It is common sense that we all need adequate sleep. Yet, statistics show again and again that we just aren’t getting it. For some, (including me) a solid nights sleep is almost a joke. Between hot flashes, stress from things going on in my life and just not being able to shut my brain off, some nights I may only get 4 hours or less of sleep. I try to start shutting down around 9:30 and to bed by 10pm. That should get me about 6 hours of sleep which works just fine for me. But on those nights that I just can’t get it done I really suffer.
This is what happens to our body when we don’t get enough sleep.
Lack of sleep = Stress on the body = weight gain, premature aging, hair loss, hormone imbalances, infertility, and lowered immune function.
Hormone problems that cause sleep disturbances don’t just begin at bedtime, and they can’t be fixed by just addressing them at this time. Ever noticed that animals don’t have trouble sleeping and waking when they are supposed to? They don’t toss and turn to fall asleep and they don’t need pills to help them do so (speaking about outdoor animals… I don’t have any, but indoor animals could potentially have some of the same struggles that humans do).
Proper sleep hormone production (melatonin) depends on proper hormone function during waking hours (serotonin and others). As the endocrine system is a complete system, hormone imbalances (PCOS, Endometriosis, etc) can often lead to poor sleep and vice versa.
Stress hormones can have a tremendous impact on the sleep cycle as well, and it is a two-way street. Lack of sleep elevates stress hormones, and stress hormones can cause sleep problems.
I get it…it is hard to get decent sleep as a mom or busy professional. A perfect 8 hours of blissful sleep may not work out, but there are some things we can do, to get better sleep.
Sleep is important for optimal health in so many ways. In fact, sleep is the one similarity across the animal kingdom. The amount of sleep needed varies greatly by species, but all animals (humans included) need sleep. Lab rats started dying after only a few days of being kept awake. This is why I don’t understand having workers work night shift repeatedly. I think that it really messes up their circadian rhythm.
Sleep is important for almost every aspect of health:
- Physical Health: The body repairs tissue, including heart and blood vessels during sleep. Long term poor sleep is linked to an increased risk of heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and stroke.
- Obesity: Lack of sleep alone can also make you fat. One study found with each hour of sleep lost, the odds of becoming obese went up.
- Hormone Health: Sleep helps maintain the balance of the hormones that make you feel hungry (ghrelin) or full (leptin). When you don’t get enough sleep, your level of ghrelin goes up and your level of leptin goes down. This makes you feel hungrier than when you’re well-rested.
- Insulin: Sleep impacts how your body handles insulin, the hormone that controls your blood glucose (sugar) level. Sleep deficiency results in a higher than normal blood sugar level, which can lead to many serious problems.
- Growth & Fertility: Deep sleep triggers the hormone cascade responsible for growth in children and teens. Do you kids tend to get growing pains at night? This could be why! This hormone also boosts muscle mass and helps repair cells and tissues in children, teens, and adults.
- Learning & Memory: Sleep helps the brain commit new information to memory through a process called memory consolidation. In studies, people who’d slept after learning a task did better on tests later.
Foods that Improve Sleep Naturally
Just as foods can impact health in other areas, foods can contribute to good or bad sleep. To help improve your chances of quality sleep, these are the best foods to consume:
- Healthy Fats– such as coconut oil, organic and pasture raised meats, eggs, avocado and butter all help provide your body with the necessary building blocks to manufacture sleep hormones.
- High Antioxidant Foods– Also important for hormone production and removal of toxins that can impede sleep. Focus on vegetables, high nutrient fruits, and herbal or green teas (green tea early in the day only).
- Quality Proteins, especially at dinner: For best sleep, it is better to stop eating at least 4 hours before bedtime, and preferably by 6pm every night. Your evening meal should include proteins, vegetables and healthy fats. Eating enough protein at this meal will help prepare the body to enter the sleep cycle.
- Sugars: Sugars and carbohydrates, especially at night, can cause a blood sugar spike and crash that will lead to difficulty falling or staying asleep. Many people crave carbohydrates (chocolate, anyone?) in the evening, which is a sign of an underlying hormone problem to begin with but eating carbohydrates late at night can cause problems falling asleep or lead to waking in the middle of the night when blood sugar levels drop.
- Grains– I’ve written before about the negative effect grains can have on health, and if you have an intolerance to grains, this can cause physical stress in your body, which alters the hormone cycle and can impede sleep.
- Vegetable Oils– No one should ever eat them anyway, but I have a theory that just as these artificial fats can cause problems in new skin formation (skin cancer) they can cause problems in the hormone cycle, as hormones need (saturated) fats for production and giving the body the wrong building blocks for hormones can wreak havoc with hormone production.
Supplements to Improve Sleep Naturally
Sadly, it is often difficult to get enough nutrients from foods as our soil is depleted and foods are picked before ripe so they can be shipped around the world. Especially if you struggle from a health challenge or sleep problem, it is often helpful to supplement some key nutrients, at least in the short term, as you build your body back up.
- Quality Omega-3s- I’ve found that taking a quality Omega-3 at lunch time seems to improve my sleep, especially over time.
- Magnesium– Many people are deficient in Magnesium and this particular deficiency can have a big impact on sleep quality. Some people find that just adding it about 30 minutes before bedtime can really improve sleep.
- Gelatin– Many of us eat a disproportionate amount of animal muscle meat compared to bone broths, organ meats and marrow. If you aren’t a fan of consuming liver daily, drinking natural gelatin (from grassfed sources) can help balance your intake. Consumption of only muscle meats, which are higher in stress hormones, can cause problems in the sleep cycle. Personally, I often drink a cup of chamomile or herbal tea with a tablespoon of gelatin dissolved in it each night a couple hours before bed.
A Daily Routine for Better Sleep
A daily (and nightly) routine can make a big difference in how easily you fall and stay asleep. You’ll have to experiment to find out what works best for you but here are some helpful suggestions:
- Wake up and go to bed at the same time, even on weekends to keep your hormone cycle regular.
- Eat a high protein/high fat snack a few hours before bed (7pm or earlier) or consume a lot at dinner.
- Avoid caffeine after 1 pm.
- Install F.lux (it is free) on all computers and devices to reduce blue light and help you sleep better (it is also easier on the eyes!)
- Drink enough water during the day and stop drinking about 2 hours before bed so you don’t have to wake up to use the bathroom.
- Take a soothing salt bath about an hour before bed with some relaxing music or a great book.
- Get at least 30 minutes of sunlight each day (even if you aren’t trying to get your vitamin D). The exposure to the wide-spectrum light during the day boosts serotonin levels, which will help improve melatonin levels at night
- Avoid artificial light as much as possible after the sun goes down. I have even installed https://justgetflux.com/ onto all my devices to change the back light to less blue hues.
- Pray, meditate or find a way to reduce stress.
- Give yourself a massage before bed to release stress and help relax.
- Stretch before bed to relax muscles.
How to Improve Your Sleep Environment
Your sleep environment is also extremely important for sleep quality. Artificial light, warm temperatures, sudden noises, and EMFs can all effect sleep quality, but these things are almost always fixable. Again, you’ll have to experiment to figure out what works best for you, but in general, here are some tips:
- Remove ALL artificial light, including the light on your alarm clock, TV light, phone, etc. I use blackout curtains. because we have artificial light outside, and flip over my alarm clock to keep the light from shining in my face.
- Keep the temperature around 65-68 degrees and always below 70 degrees.
- Try some white noise like sounds of rain, ocean. There are great apps out there for that. You can even set an alarm so they shut off automatically after so much time has passed.
- Trade out your jolting buzzing alarm clock for a gentle sunlight alarm clock or soothing music that will wake you up much more gently.
- Try an earthing sheet.I haven’t tried this one, but there is some evidence that sleeping on a grounding mat reduces your exposure to EMFs and improves sleep quality. The book Earthing explains more of the theory behind this method. According to the book, you can also create the same effect by spending time barefoot outside on dirt, grass or rocks daily for at least 30 minutes (If you garden barefoot in the middle of the day, you’ll get three benefits in one! Exercise, Vitamin D and the negative electrons from the earth). I even talked about it in this blog episode.
I can’t stress enough about getting enough sleep. Please make time to get enough sleep. It is tremendously important for your health and it doesn’t cost anything!
If you can’t afford supplements or organic food or don’t have time to workout, at least make sleep a priority!