Sleep is a very important and underestimated part of our health. Sleep and health go hand in hand and each contributes to the other. What do I mean? Adequate sleep contributes to good health and good health supports getting adequate sleep. Here's how.
Although there is great difference in opinion on the optimal amount of sleep people should get every night, seven to eight hours is around the median recommended time. Adequate sleep contributes to a sharp brain, keeps depression at bay, keeps your immune system strong and your skin looking younger. Additionally, in the Wisconsin Sleep Cohort study, it was determined that people who got less than eight hours of sleep per night were more likely to be overweight. There are many reasons for this. People who are up longer, have more opportunity to snack. Also, insufficient levels of sleep alters the body's levels of leptin and ghrelin, the two hormones involved in signaling satiety and hunger. People who get insufficient sleep tend to be overstressed leading to cravings for more sweet foods. Also if you're don't get enough sleep, you're likely to be too tired to exercise. I tried hiking to the top of Camelback mountain after only a few hours rest. I didn't see the summit that day. Although getting more sleep won't automatically result in weight loss, adequate sleep and a regular sleep schedule are essential for regulating appetite and healthy eating patterns.
On the flip side, being overweight can contribute to sleep apnea. People with sleep apnea experience interrupted breathing during sleep. This can lead to a lot of serious conditions, but the most obvious is interrupted sleep. If your sleep is interrupted several times during the night, you can wake in the morning feeling like you got no rest at all. And the cycle continues.
Irregular sleeping patterns can contribute to loss of total sleep too. The human body follows a natural circadian rhythm of wakefulness and sleepiness. Most people feel most tired from 12 a.m. to 6 a.m. and 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Many people who work the night shift and don't follow a natural sleep/wake cycle experience symptoms of shift worker disorder like insomnia or excessive sleepiness. Shift worker disorder is also associated with irritability, impatience and mood disorders such as anxiety and depression. People who work the night shift are involved in more automobile accidents too. If you can, just say no to the night shift. Other health impacts of irregular sleep patterns are gastrointestinal and digestive problems such as heartburn and indigestion; heart problems, including an increased risk of heart attacks and hypertension; higher breast, uterus and colon cancer risk; menstrual irregularities; colds and flu; and weight gain.
So what if the problem isn't cheating yourself on time spent sleeping? What if you lay down at a reasonable time and you just can't fall asleep? There are lots of causes for this like stress, worry, over exhaustion, noises in the room or too quiet a room, a restless bedfellow, digestive issues, lights from electronics, or uncomfortable temperature. Many people can't sleep because they suffer from anxiety which can be treated with the help of a mental health professional. Another reason you might not fall asleep quickly is a steak dinner, spicy, or fatty foods. A high protein dinner takes a lot of digesting and your body isn't meant to work that hard while sleeping. It's probably better for sleep and overall health to load your animal protein earlier in the day. Don't eat too close to bedtime either for the same reason.
Another reason for insomnia or chronic waking throughout the night is adrenal fatigue. Our adrenal glands produce hormones including cortisol and adrenaline. You've probably heard that our stress hormone is cortisol and its antagonist is melatonin. Cortisol helps us stay awake and alert and healthy levels are highest in the morning waning towards the evening. Also, melatonin should be lowest in the morning and highest in the evening. Sometimes when our adrenal glands are stressed they don't put out cortisol at the right time of day. Which is why you can feel tired all day long and when you lay down at night find yourself wide awake. If you have experienced high levels of stress and are experiencing these symptoms there are ways to balance your adrenals with natural adaptogen herbs and meditation techniques. Consult a holistic healthcare professional to help.
If you're waking often in the middle of the night you could have hypoglycemia which is low blood sugar. When we're sleeping we're not eating. And if our body doesn't have enough food to fuel the sleeping activity it will go to the glycogen stores to get energy. If that gets depleted, your body will go into a bit of a panic to get energy to keep you alive and your adrenals will put out adrenaline to wake you up so you can eat. If this is happening you can manage your blood sugar by having a snack before bed like a tablespoon of almond butter. This sleeping pattern could be indicative of a more serious blood sugar management issue. Consult a healthcare professional for help managing your blood sugar levels.
There are also many foods that can enhance your ability to fall asleep. Foods like seeds, seaweed, spinach, nuts, cheese, milk, chicken, game meat, cherries, eggs, etc. contain an essential amino acid called tryptophan that enhances sleep by acting as a precursor to healthy sleep hormones and neurotransmitters. Click here for a ranking of tryptophan containing foods.
Getting enough sleep also contributes to a healthy brain. A healthy brain is better able to regulate all of your hormones too, meaning overall better health. I was very impressed by the work of Daniel Amen on this topic.
Of course getting adequate exercise for better sleep, I think, goes without saying. And finally, a good romp in the sack before bed with a significant other can really start off a good night's sleep. Sweet dreams everyone!