The Sleep – Wake Cycle
Knowing how to sleep well is one of the cornerstones of optimal health. Your circadian rhythm (or sleep-wake cycle) “drives” the rhythms of biological activity in your cells. Each organ of your body has a circadian rhythm where it is active for part of the day and resting and recovering for another part of the day. There are ‘CLOCK’ genes in each cell that control the switch from activity to rest to activity again. Usually, the active period is during daylight hours and the rest period is during dark hours. However, each organ does not have eyes to sense daylight and dark.
The organs rely upon the central master clock in the suprachiasmatic nucleus in the anterior hypothalamus in the base of the brain, which is connected directly to the retina in the eyes, to tell them when it is active daylight time or dark rest time. The central master clock communicates the onset of daylight/rising to the peripheral organ clocks via increasing cortisol and body temperature and decreasing melatonin in the morning. The night is communicated via low cortisol and body temperature, and high melatonin and growth hormone.
Disruptions to the sleep period and messages cascade outward throughout your entire body. For example, besides impairing your immune function, interrupted or reduced sleep can also:
- Increase blood pressure and heart disease risk
- Increase the stress hormone cortisol, leading to less new brain cell growth
- Increase blood insulin, leading to hunger, over-eating and weight gain
- Decrease growth hormone release, leading to less body and brain restoration and accelerated ageing
- Aggravate stomach ulcers and constipation
- Increase Cancer Risk
During sleep our memories are sorted and consolidated into long-term storage, growth hormone release peaks after 2-3 hours of sleep leading to optimal body repair, muscle growth, brain growth (neurogenesis) and interconnections (synapse plasticity), and the immune system strengthens.
How much sleep do we need?
Sleeping for seven to eight hours a night has been linked to positive personality characteristics such as optimism and greater self-esteem compared to those with insomnia or who slept for less than 6 hours (or longer than 9 hours) a night. Regularly sleeping less than 6 hours per night, increases your risk of premature death by 12%. The amount of ideal sleep is six to nine hours per night (usually 7 to 8 hours in a healthy adult), but for the individual, it varies with age, activity, stress levels, health, etc.
As an added bonus, when you “sleep on it,” you’re better able to solve difficult problems, which means the best choice if you have an important exam or work dilemma to face in the morning is not to stay up all night thinking about it, but rather to get a good night’s sleep.
Sleeplessness and Insomnia, which can occur intermittently or for several days or months at a time, is classified as:
- Difficulty falling asleep
- Waking too early in the morning and not being able to get back to sleep
- Waking frequently during the night
- Waking feeling unrefreshed
Common causes of sleep deprivation
Sleeplessness will affect your hormone levels and accelerate the ageing process, and may also play a role in diabetes, depression and cancer. While it may be tempting to look for a pill to quickly help you sleep, these will not address the underlying causes of such sleep disorders, which include:
Stress and Anxiety: All types of negative emotions, including worry, fear, anxiety, etc., can keep you up at night.
Overactive adrenal gland: Increased levels of stress hormones in your body can lead to a hyper-aroused state that makes it difficult to relax and sleep.
Eye problems: People with damage to their optic nerve can have problems sleeping, including difficulty falling asleep, waking up at strange times, sleepiness during the day and insomnia at night.
Cell phones: Using a mobile phone before going to bed could cause insomnia, headaches and confusion, and may also cut your amount of deep sleep, interfering with your body’s ability to refresh itself.
Sleeping Tips – How to Improve the Quality of Your Sleep
There are many factors that can influence your sleep, but one that many fail to consider is the use of light-emitting technology, such as your TV, iPad, and computer, before going to bed. These emit the blue light that will suppress melatonin production, which in turn will hamper your ability to sleep well, as well as impact your cancer risk (melatonin helps to suppress harmful free radicals in your body and slows the production of oestrogen, which can activate cancer). Ideally, you’ll want to turn all such light-emitting gadgets off at least an hour before bedtime i.e. at least one hour of screen-free time before bed.
Devices that filter out blue light can be used in the evening i.e. glasses (fit over and non-fitover), smartphone/tablet/computer/TV screen filters, night lights, lamps.
Sleep deprivation is such a chronic condition these days that you might not even realise you suffer from it. Science has now established that a sleep deficit can have serious, far-reaching effects on your health.
For example, interrupted or impaired sleep can:
- Dramatically weaken your immune system
- Accelerate tumour growth – tumours grow two to three times faster in laboratory animals with severe sleep dysfunctions
- Cause a pre-diabetic state, making you feel hungry even if you’ve already eaten, which can wreak havoc on your body composition and health
- Seriously impair your memory; even a single night of poor sleep – meaning sleeping only 4 to 6 hours – can impact your ability to think clearly the next day
- Impair your performance on physical or mental tasks, and decrease your problem-solving ability
When your circadian rhythms are disrupted, your body produces less melatonin (a hormone and an antioxidant) and has less ability to fight cancer, since melatonin helps suppress free radicals that can lead to cancer. This is why tumours grow faster when you sleep poorly.
How do you know you are getting proper sleep?
If you feel well-rested in the morning, that’s a good sign that your sleep habits are just fine. But if not, you might want to investigate your sleep patterns more closely. Are you a night owl or an early riser?
You could have a professional evaluation in a sleep laboratory for a comprehensive diagnosis if you think you may have sleep apnea or another sleep disorder interfering with quality sleep.
Optimising your sleep sanctuary
- Sleep in complete darkness, or as close to it as possible.
Even the tiniest bit of light in the room can disrupt your internal clock and your pineal gland’s production of melatonin and serotonin. Even the tiniest glow from your clock radio could be interfering with your sleep. This will help decrease your risk of cancer. Close your bedroom door, and get rid of night-lights. Refrain from turning on any light at all during the night, even when getting up to go to the bathroom. Cover up your clock radio. Cover your windows, use blackout shades or drapes. All life evolved in response to predictable patterns of light and darkness, called circadian rhythms. Modern day electrical lighting has significantly betrayed your inner clock by disrupting your natural rhythms. Little bits of light pass directly through your optic nerve to your hypothalamus, which controls your biological clock. Light signals your brain that it’s time to wake up and starts preparing your body for action.
- Keep the temperature in your bedroom no higher than 21 °C.
Many people keep their homes and particularly their upstairs bedrooms too warm. Studies show that the optimal room temperature for sleep is quite cool, between 15.5 to 20 degrees. Keeping your room cooler or hotter can lead to restless sleep. When you sleep, your body’s internal temperature drops to its lowest level, generally about four hours after you fall asleep. Scientists believe a cooler bedroom may therefore be most conducive to sleep, since it mimics your body’s natural temperature drop.
- Check your bedroom for electromagnetic fields.
These can disrupt the pineal gland and the production of melatonin and serotonin, and may have other negative effects as well. To do this, you need a gauss meter. You can find various models online, starting around $10 to $200 on ebay. Some experts even recommend pulling your circuit breaker before bed to kill all power in your house. Especially avoid having the house circuit board on the wall outside the bedroom.
- Move alarm clocks and other electrical devices away from your bed.
If these devices must be used, keep them as far away from your bed as possible, preferably at least one metre. Remove the clock from view so that it is not shining light on your eyes (and hence your pineal gland) while you sleep.
- Avoid using loud alarm clocks.
It is very stressful on your body to be suddenly jolted awake. If you are getting enough sleep with regular sleep and wake times, an alarm may even be unnecessary.
- Reserve your bed for sleeping.
If you are used to watching TV or doing work in bed, you may find it harder to relax and drift off to sleep, so avoid doing these activities in bed.
- Consider separate bedrooms.
Recent studies suggest, for many people, sharing a bed with a partner (or pets) can significantly impair sleep, especially if the partner is a restless sleeper or snores. If bedfellows are consistently interfering with your sleep, you may want to consider a separate bedroom, at least for some nights of the week.
- Reduce or avoid as many drugs as possible.
Many drugs, both prescription and over-the-counter, may adversely affect sleep. Often, medical conditions can be treated with non-drug options.
- Avoid caffeine.
In some people, caffeine is not metabolised efficiently, leaving you feeling its effects long after consumption. So, an afternoon cup of coffee or tea will keep some people from falling asleep at night. Be aware that some medications contain caffeine (i.e. diet pills).
- Avoid alcohol.
Although alcohol will make you drowsy, the effect is short lived and you will often wake up several hours later, unable to fall back asleep. Alcohol will also keep you from entering the deeper stages of sleep, where your body does most of its healing. Growth Hormone is the body’s main repair hormone, and 70% is released in the first few hours of sleep. Alcohol can inhibit up to 75% of Growth Hormone release, significantly reducing daily repair, and facilitating degeneration and ageing. Alcohol can inhibit up to 90% of melatonin release for the night.
- Make certain you are exercising regularly.
Exercising for at least 30 minutes per day can improve your sleep. However, don’t exercise too close to bedtime or it may keep you awake. Studies show exercising in the morning is the best if you can manage it. Exercising outside to increase your sunlight exposure is probably best.
- Get bright sun exposure early in the day to inhibit melatonin production and stimulate cortisol production, so as to adjust your body clock to daytime.
Use a blue light source if bright sunlight is not available i.e. indoors, winter. Thirty minutes per day is enough to anchor your body clock into daytime.
- Lose excess weight.
Being overweight can increase your risk of sleep apnea (breathing pauses during sleep), which can seriously impair your sleep and your health.
- Avoid foods you may be sensitive to.
This is particularly true for sugar, grains, and pasteurised dairy. Sensitivity reactions can cause excess congestion, gastrointestinal upset, bloating and gas, and other problems.
- Have your adrenals checked.
Insomnia may be caused by adrenal stress or fatigue.
If you are menopausal or perimenopausal, get checked out.
The hormonal changes at this time may cause sleep problems if not properly addressed.
- Avoid blue light in the evening.
Use ‘f.lux’ on your computer to automatically remove blue light from your screen in the evening. Use red or amber lighting around the house during the evening as much as possible, or use dimmers to decrease the intensity of the white light. Wear amber glasses after sunset.
Preparing for Bed
- Get to bed as early as possible.
Your body (particularly your adrenal system) does a majority of its recharging between the hours of 11 p.m. and 1 a.m. In addition, your gallbladder dumps toxins during this same period. If you are awake, the toxins back up into your liver, which can further disrupt your health. Prior to the widespread use of electricity, people would go to bed shortly after sundown, as most animals do, and which nature intended for humans as well.
- Don’t change your bedtime.
You should go to bed and wake up at the same times each day, even on the weekends. This will help your body to get into a sleep rhythm and make it easier to fall asleep and get up in the morning.
- Establish a bedtime routine.
This could include meditation, deep breathing, using aromatherapy or essential oils or indulging in a massage from your partner. The key is to find something that makes you feel relaxed, then repeat it each night to help you release the tensions of the day.
- Don’t drink any fluids within 3 hours of going to bed.
This will reduce the likelihood of needing to get up and go to the bathroom, or at least minimise the frequency. If you need to get up to urinate each night, this will interrupt your sleep cycle and diminish the restorative value of the night’s sleep. Discuss with you Doctor ways of minimising night time urination (nocturia).
- Go to the bathroom right before bed.
This will reduce the chances that you’ll wake up to go in the middle of the night.
- Eat a high-protein snack a few hours before bed.
This can provide the L-tryptophan needed for your melatonin and serotonin production.
- Also eat a small piece of fruit.
This can help the tryptophan cross your blood-brain barrier.
- Avoid before-bed snacks, particularly grains and sugars.
These will raise your blood sugar and delay sleep. Later, when blood sugar drops too low (hypoglyceamia), you may wake up and be unable to fall back asleep. Don’t eat during the 2-3 hours before bed. Ideally don’t eat after sunset.
- Take a hot bath, shower or sauna before bed.
When your body temperature is raised in the late evening, it will fall at bedtime, facilitating slumber. The temperature drop from getting out of the bath signals your body it’s time for bed.
- Wear socks to bed.
Feet often feel cold before the rest of the body because they have the poorest circulation. Wearing socks to bed reduces night waking. Make sure they do not have tight bands. As an alternative, you could place a hot water bottle near your feet at night. Discuss with your Doctor possible causes of poor peripheral circulation.
- Wear an eye mask to block out light.
As discussed earlier, it is very important to sleep in as close to complete darkness as possible. That said, it’s not always easy to block out every stream of light using curtains, blinds or drapes, particularly if you live in an urban area (or if your spouse has a different schedule than you do). In these cases, an eye mask can be helpful. $2-10 delivered via ebay.
- Put your work away at least one hour before bed (preferably two hours or more).
This will give your mind a chance to unwind so you can go to sleep feeling calm, not hyped up or anxious about tomorrow’s deadlines.
- No TV right before bed.
Even better, get the TV out of the bedroom or even completely out of the house. It’s too stimulating to the brain, preventing you from falling asleep quickly. TV disrupts your pineal gland function.
- Listen to relaxation CDs.
Some people find the sound of white noise or nature sounds, such as the ocean or forest, to be soothing for sleep.
- Read something spiritual or uplifting.
This may help you relax. Don’t read anything stimulating, such as a mystery or suspense novel, which has the opposite effect. In addition, if you are really enjoying a suspenseful book, you might be tempted to go on reading for hours, instead of going to sleep.
If you often lay in bed with your mind racing, it might be helpful to keep a journal and write down your thoughts before bed.
- Learn a relaxation / meditation technique.
A simple sound, breathing action, thought, mental picture can help relax your mind and body and facilitate sleep.
- Increase your melatonin.
Ideally it is best to increase levels naturally with exposure to bright sunlight in the daytime (along with full spectrum fluorescent bulbs or blue light therapy in the winter) and absolute complete darkness at night. If that isn’t possible, you may want to consider a melatonin supplement. Melatonin has been shown to increase sleepiness, help you fall asleep more quickly and stay asleep, decrease restlessness, and reverse daytime fatigue. Melatonin is a completely natural substance, made by your body, and has many health benefits in addition to sleep.
- Don’t use sleeping tablets.
Sleeping tablets sedate the brain, but don’t allow the normal cycles to occur during the sleep, so the sleep gained is not the optimal restorative form. This effect, and residual drug in your body the next day, can make you sleepy and slow, leading to poorer mental and physical performance, and increased risk of injury, motor vehicle accidents, etc. Also, regular sleeping tablet use will encourage the development of tolerance to its effect and a dependency as well. This means the sedative effect decreases over time (tolerance), and that you can’t relax without the drug being present in your brain (dependency). If you are addicted to sleeping tablets, it would be best to slowly wean yourself off them, and if necessary, replace them with the natural, bio-identical hormone, melatonin. Weaning can be achieved by taking a half dose for a few weeks, then a quarter dose for a few weeks, before ceasing.
- Sleeping Aids.
For times when you need an aid to temporarily help you to sleep, there are natural safe sleep remedies. These include magnesium 200mg with calcium 600mg, wild lettuce supplement 30 – 120mg, hops 30 – 120mg, aromatherapy (lavender), melatonin 0.3 – 5mg, gentle yoga and meditation, L- theanine (from green tea) 50 – 200mg and valerian 200 – 800mg.