While it seems like getting sleep should be pretty straight-forward, its not always as easy at it would seem for some. If you struggle with falling asleep, waking during the night and being unable to get back to sleep or waking up in the morning feeling like you haven’t slept at all, you’re not alone. These are often symptoms that there is hormone disruption or dysregulation in the parts of the brain that control our sleep-wake cycles. Because of this, if you are not working on bringing these systems back into balance, getting a good night’s rest can be much harder then simply going to bed at a certain time. Follow the tips below to make sure you are doing all you can to help your body get quality, restorative sleep.
- Sleep in a dark room. Light stimulates the pineal gland in the brain and begins the process of cortisol secretion. Cortisol is antagonist to melatonin, the hormone the helps us sleep. Use black-out curtains, cover up any lights from electronic devices, including alarm clocks or even remove electronics from the bedroom altogether.
- Sync your sleep cycle with natural light-dark cycles. Our bodies and our brains are still very much adapted to the natural rhythm of light and dark. Recent studies have shown that these natural rhythms even affect the expression of our genes. To keep it simple, sleep when it is dark, and be active when it is light out. This also means that there are seasonal variations in how much sleep we need. In the summer, with its long days and short nights, we can function better on less sleep. In the winter, however, our bodies crave more sleep due to the longer nights and shorter days.
- Avoid screen time within an hour of bed. The blue light emitted from computer screens, TVs, tablets, smartphones and other electronic devices actually stimulates certain parts of the brain, leading to cortisol release and suppression of melatonin production. The corollary to this is to make sure you get a few minutes of bright light during the day.
- Use these. If you must use computers in the evening, wear orange lens to block the blue light. This will help protect the parts of your brain that are stimulated by the blue light.
- Avoid carbs before bed. Many people crave a carbohydrate-rich snack before bed. This helps boost serotonin production and melatonin is made from serotonin. However, a carbohydrate rich snack will also cause a large release of insulin. When the blood sugar then drops too low, cortisol and even adrenaline may be released to bring blood sugar levels back up by releasing stored glycogen. Since cortisol is antagonistic to melatonin and adrenaline revs up your fight-or-flight sympathetic nervous system, this may result in waking up in the middle of the night and being unable to get back to sleep.
- Eat to manage blood sugar throughout the day. Focus on getting plenty of protein and good fats to keep blood sugar levels even. Get your carbohydrates from whole foods sources like vegetables and some fruits instead of breads, pastas and baked goods. Large fluctuations in blood sugar levels throughout the day are perceived by the body as stress, prompting the release of cortisol. Cortisol levels that are too high, especially late in the day, will impede sleep.
- Avoid caffeine and other stimulants, especially late in the day. Caffeine stimulates the adrenals and also certain parts the brain. While this may be helpful earlier in the day, it can negatively impact sleep later the day. Caffeine has a half-life of 12 hours, so count back twelve hours from your planned bed time to determine when to have your last cup for the day.
- Exercise. A survey by the National Sleep Foundation found that those who engaged in vigorous exercise reported the least amount of bad sleep. Exercise can help improve your sleep by reducing stress and helping to reduce the effects on diabetes and obesity, which can both disrupt sleep. If vigorous exercise is too much for you, even a ten-minute walk daily can be a good starting place.
- Meditate. Any technique that you practice regularly to reduce stress will work, the key is to pick something that you can easily make into a daily habit. By reducing stress, you help to reduce your cortisol levels and get a better night’s sleep.
- Get your cortisol rhythm tested. If stress has been a long-standing issue for you, your hippocampus may have been become dysregulated, leading to an irregular daily cortisol rhythm. Cortisol should be high first thing in the morning and then slowly taper off till bedtime. In some individuals, this pattern may be flip-flopped, resulting in having a hard time falling asleep and then waking up feeling as if you didn’t sleep at all. If this is your case, you may need to work with a functional medicine practitioner who can get you started on supplemental support for hippocampus and adrenal glands.
Better sleep is possible to achieve and worth the effort to improve your health! Improved sleep will not only lead to improve energy levels during your day, but also helps with your weight loss goals by decreasing fat-storing cortisol and decreasing cravings throughout the day.
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