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. It is during sleep where our nervous systems rest, our brains detoxify, our memories are stored and our bodies heal.
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 our inner sleep-wake cycle, we can implement better habits to help teach the body when it’s bedtime, enhance sleep quality and improve our overall health.
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.
Setting a regular bedtime and waking up time each day is one of the best ways to keep our circadian rhythms balanced. As tempting as it can be to sleep in on weekends, this can throw off our body clock during the week.
Exposing ourselves to natural light in the day does more than just boost our energy, it also helps us to sleep better at night. Melatonin production is reduced when we are 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 our circadian rhythm and tell our 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 we suppress it by getting outside in the day, the more it rises in the dark to promote sleep.
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 our brain into thinking it is still daytime and making us 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.
Having an evening relaxation practice such as meditation, mindfulness or breathing exercises can help us get into a state of relaxation. This will not only help us to fall into a deep sleep, it can also help to reduce stress and quieten the thoughts and emotions we have built up throughout the day. You can also try calming essential oils such as lavender, chamomile or ylang ylang.
Heat can trigger wakefulness and decrease important, slow-wave and REM sleep stages, so try to keep your bedroom cool to ensure you will rest easier.
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 disruptions 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.
Cortisol is produced in response to high intensity exercise. If you are 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.
Sleep is so important for optimal health & wellbeing and not getting enough of good quality sleep can impact us 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.