Sleep your key to optimal health

The importance of a good night sleep


One of the most important but often the most challenging obstacles I face when coaching people to optimal health is getting them to understand the importance of sleep and getting them to get to bed on time. In today’s fast paced ever demanding world, sleep is the first thing that gets put on the back burner as we try to cram everything into our busy schedules.

This is not surprising in a culture that values productivity and activity above all else, (yes including our health) and disdains rest and relaxation. “Resting” for most people means watching TV, browsing the internet or engaging with some new app or game on their ipad, which is everything but restful for the brain and the body. Not only have we forgotten the value of rest, we have forgotten how to rest.

Inadequate rest impairs our ability to think, to handle stress, to maintain a healthy immune system and to moderate our emotions. It is also strongly linked with weight gain, heart disease, hypertension, diabetes and a wide range of psychiatric disorders including depression and anxiety. The list goes on and to be honest there’s really no disease or medical condition that sleep deprivation doesn’t either contribute to directly or make matters worse.

In today’s world of late night TV and bright lights at the flick of a switch, it is easy to forget the fact that for thousands of years we actually lived in sync with light and dark cycles of day and night. However what we have forgotten is that our physiology is still the same as our ancient ancestors, the only difference being we come wrapped in fancy clothes, drive cars, and use flash electronic gadgets. Regardless of the fact we have the use of artificial light 24/7 365 days a year at our finger tips, our bodies are still tuned towards the natural rhythms of seasonal day and night cycles.

Whenever light regardless of the source (natural or artificial) stimulates your skin or eyes your brain and your hormonal system think it is morning (time to get up and go!) In response to this your body releases a hormone called cortisol (known as the stress hormone) which prepares your body for movement, work, exercise etc (which is a good thing when the timing is right). A brightly lit house, or working on your computer/ipad/mobile late into the evening will keep your levels of stress hormones (cortisol) high at the wrong end of the day, this having a dramatic impact on your sleep. TVs, computer screens and ipads, flicker on and off between 60-120 cycles per second gearing your brain for morning. Unfortunately as cortisol can take hours to clear from our blood stream, this prevents the release of other key repair hormones including melatonin (prepares your body for sleep) and growth hormones (repair and strengthen the body). This interrupts your body’s valuable recovery time which is essential for optimal health, a strong immune system and the key to aging gracefully. Melatonin which naturally increases after sundown (dark/low lit environments) and peaks during the night whilst you sleep has a powerful antioxidant effect that increases immune function and helps protect us against infection. (Exactly why you generally get a cold or flu after not sleeping well for a few nights).

Adequate sleep and health come hand in hand!

Unfortunately for us, our bodies haven’t forgotten the importance of sleep to our overall health, amongst our need for speed lifestyle changes. I cannot state the importance of this enough “ It is absolutely essential” for basic maintenance and repair of the immune, musculoskeletal, neurological, endocrine,  and digestive systems that we get adequate sleep. Studies have shown that fewer than 6 hours of sleep per night can promote underlying systemic inflammation, insulin resistance (pre diabetes), as well as increased risk for obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. (Yes all of the fun sounding stuff, which are spreading like wild fire globally!!!) If that is not enough of an incentive, a good night’s sleep (7-9hrs) also;

  • improves immune function

  • increases stress tolerance

  • improves athletic performance/strength/recovery

  • enhances memory and mental clarity

  • boosts mood and overall energy

  • promotes a positive mindset


How to get a good night’s sleep

Two of the most important factors in getting a good night’s sleep are managing your blood sugar and stress levels during the day. Most of us race around from meeting to meeting or from one deadline to another with our feet hardly touching the ground all day, skipping meals that pass by like express trains and then wonder why we can’t fall asleep as soon as our head hits the pillow. If our nervous system has been locked in overdrive for most of your day, it’s unrealistic to assume that it can simply just switch into cruise mode in a matter of minutes simply because we want it to. It comes as no surprise to me at all, that more and more people each and every year are becoming reliant on sleeping pills!!!

Key tips to improve your sleep quality;
Sleep prep is KEY!

  • Reduce your exposure to artificial light in the evening;

    • Turn your TV of at 930pm.

    • Avoid using your computer/ipad for at least 90 mins before going to bed.

  • Make sure your bedroom is pitch black.

  • Switch your phone onto flight mode (If you have this in your bedroom and use as an alarm) 

  • Cover your digital alarm clock or get an analog clock.

  • Turn off digital devices that glow or create any type of light.


Stress management:

We all have various forms of stressors in our lives, and a lot of the time these can be out of our control. However; how you perceive and manage these stressors is something within your control. Firstly Identifying the stressors in your day/life then creating a management plan (how you perceive, react, manage, a technique known as reframing) creates a strong foundation for you to work from. Stress management techniques, such as yoga, meditation, tai chi or making time for your favourite hobbies are great ways to switch off and down regulate your nervous system and promote your body’s ability to rest.


Manage your blood sugar levels:

How and what you eat throughout your day WILL affect how you sleep at night. Skipping meals, eating the wrong types of food (refined carbs, breads, pasta, rice etc) the wrong macronutrient balance of meals, a low protein/fat intake and the constant consumption of stimulating drinks (coffee, tea, alcohol, sodas etc) will send your blood sugar and your energy on a complete rollercoaster ride! Some people sleep better after eating a light dinner, this is especially true for those with digestive issues, whilst others like those with a tendency toward hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) do better with a snack before bed. Balancing your blood sugar is key, however there can be a lot of hidden issues that can affect this, if you find this relates to you, this is where I can help!


Get to bed earlier:

Have you heard of the saying “an hour before midnight is worth two hours after” Well there is actually a bit of truth in that. During sleep we go through various cycles known as REM and non REM sleep. In the early part of your sleep cycle (11pm-3am) we experience a deeper non-REM sleep (stage 3-4). However in the later stages of sleep (3am-7am) we shift to more of a REM dominant (stage 1) sleep state (associated with dreaming) along with a lighter stage of REM sleep (stage 2). The key take home form is that it is the deep stage 3 and 4 sleep is where our body regenerates and repairs tissue and engages in other restorative processes. If we don’t get adequate sleep, we miss our opportunity to rejuvenate and heal.

More energy in the evening?

I have worked with many clients who have often told me that they are much more functional in the evening, they do their best work, they are more productive etc. However in truth there’s nothing natural (or healthy) about this. As mentioned earlier throughout thousands of years of human evolution sleep patterns remained in synch with the day/night cycles. We rose with the sun, and went to sleep not long after sundown and this is what our bodies are geared for. In all most all cases I have seen, high evening energy (or a second wind) late into the night is a sign of a disrupted circadian rhythm. Normally, cortisol should be high in the morning and taper off throughout the day and into the evening. This gives us the energy we need to wake up in the morning, and allows us to start winding down after dark and prepare you for sleep. In people who’ve been exposed to significant chronic stress, this rhythm goes haywire. They have low cortisol in the morning (slow sluggish starters) and high cortisol at night, which gives them their late second wind. While drinking several cups of coffee in the morning masks the morning fatigue to some degree, it also perpetuates the pattern by revving them up in the afternoon and evening. One common pattern I see when I work with these self professed “night owls” on their imbalanced cortisol rhythms is that they report feeling tired at night. This is a good sign! It takes them a while to adjust from their contributing lifestyle factors, but it pays dividends to their health. 

I strongly believe that sleep deprivation and poor sleep is one of the biggest underlying causes of many of the modern world’s degenerative diseases, and one of the biggest challenges to our overall health that we face today. We are paying the price for our sleep debt in life threatening ways!

If you are currently experiencing sleep issues and you would like to address these at the underlying cause to optimsie your overall health and wellbeing please get in touch. 

Happiness and Health