Sleep is crucial for your health and wellbeing. Regular, good quality sleep allows your body to heal and regenerate, in fact, there’s no part of you that doesn’t benefit from getting a restful night’s sleep. Studies on people who experience insomnia report that chronic lack of sleep can increase their risk of developing conditions like hypertension, cardiovascular disease and metabolic disorders including type 2 diabetes. It is also associated with low mood and depression. Everyone’s a bit different when it comes to sleep and you might find you need a little less as you age, however, most adults need around 7-9 hours of sleep each night to support their health and wellbeing.
Your body’s sleep-wake cycle is regulated by your brain and hormones such as melatonin and cortisol. There is a natural rhythm that occurs in response to the fluctuations of light, temperature and changes to hormone levels – this is called your circadian rhythm. Factors such as exposure to bright light and/or eating foods high in glucose just prior to going to bed can affect the delicate balance and lead to sleeplessness. Another factor that plays a big role is one we can’t always pinpoint and that’s stress – have you noticed when you have something big going on at work you find it difficult to go to sleep despite being really tired?
The reason that these things can have negative effects on your sleep is because they increase production of cortisol which is a hormone associated with wakefulness. They also switch off or dampen down a chemical produced by the nervous system to promote relaxation and sleep called GABA. This chemical talks to other parts of your nervous system to produce physical effects including muscle relaxation and sedation. Conversely, cortisol has the opposite effect by increasing heart rate, breathing and the release of more glucose into your blood stream – no wonder you can’t get to sleep!
So, what can you do to ensure you get a good night’s sleep?
Well, your body likes a routine so it’s a good idea to go to bed at roughly the same time each night. Make sure your environment is comfortable and the room is dark and cool. Leave all screen devices including the television, laptop, ipad and phone in another room and try reading or listening to some peaceful music before you go to sleep. It’s also important to have your evening meal 2-3 hours before you go to bed and reduce high sugar foods, especially things like ice cream and other sugary deserts. This also goes for alcohol. Even though it can initially make you feel relaxed, it actually has the opposite effect once it starts being metabolised by your body and can increase the production of cortisol. Caffeine and nicotine are also stimulating and should be avoided later in the day to improve sleep.
Some other techniques that can help to improve sleep include: having a warm bath with a few drops of relaxing essential oils such as lavender, doing a mindfulness meditation before bed or some deep stretches such as the practice of Yin yoga.
There are some medicinal herbs and nutrients that can help to establish a good sleep routine when used as part of a holistic treatment plan that addresses diet and lifestyle. Herbs such as Kava, Passionflower and Lime Flower can help the body to relax and drift off to sleep. Californian poppy and Lavender are also helpful when sleep becomes elusive. Nutrients including magnesium, glycine and theanine can help to regulate cortisol production and improve production of the calming neurotransmitter GABA that will help you get a good night’s sleep.
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