A good night’s sleep can make you feel energetic, switched on and at the top of your game.
Unfortunately it is not that easy anymore to have a healthy sleep rhythm. A lot of us struggle to fall asleep, stay asleep or simply don’t wake up rested enough and are not ready for a big day in the office.
Melatonin is not just a sleep hormone, it is also an immune priming hormone. So if you don’t get enough sleep your entire immune system is dysfunctional. That’s why sleeping is so important when you are sick, because you can sleep yourself back to health.
During sleep we are solidifying skills, knowledge or anything we have learnt during the day. It’s the time when our brain moves memory from short-term into long-term storage. This is especially important for children because their brains are firing a lot during the day as they gain new knowledge or learn a new skill. My children have a resting period after lunch and need to stay in bed for 30 minutes. They are 6 and 4 years old and about every 2-3 days they actually fall asleep and have a 1.5-2 hour nap (a bliss when they do this on the same day). Without that mandatory 30 minutes rest time, they would not have the opportunity to do so. This does not effect their bedtime in the evening, which shows that it’s actually necessary for them to have a nap 2-3 times per week at this age. A lot of research has been done and through that we have gained insights into the natural cycles of the body, the 24-hour rhythm and the huge impact on our health and well-being. The circadian rhythm (24-hour rhythm) was quite unknown until 2017 when the Nobel Prize was awarded for figuring out how it works (read more here).
We live indoors so much with artificial light, but need to remember that our body evolved outside in the sun and is wired to the cycle of the sun. We need to honour this cycle more than ever. The sunlight has ultraviolet A and B, infrared, a normal mix of blue and red colours, the whole rainbow. It giving us cues when to be asleep and when to be awake.
An optic nerve goes from behind our eyes into the brain, which samples the colour of light hitting the retina and from that determines what time of the day it is and this affects our circadian rhythm. At dawn it has some more blue light in it and at sunset more red. When our rhythm is aligned with the Earth’s photoperiod then we have good energy levels and are alert during the day and sleep well at night. When it is out of balance through artificial light in the evening, especially staring at screens, that emit mainly blue light, we see sleep disturbances.
Electricity and the extension of the “light”/wake time shortens our “dark”/sleep time, which is crucial for certain functions in our body. Screens and computers affect our melatonin production and therefore our sleep quality.
Misaligned circadian rhythms doesn’t just affect our sleep, it also affects our health, memory and performance as seen by shift workers and new parents.
What you can do to align your circadian cycle back to the Earth is to get up at the same time each day and go outside within the first hour after dawn and get some light in your face every day, just for 5-10 minutes. Try to get as much sun exposure on your skin as you can, gaze at the sun and put all your energy in that direction. Studies have shown that by simply doing this hormone levels stabilize, food cravings go down and you might not even need that cup of coffee in the morning to get you going.
Light exercise in the morning like yoga (think sun salute) or stretching, biking to work if you can, is very beneficial. Do this outside and you will get lots of benefit. I milk our house cow in the morning and feed the farm animals before I have my breakfast and spend about one hour in the fresh air, watch the sun come up over the hill and do some deep breathing to welcome the new day. This is my meditation.
Try to have minimal artificial light exposure and turn off TV, phone or laptop one hour before bedtime.
Timing of your meals is also important and affects your sleep at night. Cortisol is highest in the morning and its main function is to raise blood sugar. Have a light meal in the morning because your hormones are producing most of your energy. Avoid sugary foods. At lunchtime your digestive system is strongest and your energy is fueled by food and that’s when you need your largest meal to carry you through the day. In the evening you should have a lighter meal because you are not going to be physically active and you want to give your digestive system a break at night, so that your body can spend its energy at night in healing, repairing and regenerating and not digesting food. Aim for a night fasting period of 12 -14 hours to give your body enough time to do healing work, regenerate cells and detox. Studies have shown that simply allowing our body this fasting window can reduce the risk of cancer and speeds up cellular healing. Having a snack just before bed drives up your insulin levels and this negatively affects your sleep quality.
Wireless technology influences melatonin production, which is important for sleep and is one of the most important anticancer hormones that our body makes. Scientific studies on the effects of wireless technology are far behind. Most of the studies studied 2G cell phones back in the day, now we are at 4G and are rolling towards 5G. This is really scary! There are simply no studies that have looked at the long-term effects, science is 20 years behind and new technologies are coming through thick and fast. Smart meters are definitely not doing you any good. When living in a city your body can be influenced by all the smart meters in houses around you. You can contact your power company and have it removed, and ask your neighbours to do the same. A lot of people see big improvements with their sleep when simply turning off Wi-Fi at night, switching off the cell phone and other microwave emitting devices like printers, even photo cameras looking for a signal. These are easy steps you can take today.
There are a number of herbs that aid with falling asleep and staying asleep.
Valerian (valeriana officinalis): Valerian has been used at least since Roman times as a sedative and relaxant. It is a safe, non-addictive relaxant that reduces nervous tension, anxiety and promotes restful sleep. It is one of the most popular and well-known herbal remedies in the Western world, which lends credence to speculation that most of us could use more sleep and less anxiety.
Hops (humulus lupulus): Hops helps to reduce irritability and restlessness and promotes a good night’s sleep. Hops has a somniferous effect and is excellent in treating insomnia. It relaxes the nervous system and calms the body. When paired with valerian it treats sleep issues and eases anxiety and tension.
Chamomile (matricaria recutita): Chamomile is a nervine that has a calming effect on both the nervous and digestive systems. It is a mild sedative and bitter.
Lavender (lavendula officinalis): Lavender is a powerful nervine, helps to reduce anxiety, promotes relaxation and restores a sense of well-being to the frazzled. It has a calming and soothing effect and relieves sleeplessness, irritability and headaches.
Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis): Lemon balm has nervine properties that can reduce nervous tension, relieve, agitation and help the body relax.
I hope you found some of this information useful and allow yourself extra rest and sleep during winter when the nights are longer – your body needs it.
Addition: TED Talk by sleep scientist Matt Walker (April 2019)
Sleep is your life-support system and Mother Nature’s best effort yet at immortality, says sleep scientist Matt Walker. In this deep dive into the science of slumber, Walker shares the wonderfully good things that happen when you get sleep — and the alarmingly bad things that happen when you don’t, for both your brain and body. Learn more about sleep’s impact on your learning, memory, immune system and even your genetic code — as well as some helpful tips for getting some shut-eye.