Getting a Good Night’s Sleep

February 25, 2011

By johnmac

A good sleep is one of the major foundations of overall good mental, emotional and physical health, but unfortunately, lack of sleep seems to be a significant issue with so many people.

Research has shown that sleep deprivation, which is such a chronic condition these days, can negatively impact many areas of our health, for example:

  • Compromised immune function, making us more susceptible to colds, flus and even serious illnesses such as cancer
  • Negatively affecting hormones that impact weight gain such as insulin (involved in blood sugar balance and fat storage/burning), cortisol (our stress hormone – too much can promote fat storage – especially stubborn belly fat), leptin (an appetite suppressing hormone) and ghrelin (an appetite stimulating hormone)
  • Negatively impact mental and physical performance and mood

Unfortunately, research also shows that the negative health effects of lost sleep can’t be reversed by ‘catching up’ on sleep by going to bed earlier or sleeping in from time to time. It has a cumulative effect that can’t be recaptured.

Many of us are sleep deprived and we don’t even realize it. We figure we’re doing OK because we go to bed at a decent hour and get up 6 to 8 hours later; however, it’s not just the quantity of sleep that is important, but also the quality of sleep.

If we frequently have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep and/or don’t feel refreshed when we wake up, we’re sleep deprived.

So, what can be done about this?

Here are several practical, natural suggestions that can help you to improve the quality and quantity of your sleep:

  • Eat dinner as early as possible and try to make it a lighter meal. Eating a big meal too close to bedtime will likely interfere with your sleep. If you must have a bedtime snack, avoid sugary, starchy, refined carbs. Make it something light – and preferably something that contains some easily digestible protein – perhaps plain yogurt with some ground flax seeds or whole chia seeds and a sprinkle of cinnamon.
  • Many of my clients tell me that their sleep is disturbed by having to get up to go to the bathroom. In order to decrease the chances of this happening, avoid drinking anything 2 or 3 hours before going to bed – and make sure you go to the bathroom right before you go to bed – even if you don’t feel the urge, give it a try. Speaking of fluids – avoid coffee and alcohol. For many of us, even an afternoon coffee can disrupt sleep – and although you may think that a drink of alcohol will relax you and help you fall asleep, it will actually prevent you from getting into the deeper sleep stages that are essential for proper rest and rejuvenation.
  • It’s important to avoid too much stimulation too close to bed time. Get into that habit of ‘shutting down’ at least 30 minutes before sleep time (earlier would be even better!). This includes watching TV (especially anything upsetting) and being at the computer. Even if you think you are relaxing in front of the TV or computer screen, the electromagnetic radiation and light from these devices can interfere with the production of melatonin – a hormone that is essential to a good night’s sleep. Even clock radios should be kept as far away from your bed as possible.
  • And speaking of computers and TVs, keep these out of the bedroom! Your bedroom should be a relaxing sanctuary reserved for retiring at the end of the day! Make your sleeping environment as soothing, relaxing and comfortable as possible – consider everything: décor, lighting, scents, comfortable mattress, pillows and bedding.

Our bodies have built in clocks that produce natural rhythms, known as circadian rhythms (the word ‘circadian’ is Latin for ‘around a day’).  The circadian rhythm is an internal 24-hour cycle that affects our physiology and behaviour. If we follow a lifestyle that is typically out of sink with this internal rhythm, it can shift, causing the body to produce hormones and neurotransmitters (brain chemicals), at the wrong time. Because of this built in natural rhythm, the body loves – in fact, CRAVES routine in everything we do – eating, exercising and especially sleep. In fact, the underlying cause of many mood and sleep disorders is an imbalance or shift in our circadian rhythm.

In terms of having a routine when it comes to bedtime and sleeping, here are a few suggestions:

  • Go to bed and wake up at around the same time every day – even on the weekends. We get our best, most rejuvenating sleep when we are ASLEEP by 11pm (10 would be even better) and get up not much earlier than 6am. Some sources claim that the hours of sleep we get between 10pm and midnight are twice as valuable as the hours we sleep after midnight as this is the time when our adrenal glands typically do the majority of their rest and recharging. If you’re a night owl and can’t possibly imagine getting to bed by 10 or 11, start by gradually moving towards an earlier bedtime by going to bed 15 or 30 minutes earlier every week or so.
  • Strive for 7 to 8 hours of sleep.
  • Establish a routine around bedtime. For example, get your pajamas on, wash your face, brush your teeth, do a few gentle stretches or some meditation, dim the lights, get in bed, journal about what you are grateful for, listen to a relaxation CD, read something that calms you/makes you feel good, etc and turn off the light for sleep time. Come up with a routine that winds you down – and do it in the same order every night. Your body will start to pick up on the cues that it’s time to get into sleep mode.
  • For a good sleep, the body needs to produce a sufficient level of a hormone called melatonin. In addition to being a powerful antioxidant and immune system booster, melatonin helps regulate sleep. It helps us to fall asleep and stay asleep.  The body will produce more of this sleepy-time hormone if we get exposed to bright sunlight during the day and complete darkness at night. It’s important to keep your bedroom as dark as possible (the rule of thumb is that you shouldn’t be able to see your hand if you hold it a few inches away from your face). So, close the blinds and eliminate as much light as you can from all sources – including night lights and clock radios. If your bedroom is just too bright, consider wearing a sleep mask. In addition, if you get up in the middle of the night, try not to turn on any lights as this will disrupt melatonin levels/production.
  • Keep your bedroom cool. Melatonin production is also affected by temperature, so try to keep your bedroom under 70F (research suggests a temperature between 60F and 68F is best).

While it’s best to do what you can naturally to promote the body’s optimal melatonin production, you can also take melatonin supplements. Typically, these supplements come in 3mg to 5mg doses – but even much smaller doses are effective – and more is not always better. In fact, more can be worse. Do not exceed the recommended dose on the label without the advice of your doctor or health care practitioner.

When you awaken after a melatonin-assisted sleep, you should feel refreshed – not groggy. If you feel groggy, you’ve likely taken too much. It’s best to start with lower doses and increase them gradually over the course of a few nights, if necessary. It’s best to take melatonin about an hour before you want to be asleep.

Supplementing with melatonin is meant to help shift our sleep cycle – not take it over permanently, and for this reason, many sources state that supplementation is not intended for long term use for sleep issues. It is commonly advised that melatonin should be taken for 2 to 4 weeks, then stopped for a few weeks so you can see if there is any improvement in your sleep and/or daytime energy before taking it for 2 to 4 more weeks. Hopefully, over the course of this time, you will have also incorporated some of the other previous suggestions as they will also help to shift your sleep cycle in the right direction.

Nighty night!





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