- Sleeping disorders are common and increasing in prevalence
- Poor sleep can affect our stress resilience is linked to an increased risk of developing certain chronic illnesses
- There are many suspects that can contribute to poor sleep
- Fortunately, there is a range of lifestyle, nutrition and botanical options that can help
Most of us experience sleep problems at some point in our lives from an occasional restless night to chronic insomnia. We are a sleep deprived society with evidence showing that we sleep on an average 6.8 hours as opposed to 9 hours a century ago. Around 30% of adults report sleeping less than 6 hours per night. Up to 15 percent of adults suffer from chronic insomnia which is defined by difficulties falling or staying asleep, waking up too early, or experiencing restless sleep multiple times a week.
Sleep is an anabolic state during which the body replenishes its energy storages, regenerates tissues and produces proteins. In this blog, we will dive deep into all things sleep to uncover why it is so important to your health; what are some of the consequences of poor sleep explaining the sleep cycle and the biochemical processes involved. We will also explore a variety of evidenced based and holistic interventions, covering lifestyle, nutrition and botanical options to help you achieve better shut eye.
What are the consequences of poor sleep?
Without enough sleep, the human body cannot function optimally. Poor sleep is associated with impairments in motivation, emotion, and cognitive functioning with research suggesting as little as one night of sleeplessness can compromise your ability to adequately regulate and express emotions, reducing stress-resilience.
Poor sleep is considered a risk factor in the development of chronic health conditions including diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer.
Staying up late increases stress hormone cortisol, which directly impacts the immune system and increases the production of inflammatory compounds. Sleep deprivation has been shown to raise systolic blood pressure, mental illnesses such as depression, seasonal flu, and cardiovascular diseases.
Interestingly, poor sleep is also linked to an increase in consumption of fat-heavy and sugar-heavy foods. It is not surprising therefore that chronic sleep deprivation can result in weight gain, insulin resistance and the diagnosis of type 2 diabetes.
How much sleep should I be getting?
This really depends on a myriad of factors. Age, genetics, environment, and individual differences in daily physical and mental activity are all factors that influence a person’s unique chronobiological needs, therefore variations can be significant from one individual to the next.
Adults should be aiming to get around 7-9 hours of consistent, uninterrupted sleep per night. Conversely, too much sleep (more than 10 hours a night) for adults is equally considered as problematic as too little sleep. If you sleep in a little sometimes on weekends, it’s not a big deal but if you regularly sleep more than nine hours each night and don’t wake feeling well-rested, there may be an underlying cause that warrants further investigation.
The Sleep Cycle
Over the course of the night, you transition between different stages of the sleep cycle.
Stage 1 is essentially the “dozing off” stage, and it lasts between one to five minutes. The body hasn’t completely relaxed, though the body and brain activities start to slow with periods of brief movements (twitches). It’s easy to wake someone up during this sleep stage, but if a person isn’t disturbed, they can move quickly into stage 2.
During stage 2, the body enters a more subdued state including a drop in temperature, relaxed muscles and slowed breathing and heart rate. Stage 2 sleep can last for 10-25 minutes during the first sleep cycle however as we move through the sleep cycles several times throughout a night, we tend to spend 50% of our sleep time in stage 2.
Stage 3 sleep is also known as deep sleep and it is harder to wake someone up if they are in this phase. Muscle tone, pulse and breathing rate decrease as the body relaxes even further. Experts believe that this stage is critical to restorative sleep, allowing for bodily recovery and growth.
Stage 4: REM Sleep
REM stands for rapid eye movement. During REM sleep, brain activity picks up nearing levels seen when you’re awake. At the same time, the body experiences atonia, which is a temporary paralysis of the muscles with two exceptions: the eyes and the muscles that control breathing. Even though the eyes are closed, they can be seen moving quickly which is how this stage gets its name. REM sleep is known for the most vivid dreams, which is explained by the significant uptick in brain activity.
Sleep stages are important because they allow the brain and body to recuperate and develop. Failure to obtain enough stage 3 and 4 may explain some of the profound consequences of insufficient sleep on thinking, emotions, and physical health. Sleepers who are frequently awoken during earlier stages, such as people with sleep apnea, may struggle to properly cycle into these deeper sleep stages. People with insomnia may not get enough total sleep to accumulate the needed time in each stage.
Under normal circumstances, you don’t enter a REM sleep stage until you’ve been asleep for about 90 minutes therefore waking during the night impacts quality of sleep.
The Biochemistry of Sleep
Neurotransmitters are little chemical compounds that send messages throughout the brain and nervous system directly controlling brain activity. Hormones are similar however act as chemical messengers that travel throughout the entire body. Several of these messengers are involved in the simulation of the sleep wake cycle.
GABA or Gamma amino-butyric acid is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that regulates various aspects of the initiation and maintenance of the sleep stages. Several pharmaceutical medications including barbituates and benzodiazepines known for their sedative, anti-anxiolytic and hypnotic effects activate GABAA receptors; GABAA receptors are involved in the induction and consolidation of stages 1-3 (non REM sleep cycles).
Glutamate is another neurotransmitter that is excitatory and works together with GABA to control many processes including the brain’s overall level of excitation. Elevated glutamate levels have been found in insomnia and anxiety disorders whilst higher levels of GABA have been found in relaxation and sedation.
Melatonin is hormone produced by the pineal gland in the brain and then released into the bloodstream. Darkness prompts the pineal gland to start producing melatonin and light causes that production to stop. As a result, melatonin helps regulate circadian rhythm and synchronises our sleep-wake cycle with night and day. In doing so, it facilitates a transition to sleep.
Adenosine is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that is involved in promoting sleep. After you wake up, adenosine levels begin to build up in your brain throughout the day causing you to become more and more sleepy.
Some causes of poor sleep
Extensive research has been conducted into the causes of poor sleep with common culprits including:
- Environmental change
- Emotional arousal
- Anxiety or tension
- Disruptive environment
- Pain or discomfort
- Medication use including caffeine consumption
- Poor sleep hygiene
- Sedentary lifestyle
- Increased usage of electronic devices
Tips to help you sleep better starting tonight
Strong sleep hygiene means having both a bedroom environment and daily routines that promote consistent, uninterrupted sleep.
The bedroom should be a relaxing environment so should have comfortable bedding, be free from distracting noise or light, be well ventilated and a comfortable temperature. Alarm clocks, TV’s and other electronic devices can interfere with sleep so avoid having them in the bedroom. The bed should be used for sleeping and sex only as this helps the body to associate the bed as a place for rest. Have a consistent bed time and awakening time. Aim to gain a few hours sleep before midnight if possible as this is the most optimum time to achieve restorative sleep.
Regular and/or acute bouts of exercise produce modest improvements in sleep for individuals with and without sleep complaints . People who engage in at least 30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise may see a difference in sleep quality that same night.
Use relaxation techniques as part of your pre-sleep ritual such as mindfulness practices:
mediation, gentle yoga, reading, listening to relaxing music or taking a warm bath.
If you are having trouble sleeping, reduce intake of stimulants that contain caffeine such as coffee, chocolate, teas and soft drinks as caffeine acts to directly inhibit adenosine release.
Alcohol, although it exerts an immediate sleep inducing effect however it can interfere with quality sleep. Drinking alcohol before bed suppresses REM sleep during the first two cycles decreasing overall sleep quality, which can result in shorter sleep duration and more sleep disruptions.
Blue light exposure from staring at screens can be stimulating, suppressing release of melatonin and may have serious implications on sleep quality, circadian phase and cycle durations. It is recommended to avoid screen time for at least an hour before bed.
ADEQUATE NUTRITIONAL INTAKE
Nutrients Magnesium and Vitamin B6 are both important cofactors in regulating healthy hormone and neurotransmitter levels. Magnesium and Vitamin B6 supplementation have both been found to improve sleep efficiency. Meeting our daily recommended dietary intake of magnesium and Vitamin B6 can be challenging as our magnesium requirements are high and B vitamins are extremely sensitive to heat so cooking can reduce levels available in food.
Ziziphus jujuba (jujube or Chinese dates), have been used in several Asian countries as a food and a medicine for over 3000 years. Widely used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for insomnia, Jujube can increase the length of REM sleep and reduce the time it takes to fall asleep (sleep latency). Ziziphus can be both hypnotic and sedative as it works on the neurotransmitter GABA. It can also reduce stress-related insomnia. An additional benefit of Jujube fruit is its strong anti-anxiety effects. With efficacy comparable to two commonly prescribed anti-anxiety medications (Buspirone and Diazepam), Jujube may also help with depressive symptoms by increasing serotonin in the brain.
California poppy is another herbal extract traditionally used by Native Americans as a sedative, hypnotic and analgesic. It is still popularly used amongst complementary health practitioners today as a reliable treatment for sleep disorders. Having a direct action on GABA receptors, it is an effective natural remedy for sleep and can also be found in Sleep Well.
Remember … a good night’s sleep is essential to mental and physical performance..
Read more about Sleep Well Here
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