The more I learn about health, the more I struggle to determine what is the 1 more important thing you need to look after in order to optimize your health. I’ve decided that good nutrition AND good sleep are at the top of my list and in this article I’m focusing on sleep – as too many people take it for granted and don’t get enough sleep, having no idea how that is in fact shortening their life!
We’ve all heard sayings like “sleep is overrated”, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead”, “I’ll catch up on the weekend”, “I only need 3 hours of sleep” and the like. And yet, according to the Cleveland Clinic 70 million Americans struggle with sleep every year. Are you one of them?
There is nothing worse than waking up feeling exhausted and knowing you have a busy day ahead. We’ve all experienced that at times in our lives, whether it’s the result of long-haul travel, some late night partying or parenting newborns and toddlers! You know what I’m talking about and you know what it feels like to have to drag yourself through the day. But when this is your reality day in and day out, life becomes more difficult, you are less stress resilient, you feel more irritable, you are quick to anger, your productivity declines, your decision making worsens and everything just feels harder.
That’s all happening on the outside so to speak, but what is happening on the inside? When you are not getting enough sleep, your good bacteria in your gut are dying off and this causes an imbalance in your gut, which you do not want as 70% of your immune system is housed in your gut. So as your gut becomes less healthy, you are weakening the health of your immune system too.
Testing on groups of people who were allowed 6 hrs vs. 8 hrs sleep for 1 week, showed 711 genes with distorted activity. Half were up and half were down. The immune fighting system were decreased, and those that showed an increase were those related to the promotion of tumors, inflammation, stress, and as a consequence, cardiovascular activity. In fact, lack of sleep has now been identified as one of the causes of Alzheimers, Type 2 Diabetes, heart disease, and some types of cancers.
We actually see the direct link between sleep and heart attacks twice per year every year for cities that have daylight savings! A Michigan Medicine study found a 24% increase in heart attacks, the day after we start daylight savings (thereby losing 1 hour of sleep the night before) and a 21% reduction in heart attacks the day after we go off daylight savings because we have gained an extra hour that night!
We aren’t giving sleep enough importance in our day-to-day lives in order to optimize our health! Humans need 7-9 hours of sleep every night. With less than 7 hours of sleep, objective impairments can be measured. And did you know that every waking moment we are undergoing very mild brain damage, and then the brain repairs itself while we sleep? I know I want to give my brain time to repair, don’t you? The body and brain also detox while we are sleeping, but we often aren’t giving it enough time to do this. To learn more about the importance of detoxing in today’s world, read my previous article “Are Your Trashcans Overflowing?”
So what I love to teach my clients is to plan your sleep first!!! Most people have it backward and they try to get as much done as they can and then fall into bed exhausted at the end of the day, knowing they have to get up again in 5 or 6 hours. AND they expect to sleep on demand – everything else in our world these days is “on demand” but our sleep doesn’t work that way, our body needs time to start producing melatonin so we can get into a restorative sleep, but it no longer gets the ‘natural’ cues it once got in the form of dusk, because electricity and the blue light from our screens all tell our brain that it’s still daytime and not time for bed! But back to planning your sleep first – think about what time you have to get up in the morning and work backwards from there and ensure you are lights out 8 hours prior to that, which means 8.5 – 9 hours prior to that you need to start your bedtime routine (more on that later in the article). I know you might think I’m crazy, as how can you do that if you already don’t have enough hours in the day – but trust me, I promise if you wake up feeling refreshed and energized, you will be more productive and get it all done! You just have to break the pattern you’re in, which isn’t serving you, and create a new pattern that will result in better sleep and higher productivity!
When we learn the importance of our diurnal rhythm (opposite of nocturnal), and we prioritize our sleep, we can significantly impact how we feel on a day-to-day basis, boost our immune health, our gut health and in doing so reduce our risk of chronic illnesses down the path. We are more stress resilient, we aren’t as irritable, we enjoy life more overall, and we wake up feeling refreshed every day!!! Wouldn’t that feel amazing? I know it does, as that is how I feel when I wake up every day, because I’ve learned how to optimize my sleep! Yes, I said I “learned” how to do that – have you ever taken a course on optimizing your sleep? Likely not, as they aren’t very common, because of course, we all come out of the womb knowing how to sleep and so why do we need a course? I have actually created an online course, “6 Steps To Better Sleep” because this information is critical to your health and really easy to implement when you know how! And just for Brainz readers, I’m offering it to you for only $99, with this coupon code: Brainz
You see there is a difference between knowing how to sleep when we are born, and what we do as children, teens and young adults! Throughout our life we develop habits, and some of those habits are negatively impacting our sleep and we don’t even realize it.
We are addicted to coffee, because it’s become the crutch we need to kickstart our brains in the morning and “wake us up”! We are waking up still feeling tired and need something to get our brain into gear! When we do this often enough it simply becomes a habit that we think we cannot live without!
But here’s the kicker – caffeine in coffee has an 8-hour half-life. Which means if get up and drink a cup of coffee at 7 am, half of that caffeine is still running around in your bloodstream at 3 pm and half of that is still in your bloodstream at 11 pm, when you are trying to get to sleep and that’s if you’ve only had 1 cup of coffee! Now we all have different sensitivity levels to various foods and the same applies to coffee. I know people who can drink coffee after dinner and still get to sleep easily, but if I were to have any kind of caffeine after lunch, I’d lie awake until 3 am!
When I work with my clients, I get them to wean off their coffee and give it up for their 21 day detox. The purpose of this is to have them learn how sensitive they are to caffeine. What many people find is that the very thing they thought was giving them energy and helping them, was in fact messing with their ability to get to sleep, leaving them feeling exhausted upon waking and in need of a cup of coffee. When they gave it up, they would fall asleep more easily, enjoy a longer sleep and wake feeling more rested, no longer needing the coffee to kick start their brain! Some clients choose to never go back to coffee, others switch to decaf or a herbal tea called “Dandyblend”, which tastes like coffee! Others resume their coffee drinking but stick to just 1 cup/day instead of multiple cups! Even those who told me they can’t give up coffee, have drastically reduced their intake and have more energy as a result!
EATING TOO CLOSE TO BEDTIME
The timing of our dinner and the food we eat at dinner impacts our sleep. Ideally, we should eat dinner at least 2 hours before we go to bed, so that our meal has been completely digested before we go to sleep. Once we go to sleep our body & brain want to get into detox & repair mode, but if we are still in digestion mode, detox and repair cannot start. And if we aren’t sleeping for long enough, it may not be able to fully complete the process the way that it should. The Chinese believe the hour of the liver is between 1-3 am, so if you are waking up during that time unable to get back to sleep, perhaps it’s because your liver is working really hard during your detox process. I’ve had clients that experience this and once they do my detox program, this issue goes away as we’ve re-set the body and emptied the toxins, so the liver isn’t so overburdened. What you eat also matters – if you have a meal that is high in sugar, close to bedtime, that sugar is giving you energy and is going to be running through your bloodstream and prevent you getting to sleep. Too much animal protein can be a problem too, as it can take longer than 3 hours for the body to digest a big steak! Drinking alcohol before bed is also a problem as it will push you out of REM sleep, which doesn’t allow for enough restorative time for your brain, leaving you with brain fog when you wake.
BLUE LIGHT & SCREEN TIME
This is a habit we have that negatively impacts our sleep, that wasn’t an issue 100 years ago! Our televisions, laptops, tablets and phones all emit blue light, which is the same light the sun emits at noon. It therefore tells our brain that it’s the middle of the day rather than time for bed. It actually blocks the body from producing melatonin, which you need in order to get into a good restorative sleep! For every hour you are on a device after dusk, it will block melatonin production for 30 minutes. So if you are on a device for 3 hours in the evening, once you get off your device, your body will not start producing melatonin for 90 minutes!!! And yet you might quickly brush your teeth, wash your face and fall into bed, hoping for a good night’s sleep – and lie awake yet again!! You may not realize the impact of blue light on your sleep, but now that you do know this, there are several things you can do:
1. Use blue light blocking glasses
2. On your phone & tablet you can turn on “night shift” in settings, and set the time of day you want this turned on and off daily. (“Night shift” is the Apple term, but I know Androids have this capability too). When night shift is turned on, the light emitted from your device is a yellow light – the light of dusk, which doesn’t block melatonin production
3. Download this free software Just Get Flux for your computer/laptop. It will automatically start emitting yellow light at dusk, based on the coordinates of your location. (Word of warning, don’t buy clothes online in the evening as the colours on your screen are skewed in the yellow light!).
One you have set all of these up, you are in a much better position for your body to be producing melatonin to help you with sleep, but don’t stop there, read the next point which is also critical for melatonin production!
TRAIN YOUR BRAIN TO PRODUCE MELATONIN
Going back to our hunter-gather days, the brain knew when to start producing melatonin, based on dusk. Ever since the advent of electricity, the brain hasn’t received such a clear cut directive. Having the lights on in your house, prevents the brain knowing when it’s dusk! But the good news is that we can train our brain to know when to produce melatonin. It’s very easy to do and we naturally did it for our kids when they were younger, as we created a bedtime routine for them. But somewhere in the pre-teen years we tend to let that go out the window. The reality is every single one of us needs a bedtime routine, so that our brain knows when to start producing melatonin. Your bedtime routine should take 30-45 minutes and consist of 4-6 actions that you do every night in the same order for 30 days, so that your brain starts to notice and realize you’re getting ready for bed with your first action and then start producing melatonin. Everyone’s routine will be different – for some it might be walk the dog, take a shower, do some stretching, get into bed and read a book (if using a device, night shift MUST be turned on!). You get the idea, make it work for you, just like you did for your kids (or think about what you did when you were a kid!).
OPTIMAL TIME FOR HUMANS TO GO TO BED
Melatonin and Cortisol are inverse hormones, when melatonin is high, cortisol is low and vice versa! We want cortisol to be at its highest in the morning when we are getting up, so we have energy to start our day, and we want melatonin to be at its highest at bedtime, so we can get into a deep restorative sleep. Human’s natural rhythm has our melatonin rising and cortisol dipping between 9-11 pm, which is the ideal time to go to sleep. I’ve had people tell me, but I like to go to sleep at 2 am – the reality is, they’ve pushed through that 9-11 pm window and then as cortisol starts rising again they get their “second wind” from that cortisol, but that isn’t ideal for melatonin production as it’s already started to decline. Plus going to bed at 2 am likely means you aren’t getting 7-9 hours of sleep each night! And think about the word “Midnight” – it means ‘middle of the night’! You should be asleep BEFORE the middle of the night!! If you go to bed after midnight you are missing out on all that natural melatonin, especially if you’ve been on screens right up until going to bed… these are clues to why you may not be able to fall asleep easily or enjoy a restful night’s sleep. You can start creating a new habit by shifting your bedtime 15 minutes earlier each week, and by the end of the month you’ll be going to bed 1 hour earlier. Keep doing that until you have a new habit of going to bed before 11pm!
TRACKING YOUR SLEEP
There are many devices now that can help you track your sleep so that you can see how you’re doing and make improvements as needed! My favourite is the Oura Ring. (Get $50 off using that link!). It tracks 7 aspects of my sleep, gives me an overall sleep efficiency score, while also tracking my time in bed vs actual sleep time, and breaking down my sleep into 4 categories:
Deep sleep – should be 10-20% of your sleep time, ideally 20%
REM Sleep – should be 20-25%, no more.
Getting too much REM might mean you are in bed for too long (9+ hours, which is too much unless you are recovering from an illness) or that you have too many stressors in your life, and your brain is now over active at night trying to deal with your emotional, mental, physical stressors from your day. Typically your REM sleep is in the latter part of the night, so if you wake up too early, you are also missing out on REM sleep and your brain’s chance to heal.
Plus it tracks my lowest heart rate and my average heart rate variability, which give me additional clues to my sleep! It’s got great explanations of each category and links to blogs to help you further understand each aspect that is being tracked. In addition to all that, it tracks my “readiness” to start each day! It has alerted me to lower readiness, and suggested I may be getting sick and to take it easy that day, a day before I had any symptoms!
My Apple Watch alerts me when it’s time to go to bed, but doesn’t do all of the above tracking. My husband has a Fitbit, which tracks some of the types of sleep but none of the rest. Check them all out and figure out which will suit you best!
Written by: Melissa Deally, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine
First seen on Brainz Magazine August 2022
Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.