Sleep: The ABCs of ZZZs

“Do but consider what an excellent thing sleep is…that golden chain that ties health and our bodies together.”

—Thomas Dekker (c. 1572-1632)

Sleep is one of those odd experiences we don’t give much attention to. Not quite conscious, not quite unconscious, this semi dead state that is critical to our well-being has been increasingly compromised in favour of other things that need our wakeful attention.

Almost everybody knows that sleep is important because it is difficult to ignore the symptoms of not having enough of it. This post will serve as a reminder as to why sleep is important for our body and well-being, what happens when we don’t get enough sleep, and what we can do to improve our sleeping patterns.

Why Sleep?

When asleep, we’re essentially succumbing to a vulnerable, paralyzed state, one where we can’t hunt for a meal or keep from becoming a meal. There must be a darn good reason for evolution to necessitate this risky business. As noted by Dr. Matthew Walker, author of the book Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams,“mother nature wouldn’t waste time putting us into a state that wasn’t necessary.”

Not getting enough shut-eye can lead to problems that go beyond the dreaded black circles and bags under the eyes. We need adequate sleep to support an array of bodily functions, including optimal cognitive performance, hormonal regulation, muscle recovery, memory retention, mood, appetite control, wound healing, immune support, good judgment and the list goes on.

Many people, especially older adults often do not see the correlation between their ailments and poor sleep habits. But epidemiological studies have repeatedly shown that there is a causal link between a wide range of diseases and lack of sleep.

Moving to the rhythm

Our body follows a circadian rhythm that is akin to the rhythm of the earth. This rhythm regulates many physiological processes, including sleep and appetite. Some people are so affected by this balance that when an imbalance occurs, such as when a meal is eaten past midnight, blood sugar levels can rise to diabetic levels.

The importance of sleep for the body

Sleep yourself thin

Sleep studies show a link between not enough sleep and weight gain, obesity and diabetes. Short sleep cycles can increase one’s risk of developing these diseases, likely because hormones are affected by inadequate sleep. Lack of sleep can impair insulin, the hormone responsible for keeping our blood sugars stable. As summarized in their book, Sleep: A Very Short Introduction, when research participants were subjected to 4-5 hours of sleep per night for seven days, various hormonal changes occurred that resulted in an increase in appetite. This led to overeating, which was not due to the fact that the participants were awake for longer and, therefore, had more hours in the day to eat, but rather to an imbalance in hormones, such as leptin and ghrelin, which affect appetite, and can lead to the overconsumption of calories, especially carbohydrates.

You snooze, you win

You may want to push the snooze button and lay off the 5:00am gym class to grow stronger. A study published in the Journal of Musculoskeletal and Neuronal Interactions found that subjects  who slept for 6 hours or less exhibited weaker muscles—as determined by a handgrip strength test— than those who got 7-8 hours of sleep. Interestingly, those who got more than 8 hours did not show a significant difference in muscle strength from those who slept 7-8 hours, suggesting that around 7-8 hours of sleep may be adequate for most people.

The importance of sleep for the mind

Sleep can buy you happiness

A collaborative study between the Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and MIT Media Lab Affective Computing Group shows how monumental sleep can be for mental clarity, calmness, happiness and well-being amongst college students. The study took 204 college students who participated in a 30-day field study where their sleep duration and timing were monitored. The participants logged their state of happiness in the mornings and evenings. Consistently regular sleep patterns led to happier, healthier and calmer students. Week-long irregular sleep patterns were significantly associated with lower self-reported happiness and well-being.

Three steps you can take tonight to feel well rested tomorrow

A.    Mind your cues

Zeitgebers are external environmental cues which influence our circadian rhythm. Meal timing is an example of a zeitgeber. Our bodies have adapted to metabolize energy during the daytime. Finishing meals by around 8:00pm can help keep your body in line with your circadian rhythm. Incorporating some carbohydrates into your dinner can help induce sleep since carbohydrates influence the hormone leptin which can have an effect on sleep. This may explain why some who are on very low carb diets or extremely low-calorie diets struggle with falling and staying sleep.

Another zeitgeber, perhaps the most influential indicator for sleep and wakefulness, is light. In his book Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams, Dr. Matthew Walker discusses how we live in a “dark deprived society.” He notes that one hour of smart phone usage can delay how much melatonin we produce by three hours and our peak melatonin levels are 50% less. Melatonin is known as the “hormone of darkness” because it signals to the body and brain that it is nighttime and that you ought to prepare for slumber.

Temperature is another zeitgeber that is associated with daytime and nighttime behaviour. Daytime hours are associated with the warmth of the sun. Activities such as walking, eating and concentrating are normally done during the day. The sunlight on the skin and eyes sets the environment for such activities. Nighttime is associated with a drop in temperature as the sun sets and, therefore, with less activity, less consumption of food, and less mental focus.

A good practice, in order to line up with your circadian rhythm is to get the warmth of the sunlight during the daytime and to keep your bedroom cool and dark during the nighttime.  Your brain needs to drop its temperature in order to sleep.

B.   Walk it off

Many of us spend our days in a sedentary state. Movement in the outdoors is important for wakefulness, for getting beneficial sunlight on skin and for fresh air. Light evening activity can also serve as a sleep aid. Enjoy a leisurely walk after dinner. Light activity a few hours before settling in for the night can help improve sleep as well as digestion after a meal. More strenuous activity should be entirely avoided at night or performed at least three hours before bedtime. Exercise performed too late at night has the potential to increase adrenaline and cortisol levels and can keep you awake.

C.   Rest before you sleep

A common problem among many people today is that their brain likes to chatter the loudest just as they are trying to fall asleep. Certain thoughts can increase stress levels and jolt the body into a state of alertness. Several soothing practices can prep you before bedtime.

  • Take a bath. The warmth of the water followed by the sudden drop in temperature afterwards can produce sleepiness.
  • Avoid television, smartphones and computers at least an hour before bed and keep ambient lights dim.
  • Invest in a good sleep mask and blackout curtains to keep your sleep environment dark.
  • Meditate. You can prepare for sleep by sitting in silence or while listening to soothing music. Aim for 15-20 minutes of meditation before bedtime.
  • Diffuse and apply essential oils that are known to be soporific. Examples include lavender, vetiver, chamomile, frankincense and valerian.
  • Invest in a good white noise machine. City noise can be a major contributor to poor sleep. Drowning out noise can help you fall asleep and stay asleep.
  • Apply a magnesium spray on the soles of the feet before bed or take magnesium internally. Magnesium is a calmative and a known sleep aid.
  • Try eating a spoonful of raw honey before bed. Honey may serve as a healthy sleep aid.

Wrapping it up

Free of cost, available to everyone, used without a doctor’s prescription and effective with only beneficial side effects, everyone should avail themselves to the power of a good night’s sleep. Regular sleep is important for maintaining a healthy weight, enhancing physical performance and keeping us happy and productive. For a sounder sleep, avoid bright lights an hour before bed, sleep in a cool environment, avoid eating past 8:00pm, engage in light activity after dinner, prep yourself before bedtime by taking 15-20 minutes to engage in a restorative activity, such as meditation, and use sleep aids as needed, such as a sleep mask, white noise machine and magnesium spray on the soles of the feet.

 

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