Sleep issues are an extremely common health problem with an estimated 20-35% of the population having trouble falling asleep and/or staying asleep every night.
Furthermore, sleeping problems appear to be getting worse. The number of adults aged between 20 and 44 using sleeping pills is steadily increasing, and the number of children aged between 1–19 using prescription sleep remedies is following the same trend.
These findings are no surprise given that we live in a culture that values productivity above all else, and almost frowns upon rest and relaxation. In fact, ‘resting’ for many people now means watching TV, browsing the internet or using some other electronic device, none of which are in any way restful for the brain and body. Many of us work long hours, make lots of sacrifices and tend to be over-scheduled.
It’s as if sleeping is a weakness to some degree. If I’m asleep, I’m not adding to my company’s bottom line. If I take a nap, my kids won’t be getting my attention. If I go to bed earlier, I’ll miss my favourite television series and my catch-up time on social media. Sound familiar?
Whilst we may have forgotten the importance of sleep, our bodies haven’t. Sleep is essential for the maintenance and repair of the digestive, immune, neurological, musculoskeletal and endocrine systems. A restful night’s sleep enhances memory and mental clarity, boosts mood and overall energy, increases stress tolerance, regulates hunger signals, improves immune function, facilitates muscular repair and recovery, and improves athletic performance.
What happens when we don’t get enough sleep? Research suggests that most people need seven to eight hours of QUALITY sleep to function effectively. Getting fewer than six hours of sleep per day is associated with low-grade chronic inflammation and an increased risk of numerous conditions including cardiovascular disease, hypertension, obesity, diabetes, depression and anxiety.
In the shorter term, inadequate rest also impairs our ability to think, to handle stress, to maintain healthy immune function, to regulate our appetite, and to moderate our emotions.
What can you do to improve your sleep? Here’s my top 10 tips:
- MORNING LIGHT.
Get 20-30 minutes of natural light within one hour of waking. This natural morning light helps to regulate various hormones involved in sleep, ultimately setting your circadian rhythm up for a good night’s rest in the evening. Importantly, the natural light needs to hit your eyes (and as much of your skin as possible) directly so you can’t be getting this light through a closed window.
- DON’T SKIP BREAKFAST.
Food intake is a major signal to your body that it’s morning, and it is thus time to stop secreting sleep hormones and start secreting wake-up hormones. This switch is essential in setting your circadian rhythm so you are best placed to get a good sleep that night. Eating a regularly timed breakfast within 2 hours of waking is thus a great way to support your sleep.
Whilst the practice of intermittent fasting and skipping breakfast has gained popularity in recent times, this practice can disrupt your circadian rhythm and prevent you from getting a quality night’s sleep. In other words, skipping breakfast or “defying morning hunger” by fasting until lunch is not a good idea if you have hormone imbalances or trouble sleeping at night.
Once you are sleeping well on a consistent basis, you can experiment with intermittent fasting (if it’s appropriate for you), but in the meantime, stick to eating a meal within two hours of waking.
- AVOID SNACKS.
Snacking tells your body, “Hey, I’m going to give you food every two to three hours.” Then, you hit the sheets at night hoping to make it eight or nine hours without interruption. See the problem?
Snacking (particularly on the common quick-fix high-carb options) also leads to massive blood sugar swings throughout the day which will disrupt your circadian rhythm and negatively affect your sleep.
Rather than constantly snacking throughout the day, stick to 3 well-balanced and nutrient dense. This is best for regulating your blood sugar levels which will help to reduce nighttime waking’s and improve sleep quality.
- TIME YOUR CAFFEINE RIGHT.
It doesn’t take an expert to know that consuming it close to bedtime isn’t going to be promoting the most restful sleep. You may not realise however, that caffeine intake in the middle of the day can also hinder your sleep.
Depending on your body’s ability to metabolise and clear caffeine, it could remain in the body for over 6 hours. This means that you may experience the stimulating effects of caffeine well into the evening and may thus be unable to calm down in the evening in preparation for sleep.
A safe recommendation is no more than one STANDARD cup per day and no caffeine within 6 hours of bedtime.
- AVOID ARTIFICIAL LIGHT AFTER SUNSET.
Sunset is a great cue for starting your sleep routine. This doesn’t mean you have to go to bed when the sun sets, it just means you should start your routine, which can last as long as your schedule dictates. The key here is that the sun is an organic trigger that your body and your circadian rhythm responds to.
Once the sun is down, the colour of the light you interact with becomes critical. Artificial and blue light such as that from bright white lights, computers, TVs and tablets suppresses the release of melatonin which is an essential hormone for sleep.
To avoid bright artificial light, stick to orange tinted globes or candlelight. Alternatively, if bright lights or screens can’t be avoided, purchase and wear blue-light blocking glasses after sunset.
- BE LESS SEDENTARY.
It’s no secret that exercise is good for our physical health and body composition. Exercise is less commonly praised for its ability to boost serotonin production, thereby improving mental health. Serotonin is also the precursor to melatonin which is an essential hormone for sleep. Exercise is thus an amazing tool for improving your sleep (we will talk more about dedicated exercise in a moment).
In addition to this, when the body is not used physically, it has a harder time transitioning into sleep mode.
To restore health and sleep quality, therefore, get in the habit of shunning your sedentary lifestyle. This means performing some form of dedicated exercise on a regular basis AND keeping yourself moving throughout the day (regardless of whether or not you’ve exercised). Getting a standing desk, taking pomodoro breaks, walking on your lunch break and doing stretches at the desk are all wonderful ways to improve your sleep by keeping your body active throughout the day.
- TURN OFF TECH.
The ideal situation would be that we never take work home (for those who work away from home). The reality is often different however, and, in many cases, we bring work home with us. Whilst it can be hard to avoid bringing work home entirely, it is important to give yourself a cut off time for finishing work.
Any type of work puts your mind and nervous system in a state of hyper-arousal, and this will undoubtedly negatively affect your ability to fall and stay asleep. This goes the same for any type of technology use, whether it be watching your favourite Netflix series or scrolling through social media. All of these activities create the same hyper-arousal effects on your nervous system that will prevent a quality night’s sleep.
Given this, for a full two hours before bed, avoid doing any type of work and using any type of technology.
- SLEEP COOL.
Science and evolutionary biology both point to the fact that we’ve adapted to a cooler temperature when we sleep. As the sun sets, a natural temperature decrease is what our bodies expect. The optimal temperature range for quality sleep is 15 to 19 degrees Celsius (or 60 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit). Any warmer or cooler and signs of restlessness start to occur. The science is very clear on this one. We sleep better and with increased recovery of all body systems at a cooler body temperature.
You can keep the environment cool by leaving a window open, using an air conditioner or even purchasing a water circulating device that you place under your sheets. Regardless of how you achieve it, just make sure your bedroom remains cool.
Julia Michelle is a naturopath, nutritionist and personal trainer. She practices evidence-based, patient-centred and root-cause medicine to help her patients achieve optimal levels of health. She has worked in the health and fitness industry for over 20 years and has guided thousands of people towards achieving their true health potential.
She recently created and published a 4-week online health optimisation course; The Four Pillars – the Ultimate Guide to Optimising your Health. Available now via https://learn.juliamichelle.com.au/courses/the-four-pillars .
If you’d like to book a call – get in touch – send me a message on any of my social platforms or book a call at http://bit.ly/Discoverwithjenn
And – I also have a wonderful online community called Like Minded Business Owners which is a fantastic Facebook group of small business owners who have a wealth of knowledge to share – please join if you aren’t already a member and become a part of a wonderful community!
I wish to acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the land, the Yorta Yorta People, on which I conduct my business today and pay my respects to their Elders past and present. I extend that respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples reading this blog post today.