Arguably, sleep is more important than any other pillar of health. We simply cannot live without it for any length of time. But do we fully appreciate what it does for us and what happens when we sacrifice it?
There is a great deal of research currently underway to better understand sleep and what happens when you don't get enough. Suffice it to say, the effects of not enough sleep are far more reaching than was previously understood or suspected.
WHY YOU SHOULD SLEEP
For the rest of us, here's a short list of our biological processes, beyond a good mood & energy, that benefit from sleep:
Integrated memory & learning (and may even decrease risk of Alzheimers & other neurodegenerative diseases)
Improved mental health
Increased cognitive function
Better cardiovascular health
Balance blood sugar (and other hormonal regulation) resulting in weight loss & easier weight management
Increased immune response (think reduced risk of cancer & autoimmunity)
HOW TO ENSURE GOOD SLEEP
Sleep is incredibly complex. Incredibly. So, like most other subjects I discuss, there's no simple answer and there's no one-size-fits all.
But now that you're convinced to get enough sleep, what are some best practices to facilitate sleep?
Your sleep cycles doesn't actually start at bedtime. It starts when you wake up in the morning. How you go about your day sets you up for how you will sleep at night. So be aware of what interferes with and what supports your sleep.
Wake up at the same time each day.
Get sunlight in your eyes. Don't look directly at the sun! But do go outside - IKR, who does that? - and allow the sunlight to enter your eyes thus prompting your brain to tell your body that it's morning. This is key to retraining our body's biological sleep/wake cycles that we've altered with artificial lighting.
Avoid the obvious like caffeine (if you're sensitive) and other stimulants.
Eat to stabilize your blood sugar. Believe it or not, hormone balance has a direct effect on the quality of our sleep. But it's not just metabolic hormones that create a stable blood sugar & promote quality sleep. It really is all hormones. The body is a symphony of hormones and balance is key.
Exercise/move your body. There is so much to say about getting enough movement. The human body was not designed to be sedentary. This doesn't mean you have to torture your body either. But not moving enough has a cumulative effect that goes far beyond not burning enough fuel to create a weight balance.
Supporting Good Sleep Throughout the Evening
Mimicking nature throughout the evening hours ensures our best chances for quality sleep.
Stop eating a few hours before bedtime. *This can get tricky if you're subject to blood sugar instability because the ensuing hormonal imbalance causes waking during the night. Healing your metabolism can take time but is necessary for quality sleep.
Avoid artificial lighting. So this one is BIG. We are evening screen gazers and have many screen options.
Reduce stimulus. Read instead of watching television.
Take a hot bath.
Establish a "shutting down" routine that your body can begin to recognize at the closing of your day. This might look like a short time of meditation or some gentle stretching with intentional breathing.
Avoid prescription sleep aids at all costs. They don't promote quality sleep. They induce sedation which does not provide the compilation of benefit of sleep.
Instead, consider using a natural supplement. There are myriad to chose from and what works for one may not work for another and what works for you today may not work for you next week.
The natural supplement I find most tolerable and effective over the long term are:
Magnesium (the type & amount is trial & error)
Melatonin (best used only short term)
Again, mimicking nature supports the body's signals that it's time to sleep. Our bedrooms should be:
Dark (very dark!)
Cool (possibly even cooler than you think)
Low in stimulus/soothing & calming (remove clutter & electronics)
Invest in the right bed & replace pillows as needed for comfort & support
What I Do to Support My Sleep
Sleep has been my nemesis. Even as a child, teen, and young adult, my sleep quality was poor. It's hard to say why; the chicken or the egg. But it does explain my lifelong battle with hormonal balance.
I do not tolerate most sleep aids (and I've already stated that they really should be avoided because they don't provide quality sleep in the way we previously believed they do) which is what lead me to where I am today - spreading the news about how diet & lifestyle directly effect your health. When I quit sleeping at all, nothing else mattered.
Over time, I learned all that I've shared with you in this article. Yet, my sleep is still disordered. Despite my best efforts, sleep does not come to me without my focused attention.
So here's how I approach sleep:
I move my body as much as possible throughout the day.
I develop & sharpen my mind-management tools so I can "turn off" my thinker at night.
I eat all day to support my optimal health & hormone balance and I eat my last meal of the day several hours before bed.
I use bio-identical hormone replacement. *There are benefits & risks, mostly associated with synthetic hormone but also associated with the ration of certain hormones to others and how each person's unique constitution process the hormones. In other words, working with a knowledgeable & skilled clinician is required to protect & promote your health if taking hormone replacement. In my case, I've already acknowledged that I've had lifelong hormonal imbalance. I've not been able to completely restore my body's ability to establish hormonal health but I've made great strides.
I stop staring at screens as early in the evening as possible.
I take a hot bath with Epsom salts each evening.
I take a variety of magnesium supplements. I change it up from time to time and even if I didn't, what I take most likely wouldn't be what works best for you.
I reduce my stimulus and send my body "bedtime" messages by relaxing in darker spaces.
Please don't let sleep overwhelm you. It's quite natural and our bodies are sending us all kinds of signaling. Our job is to be conscious of the signaling we are sending back to our bodies. And to chose to make sleep a priority.
Sleep is anabolic, meaning it's "building" as opposed to using what's been built. Let sleep be your friend!
I'm Not the Only One
My college roommate & freind, Lisa Limper, MS, CSTS, ATC, an athletic trainer, coach and writer, has this to say about sleep & athletic performance.
You wanna win? Sleep!