90 minutes. You need to get to stage four sleep for your body to produce Growth Hormone for repair and development.
The first step to getting the best quality sleep for yourself is to figure out your chronotype, or which underlying circadian rhythm you prefer. Are you an early bird or a night owl? Do you like to get up early or work into the night to get your projects and personal things done? It can determine how your melatonin and body core temperature cycles affect your quality of sleep. While each group still needs the same hours of sleep, it will help you decide if you should go to bed early and start early or finish later in the day and get some sleeping in time.
Regardless of which type you may be, here are some ideas to help you get a better nights rest.
• Set a bedtime routine. There is a lot to be said about getting your body in a pattern that it can rely on. Having a set bedtime and wake time, even on the weekends, helps your body know when it is time to sleep and time to be awake.
• Don’t do other activities in bed. Watching TV or reading books can alter your mindset and reduce the quickness you can fall asleep.
• Avoid naps during the day. This can disrupt your cycle and interfere with your ability to fall asleep that night. Instead try to get things done early so you may retire at an earlier time. For me, if a nap is needed, no more than 15 minutes of a “power nap” and not later than 2pm.
• Decrease night stimulation. The pineal gland is our light monitor. It sits in the middle of the brain and responds to light and helps regulate our melatonin production. If we are watching TV or on our computer or phone that is emitting a bright light or a back light it will be harder to fall asleep. After 8pm stick with low light activities and you will be able to fall asleep faster.
• Avoid exercise within two hours of bedtime. Exercising in the morning is usually best if it works with your schedule. It helps wake you up for the day and gets your metabolism going. Same is true at night, it may be too stimulating for your body to be able to relax and sleep at night.
• A warm bath or shower. The water will heat you up and as you cool down it helps you get sleepy. Make sure to you don’t stay too hot by using too warm of pajamas.
Many of these ideas are not new. However one question I ask my patients when they mention problems with sleeping is “do you have trouble falling asleep, or you do you wake in the night and can’t go back to sleep?” I recommend different strategies for each situation.
For help falling asleep, minerals are useful. I will often use magnesium at bed time to help my body unwind at the end of the day. It has nerve relaxing as well as muscle relaxing properties.
If waking up in the middle of the night or wee hours of the morning, I look at what the evening routine meal was. If you are not eating enough at night of the right food groups, your body may run out of glucose in the blood. In order to bring your blood sugar back up you may produce cortisol. Cortisol in your system will also cause you to wake up. It is naturally high in the morning so you have energy to get out of bed and start your day. This is normal between 6-8 am, not 2-4 am. So if this is the case I recommend eating a small amount of quality protein and/or a complex carb to help your body maintain its blood sugar level through the night so you don’t get a spike in cortisol at the wrong hour in the morning. I have had many patients tell me they have better sleep at night once they started implementing this into their daily routine.
So how did I get back to sleep the other night you may be wondering? I did both of these. I took some magnesium and had some apple slices and almond butter for a snack. Soon is was resting peacefully once again.