If there’s one thing everybody needs this season, its more sleep. With all the holiday parties and endless to do lists, our already disrupted sleep patterns tend to get even more off track. Maybe its the inner child in us coming out, wanting to stay up so we don’t miss a thing at this special time of year. While most adults would probably say that they don’t get enough sleep, an estimated 25% of Americans have an actual sleeping disorder. It’s safe to say we could all use a reminder of just how important sleep really is.
Most people know that sleep is a time when your body slows down, your metabolic rate decreases, and you replenish your physical and mental stores to get you prepared for the next day. This is the time when temperature, heart rate, blood pressure and respiratory rate are at their lowest. Energy utilization drops by as much as 30%, and activity in our cerebral cortex drops (this is the most highly developed, “human” part of our brains).
But did you know that there are some vital functions that are actually at their peak during sleep? Neurons synethesize proteins such as nerve growth factor that are essential for the development and survival of neurons. Some areas of the brain are even more active during sleep than they are while you are awake. These include parts of the limbic system (known as the emotional center of the brain) and those areas that process memories and sensory input. We’ve all experienced these effects at some point in our lives. Ever stay up through the night studying for a test, only to forget everything you studied when you made it to class? Your brain wasn’t able to process and “link up” all the information so that you could retrieve it later when you needed it. Studies have shown that after a day of taking in large amounts of new information, we actually have more REM sleep than normal. Or how about when you have a long, emotional day, and you collapse into bed exhausted and overwhelmed. Somehow in the morning, it all seems to be less daunting, and you now see the situation in a new light. That’s your emotional processing centers, hard at work while your body rests.
What about stress hormones? I don’t know about you, but I’ve had a crash course in the affects of stress hormones on the body, and it isn’t pretty. You’re stressed about something, can’t sleep, and after you do finally fall asleep, you wake up feeling just as tired as when you went to bed. Stress hormones are supposed to decrease during sleep, allowing your body to enter into a nice, calm, tranquil state. When you’re sleep deprived, this decrease in stress hormones doesn’t occur, and your body stays in a heightened, alert state even while you’re sleeping. The end result is that morning exhaustion.
So what can you do? Since stress itself can disrupt sleep, it’d be just plain mean to get you all hyped up about how important sleep is, and then leave you hanging without any tips on how to improve it. Thankfully, there are lots of things you can do.
1. Regulate your own stress levels
This can be easier said than done, and we can’t always control the levels of stress in our lives. But there are several strategies that help. Try not to expose yourself to stressful situations before bed. For some people, this means not watching the evening news. I try not to have any difficult conversations or stressful emotional encounters before bed if possible. I find my responses are usually better after a full night’s sleep anyways. If you’ve had a stressful day and need a quick fix to lower your levels, try meditation or deep breathing. Meditation clears the mind of stressful thoughts, therefore lowering cortisol levels. One book I’ve found particularly helpful for learning meditation is Wherever You Go, There You Are by John Kabat-Zinn. It helps me stay in the moment without looking to the past or future. Deep breathing is also incredibly helpful. When you slow your breathing and focus on taking deep, cleansing breaths from your abdomen rather than your chest, you can actually slow down your heart rate and lower your blood pressure. This stimulates your parasympathetic nervous system and decreases circulating levels of cortisol and catecholamines.
2. Eat a high protein snack before bed
This one has proven particularly helpful for me. I don’t do it every night, but if I find myself in a pattern where I’m waking up between 2-4 am, I know that I need more protein. Your body has a wonderful system of balancing hormones to keep your blood sugar regulated throughout the night. However, if you haven’t had enough protein intake throughout the day, or you’ve used your energy stores more than usual, your glucose levels can take a nosedive. In response to hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), your body secretes cortisol, or, in extreme cases, adrenaline. This tends to happen between 2 and 4 am, and its the reason you wake up suddenly with a to do list and a feeling of urgency. Your body is signaling you through your stress hormones that your blood sugar has dropped dangerously low. I find it helpful to drag myself out of bed and eat a spoonful of whatever nut butter I have on hand at the time. The sugar in the nut butter gives me an immediate glucose boost, and the protein and fats sustain me through the rest of the night. You can also try this right before bed to help prevent that early morning wake up.
3. Sleep in the dark!
If you haven’t heard it already, let me fill you in: melatonin is made in the dark. The optic nerve senses the amount of light and signals your pineal gland to adjust melatonin production accordingly. When its dark out, you make more melatonin, when its light, you make less. Melatonin is a huge part of sleep and our circadian rhythms. When I finally got rid of the alarm clock that was staring me in the face every night, I slept noticeably better. If you don’t like the idea of using your phone as your alarm, get a clock that doesn’t emit any light. If you absolutely have to be able to see your clock in the middle of the night, get one with red light rather than blue. Research suggests that red light doesn’t have the same effect on melatonin production as blue light does. And black out curtains may just be the best thing since sliced bread. You don’t have to pay a fortune for them either. I found mine on clearance at target, and they’ve made a world of difference.
4. Magnesium supplementation
Magnesium is a very important mineral in sleep regulation and the prevention of insomnia. While I’m all about getting our nutrients from food sources rather than buying a bunch of supplements, it can be hard to get adequate amounts. Lets face it, we’ve depleted our soil through modern agricultural practices, and foods just aren’t as rich in nutrients as they used to be. The magnesium supplement that I use is called Natural Calm. It’s a powder that you mix into warm water and drink one to two times daily. I’ve gotten into the habit of drinking it warm in the morning and sometimes at night before I go to bed. Oh, and have you ever experienced those sudden, infuriating calf cramps in the middle of the night for no apparent reason? The ones that wake you up in a panic and really get your heart rate pumping? Magnesium helps with those too.
5. Teas, essential oils, and herbs
Chamomile tea is famous for its ability to soothe us and decrease stress levels. A warm cup before bed while reading is a great strategy to relax. Essential oils such as lavender are also great for relaxation. If you’re really crafty, Mountain Rose Herbs sells an herb sleep pillow blend for you to make your own sachets to place near your bed. What a great holiday gift that would make!
There’s lots of other strategies out there for improving sleep quality, but in my opinion, these are some of the best. If you’d like more information on sleep, Robb Wolf has written extensively on the subject at his website.
Linked to Sunday School at Butter Believer.
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High sensitivity of the human circadian melatonin rhythm to resetting by short wavelength light. Lockley SW, Brainard GC, Czeisler CA. Division of Sleep Medicine, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts 02115, USA.
Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, 3rd edition. Sapolsky, R. 2004, St Martin’s Griffin, New York, New York.