Let’s start with a quick check-in… How is your relationship with sleep? Is it peaceful and harmonious? A little temperamental? Mysterious and elusive? Downright frustrating?
In this article, I’m going to make a case for prioritizing sleep in your life. Then, I’m going to share the simplest way to start improving your sleep quality. Lastly, I’ll get into the nitty-gritty’s of good sleep hygiene practices.
Understanding the incredible value of sleep.
In our society, we love to burn the candle at both ends. We wake up early, go to bed late, work hard at our jobs, work hard in our personal lives, and all but shove sleep out of the picture entirely. The irony is that the less sleep we get, the less we can perform in our lives.
Your brain does not “shut off” while you sleep. In fact, your sleeping brain is busier than ever taking care of you. Here are just a few of the many processes going on while you sleep:
- Your body heals and rebuilds – think muscle growth, tissue repair, protein synthesis, and growth hormone release. This point is HUGE. Sleep both helps you reap the benefits of a big workout and subtly repairs damaged tissues in your organs.
- Your memories are consolidated (neuronal pathways in your brain are strengthened).
- Adenosine (a by-product of brain cell activity) is cleared from your body. The lowering of adenosine levels helps you feel more alert when you awaken.
- Your hormones are optimally regulated, including those that signal appetite and hunger.
Here are some of the consequences of inadequate sleep:
- Difficulty focusing
- Decreased attentiveness
- Difficulty learning new information
- Difficulty retrieving previously learned information
- Impaired judgement
- Longer healing time
- Deteriorated mood
And to drive home the importance of sleep, shift workers are repeatedly found to be at increased risk for detrimental health outcomes such as cancer, weight gain or obesity, metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease, and pregnancy complications.
The message here is that quality sleep is so important for your health. But the reality is that, despite our best efforts, sleep can be really problematic for many people. Maybe a new baby is shaking up your sleep routine. Maybe you work night shifts, or start work at 4am every morning. Maybe you regularly travel across time zones. Maybe your prescription medication causes insomnia. There are a million reasons why you might not be getting quality sleep.
If this is you, then the absolute best place to start is here:
Establish a sleep routine – and stick to it.
There are two main processes governing our sleep-wake cycle: homeostatic sleep drive and the circadian rhythm of alertness. Big words for big concepts. Sleep drive (our body’s desire for sleep) increases the longer we are awake and decreases as we sleep (makes sense!). Circadian rhythm refers to a 24 hour schedule that our body operates on, which supports alertness in the day and sleepiness at night. Interestingly, this rhythm is unaffected by sleep or work schedules – it is entirely established by your environment (specifically, by natural sunlight or bright artificial light). When the sun is up, or when artificial lights are flooding your eyes, your brain is receiving the message of “this is when I should be awake and alert”.
A consistent sleep routine will allow your sleep drive and circadian rhythm to get into a groove with each other, allowing your sleep quality and waking hours to be optimized.
- Setting a consistent bedtime and waking time allows sleep drive to consistently peak at the same time each night, helping you fall asleep more easily.
- Setting a consistent bedtime and waking time that aligns with the sun will help you feel more alert during your waking hours. Try not to fight your circadian rhythm.
Establishing a sleep routine is not the be-all and end-all of treatment for sleep difficulties, but it is the best place to start. Once you have a sleep routine in place, you can start adding in sleep hygiene practices to further improve sleep quality.
Sleep Hygiene Tips:
- Get outside for a 30 minute walk in the morning… even if it’s raining! Remember that exposure to natural sunlight establishes your circadian rhythm.
- Avoid screens for at least 1 hour before bedtime. This means your cellphone, laptop, tablet, TV, etc. These screens give off artificial blue light, which confuses your circadian rhythm.
- If you absolutely need to be looking at a screen before bed, use a blue light blocker (such as f.lux) that will remove blue light from the screen at a set time each day.
- Your bedroom should be a sleep haven. This means your bedroom is for sleep, sex, and that’s it! No screens in the bedroom, no matter the time of day.
- Keep your bedroom temperature around 18°C. Too cold or too hot can affect sleep quality.
- Sleep in a dark room. Blackout curtains and an analog alarm clock are great investments.
- Exercise early. Doing a big workout late at night will wake up your body, and your post-workout meal will wake it up even more. Try to exercise no later than 2 hours before bed.
- Check your fluids. Avoid caffeine (a well-known stimulant) after 2pm. Avoid alcohol within 3 hours of bedtime (alcohol will help you fall asleep faster – but it will also disrupt your ability to reach deep sleep).
Naturopathic Medicine & Sleep
If you have any questions about the science behind sleep, or if sleep is a struggle for you, please do not hesitate to reach out! Naturopathic medicine has so much to offer in this realm. Book your free 15 minute meet & greet, and let’s get you sleeping better.
This post is intended for educational purposes only. Please speak to your licensed health care provider before implementing any health recommendations or treatments.
Bonnet, M. and Arand, D. (December 2019). Risk factors, comorbidities, and consequences of insomnia in adults. Accessed on August 25, 2020 from https://www.uptodate.com/contents/risk-factors-comorbidities-and-consequences-of-insomnia-in-adults
Chawla, J. (September 2018). What are the homeostatic and circadian processes regulating sleep? Accessed on August 25, 2020 from https://www.medscape.com/answers/1187829-70500/
Cheng, P. and Drake, C. (August 2020). Sleep-wake disturbances in shift workers. Accessed on August 25, 2020 from https://www.uptodate.com/contents/sleep-wake-disturbances-in-shift-workers
Harvard Medical School Division of Sleep Medicine. (2008). Healthy Sleep: Understand the third of our lives we so often take for granted. Accessed on August 25, 2020 from http://healthysleep.med.harvard.edu/healthy/
Stevenson, Shawn. (2016). Sleep Smarter: 21 Essential Strategies to Sleep your Way to a Better Body, Better Health, and Bigger Success. Rodale Wellness.