Sleep, it’s not what we think of when we think of living our lives to the fullest is it? I’ve said it myself “I can sleep when I’m dead”, and you know what, according to science, not sleeping might just get you there faster, and who wants that!!
Now don’t get me wrong I’m not saying a lack of sleep will kill you faster but it can increase your risk for things that do. Heart disease, high blood pressure, strokes, diabetes and obesity all have strong medical links to sleep deficiency (NIH 2019).
So let’s have a look at what’s going on when you sleep and why it matters to your health. Note, we are going to talk about Sleep Deficiency as it relates to a lack of sleep in-sync with the natural circadian rhythm of the body.
First, you have two types of sleep, REM (Rapid Eye Movement) and Non-REM sleep or deep sleep, both occur throughout the night in 3-5 hour cycles. We tend to have our REM within the first 90 minutes of sleep and again closer to waking, dreams tend to be more vivid during this state of sleep.
Signs of sleep deficiency or lack of sleep can vary from person to person but in adults can often be seen as:
-Impaired decision making abilities
-Difficulty problem solving and coping with behaviors
-Low or erratic moods
-Lack of motivation
-Overeating and cravings.
In youth it can display a little differently:
-Difficulty paying attention
-Anger or Frustration
- Lack of motivation
Whether it is adults or youth, the outcome is similar, in that it really impairs how we think and act the following day. When this goes on regularly we begin to see the effects on our mind and body as mentioned above.
So why is sleep so important? Well let's look at some of the key roles it plays, from the onset of sleep to why it matters we stay asleep for 7-8 hours depending on age range.
- First though let’s look at the hormones, of which there are 2 (primarily Adenosine and Melatonin), that are involved in the onset of sleep:
Adenosine, an inhibitory neurotransmitter plays an important role in energy transfer from ATP to ADP, acts as a depressant on the CNS (central nervous system) and inhibits many processes associated with being awake (Peters, 2020). It increases in the brain every hour from the time we wake, therefore by evening, levels are high enough that we begin to feel sleepy and this increases the longer we stay awake. - Fact: *caffeine actually blocks the brain's adenosine processing, hence why we can stay awake and alert longer with caffeine...NOT ADVOCATING THIS THOUGH, get sleep!
- Second is our internal clock and 2 more hormones that make us wired to be awake during daylight hours and sleep during hours of darkness. These hormones are Cortisol and Melatonin, more commonly recognized is melatonin but I feel cortisol needs a mention as well. Cortisol levels are highest in the morning when we wake up, stimulated by light and gets our bodies primed and ready for action. In the right amounts, cortisol is a good thing. It’s only when we are in constant states of stress or inflammation that it can work in a negative way on the body (see post https://www.happyoutnutrition.com/post/cortisol-the-ups-and-downs-and-what-they-mean-to-you).
Melatonin on the other hand is directly inhibited by daylight and only activated in the evening around 9pm, in association with decreased light. This time can of course vary depending on your location but as a general rule melatonin activates when it becomes dark and decreases when light begins to reach the eyes in morning hours, approx. 9am as melatonin has a 12 hour activation cycle (Sleep Foundation 2020).
What happens while you are asleep is the real reason we want to be getting enough on a nightly basis though, because while you sleep, your body repairs by;
- Forming new pathways associated with learning, memory, attention and overall cognition at all ages
- Promotes growth hormones that helps boost muscle mass, repairs cells and tissues in children and adults
- Heals your heart, yes that’s right! While you sleep your body repairs the heart and blood vessels, of which adenosin as mentioned earlier, is notably involved. This helps to reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, and high blood pressure in some people.
- Regulates our hunger hormones, now this one is interesting and I will do further posts on this but for now just a summary. Lack of sleep is associated with increased risk of obesity, even the loss of 1 to 2 hours per night can have an effect. Reduced sleep stimulates Ghrelin, our hunger hormone, and often leads to cravings for sweet or carbohydrate rich foods the next day.
- Sleep or lack thereof also affects Insulin, our fat storage hormone, and can lead to higher levels of insulin in the blood, which is primary risk factor in Type 2 Diabetes. It also results in a decrease in Leptin which is our satiety hormone and so you get a pattern beginning to form; where ghrelin is elevated and leptin is decreased, leading to often poor food choices, increased insulin and by default increased risk of weight gain and diabetes.
- Last but not least, sleep is vital to our immune function, giving the body a chance to rest, repair, and build back up the defenses we may have depleted throughout the day.
So if that doesn’t make you want to close the blinds, plug your ears, get warm, drink chamomile or valerian root tea, take an epsom salt bath, try melatonin if recommended by your GP, and get a good night's sleep I don’t know what will!
I will give a huge shout out to parents who may not get the sleep they need for years at a time! Fortunately there are other areas where nutrition can help you to keep your body functioning for health while you endure those years. Please contact me for more information on these.
Some quick tips worth mentioning to help you get to sleep and have a quality sleep are:
- Reduce screen time before bed...yes it’s challenging but remember how great reading a book can be?
- Stretching or yoga for sleep, just 15 to 30 minutes, 1-2 hours before bed can calm the mind and body
- Chamomile, Valerian root or Peppermint teas, or warm milk, dairy or almond, as calcium helps to produce melatonin
- Try an epsom salt (magnesium sulphate) bath or foot soak even, very relaxing and stimulates melatonin
- Avoid eating 2-3 hours prior to sleep, though if you do snack aim for foods high in magnesium, tryptophan, B6, and calcium as all can help aid in the production of melatonin
- Avoid caffeine after 3-4pm, this depends on tolerance, some people may need to avoid it earlier on or all together
- Journal, write, do a mental dump just before bed to get all thoughts that sudden start racing when your head hits the pillow
Please note that “catching up” on sleep on the weekends does not benefit you in any way and can actually have negative effects as it only further disrupts the natural rhythm of the sleep/wake cycles.
- It must be mentioned that patterns of sleep change throughout our lives though and as general guide it is recommended you aim for the following amounts per day (including naps for the younger ones) based on age:
4-12 months - 12-16 hours
1-2 years - 11-14 hours
3-5 years - 10-13 hours
6-12 years - 9-12 hours
13-18 years - 8-10 hours *teens are wired to go to sleep later and wake later, it’s stage of life they don’t control*
18+ - 7-8 hours *as we age our body’s look to sleep earlier and wake earlier, like above it’s a body rhythm we don’t always get a say in*
So go now and sleep like you mean to feel wonderful in the morning!!
(NIH 2019) ‘Sleep Deprivation and Deficiency’ Published online by the National Institute of Health, 2019. Available at: https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/sleep-deprivation-and-deficiency
(Peters, 2020) ‘Adenosine & Sleep’ Published online by VeryWellHealth, 2020. Available at: https://www.verywellhealth.com/adenosine-and-sleep-3015337
(SleepFoundation, 2020) “Melatonin & Sleep’ Published online by the Sleep Foundation, 2020. Available at: https://www.sleepfoundation.org/articles/melatonin-and-sleep
(Hines, 2019) ‘Foods for Sleep’ Published online by Alaska Sleep Education Centre, 2019. Available at: https://www.alaskasleep.com/blog/foods-for-sleep-list-best-worst-foods-getting-sleep