As much as I believe that a strong nutrition plan that you digest and absorb (see here) is essential for optimal health, the honest truth is that even if I personally prepared for you the most “perfect” nutrient-dense-real-whole-foods-tailored-for-you diet and even gave you supplements as a bonus, if you’re not sleeping well, your health will suffer. Why? Because sleep is a “nutrient” just as important as food nutrients that we need for our bodies to thrive. (Note: When I sat to write this post, I did not intend to let it get this long, but sleep is so important that I felt it was important to do a bit of a deep dive. So, let’s dig in!)
Sleep & Digestion
Digestion is an extremely energy-dense process. Proper sleep is essential to provide the fuel needed by the important organs of digestion when we are awake, and sleep also gives them an opportunity to rest and repair at night, especially if a poor diet is placing extra demands on any one of them. True rest also helps us manage stress which enables us to enter the important parasympathetic state that we need to be in in order to digest and absorb our food. Adequate sleep also prevents daytime fatigue from making us crave sugar and caffeine, both of which may provide a temporary energy boost but also irritate the digestive tract causing impaired absorption. So, if you want to properly digest your food, you do need to get good sleep.
Sleep & Overall Health
You have probably heard people refer to sleep as “restorative” – by the sound of that, one would think this simply means that sleep is needed to allow the body to build up more energy for the tasks of our next day, but that’s not it – sleep is so much more! The restoration that scientists refer to when it comes to sleep is the detoxification process of clearing out cellular waste that accumulates during our wake-filled hours. During sleep, our body is removing toxins, reenergizing cells, boosting our immune system, building muscles and bones, resetting hormones for mood and metabolism, improving our learning, and supporting our memory function. A great concise infographic on sleep’s impact on health can be found HERE.
Studies (see sources below) have shown a valuable connection between sleep and our health. Here is an abbreviated list of what happens when we do not get enough sleep:
- Weight Gain & Higher Body Mass Index
- shortened sleep decreases leptin, the hormone that suppresses appetite, and increases ghrelin, the hormone that stimulates appetite, leading you to eat more and metabolize less
- Impaired Cognitive Function
- just one night of lost sleep leads to an immediate increase in beta-amyloid, the brain protein associated with Alzheimer’s
- Increased Risk of Heart Disease
- lack of sleep creates inflammation, the number one driver of heart disease
- Increased Risk of Diabetes
- lack of sleep changes the metabolic hormones and precursors needed to regulate insulin
- Decreased Immune Function
- modest sleep loss impairs the body’s ability to rejuvenate and heal
- Increased Anxiety & Depression
- sleep deprivation fires up areas of the brain associated with emotional processing and leads to the abnormal neural activity seen in anxiety disorders
- Weight Gain & Higher Body Mass Index
Essentially, sleeping too little puts your body in a stress mode which alters the important hormones and chemicals needed for optimal health. Said another way:
You cannot be healthy without adequate sleep. Period.
I’m a Night Owl and Even if I Try, My Sleep Is What It Is!
I hear you, but unfortunately, no – none of us are actually “night owls.” You may in fact “feel” like you have a lot of energy at night but that is actually a sign that your natural circadian rhythms are in fact disrupted. You also may hear a lot of talk from others about not being able to fall asleep, often waking up at night (to pee, eat or just stare at the ceiling), or just being too “wired” to sleep a full night, but none of that makes disrupted and inadequate sleep normal, it just means it is common. In fact, sleep deprivation is so common that it has been declared an epidemic and is seen as the #1 health problem in the United States. More than 1/3 of Americans have trouble sleeping every night, 51% of adults say they have problems sleeping at least a few nights each week and 43% report that daytime sleepiness interferes with their normal daytime activities. So, yes, you are not alone, but that doesn’t make it normal, let alone okay for your health.
But I Have So Much to Do, I Don’t Have Time to Get That Much Sleep.
Again, I get it. It feels like we could all use a 36-hour day but honestly what do you think your productivity is like when you don’t get enough sleep? I am willing to bet that you could and would work/learn/perform better if you would choose sleep over that last bit of evening “work.” Sleep should be such a priority for you that if it comes down to a choice between working out and sleep, choose sleep. And before you say you “do fine” with six hours or less of sleep a night, let me ask you to scroll up and re-read that shortened list of the documented health problems due to lack of sleep. Odds are that you have “normalized” less than thriving health. Can you afford to wait until these health problems manifest and are diminishing your quality of life with a chronic illness? It’s time to realize that the old phrase “I can sleep when I’m dead” is actually a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Okay, Fine, I Need More Sleep…But I Really Do Have Trouble.
Once it is disrupted, restoring good sleep can seem difficult but it does not have to be. The good news is that our bodies are naturally wired to sleep and this means that you actually already hold the key to improving your sleep. Where can you find this key? Believe it or not, it is in your eyes! As humans, all of our biological activities are regulated by the light of the sun, specifically through our eyes. Inside our eyes are special nerve cells that are finely tuned to detect a certain frequency of light called blue light. When blue light is sensed, these nerves carry a message to the hypothalamus in the brain where a special area called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), also known as our “master clock,” sends signals to other parts of the brain. These signals tell our body whether it should feel sleepy or wide awake. When blue light decreases, the SCN also notifies another area of our brain called the pineal gland and tells the pineal gland that it is time to start winding down. In response to this signal, the pineal gland secretes melatonin, a hormone that serves a variety of roles but whose main function is to decrease the chemicals that keep us awake, alert and active.
Because melatonin is released naturally as a response to darkness (and diminished blue light), it should be no surprise that our biggest problem in finding good sleep is all the light streaming into our eyes long after the sun goes down. While even basic artificial light is enough to interrupt the brain signaling we need for melatonin production, blue light has been found to suppress melatonin and disrupt circadian rhythms for more than twice as long as other light. What is also concerning is that the window of opportunity for melatonin production is small. Your body will naturally initiate slowly producing melatonin in the evening but if you inhibit it or do not embrace it in time, the window closes and you will have a restless night’s sleep ahead of you.
So How Do I Help My Brain Produce What I Need to Sleep?
Encouraging melatonin production and strengthening the functioning of your body’s master clock is well within your control – but it will require you to be honest about some habits you have most likely developed around sleep. As you work to make changes to improve your sleep, keep in mind how important it is to your overall health. Here are 10 basic steps all of us should be taking for better sleep:
- Dim the lights in the room you’re in each evening – whether reading a book or watching a show, sit in a room with the lights low as even non-blue light over-stimulates the brain
- Stop using electronic screens (blue light) at least 2 hours before bed – put away ALL mobile devices and move further away from your TV
- Don’t be full or hungry within a few hours of bedtime – your body needs to be done with digestion and have balanced blood sugar in order to receive the signals needed for sleep
- Don’t eat junk – eat real foods so that your body has the nutrient compounds needed to make melatonin.
- GET YOUR PHONE OUT OF YOUR ROOM – can you tell how important this one is? No one needs a mobile device next to their bed, ever. Period. Even if you think you absolutely need to be “reachable” during the night, turn on Do Not Disturb, put important folks on Emergency Bypass, and charge your phone out in the hall or in your bathroom.
- Get blackout shades in your bedroom – preventing your pineal gland from receiving light signals from outside will keep your circadian rhythms in check.
- Get an analog clock or cover your digital one – every night as I turn out my lamp, I flip my digital clock face down and it has been a game changer!
- Cover anything that glows – that includes that power lights on all electronics in your room, including any cable boxes, cordless phones, etc.
- Do NOT “check” your clock or phone – if you wake at night to use the bathroom, skip looking at any screens – it doesn’t matter what alerts say or what time it is, your job at that moment is to sleep.
Making these basic and easy changes will drastically improve your ability to reach the recommended 7-9 hours of uninterrupted sleep.
Wait, What Is the 10th Step?
When my clients change their sleep hygiene with the basic steps above and still struggle with sleep, it is usually a sign that they are overlooking the most important factor in getting a good night’s sleep – managing stress. When our body is in a constant state of stress, we end up with an excess of adrenal hormones circulating throughout our body which keep us alert and wired. In order to for us to quiet down this keyed-up state of mind, we need extra melatonin, often more than we are even able to produce. Frequently this is when people will consider reaching for sleep aids but these don’t actually help you fall asleep, they merely knock you out – literally – and being unconscious does not count for sleep! Start by doing your most “stimulating” or stressful activities (including exercise) early in the day, and consider some meditation and other mindfulness techniques that will help you quiet your brain each day. If you feel like you are managing stress but sleep is still elusive, it may be time to work with a practitioner who can help you investigate whether there are any underlying imbalances and deficiencies for which your body needs support. Reach out to me using the contact form here or schedule a free consult so that I can help you identify what your body needs for optimal sleep and health.