Brain fog, hormonal imbalances, weight gain and mood swings are all symptoms of a disrupted body clock and lack of deep sleep. It’s not entirely surprising. Sleep is your nervous system's chance to rest, when your brain detoxifies, when memories are stored and when your body recovers from any illnesses.
Yet, getting the recommended 7-8 hours of sleep a night is not always as easy as it sounds.
By studying what it is that regulates your inner sleep-wake cycle, you can implement better habits to help teach your body when it’s bedtime, enhance the quality of your sleep and support your general health.
Master body clock - Circadian Rhythm
We all have an internal body clock that controls our sleep-wake cycle. This cycle is managed and regulated through the communication of neurotransmitters and secretion of hormones that either halt or induce sleep. The hormones cortisol, adenosine and melatonin, and the timing of their release, play important roles in regulating this cycle.
Cortisol production should follow a natural 24-hour rhythm. It should be at its lowest overnight, rise slowly in the morning and peak a few hours after we wake up, which helps get us going for the day. As the day progresses and we head into the evening, cortisol begins to drop to allow our sleep hormones, adenosine and melatonin, to rise, triggering mechanisms that help bring about sleep.
If we follow our body’s natural cues of when to go to sleep and wake up, we should maintain a balanced circadian rhythm. Any changes or disruption to this body clock can deprive us of deep sleep and impact our health.
7 Steps to improve your sleep
1. Stick to a consistent sleep schedule
Setting a regular bedtime and wake time each day is one of the best ways to keep your circadian rhythm balanced. As tempting as it can be to sleep in on weekends, this can throw off your body clock during the week.
2. Get natural sunlight
Exposing yourself to natural light in the day does more than just boost your energy, it can also help you sleep better at night. Melatonin production is reduced when you're exposed to light, so getting outside, ideally in the sun, for a 20 minute stroll first thing in the morning is one of the most powerful ways to regulate your circadian rhythm and tell your brain that it’s time to start the day. If you can’t get outside, open your blinds or switch on a bright light. Melatonin release works like an elastic band - the more you suppress it by getting outside in the day, the more it rises in the dark to promote sleep.
3. Reduce exposure to artificial light
Overexposure to bright light, in particular electric and artificial blue lighting (the type that laptops, tablets and mobile phones emit) late at night disrupts the secretion of melatonin levels, tricking your brain into thinking it's still daytime and making you feel less tired. Dim your lights or use candles when the sun goes down, and set your screens to ‘night mode’ or ‘twilight’ a few hours before bed. Ideally, switch off screens 1 hour before bed and turn on aeroplane mode when you go to bed to avoid being tempted by notifications.
4. Use relaxation practices
Having an evening relaxation practice such as meditation, mindfulness or breathing exercises can get into a state of relaxation. This will not only help you fall into a deep sleep, it can also reduce stress and quieten the thoughts and emotions you've built up throughout the day. You can also try calming essential oils such as lavender, chamomile or ylang ylang in a diffuser or on your pillow.
5. Temperature control
Heat can trigger wakefulness and decrease important, slow-wave and REM sleep stages, so try to keep your bedroom cool to ensure you'll rest easier.
6. Avoid going to bed too full or too hungry
The timing of when we eat may have a significant effect on sleep patterns. Eating large portions in the evening, close to bedtime, may result in disruption to healthy sleep patterns. Aim to finish your evening meal 2-3 hours before going to bed. For those people who do better with a snack before bed, foods rich in the amino acid tryptophan can help to boost melatonin production. Chicken, turkey, eggs, cheese, yogurt, nuts and seeds are all good choices. Combining these foods with rice, pasta or potatoes for your evening meal can help the body get the most benefits from tryptophan and aid sleep.
7. Time your workout
Cortisol is produced in response to high intensity exercise. If you're having trouble sleeping, it may be a good idea to schedule higher intensity exercise in the morning or early afternoon to work with your natural cortisol curve. If you did want to do some gentle movement in the evenings, stick to yoga, pilates or a light stroll. Mindful movement can also incorporate breath-work and meditation, which can help promote relaxation right before bed-time. Learn more about stress management in this blog post.
Final thoughts on how to sleep better
Sleep is so important for optimal health and wellbeing and not getting enough of it can impact you both mentally and physically. Acknowledge the importance of sleep, what might be preventing you from getting enough of it and try to take steps to manage it so you can feel and perform at your best.