Updated: Aug 1, 2020
So many people I see in clinic struggle with the effects of poor sleep. So I want to talk to you about why a good sleep is so important and how you can go about getting it!
A good night’s sleep is as important to health as eating the right things and exercise. Your physical and emotional wellbeing depend on getting enough. Yet we’re living in sleep-deprived times. Some people are even competitive about how little sleep they’re getting, like dragging yourself through the day on four hours’ rest is a badge of honour. Scientists even say we’re now getting an hour or two less sleep each night than we were 60 years ago. And the effect on our bodies is not good.
The amount of sleep each person needs varies. Waking up feeling refreshed in the morning is a good indicator and so is being able to wake without an alarm. If you need an alarm to wake up, you are not getting enough sleep. If you don’t get enough sleep, you may not be able to concentrate properly, and become irritable or agitated. You may also have blurred vision, be clumsy, become disorientated or slow to respond, and have decreased motivation. And, on top of that, if you’re tired and cranky, you are significantly less likely to make the best food choices.
You might be surprised to learn that, in a computer simulated driving test, those who had had just a few hours’ sleep were more dangerous on the (virtual) road than the people who had had a few drinks! In fact, the majority of road accidents are caused by tiredness.
The purpose of sleep is to rest and recover – and to allow the body to repair itself. These maintenance and repair processes take 7 to 9 hours. Adults need between 7 and 9 hours per night – regardless of what you think you have trained yourself to get by with.
But how do you get a good night sleep?
The most common cause of insomnia is a change in your daily routine. For example, travelling, change in work hours, disruption of other behaviours (eating, exercise, leisure, etc.), and relationship conflicts can all cause sleep problems. Establishing good sleep hygiene is the most important thing you can do to maintain good sleep. It might also be helpful to keep a sleep diary to help pinpoint any particular problems.
Sleep and weight
Sleep and weight are intimately related. If you are not getting enough sleep on a regular basis, you are setting yourself up to be hungrier, eat more, weigh more, and have a harder time losing weight. It’s not all in your head.
Busy mums and working women alike, many of you are likely sleep deprived. Scientists now know that, if you are consistently surviving on too little sleep (that’s less than seven and a half hours of good sleep per night), you’re not going to be functioning at your best, focusing properly or thinking creatively. The cherry on top is that you are also sabotaging any attempts to take control of healthy eating and your weight.
Sleep deprivation causes hormone imbalance, and I’m not talking about PMT, but the hormones that directly affect your feelings of hunger. Ghrelin (the hunger hormone that makes you feel hungrier) and leptin (the satiety hormone that tells you when you’ve had enough to eat) are majorly disrupted when you are not sleeping enough. So, after a night of lousy sleep, if you feel like you need to eat a banquet, it’s not all in your head but rather in your hormones. The feast you desire is going to be filled with high-carb, starchy foods and not the lovely healthy ones you might otherwise choose.
Stress and your hormones
Lack of sleep also messes with stress hormones, and stress messes with your sleep. It’s a vicious circle and one particularly good reason why it is so important to take the time to unwind before hitting the sack. Cortisol is one of the main stress hormones. It should follow a specific pattern throughout the day, starting off low (after all, you will have just got up from a ‘restful sleep’), rising to a peak in the morning to get you out of bed and gradually tailing off towards evening time. Prolonged periods of stress can create an imbalance in this daily rhythm that may lead to cortisol levels being high come night-time. Typically, this would leave you feeling tired but wired – absolutely exhausted, but your head is buzzing when you hit the pillow. Not exactly the recipe for success.
The stress placed on the body by lack of sleep also upsets your body’s sensitivity to insulin (the fat-storage hormone), which contributes to weight gain and this, in turn, exacerbates hormonal symptoms like hot flushes and night sweats.
During the perimenopause (the transition to the menopause), those night sweats caused by falling levels of oestrogen are enough to keep anyone from restful slumber. But did you know that oestrogen also allows your body to better use the ‘happy hormone’ serotonin, which is the precursor to the ‘sleep hormone’ melatonin? And, during menopause, when oestrogen levels fall steadily, progesterone falls off a cliff. This is a problem for women because progesterone helps you fall asleep faster and experience fewer disruptions to your sleep. (A similar scenario plays out during menstruation).
Balanced blood sugar levels - better sleep
The starchier carbs you eat, the more glucose is in your blood and the higher the amount of insulin that your body needs to restore blood sugar balance. If your diet is high in starchy carbs like bread, rice, pasta and sugars, you make more insulin, which creates blood sugar fluctuations at night, and these cause sleep disturbances. A sugar ‘crash’ at night triggers a release of cortisol to wake you up at the wrong time, and this can shift you out of deep sleep into a lighter sleep phase. Moving to a way of eating that balances your blood sugar helps significantly improve the quality of your sleep.
A bit of science
Biological clocks are an organism’s innate timing device, which produce circadian rhythms and regulate their timing. The main signal influencing circadian rhythms is daylight which can turn on or turn off genes that control the molecular structure of biological clocks.
Changing the light-dark cycles can speed up, slow down, or reset biological clocks as well as circadian rhythms. Circadian rhythms can influence sleep-wake cycles, hormone release, eating habits and digestion, body temperature, and other important bodily functions. They help define our sleep patterns.
Biological clocks running fast or slow can result in disrupted circadian rhythms. Irregular rhythms have been linked to various chronic health conditions, such as obesity, diabetes, sleep disorders, depression, bipolar disorder, and seasonal affective disorder. The body’s master clock called SCN (suprachiasmatic nucleus) – located in the hypothalamus - governs the production of melatonin, a hormone that makes you sleepy. It receives information about incoming light from the optic nerves, which relay information from the eyes to the brain. When there is less light (at night for instance), the SCN tells the brain to make more melatonin so you start feeling sleepy. There is a lot of current research on how shift work as well as exposure to light from mobile devices during the night may alter circadian rhythms and sleep-wake cycles
Tips to help minimise jet lag
People get jet lag when travel disrupts their circadian rhythms. When you pass through different time zones, your biological clocks will be different from the local time. For example, if you fly west from London to The Caribbean’s (Dominican Republic), you “lose” 5 hours. When you wake up at 8am in the Caribbean’s, your biological clocks are still running on London time, so you feel the way you might feel at 3am in the middle of the night. Your biological clocks will reset, but this often takes a few days.
It is often advised to start setting your watch to your destination time as soon as you step on the plane and eat according to your destination time too. During the plane ride, try to sleep if it’s an appropriate time sleeping time at your destination, or stay awake if it’s not. Once you arrive at your destination, start living on local time full-time and resist going to bed for a nap if you arrive during the day. Eat according to the local clock and strive to stay awake until as close to your usual bedtime (local time).
Getting some sunlight, the next day will help you reset your biological clock so make sure to spend some time outdoors on your first day at your new destination. If you have gone east to west, get your daylight in the late afternoon. If you have gone west to east, the best sun to seek is morning sun. Anyone who travels frequently knows how dehydrating air travel can be. And dehydration can make your jet-lag symptoms more severe. So, drink plenty of water during your plane ride, and continue drinking water once you have arrived.
In terms of food, concentrate on foods that are high in energy boosters such as protein and complex carbohydrates, preferably eaten together.
Tart cherry juice may be a safe and effective way to treat insomnia and increase the amount of sleep you get each night. Tart cherries are naturally rich in melatonin, a hormone responsible for sleepiness. They also contain a good amount of tryptophan and anthocyanins, two compounds that may help the body create melatonin and lengthen its effects. According to a randomized controlled trial, tart cherry juice seems to be just as, if not more, effective at reducing insomnia than valerian and melatonin (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20438325). A great product is Cherry Active: https://active-edge.co.uk. Always consult your general practitioner if you are on medication before trying new products as natural as they may be.
Tips for a good night sleep
Try to go to bed at the same time every day. Your body thrives on routine.
Keep the temperature in your bedroom comfortable; not too hot, nor too cold.
Use your bed only for sleep and sex. This may help you completely switch off.
Keep the bedroom completely dark, so you’re not disturbed by light, which your brain detects even when your eyes are closed. Eye masks can be useful.
Spend time outdoors to soak up the sun.
Try to take some gentle exercise every day. There is evidence that regular exercise improves restful sleep. This includes stretching and aerobic exercise. A brisk walk ticks both boxes.
Make an effort to relax for at least 5 minutes before going to bed - a warm bath, massage, meditation.
Surround yourself with the scent you like to help you drift off. One study found that smells (both good and bad) influence our dreams (https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/07420520500263276).
Keep your feet and hands warm. Wear warm socks and/or mittens or gloves to bed if you struggle with cold extremities.
Consider getting a traditional alarm clock so your smartphone can stay out of the bedroom (see below). Better still, work out how much sleep you need by going to bed 15 minutes earlier until you find that you wake up naturally before your alarm. That’s your personal sleep requirement.
You may consider looking at a few functional /DNA tests that can measure certain markers, i.e. cortisol, DHEA and melatonin in order to have a bigger picture.
Engage in stimulating activities – like playing a competitive game, watching an edge-of-the-seat film, or having an important conversation with a loved one. Even using smartphones and tablets can interfere with sleep, because they emit the same kind of light as the morning sun.
Eat a heavy meal within four hours of going to bed.
Drink caffeine in the afternoon – including coffee, ‘normal’ and green tea, and colas.
Use alcohol to help you sleep. Alcohol can make sleep more disturbed.
Go to bed too hungry. Have a snack before bed – a glass of milk or banana are ideal.
Try to avoid daytime naps.
Try not to get frustrated if you can’t sleep. Go to bed in a positive mood – “I will sleep tonight”.
Stay in bed if you cannot sleep. Get up, go to another room and read a book until you feel sleepy again. Go back to bed.
You will almost certainly have read some of these tips before. Just knowing the information is not going to give you the restful night’s sleep you are looking for. The only thing that counts is action. If you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that lack of sleep is at the root of not getting organised enough to plan your meals ahead of time (which may result in your feeling forced to grab a coffee and croissant on the way to work), has you craving sugary snacks you wouldn’t otherwise eat and feeling like a shadow of your normal self, I invite you to put getting more and/or better sleep at the top of your to-do list this week to see what a difference it can make. You might have a whole list of things on your list already this week but focusing on this ONE thing might be what you need to see a real shift in everything else.