What You Need to Know about Sleep!

What You Need to Know about Sleep!

The number one thing you need to know about sleep? It is important!

The average person spends 36% of their lives asleep and there is good reason for this. Sleep is as essential to our health and well being as diet, exercise and all the other little things you do to keep yourself healthy. As with diet it is not only quantity of sleep but also quality. The average sleep time historically was about 9 hours. Now, we average about 6.5 hours with an increasing number of us living on even less. According to Lucassen et al. (2008) “Chronic sleep disruption can be regarded as a physiological stressor”. The knock on health effects of both short term and chronic lack of sleep mean we should all be making sleep as much of a priority as going to the gym or eating our 5 a day.

Why is Sleep so Important?

While there are many different theories about the purpose of sleep, it is widely acknowledged that sleep is a time of restoration and rebuilding within the body.

Sleep is Needed for Your Brain to Rebuild

One example of this is in the brain where flushing of the fluid around the brain throughout the brain cells removes waste products. This process mainly occurs during sleep. Therefore without sleep your brain basically cannot properly rid itself of waste products including amino acids. These include substances such as amelyoid beta – a chemical involved in alzheimer’s. Other brain processes such as memory consolidation and processing are carried also out during sleep. Studies have shown that students will retain more information if they sleep on it.The 5 hours after learning is the critical time for memory consolidation and it is sensitive to sleep deprivation (Hagewoud et al. 2010). Have you ever had a problem and then slept on it and figured it out the next morning? This is because problem solving ability increases during sleep because neural connections increase.

Sleep Helps with Weight Loss 

As we all know obesity is one of the most biggest health challenges facing us today. Contributing factors include sedentary lifestyle and poor diet. Another possible factor (and therefore another weapon in the fight against obesity) is sleep. When you don’t sleep enough  your body craves stimulants such as sugar, carbohydrates, caffeine and nicotine to help it sustain itself. Lack of quality sleep can lead to poor diet and lifestyle choices as your body is simply too tired to cope without some sort of additional help. Quality sleep will not only reduce your risk of relying on these stimulants but sleep also decreases the production of grelin- the hormone responsible for hunger. So getting a good night’s sleep can also help you stay on track with maintaining a healthy diet throughout the day.

Lack of Sleep Can Impair Your Body’s Ability to Heal Your Brain!

Sleep deprivation undoubtedly puts the body under stress.  Lack of sleep impairs our brain functionality and can cause damage to the brain. Studies on rats have shown the antioxidant glutathione decreases in some parts of the brain when the rats are deprived of sleep. This chemical is essential for the protection of cells from damage by free radicals, heavy metals and other harmful chemicals in the body. One part of the brain that was found to be particularly vulnerable was the hypothalamus and the study hypothesizes that this could be a factor in the impaired functionality experienced as a result of sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation also effects the stress hormone systems of the body. Meerlo, Sgoifo and Suchecki (2008) state that sleep deprivation may have a direct activating effect on these systems and long term, could affect the reactivity of these stress systems to to other challenges and stressors. This means that long term lack of sleep may inhibit your body’s ability to cope with challenges such as stress and illness.  Increases in blood pressure caused by lack of sleep can potentially contribute to cardiovascular disease. Elevated glucose and insulin levels which are known side effects of sleep deprivation are contributory factors in diabetes. These are just some of the ways sleep physically affects the body.

What Affects our Ability to Sleep?

Many different facets of modern life interfere with the natural rhythm of our body clock also known as circadian rhythm. Circadian rhythm is the internal system that regulates our wake/sleep pattern. It is seen throughout the natural world in plants, animals, fungi and bacteria. This rhythm is controlled by light. In the natural world this would mean daylight. Nowadays, we are surrounded by lights from electric light bulbs, computer screens, televisions and cellphones at all hours of the day and night. This can interfere with this natural rhythm which evolved over thousands of years in a world dominated by sunlight as the main source of light. Overstimulation by unnatural light sources is thought to be one of the contributory factors to the decline of sleep quality in modern life.

Another factor affecting sleep which researchers have identified is our work. Åkerstedt et. al (2002) identified some of the major aspects of work that affect our sleep in different ways. High work demands, physical effort at work, work related stress and the social situation, feelings of support at work all contribute to sleep disruption. The study also identified other factors such as obesity, lack of exercise, age, gender and even martial status as predictors of sleep deprivation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, having a good social support indicated a lower risk for sleep disturbance and poor sleep patterns while being over 45, female, a smoker and overweight increased that risk.

How Do I Know If I am Getting Enough Quality Sleep?

As previously mentioned it is not simply a case of time yourself to sleep for 8 hours of sleep a day (though that does work for many people). The quality of sleep is also crucial as is recognizing that different people have different sleep patterns at different times in their lives. Teenagers internal body clock predisposes them to stay up late at night and wake up late in the day. As we age, people become less capable of sleeping in a large block of time. Older people do not need less sleep but napping is a more effectual way for them to rest. The key things to think about in terms of sleep are- Do you wake up feeling rested or is it very difficult for you to get out of bed in the morning? Do you wake up during the night? Do you experience a slump in your energy during the day? Do you find you rely of coffee, nicotine or sugar etc to wake you up or get you through the day? Do you rely on pharmaceuticals or alcohol to help you get to sleep at night? If so then you may need to take control of your sleep pattern and adopt some simple practices to improve your sleep.

What is Sleep Hygiene?

Sleep Hygiene is is term used to describe practices and habits which are conducive to sleep. Getting a good nights sleep sometimes requires a little bit of planning not just before bed but throughout your day. As previously discussed the circadian rhythm or body clock is regulated by light. Avoiding bright light late at night (at least thirty minutes before you plan on going to bed) can help your body to switch to sleep mode. As previously mentioned the body’s circadian rhythm is controlled by light. Even staring at a TV, computer or phone before bed can interfere with this. Bright lights in the bathroom before bed or when you wake up in the middle of the night should be avoided. Switch to softer, more gentle lights to aid sleep.

How do I get Better Sleep?

Exercise is a fantastic tool to help aid sleep. Vigorous exercise in the morning or early afternoon can help you sleep better at night because it decreases stress levels. It should be avoided right before bed as it will stimulate the body to be more wakeful. Gentle exercise like walking, or yoga are helpful as part of an evening unwinding routine.

Caffeine, nicotine sugar and other stimulants should be avoided close to bed time. Experts vary as to the length of time you should stop consuming these before bed. Some sources say about 6 hours others say more or less. You will find the right balance yourself but it is a good idea to err on the side of caution. Many people advocate the use of alcohol as a “night cap” to help induce sleep. However these should be used with caution. While alcohol may help you to get to sleep in the first place, overall it decreases the quality of your sleep throughout the night as your body works to break it down. Avoiding drinking a lot of liquids for 2 hours before bed is also helpful. Waking in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom has a detrimental effect on the quality of your sleep.

A light meal can be helpful to induce sleep. You should avoid going to bed hungry. However, heavy or spicy meals have the opposite effect and as your body works to digest these food it disturbs the normal processes you should be going through during sleep. Milk has been shown to have properties that are conducive to sleep but not everyone tolerates dairy well so this may not be an option for everyone.

Creating an environment in your bedroom that is conducive to sleep is crucial. Apart from the absence of bright light the temperature should be right for sleeping, noise even background noise will effect your sleep so if necessary use earplugs. Avoid to other activities such as eating or working in your bedroom. This will help your mind to associate this room with sleep and aid in moving your body to the sleep stage.

Avoid going to bed when you are not actually tired. Lying in bed thinking about work or the fact that you are not asleep yet will not induce sleep. Don’t look at the clock and count how many hours you have left before you get up. This can lead to stress and anxiety which only further inhibits your sleep. If you are having trouble sleeping get up and go into another room and do something restful (not looking at a screen!). This may include reading a book, listening to soothing music or meditation.

Maintaining the circadian rhythm will help to improve your sleep quality. This means going to bed and waking up at the same time each day as much as possible (yes even on weekends). Napping, though useful for some people should be avoided for those who find it difficult to sleep at night. If you are a person who must nap then avoid napping later in the day (at least 5 hours before bed). Establishing this routine helps your body to learn when it’s time to wake up and when it’s time to sleep.

Bright lights in the morning will help to stimulate the body into wakefulness mode. going outside in the light or opening up the blinds in your room will help to rid you of that early morning grogginess.

Are there Natural Supplements that can Help with Sleep?

There are many supplements that can be beneficial to aid your sleep. Melatonin is a hormone secreted by the pineal gland in the brain which controls the sleep/wake cycle. Lack of this hormone is what causes people to be poorer sleepers as they age. The darker days of winter cause the body to produce it at different times in winter and it has been linked to seasonal affective disorder. It has been found to be useful in the treatment of cluster headaches and in high doses it has also been shown to be an effective adjunctive treatment for cancer. It can be used as a supplement to aid sleep with minimal side effects and it is often used to help control the sleeping patterns of shift workers. Magnesium and vitamin D also have a role in sleep. Making sure you are getting enough of these essential vitamins and minerals is helpful in the quest for a restful night’s sleep. Avoiding side effects such as grogginess involves finding the right dose. This varies from person to person and you should consult your naturopathic doctor or health care professional to find the right dose for you.

Non-pharmacological interventions for patients suffering with insomnia were found to be beneficial for 70-80% of patients. (Morin et. al 1999). These could include things like homeopathics, acupuncure, mindfulness and the other techniques previously mentioned. There are many health issues such as sleep apnoea, nervous system issues and abnormal hormone levels which can contribute to poor sleep. Talking to your naturopathic doctor may help to uncover or rule out these issues and help you catch those much needed zzzzz.

If you have any questions about sleep and how you can improve your sleep quality feel free to contact our clinic at 604-235-8068 or by email at info@yaletownnaturopathic.com.


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2. Sleep disturbances, work stress and work hours-A cross-sectional study. T Åkerstedt, A Knutsson, P Westerholm, T Theorell, L Alfredsson, G Kecklund. Journal of Psychosomatic Research: February 2002

3. Sleep deprivation induces brain region‐specific decreases in glutathione levels

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4. Nonpharmacologic treatment of chronic insomnia. An American Academy of Sleep Medicine review. Morin CM, Hauri PJ, Espie CA, Spielman AJ, Buysse DJ, Bootzin RR

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5. Coping with Sleep Deprivation: Shifts in Regional Brain Activity and Learning Strategy

Roelina Hagewoud,1,† Robbert Havekes, PhD,1,†§ Paula A. Tiba, PhD,2 Arianna Novati,1 Koen Hogenelst,1 Pim Weinreder,1 Eddy A. Van der Zee, PhD,1 and Peter Meerlo, PhD1. Sleep. 2010.

6. Regulation of adult neurogenesis by stress, sleep disruption, exercise and inflammation: Implications for depression and antidepressant action. P.J. Lucas, P. Meerlo, A.S. Naylor, A.M. Van Dam, A.G. Bayer, E.Fuchs, C.A. Women, B. Czeh. European Neuropsychopharmacology. 2010

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