We often hear that we “need to get enough sleep”. But WHY is sleep so important? When our bodies are asleep, it’s time for all of our bodily systems to rest and reset. It’s critical for brain functions such as cognition, concentration, productivity, and performance. Good sleep can maximize athletic performance and improves your immune function. On the flip side, lack of adequate sleep can contribute to increased appetite, blood sugar imbalances, and weight gain. Poor sleepers have a greater risk of heart disease and stroke, as well as increased inflammation and is even linked to mental health issues like depression. I know that I’ve had sleepless nights from time to time, and it certainly throws off the entire next day for me – I feel like a zombie who is just going through the motions. Unfortunately, there are a lot of factors in our modern world that can interfere with our bodies’ natural sleep patterns. One of the factors that we’ll dig into here is hormones.
Endocrine System 101:
The endocrine system is the collection of glands in our bodies that product hormones. Hormones are ‘chemical messengers’ throughout the body to help regulate vital processes including metabolism, grown, sleep, and reproduction. Hormones are transmitted through the bloodstream via diffusion and bind to specific hormone receptor cells at certain sites throughout the body. Our hormones are made using amino acids from protein and fatty acids from fat. Therefore, the foods we eat play a big role in hormone balance – the better quality materials we use, the better quality hormones our body creates. I won’t go into details on each endocrine gland and their function since this is a broad and complex topic, but instead will highlight three of the hormones that relate to our quality of sleep.
The hormone cortisol, produced by the adrenal glands, is our ‘fight or flight’ hormone. It is meant to protect us when we’re in a crisis and works with certain parts of your brain to control your mood, motivation, and fear. This is beneficial if you are truly in a dangerous situation. Cortisol is produced whether our bodies are in physical danger (a car accident for example) or perceived danger (an important deadline looming). In our busy modern lives, it’s increasingly common for people to live in constant stress mode, especially for those with type A personalities – thus increasing cortisol production. Cortisol slows down functions that are deemed non-essential in a crisis (reproduction, digestion, and sleep for example). Too much cortisol for an extended period of time can wreak havoc on our sleep patterns. We may feel ‘tired and wired’, or have difficulty falling or staying asleep. Other symptoms include sugar cravings, difficulty concentrating, anxiety, high blood pressure, and high blood sugar to name a few.
2) CIRCADIAN RHYTHM
Your circadian rhythm is your 24-hour bodily clock that helps control your daily schedule for sleep and wakefulness. It is influenced by outside things like light and dark, as well as other factors. Your brain receives signals based on your environment and activates certain hormones, alters your body temperature, and regulates your metabolism to either keep you alert or draw you to sleep. The hormones that play a role in your circadian rhythm are cortisol and melatonin. These two hormones fluctuate throughout the 24-hour cycle. Cortisol can make you more alert and awake, and your body produces more of it during the morning to help you start your day. Melatonin is the hormone that makes you sleepy, and your body releases more of it at night and suppresses it during the day. As we learned a little earlier, excess cortisol at night can interfere with falling asleep or staying asleep, as it also interferes with the production of melatonin. Also, our natural bodily clock can be disrupted by blue light from televisions, computers, or mobile devices – sinc this decreases melatonin production as well.
3) “THE CHANGE”
Estrogen and progesterone are two of the major female hormones produced by the ovaries. They control every aspect of female health, as well as cardiovascular, nervous system, and brain health. These hormones decrease in production as women enter perimenopause, which can begin 10-20 years before menopause. I first noticed my hormones shifting when I’d experience a night (or even two) of insomnia – seemingly out of nowhere. I started tracking these sleepless nights and realized that they occurred just before my period started. Not only does the decrease in these hormones affect sleep, it also can contribute to other not-so-pleasant symptoms such as night sweats, hot flashes, fatigue, and brain fog.
This sounds pretty dismal, BUT there’s some good news…. We can take simple measures to help cultivate more restful and restorative sleep!
1) Establish a regular bedtime. The body likes routine – it prefers to eat, sleep, and be active on a regular schedule. Try to stick to a regular sleep schedule and set a phone reminder to ‘wind down’ for the day.
2) Decrease electronic device usage at least 2 hours before bedtime to reduce the effects of blue light. Try using blue light blocking lenses in the afternoon to reduce the stimulating effects of the artificial light. Remove televisions and other electronics from the bedroom completely – these still emit electromagnetic frequencies even when they are turned off or in silent mode. Try reading a physical book instead of reading on your phone or tablet.
3) Establish a bedtime ritual. This sets the stage for better sleep. Consider writing in your journal – what you appreciate from the day’s experience, or any accomplishments and successes you had. Take a few minutes to do a mindful meditation – there are many mediation apps that have guided meditations specifically to help facilitate relaxation and sleep. Or try an Epsom salt bath, herbal tea, and gentle stretching. Creating a regular bedtime helps our natural circadian rhythm stay in sync.
4) Stop eating at least 2 hours before bedtime. Eating right before bed disrupts digestion, and blood sugar imbalances from eating late can lead to disrupted sleep. This will activate the digestive system to do its work while you sleep – without being overloaded with a late-night snack.
5) Cut back on caffeine and alcohol. Just one cup in the morning can decrease melatonin and interfere with your night’s sleep. Alcohol can also cause sleep issues – even though you may fall asleep quickly after a glass of wine or two, alcohol affects your REM (dream) sleep, so the quality of your sleep is compromised.
6) Exercise and engage in physical activity earlier in the day, unless it’s low-intensity yoga. This way, the cortisol produced during workouts will have time to balance out during the day and not interfere with your sleep.
7) Clean up your diet. Minimize processed foods. Incorporate more clean protein, healthy fats, organic fruits and vegetables, resistant starches, gluten-free grains, and sea vegetables.
8) Practice stress-reduction techniques as part of your daily routine. Here are the top 6 stress-relief methods:
- Meditation – becoming more mindful and aware of your own thoughts, even just simply deep breathing to allow your mind and body to slow down.
- Journaling – writing down your successes, hopes, and dreams helps cultivate a mindset of gratitude, which is proven to reduce stress levels. Focus on the positive aspects of your life.
- Gentle yoga – releases nervous tension in the entire body including joints and muscles. Try this before bed to settle into a restful sleep.
- Social connection – spend time with positive, loving people and focus on genuine friendships. Create space for regular social activities.
- Reframe stressful situations – use a more positive viewpoint to make stress less damaging. Try saying “why is this happening for me?” (vs. “to me”)
- Go on a “news fast” – avoid the news, social media, etc. to help reduce external stress.
As you can see, there are many ways that we can make small changes through diet and lifestyle that can have a huge impact on our quality of sleep on a daily basis. It may seem overwhelming, but start with one or two recommendations each week and see if you notice improvements!