How to sleep better
Aug 12, 2020
According to Google Trends, the number of times “insomnia” was searched by Americans in the last year hit a record high. It’s not outrageously surprising given how much stress and anxiety we are experiencing.
However, to say sleep is one of the most important pillars of health would be an understatement.
Trust me, I know it is SO tempting to stay up when it is quiet and you feel like you finally have a moment to yourself. On the nights I decide to stay up, I almost always regret it the next day.
Sleep is not just a passive process - it is an active process during which our brain and body go through different stages to:
- maintain healthy body weight - lack of sleep is associated with weight gain and food cravings.
- Regulate hormones - the majority of our testosterone is produced at night. Testosterone is essential for fertility, muscle mass, a healthy sex drive, optimal cognitive function, heart health.
- 70% of growth hormone is released during sleep. Growth hormone is our anti-aging hormone. It helps us repair, burn fat for fuel, improve bone density and collagen maintenance. Yes - sleep is anti-ageing.
- Boost cognitive function - REM sleep helps to organize and consolidate our memory and improve our focus. During deep sleep, our brain detoxifies. If it doesn't, toxins can accumulate in the brain, this has been associated with dementia.
- Detoxification - during sleep, our body and brain flush toxins from our tissues. (and this is why drinking lots of water, moving your body, and opening your bowels after you wake up is so important).
- Lower inflammation - Our sleep hormone, melatonin, is one of the most powerful antioxidants in the body and when we optimize sleep we are also lowering our inflammation.
I was a true insomniac due to a variety of different medical reasons.
I had so much trouble falling asleep at night. This terrible pattern led to painful migraines, a heavy reliance on all kinds of caffeine I could get my hands on throughout the day, and a dependence on wine for at least a couple of hours of sleep per night.
It was a long time coming, but with lifestyle changes and addressing root causes were (mercury toxicity being a big one), I finally moved towards nipping the problem in the bud.
In this blog post, I’m sharing some of my sleep hygiene tips hoping that they’ll be helpful to those experiencing similar sleep issues.
Stick to a regular sleep schedule.
- Most people can agree that quarantine and shutdown have severely disrupted our regular routines. Although we’re not driving to work like we used to, going to the gym at our regular workout time, or even changing out of our pajamas, it’s important to establish some sort of everyday routine. This is because our circadian rhythm (an internal clock run by your brain that repeats every 24-hours) thrives on regularity. So, when we’re going to bed past 2:00 am, our bodies kind of freak out and become seriously confused. Sticking to the same bedtime from before the shutdown can help improve sleep quality and boost deep sleep.
Avoid blue light one and a half hours before bedtime.
- Bringing your laptop to bed to finish those final thirty minutes of work can sound tempting (guilty!), but it’s best to leave it behind at your desk and set boundaries.
- Blue light exposure has been shown to interfere with melatonin secretion and reset our circadian rhythms, delaying and reducing our quality of sleep.
- The one tool that has really helped me create boundaries is my Oura Ring - the most accurate consumer sleep tracker on the market and keeps my husband and I accountable because we are data-driven. Whenever I spend too much time on screens before bed, I see my sleep score drop. This helps me to do better the next day and commit to switching off and 'unplugging' 1.5 hours before bed.
- If you absolutely cannot stay off screens for 1.5 hours before bed, blue light blockers might help - my favorite blue blocker brand: Blublox (Use code: “Platefulhealth15” for 15% Off)
Get enough sunlight exposure.
- Sunlight exposure first thing in the morning and during the day significantly helps to regulate our circadian rhythm and can help improve the quality of our sleep.
- Aim for 15 minutes as soon as possible after waking, and 15-30min during the day if the weather allows.
- In order for our bodies to believe the difference between night and day, our eyes need to see and feel the changes. This tip is especially helpful for one dealing with jetlag and in need of a reset of their usual circadian rhythm.
Create a bedroom routine.
- I’ve found that the best bedroom routine is breaking down what works best individually for us - it can involve anything that calms our nervous system which will then allow more melatonin (the sleep hormone) to be released.
- Create a routine for yourself! It could include all or a few of the following: a bath, meditation, gentle stretching, a good read, or a sleeping mask… the list goes on and on.
- Figure out what benefits you the most. I’ve recently created a course that discusses a sleep routine in-depth - the Health Reset Mini Course, that may help you get back on track.
- My favorite routine involves a WORRY JOURNAL - spend 10-15 minutes freewriting about what's on your mind, what you are worried about, make a list of things you need to do the next day so that you can go to bed in peace and unburdened.
Keep your bedroom dark and cool.
- 65-70 degrees Fahrenheit is the suggested room temperature for a sleeping individual. Our core body temperatures need to drop for us to enter sleep soundly. The temperature is actually considered to be one of the most important factors in a good night’s sleep. A PubMed article suggests, “Hence, the thermal properties of bedding and sleepwear, both in steady-state and transient ambient temperature conditions, are logically important factors.”
No caffeine after 2:00PM.
- The results of a study concluded that when considerable amounts of coffee were consumed, it mimics insomnia symptoms in the persons, such as irritability and difficulty with focus. The individuals part of the study were drinking coffee throughout the day, even thirty minutes before bedtime and this of course, posed a problem when they were trying to fall asleep at night.
No strenuous exercise 4 hours before bed.
- Strenuous exercise includes High-intensity interval training workouts, running, swimming, cycling, and weight training. Heart rate rises considerably during these exercises, and energy-consuming physical activity has been shown to stimulate the nervous system, causing the heart rate to increase. Research has concluded exercise can disrupt sleep efficiency when done an hour or less before bedtime.
No alcohol or food three hours before bed.
There you have it! 8 ways to encourage a better sleeping cycle and pattern.
How about supplements and sleeping tablets?
You may ask, “well, what about sleeping pills?”
Sleeping pills have their place - they can give short-term relief from sleeplessness. However, they do not give us the restorative quality of sleep we need for various functions like detoxification, growth, tissue repair, and brain function that occur during sleep. Also, they come with side effects:
- Anti-histamine can cause drowsiness the next day
- Xanax long-term is associated with an increased risk of dementia.
(And none of them induce restorative sleep - it's more like an induced drowsy state, and not true sleep).
The bottom line is, melatonin should be produced naturally in our bodies, and when we remove the obstacles in the way of their natural production, sleep should come naturally to us. If you have intractable insomnia, work with your healthcare provider to identify root causes so that you don't need to rely on sleep aids long term.
Common root causes of insomnia include:
- High Cortisol in the body (e.g. from stress or anxiety)
- Hormone imbalance - both too much estrogen and too little estrogen can affect melatonin production
- Nutrient deficiency e.g. B6, magnesium.
- Toxicity - many toxicants can affect our sleep, and as I mentioned, for me it was mercury toxicity - work through this with a doctor well versed in environmental medicine.
That said, melatonin and prescription sleep aids may have their places for short-term use, please discuss and be guided by your medical provider before starting any supplements. The list I provide here is for educational purposes only.
- Melatonin is a hormone the body produces naturally in the brain. Levels of melatonin should be highest at night and lowest in the morning.
- Ideally, it should be taken 90 minutes before your desired bedtime.
- There is a wide variation in dosages of melatonin supplements on the market. In a study, 70% of the melatonin tested did not fall within 10% of the claimed dosage on the label.
Valerian & Hops
- These two herbs are often taken together. They are historically taken for restlessness, nervousness, and anxiety.
- Both are thought to increase levels of GABA in the brain which is our calming neurotransmitter.
- Side effect: drowsiness so driving or machine operation not advised.
- 5-HTP is the precursor to serotonin, a calming neurotransmitter. Serotonin is also the precursor to melatonin, our sleep hormone.
- Magnesium is a mineral that about ½ of the US population is deficient in.
- May be helpful to calm the nervous system and restless leg syndrome.
- Increases levels of GABA and this is why drinking green tea or matcha can help to calm you despite the caffeine - matcha is a rich source of L-theanine.
- One study showed that it may be helpful in improving the sleep of boys 8-12 years old with ADHD. (consult your pediatrician if you are considering this for your child)
- Glycine is another amino acid that helps you fall asleep faster and may improve sleep quality.
- Glycine may also increase serotonin levels, which goes on to produce melatonin.
This medicinal mushroom has sedative effects and may aid sleep, in addition to its immunomodulatory properties. It is one of my favorite medicinal mushrooms and personally, I feel the benefit from regular intake. I didn't feel much of an effect on the first few tries, but now that I've been adding 1/2 tsp to my hot bev regularly just before bed, I notice its calming effects and the improvement to my sleep quality on my Oura Ring.
One of my favorite bedtime bev is the Turmeric tea JOY latte with 1/2 tsp of reishi [discount code: platefulhealth] in cashew milk. It chills me out and helps me get a great night's sleep.
A lot of people swear by CBD to help them get to sleep - it's likely to be helpful if anxiety and stress are your main obstacle to sleep. Note that in studies, cannabis can shorter REM sleep (but increase deep sleep), and personally I feel that it can be helpful as a short term aid but I do see tolerance happening in those who take it everyday on a long term basis (i.e. needing higher and higher doses just to feel an effect)
So, in conclusion, sleep aids may be helpful. but none of them help us obtain the rejuvenation and benefits that natural sleep provide - so, as painful as it might be, if insomnia is an on-going issue for you, try to address underlying root causes.
To get more tips on healthy lifestyle tips and get my full supplement list for sleep - check out my Health Reset Mini Course
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