Sleep: The Wonder Drug
Greater than any pill, tonic or fad diet is the power of sleep to heal. Essential and often elusive, adequate, restful sleep plays a vital role in securing lifelong health. Influencing hormones and immune function, sleep has a ripple effect of consequences that impacts nearly every aspect of our physiology.
Persistently poor sleep leaves us more susceptible to common illnesses and increases our risk of diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease and even early mortality. Melatonin and certain disease-fighting cytokines (signaling proteins that coordinate immune function) are released during normal healthy sleep. In cases of sleep deprivation or shifts in sleep patterns, melatonin production is compromised and cancer-inciting cytokines can dominate. Consequently, chronically inadequate sleep may leave us vulnerable to a variety of cancers.
Memory and cognitive function are affected by sleep, too. In the workplace, the effects of poor sleep can result in reduced efficiency and productivity, errors and accidents. Sometimes the effects are fatal, as with far-too-common driving fatalities. Even a single night of inadequate sleep can impair judgment and increase risk. Dementia and cognitive decline are associated with poor sleep. Poor sleep increases amyloid beta and tau proteins in the brain, both associated with the damage seen in Alzheimer’s and other neurological diseases. Sleep seems to be the magic needed to tackle these proteins and decrease their production.
So, when we struggle to get restful sleep, what do we do? First, we discern the cause.
Poor Sleep Hygiene
We seldom talk of sleep and hygiene in the same sentence but, really, it’s a thing. Like other forms of self-care, sleep hygiene requires attention to detail on a daily basis. Establishing healthy rituals and sleep habits can make a world of difference. A few basics: Melatonin production (the neurotransmitter that helps us fall and stay asleep) is stimulated with increasing levels of darkness. In the evening, dim the lights as low as is manageable, in keeping with the setting sun. Set a reasonable curfew (about three to four hours before your usual bedtime) to turn off electronic devices as well as your wireless router. Establish consistent sleep and wake times and maintain this schedule even on the weekends. Avoid eating three hours before bedtime and avoid rigorous evening exercise. Exercise, overall, improves sleep, but vigorous exercise too late in the day can be a hinderance. A heavier morning exercise routine is best, with light activity such as walking or stretching reserved for the evening. A relaxing Epsom salt bath, a cup of hot Chamomile tea (or Golden milk) and a good book make the best nightcaps.
Disruptive Lifestyle Habits: Alcohol, Caffeine, Diet, Screen Time
A common misconception is that alcohol is helpful for sleep. Although it initially increases drowsiness, it is a sleep cycle disrupter. Alcohol decreases REM sleep – the restorative sleep necessary for healthy immune function, mental and physical rejuvenation – and leaves us feeling weary and unrefreshed. When you choose to drink, an early happy hour beverage is best, as your body has time to metabolize it before bedtime rolls around.
Caffeine has wonderfully invigorating and mind-focusing effects. Used later in the day, though, it can be a potent problem for sleep. Restrict caffeine to morning consumption and avoid in excess.
Fluctuating blood sugars during the day can cause frequent waking during the night. Paleo or Ketogenic diets with their low carb, high fiber, moderate protein and healthy fat approach are the most sleep-conducive.
By stimulating addictive and excitatory neurotransmitters, screen time, in all forms, is an enemy of sleep. It is best to limit it as much as possible – not only at night, but throughout the day. Exercise and time in nature have the opposite effect, increasing brain waves that quell anxiety and induce peace.
Stress, Depression, Anxiety
Poor sleep is often associated with stress, depression and anxiety affecting one’s ability to cope. A downward spiral can occur where one issue exacerbates the other. Addressing the root cause may involve a combination of therapies including supplementation, counseling and/or pharmaceuticals. There are consistently helpful approaches once the cause is illuminated.
With age, our hormones and our sleep patterns shift. This is most apparent in women during menopause. Declining progesterone and nocturnal spikes in cortisol can cause frequent waking throughout the night. Treatment may involve natural hormone replacement, or supplements that mitigate cortisol spikes.
Conditions such as sleep apnea or chronic pain may interfere with a good night’s sleep as well. It is always best to address the cause of the problem with your health care provider.
Sleep is our most restorative and healing biological function. Empower yourself in attending to the nurturing of healthy sleep habits and seek professional care when you need it. Your best life depends on it.