Written by Eric Morris Jr., CPT, Pn1
THE IMPORTANCE OF SLEEP
During sleep the brain detoxifies and clears out garbage, consolidates short term to long term memory. During sleep the body repairs and builds tissues, recovers from exercise and prepares you for another day's work. Sleep also helps in things like a slimmer waistline and preventing wrinkles. Something to think about next time you're deciding whether to party all night or get some shut eye. Deep, restful, quality sleep, is critical to an optimized functioning body and brain. Did you know when you’re exhausted your body is able to undergo microsleep episodes of 1-2 seconds while your eyes are open (1)? Did you also know that even one night of missed sleep can create a prediabetic state in an otherwise healthy person (1)? Sleep is pretty important and your body will try to get it any way it can if it comes down to it.
When it comes to the strength of your immune system you definitely don’t want to compromise your sleep. Your ability to fight off infection, sickness and viruses is bolstered when you get adequate amounts of good quality sleep. During sleep your body produces protective proteins called cytokines, certain kinds of which help promote sleep and other kinds increase when you’re under stress or sick (2). Lack of sleep reduces these protective cytokines and decreases antibodies that fight disease (2). Cytokines are good when stimulating the immune system to fight a foreign invader to destroy it. What you don’t want is damage from an increase in long term inflammatory cytokines from stress or lack of sleep. Skimp on sleep and you open yourself up to greater susceptibility to illness.
“Yes, lack of sleep can affect your immune system. Studies show that people who don't get quality sleep or enough sleep are more likely to get sick after being exposed to a virus, such as a common cold virus. Lack of sleep can also affect how fast you recover if you do get sick.”
“Long-term lack of sleep also increases your risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart and blood vessel (cardiovascular) disease.”
-Eric J. Olson, M.D.
I definitely wouldn’t consider it a badge of honor to function on little to no sleep. You may be able to get away with it in the short term, but in the long run you will notice the effects. If you’re always getting to bed late and cutting your sleep short, try to find areas in your life where you can cut down, expedite tasks and improve efficiency. Get the most important things done first and don’t try to cram in tonight what’s able to be done when you’re well rested and thinking at a higher level. Skimping on your rest is simply not worth the biological and physiological consequences.
It’s true that how much sleep we need varies depending on age, stress levels and activity levels, but there is a minimum number of hours we should all be getting. Any less will start to take its toll. The average adult needs at least 7 hours of sleep per night. If you’re highly active and always needing to recover from exercise or are highly stressed you may definitely need a few (or a lot) more than the average recommendation. However, here are the updated recommended number of hours of sleep needed courtesy of the National Sleep Foundation (NSF):
There are different stages of sleep. At each stage the body and brain undergo certain changes. It’s important for each stage to be completed in order to have full repair and recovery for the next day. If our sleep is cut short or the quality is compromised, the effects on body, brain and mood can start to add up and be noticeably felt once a sleep deficit is great enough. Even one poor night of sleep has an effect but multiple nights in a row or chronic low quality sleep can seriously get in the way of learning and retention, affect mental and physical performance, weaken your immune system and reduce your ability to recover from any form of stress .
STAGES OF SLEEP:
During this transitory stage from wakefulness to light sleep of NREM (non rapid eye movement) sleep, slow wave Theta waves are produced between 4-8 Hz frequency (3). During this stage eye movements and muscle activity slows down, core body temperature drops and you’re floating in and out of consciousness where you might experience hypnic jerks that jolt you back awake until you enter stage 2. You are still easily awakened during this stage and it usually lasts about 10 minutes.
In this stage of NREM light sleep your eyes stop moving, your brain waves slow down further with the occasional burst of sleep spindles and your heart rate drops. You spend about 50% of your time in this stage of sleep. In this stage you dream but can still be awakened easily. Brain waves are between 11-16 Hz and this stage lasts about 20-30 minutes.
This stage of NREM sleep produces delta waves in the range of 0-4 Hz and lasts about 30-40 minutes. Your muscles are completely relaxed. Your blood pressure, pulse and body temperature are lowest. This is the stage where you start to produce HGH (human growth hormone) and your body goes into repair mode. You are not easily awakened during this stage.
This is REM (rapid eye movement) sleep and produces alpha and beta waves. In adults there’s usually about 4 to 5 stages of REM sleep. The first stage is around 10 minutes and the later stages can be around 30 minutes. In this stage of sleep your muscles and body are paralyzed. Dreaming occurs the most in this stage. This stage of sleep is important for optimal concentration and staving off fatigue during the day.
Now, there are some major factors contributing to the quality of sleep we get. They are movement, food, light and mentality (stress). We can optimize the quality of our sleep by addressing these factors. Even addressing a few of these factors can greatly impact our quality of sleep for the better. But for consistent optimal restorative sleep try to address all factors. Your body and brain will thank you.
EXERCISE IN THE MORNING:
Exercising in the morning increases energy even better than a cup of coffee and can last the whole day. This doesn’t have to be extremely strenuous. You just want to get the blood and lymph fluid circulating and increase oxygenation. A walk, light jog, stretching or light to moderate resistance training will do the trick. If you feel up to a hardcore workout, that’s completely up to you. But just getting moving and breathing is all you need. Studies have shown that individuals who exercised around 7am as compared with those who exercised during afternoon or evening hours spent more time in the stages of deep sleep. Later morning exercise definitely has benefits as well. Combine this with sunlight through outdoor exercise and get even better circadian rhythm regulation which also promotes better sleep.
If you want another added benefit, exercising in a fasted state (before eating breakfast) can help you burn about 20% more fat as your body will utilize stored fat for energy instead of newly consumed calories to fuel your workout. Just keep in mind that if you're worried about athletic performance then afternoon exercise may be better as strength, sprint speed and aerobic capacity is greater when your body temperature is at its highest (around late afternoon or early evening). But, if you just want to burn fat, naturally have increased energy and sleep well, then a morning workout is great for this.
Oh, and try to avoid intense exercise at least 3 hours before bed. Exercise increases heart rate, body temperature and adrenaline. These are all things we want to reduce if we want a restorative night’s sleep. You definitely want to avoid producing adrenaline right before bed.
ADEQUATE NUTRITION AND A HEALTHY DIET:
We all know diet and nutrition play a crucial role in any and everything. But did you know a diet high in fiber and low in added or processed sugar can greatly help restful sleep. It can help you get deeper slow wave sleep and, through the reduction of added sugars, help prevent you from waking up in the middle of the night and help you drift off to sleep faster. Not drinking too much close to bedtime can also help if you find yourself waking up to pee. We all hate that.
Sticking to a healthy mainly whole food diet can improve sleep by reducing fat around the midsection which in turn makes you less likely to struggle with problems like sleep apnea, insomnia and restlessness. Generally speaking, the stress hormone cortisol is increased when we don’t sleep which makes us susceptible to storing fat. Eating a healthy, balanced diet can help us cope with stress better and allow us to get better sleep. Additionally, supplements like magnesium, 5-HTP (5-Hydroxytryptophan), GABA (Gamma Aminobutyric Acid) and low dose melatonin (0.3mg for older adults 60+ and 0.5mg to 3mg for average adult) can be very helpful in getting a good night’s rest.
With melatonin, unless advised by a practitioner, you don't want to take high doses as this can desensitize your body's melatonin hormone receptors and make it so you don’t produce it naturally on your own. High doses can also cause sleepiness during the day which is something you don't want.
MEAL TIMING AND FOOD CHOICES:
The timing of your meals also goes a long way in contributing to sleep quality by helping produce melatonin later on in the evening.
"Dr Ramlakhan, who offers sleep coaching and is author of Tired But Wired: How to Overcome Your Sleep Problems, said “Believe it or not, eating breakfast can help you sleep. It’s as simple as this, if you don’t breakfast, your body believes it is living in famine and produces stress hormones that are not conducive to restful sleep. But by eating breakfast, you’re letting your body know there is enough food and you are living in safety, which in turn switches on your sleep, energy systems" (4).
A heavy meal right before bed is also something that can prevent a good night's sleep. Digesting a large amount of food or food that takes longer to digest (fat, protein) is a big tax on the body. Large meals and these types of foods are generally better left for breakfast or lunch or at least 3 or more hours before bedtime.
Even though you may think of our parasympathetic nervous system being activated after eating (rest and digest), which is true, this doesn't necessarily apply to full on sleep. For optimal deep sleep the entire body needs to be calm, at rest and have all of its duties done for the day. As one of my favorite authors puts it...
" When we lie down at night, the stomach should have its work all done, that it, as well as other portions of the body, may enjoy rest. But if more food is forced upon it, the digestive organs are put in motion again, to perform the same round of labor through the sleeping hours. The sleep of such is often disturbed with unpleasant dreams, and in the morning they awake unrefreshed. When this practice is followed, the digestive organs lose their natural vigor, and the person finds himself a miserable dyspeptic" (Christian Temperance and Bible Hygiene, Chapter 4: Relation of Diet to Health and Morals)
This may not mean the stomach has to be completely empty. At times going to bed hungry can keep you up with a growling stomach. Some foods that contain certain nutrients or help produce certain hormones such as melatonin, tryptophan or magnesium in small amounts before bed can calm the body and mind and assist in restful sleep. Foods such as walnuts, almonds, chamomile tea, etc. Here’s a good list. But you should not be digesting a large meal right before bed.
LIGHT AND AVOIDING/REDUCING EMFs BEFORE BEDTIME:
Light in general can disrupt sleep by making the body think that it's still daylight and preventing you from winding down in order to fall asleep. Blackout curtains or a sleep mask can help with this. But there's one thing that disrupts sleep even more so...
EMFs (electromagnetic frequencies) severely disrupt sleep. Some are produced by the earth and are good for us, others produced by our electronic devices are not. The ones that are unnatural are known as non-native EMFs. Even if you can fall asleep in the presence of them (like dozing off in front of the TV), the quality of your sleep will be impaired. Non-native EMFs not only come from our cell phones, cell towers and Wi-Fi and internet routers, but also leaks from the wall outlets, extension cords and pretty much anything that's electronic, plugged in or turned on. Yeah, I know, our modern day set-up is just not conducive to allowing us to get some rest.
Reducing blue light exposure before bed is one way to help get quality sleep. I would recommend trying to do so about 3 hours before bed but at least an hour before is helpful too. You can do this by simply making it a point to turn off or avoid using your cell phone, computer or watching tv in the hours before bedtime (in a perfect world, right?). If you can't do this then you can don a pair of blue light blocking glasses and use these while looking at device screens. You can also use the blue light filtering functions on your device (most devices now have this feature) shifting everything to the red spectrum and eliminating blue light. You can also reduce screen brightness.
STRESS AND MINDSET:
Calming the mind is, in my opinion, the most important and effective way to get restful sleep. It happens to be, at least for some of us, the most difficult as well. Knowing oneself, controlling oneself and calming oneself is a skill rather elusive. Racing thoughts, demands of the day and the day to come and our feelings and emotions are powerful energies that can override all other factors even if everything else is perfectly dialed in. The mind is the control center and the mind can, well...have a mind of its own, staying on when we need it to power down.
Meditation is a valuable tool in the struggle for rest. Meditation has proven benefits ranging from improved memory, attention and pain reduction to...you guessed it, improved sleep. There are many ways and types of meditation and doesn't have to be a monk type protocol that takes years to master. If you’re talking about transcendental meditation, that's a bit more involved. But to get rest and calm down, meditation can be simple breath work (the 4-7-8 method has been shown to be very helpful), journaling or anything that calms you down. Recounting things you're grateful for instead of thinking about the long day's work or something that bothered you is a great way to meditate on good things that bring you calm, happiness and peace. For me, I count prayer as one of the best ways to meditate, thanking God for all the blessings in my life. You can cover all your bases with this one. Praying and being grateful, asking for guidance with challenges or everyday life, expressing your heart and letting go of any anxiety, animosity, fear or any feelings that trouble us. But whatever your belief or practice, just be grateful. Going to bed angry or irritated is also a sure way to prevent a good night's sleep.
"...do not let the sun go down on your wrath"
-Ephesians 4:26 NKJV
If the issue is with family or significant other, keep in mind that you love them and love for them doesn't go away because of a disagreement. Talk to the person or write if you feel speaking isn't the best at the moment. Make it right and resolve those issues before you lie down so that your sleep may be sweet.
You may think that clearing the mind is what meditation is. It can be, but that's not what it only is. It's positive thinking that can grant benefits of meditation as well. Emily Fletcher, founder of Ziva Meditation states "Thoughts are not the enemy of meditation. Effort is. Telling your mind to stop thinking is like telling your heart to stop beating". I agree. What we want to do is make those thoughts pleasant, not stressful. Ponder on the good, the happy, the hopeful and the peaceful. Some thoughts you can't avoid but once they arise, acknowledge them, then let them pass and let the next thought be positive. I know what you're thinking, “but it takes effort to change what you think." You're right. But all good things take time and a little effort. Every new skill learned is difficult at the beginning. Afterwards, it will become second nature and the effort will be gone and it will just be the way you’re wired. To be positive.
Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things.
-Philippians 4:8 NKJV
Whatever wholesome things brings you joy and happiness and calms you down is what you need to focus on. Make it a point to take the mind off of self and ponder on showing kindness, helping others and gratitude. I know it sounds like it's only something nice to say that doesn't work, but give it a chance. Its effects can be profound. Positive thinking and meditation are one of the best things you can do for overall health and stress reduction. Sometimes, we just need to chill out. This is a great way to release the tension and relax.
Sometimes our environment, stress level, diet and lifestyle can make it difficult to get a good night's rest, especially in our modern hectic world, but there are things we can do to address this. Having some knowledge on ways to combat the things that can get in the way of sleep is number one. If you don't know, how can you do it? Everyone is different and what dramatically affects one person may have minimal effects on another. As always, listen to your body and determine what works best for you. But I assure you, practicing these healthy techniques laid out here can only help you no matter who you are.