One vital component of your health that you might be neglecting is sleep. Sleep is absolutely critical for both your short and long term health, and in our modern society millions of people don’t get sufficient sleep. Although eight hours each night is often quoted as the ideal amount of sleep for optimal health, the truth is that the amount needed varies from person to person. Everybody is different and individual factors like age, overall health, stress level, and activity level can heavily influence how much sleep you actually need.
Quality of Sleep and Circadian Rhythm
When it comes to sleep, quality is just as, if not more, important than quantity. Spending nine hours tossing and turning without ever entering deep sleep will not leave you refreshed and ready to go in the morning. What you need is an adequate amount of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep each night. This is one of the deepest sleep phases where you experience your most vivid dreams.
As you may know, your sleep cycle is controlled by your circadian rhythm; your individual internal clock. Circadian rhythms developed in our ancestors in response to the natural day/night and seasonal cycles of the earth. It’s the reason why humans aren’t innately nocturnal and tend to be active during the day. Your circadian rhythm can easily be thrown off in these modern times. Artificial lighting, days spent working indoors, an unnatural diet, and night shift work may all contribute to a disordered internal clock. A variety of consequences – ranging from mild fatigue and depression to seasonal affective disorder (SAD) to even worse – can result from living with an out of balance circadian rhythm (1).
Even breaking your sleep cycle by frequently getting up to urinate during the night may cause depression (2).
However, there are several steps you can take to get high quality sleep and maintain a balanced circadian rhythm.
Tip 1: Be Careful with the Caffeine
Chances are that you consume at least some caffeine almost every day. While coffee is the most obvious culprit, caffeine is also present in many sodas, teas, and chocolate products. It’s no big deal to enjoy a morning java, but try to limit your intake. Even more importantly, avoid consuming caffeine past about mid-morning. The effects of caffeine can last seven hours or more, so it’s important that it’s all out of your system by bedtime. In fact, a 2014 study reinforced what we pretty much already knew – caffeine can significantly disturb your sleep (3).
Tip 2: Dinner Should Be About Four Hours Before Bed
You certainly don’t have to grab the early bird buffet special at 4 pm, but neither should you eat dinner at 10 pm and hit the sack one hour later. That’s because your body breaks down carbohydrates, or sugars, over time. You don’t need a sugar spike for energy while you’re sleeping, and an increase in blood glucose can actually cause you to have fitful, shallow sleep.Your best bet is to eat a dinner containing complex carbohydrates, like starch, about four hours before going to sleep. This will allow your body time to breakdown the carbs, giving you adequate energy for your remaining time awake while avoiding a middle of the night glucose spike.
Tip 3: Limit Your Screen Time
If you fall asleep with a laptop or smartphone, you’re certainly not alone. Still, it’s a habit worth breaking. Computer monitors, televisions, and phone screens give off blue light, which interferes with the action of melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone that promotes sleepiness and helps you actually get to sleep. Blue light tricks your body into believing it’s still daylight outside and not yet time for sleep. Remember, your body’s systems haven’t caught up to modern technology. Do yourself a favour by discontinuing screen time at least two hours before bed.
Tip 4: Make Your Bedroom Sleep Hygienic
Just like you practice oral hygiene by brushing your teeth before bed, you need to observe sleep hygiene for a good night’s sleep. This means dedicating your bedroom to sleep and limiting distractions. Keep it nice and dark, as studies have shown a connection between melatonin levels and more light exposure, and don’t let the temperature get higher than about 21 degrees C– not a problem during the Albertan winters (4). Finally, try to insulate yourself from any unnecessary noise so that you’re not prematurely roused from restful sleep.
Tip 5: See Your Functional Medicine Doctor
Dr. Lynne Murfin is both trained and experienced in treating all sorts of sleep disorders and can help discover the cause of your issue.While there are many different things that can upset your sleep and circadian rhythm, there are also many treatments available, many of them natural.
For example, the stress response (“fight or flight”) has a huge affect on sleep quality, but this can be addressed in a variety of ways. Mind-body exercises guided by Dr. Murfin or her lifestyle educator can help reduce the stress and anxiety, and supplemental B12 taken upon arising in the mornings may “reset” your stress response mechanism. In fact, vitamin B12 has been shown to have an effect on stress hormones in lab rats (5).
Another supplement that has shown promising results is valproic acid. This compound, in low doses, demonstrated an ability to reduce depression and restore circadian rhythm in a patient with an associated sleep disorder (6).
Additionally, the use of hormones under Dr. Murfin’s direction can aid you in getting consistent, good sleep. If you’re not producing enough melatonin, small doses of this hormone could help in reducing your sleep latency, or the time it takes you to fall asleep. Melatonin is vital to circadian rhythm. A study published in the journal Sleep Science even showed a correlation between low melatonin and the development of dementia in elderly patients (7).
Other substances that can have a positive effect on your sleep difficulties include serotonin, gamma-amino butyric acid (GABA), and the female sex hormone progesterone. These compounds all frequently become imbalanced by a number of factors and need correction. For example, progesterone may protect against developing obstructive sleep apnea, a common sleep disorder (8).
Progesterone levels may drop during menopause, but research has shown that hormone therapy can result in better sleep (9).
Serotonin also plays its part in sleep, specifically sleep maintenance. This neurotransmitter makes sure that you stay asleep long enough to truly rest. Serotonin has long been recognized to have a role in depression, with low levels contributing to depressive symptoms. It’s now known that serotonin can also directly affect the adrenal glands, crucial components in the stress response (10).
Controlling your stress response is a vital part of getting good sleep.
GABA is another neurotransmitter involved in sleep maintenance. Low amounts of GABA have an association with insomnia, but fortunately GABA supplements are available (11).
Like all neurotransmitter and hormonal supplements, GABA should only be taken under the close monitoring of a qualified physician.
Dr. Murfin can assist you in getting the best sleep possible. Lifestyle changes, nutrition support, and supplements may all contain the answers to your difficulties. Just remember – the road to good, and continued health – starts with you.