The Importance Of Sleep And How To Master It
I am sure you have this one person in your surrounding who is obsessed with healthy eating and regular exercising, but at the same time doesn't have enough time to get a proper 8-hour sleep. Either due to work or family duties, most of the people nowadays underestimate the importance of sleep for their health. I've told myself so many times: " It's just this one night that I will stay up late to catch up on my studies and tomorrow it's going to be better". The truth is I spent a good part of my twenties not sleeping enough or sleeping during daytime after a night of studying for exams. It doesn't catch me by surprise that around that time of my life I was struggling a lot with weight problems. But more on that later.
Sleeping less than 7-8 hours for a couple of days pretty much equals stuffing yourself with junk food. It doesn't really matter how healthy you think you are living, until you add a good 8-hour sleep routine to the equation. You've probably heard of cortisol. It's one of the body's stress hormones produced by the adrenal glands. You see, cortisol follows a circadian rhythm during the day. Its levels peak early in the morning between 6 and 8 a.m. as a way to get us moving and prepare us to face the challenges of the day. Later on, between 8 and 11 a.m. they start dropping and continue to decline throughout the day, causing us to feel a decrease in energy in the early afternoon. In fact, this is our body's way of telling us we should slow down and start preparing for the end of the day. What we do instead, is grab a cup of coffee, energy drink or some other stimulant which inevitably raises cortisol and blood sugar levels. Cortisol lowest point is around 2 a.m. So, if we don't get early enough in bed to allow 8-9 hours of sleep, cortisol metabolism doesn't get to follow its normal circadian rhythm .
Sleeping less than 8 hours a night has its risks. There is an established link between obesity and poor sleep. You probably wonder why. Well, first of all, lack of sleep elevates blood sugar and contributes to insulin resistance. Secondly, both growth hormone and leptin are reduced in people spending less time in deep sleep. Leptin is a hormone with huge importance in metabolism and regulating appetite. It gives you the sensation of feeling full after a meal, which means that if you have less of it, you will end up eating much more until you feel satisfied and you will crave carbohydrates more than usual. Less growth hormone on the other hand, means muscle loss and more body fat .
It's really easy to recognize a person that is lacking sleep. There is always a sign of stress like bad concentration or bad mood. But there is also more to it. Poor sleep makes us more susceptible to infections since our defenses drop. Essential nutrients such as zinc and magnesium also tend to fall, whereas vitamin C is used up much faster . Sleep rejuvenates the body and the mind. In the next chapter we will explore how to improve it.
1. Maintain Even Blood Sugar Levels & Avoid Sugar and Stimulants After 4 p.m.
In order to follow the normal circadian rhythm of cortisol, it is important to avoid sugar and stimulants such as caffeine, nicotine and alcohol after 4 p.m. As I already mentioned, sugar and stimulants tend to increase cortisol levels. In order to fall asleep at an earlier hour, we want our cortisol to be low. Caffeine also has a melatonin-depressing effect. This means that it decreases our sleep hormone melatonin . Maintaining even blood sugar levels is also a key to getting proper sleep without waking up in the middle of the night or feeling tired on the next day. This could be easily achieved by avoiding processed carbohydrates, eating smaller portions evenly spread throughout the day and always adding protein and fat to your carbohydrate intake. For example, if you want to snack on an apple in the afternoon, add some almond butter to it. Another great tip is having a high-protein dinner. Not only is this better for cortisol levels, but it also stimulates serotonin and melatonin production. Learn more about that later in the article.
2. Manage Your Stress Levels
Along with sugar and stimulants, stress is also going to keep you awake. As we already discussed, stress leads to increased cortisol and elevated cortisol keeps us alert. So, no matter what is the thing that causes your stress, most of the times it is easier to manage stress rather than try to avoid it. In the days we live in, avoiding stress pretty much seems impossible, unless you decide to live a simple life somewhere in a small isolated village. As trivial as it may sound, yoga and meditation work miracles when dealing with stress. But don't take my word for it. Find your own way of coping with stress. Also, make sure to support the adrenals by consuming foods high in vitamin C (kiwi, citrus fruits, bell pepper, broccoli, etc.) and B-vitamins (whole grains, legumes, nutritional yeast, dark leafy greens, etc.). If you are plant-based, it is advisable to supplement B-12 in the morning.
3. Balance Magnesium and Calcium
Magnesium and calcium are the so called "calming" minerals. They help to calm the body and to relax the nerves and muscles. Magnesium is often deficient when dealing with stress or eating too much sugar. So, making sure to consume enough food sources of these minerals is essential when dealing with sleep problems. Good plant-based sources are nuts, seeds, green leafy vegetables and whole grains .
4. Balance Serotonin and Melatonin
Serotonin and melatonin are two brain chemicals synthesized from the amino acid tryptophan. Produced by the pineal gland, melatonin regulates the day/night cycle and starts increasing once it gets dark. It is essential for falling asleep and its precursor is serotonin. Consuming plant-based foods rich in the amino acid tryptophan, may benefit people dealing with sleep problems. Great sources are soy beans, nuts, seeds, lettuce, etc. Another great option is taking tryptophan as a supplement at least 45 minutes before going to bed, together with a small amount of a carbohydrate. The reason for that is that eating carbohydrates causes the release of insulin, which carries tryptophan into the brain. The most effective approach is supplementing with 5-HTP or melatonin itself. It is worth mentioning that melatonin is not sold over-the-counter in many countries. 5-HTP (hydroxytryptophan) is a direct precursor of serotonin and by supplementing it you can increase levels of serotonin and melatonin .
5. Create a Bedtime Routine
Creating a bedtime routine is a way of telling your body and mind that it is time to unwind. It could be anything from reading a book, having a cup of chamomile tea or meditating. Anything, but electronics. Get creative!
I hope these easy tips are going to help you get back on track with your sleep. Don't forget that without these 8 hours of rest your wellness routine is never going to be complete. Your health is in your hands!
Sending you love,
Disclaimer: Always follow your supplements dosage instructions. Consult your physician or pharmacist prior to deciding on a supplement, especially if you are on any type of medication.
 PH.D., FACSM Talbott, Shawn. The Cortisol Connection (2nd Edition). Alameda CA: Hunter House Inc. Publishers, 2007, pages 98,99.
 PH.D., FACSM Talbott, Shawn. The Cortisol Connection (2nd Edition). Alameda CA: Hunter House Inc. Publishers, 2007, page 100.
 Holford, Patrick. Optimum Nutrition For The Mind. Great Britain: Piatkus, 2010, page 184.
 Holford, Patrick. Optimum Nutrition For The Mind. Great Britain: Piatkus, 2010, page 189.
 Holford, Patrick. Optimum Nutrition For The Mind. Great Britain: Piatkus, 2010, page 192.
 Holford, Patrick. Optimum Nutrition For The Mind. Great Britain: Piatkus, 2010, page 191.