Have you ever had the experience of being exhausted during the day and all you can think about is getting some sleep?
But then, when your head finally hits the pillow, you're wide awake!
Logically this "dynamic duo" of fatigue plus insomnia (or what we call "nighttime restlessness") would seem to be "opposites" - If you're so tired, why can't you fall asleep? But they are commonly found together in the two-thirds of the North American population who report experiencing chronic stress and who also gets inadequate sleep (we often refer to these folks as the "tired and wired" - and they number in the millions). The common element? Disruptions in the body's biochemical balance. That imbalance is characterized by too much cortisol, too little testosterone, and the cascade of metabolic disruptions including oxidation/inflammation that lead to cellular stress.
The combination of daytime fatigue/exhaustion and nighttime insomnia/restlessness sets off a vicious cycle in which stress makes it hard to relax and fall asleep—which then leads to more fatigue. And being more fatigued after a sleepless night makes it harder to deal with daily stressors, which then causes even more difficulty falling asleep the next night...and the next night and the next after that in a repetitive cycle that ultimately ends in burnout.
In the long run, when you sleep fewer hours than the recommended eight hours per night, you can experience annoying side effects, such as headaches, irritability, frequent infections, depression, anxiety, confusion, and generalized mental and physical fatigue. Not only can the lack of sleep leave you feeling lousy and low on vigor, but research shows that even mild sleep deprivation can actually destroy a person's long-term health and increase the risk of burnout, diabetes, obesity, and breast cancer. In many ways, sleeping fewer than eight hours each night is as bad for overall wellness as gorging on junk food or becoming a couch potato!
Sleep researchers from the University of Chicago and several other universities have shown that inadequate sleep leads to a cascade of biochemical events, starting with increased cortisol levels (stress hormone), which induces insulin resistance, leading to higher blood-sugar (glucose) levels, causing increased measures of oxidative and inflammatory damage, stimulating appetite, and eventually leading to abdominal fat (belly fat) gain. Researchers have compared "normal" sleepers (averaging eight hours of sleep per night) to "short" sleepers (averaging six hours or less of sleep per night) - finding that the "short" sleepers secreted 50 percent more cortisol and insulin and were 40 percent less sensitive to the effects of insulin than the "normal" sleepers. Missing a couple hours of sleep can basically put you into a pre-diabetic state with all the associated cellular stress and eventual health problems.
One of the best ways to improve your sleep quality is to manage electronic interruptions. The beeps and buzzes from your computer and iPhone can add an annoying level of stress to your day. Instead of just responding every time you get an electronic interruption, take charge of those devices and set them to only alert you at specific times. Remember that your cell phone is there for your convenience – not the convenience of others. For instance, most e-mail programs are automatically set to check for new messages every five minutes – which means you're interrupted by the "new-message beep" ninety-six times in an eight-hour day! How do you expect to get any "real" work done? Also, consider (as I do) shutting off your e-mail program during certain parts of the day, enabling you to get your "important" work accomplished whenever you're most mentally fresh. Whenever possible, leave the cell phone behind. It may be hard to imagine today, but it wasn't too many years ago that people got along perfectly fine without cell phones. Try taking a break from your phone when possible by leaving it behind – especially during your daily workout. I make that recommendation, because if you carry your phone with you—even if you tell yourself that you won't answer it—a part of your mind still waits for it to ring, or buzz, or play your favorite ringtone. Let that part of your brain relax and forget about the phone every now and then.
Here is my favorite "bedtime routine" to help get your body and mind ready to sleep:
- Set an alarm - for when you want to go to bed! Let's say you want to get 7 hours of sleep - and you need to wakeup at 6am to get ready for work. That means that you need to be asleep by 11pm - and your alarm should go off at 10pm to give you an hour to get ready for sleep.
- When that alarm goes off at 10pm, put down your electronic devices - and get away from their brain-stimulating blue light. For that hour, read a book and allow your body and mind to slowly relax toward sleep. Drink a warm cup of herbal tea. Have a small snack (see below) - which will help you fall asleep faster due to increased melatonin production and help you stay asleep thru the night due to better blood sugar control.
- Here are my favorite "Sleep Snacks" - my favorite "stress balancing" foods and supplements that can be used to help bust stress and improve sleep quality.
- Oatmeal and Cherries - help the body to generate more melatonin (the sleep hormone) so you can fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer (and also keep you from taking synthetic melatonin hormone "supplements" that can interfere with your body's ability to make it's own melatonin - you'll also avoid the common "melatonin hangover" that leaves so many people groggy and sluggish the next morning).
- Corn Grass Extract / phytotonin (sleep stress) - a plant-derived phytonutrient (MBOA), a non-drowsy melatonin-like "plant-melatonin" that improves mood during the day and dramatically enhances sleep quality at night.
- Milk / casein decapeptide (cellular stress) - the "old wives tale" about drinking a glass of warm milk before bed to help you sleep is TRUE! The anti-stress and relaxation benefits of milk are due to a specific protein chain (decapeptide) that naturally induces a relaxation response in the brain - improving both sleep quality and stress resilience.
- Sugar - that's right - sugar - it's not exactly "toxic" like you may have read about - but you need to use it wisely. We all know that when we're stressed out, we crave sweets. This carb-craving is because cortisol (our primary stress hormone) signals the brain to seek out sugar to "fuel" our fight-or-flight stress response. Instead of gorging on junk food to satisfy these sugar cravings, we can use the right amount of properly balanced carbohydrates to reduce cravings, while also improving daytime mood and enhancing nighttime sleep quality. Just the right amount of low-glycemic carbohydrate, about 10-20 grams (40-80 calories), can increase serotonin levels (for good mood during the day) and naturally enhance melatonin production at night (so you fall asleep faster and sleep deeper for improved sleep quality).
By using your behaviors and targeted foods to address different aspects of our stress response, we can effectively and naturally control existing stress - while also "vaccinating" ourselves against future stress - which increases our overall resilience to the stressful modern world in which we all live - and enables us to finally get some much-need restorative sleep!
Thanks for reading,
Shawn M Talbott, PhD, CNS, LDN, FACSM, FAIS, FACN
Nutritional Biochemist and Author