Sleep is so critical for our wellbeing that we allocate one third of our lives to it. It is essential for supporting our nervous, immune, cardiovascular, muscular, skeletal, and endocrine systems. Sleep is also involved in the processing of our memories, helping the things we learn to be consolidated, relaxing our mind, and regulating our hormones. When sleep problems occur for an extending period, ill-health often results.
In this article we will cover how to sleep better.
Because we are all different, optimal sleep times can vary significantly from one person to another. However, most people function best with 7 to 9 hours of sleep every day. Another good sleep marker is how long it takes to fall asleep. Ideally, people should fall alsleep within 20 minutes, and people who are sleep deprived tend to fall asleep within 5 minutes (assuming they don't have a sleep disorder). If a person falls asleep whilst performing other activities such as reading, watching television, sitting, then sleep deprivation may be a problem.
Some of the causes of sleep problems include:
Poor sleep hygiene. This may be caused by sleeping during the day, engaging in stimulating activities at night, overexposure to light in the evening, and eating excessively at night.
Poor diet. Stimulants such as caffeine, sugar, and spicy foods are major contributors to sleep disorders. Caffeine can remain in the body for 12 to 20 hours, therefore impairing sleep even if consumed early in the day. Sugar and refined carbohydrates create sugar imbalances which can also disrupt sleep.
Alcohol and other drug use. Although drinking alcohol may help people fall asleep, it often creates disrupted, lighter sleep. Alcohol is also a strong diuretic, leading to increased nocturnal urination and awakenings during the night. Nicotine stimulates the release of adrenaline and noradrenaline, hormones that stimulate the body, increase heart rate, and elevate blood pressure.
Disrupted circadian rhythms. The body clock can be disrupted by inadequate or excess exposure to full-spectrum light and sunlight, shift work, travelling across time zones, poor diet, heavy use of stimulants, lack of exercise, excessive stress, excessive exposure to magnetic and electromagnetic fields, medication use, and ill-health.
Excess physical and emotional stress. This is associated with increased levels of the stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol. Imbalances in these hormones can lead to a range of sleep disorders and create a vicious cycle of less sleep and more stress.
Mental health problems. Depression, generalised anxiety, panic disorder, and post-traumatic stress are just some of the mental health disorders that are associated with sleep problems.
Medications & supplements. The regular use of some prescription and over-the-counter medications and supplements such as heart medications, pain relievers, anti-anxiety drugs, and even sleeping pills can interfere with sleep.
Nutrient imbalances. Vitamins, minerals, essential fats, and amino acids are crucial for a range of physiological processes in the body. When it comes to sleep, particularly important nutrients include, B-vitamins, zinc, iron, calcium, magnesium, and the amino acid tryptophan. These are required for the production of important hormones and neurotransmitters necessary for initiating and maintaining sleep.
Medical conditions. Sleep disorders can be caused by a range of medical and physical conditions, including cardiovascular, hormonal, respiratory, and musculoskeletal disorders.
Chronic pain. People suffering from chronic pain conditions often suffer from sleep disturbances.
Physical inactivity. Exercise is important for reducing muscular tension, improving mental health, and balancing mood-enhancing brain chemicals. Balance is the key when it comes to exercise as too much exercise or exercising late in the evening can be detrimental to sleep.
Food allergies. Allergies and intolerances to certain foods can contribute to sleep disturbances. The most common food culprits are yeast, wheat, corn, milk and other dairy products, egg whites, tomatoes, soy, shellfish, peanuts, chocolate, and food dyes and additives.
Digestive disturbances. Digestive problems can lead to symptoms such as heartburn, stomach bloating, stomach pain, diarrhoea, constipation, and flatulence which can all disrupt sleep patterns.
Exposure to electromagnetic fields (EMFs). Extremely low frequency EMFs can disrupt circadian rhythms, diminishing the pineal gland’s ability to produce melatonin and other important hormones. Melatonin is a hormone important in sleep regulation. EMFs can be generated from electrical power lines, household appliances, computers and electronic devices. i.e. mobile phones.
Improve your diet. This may be done by decreasing caffeine and sugar intake, and by eating a diet rich in essential vitamins, minerals, fats and amino acids. Also, identifying and avoiding foods you are intolerant/ allergic to can also enhance sleep.
Optimise essential nutrients. This occurs by eating a more balanced diet. Taking certain supplements can also help, such as a good-quality multivitamin, B-complex, and fish oil. Magnesium and glycine supplements may also be helpful for poor sleepers as it reduces muscle tension and is associated with better sleep.
Reduce/ abstain from alcohol, drugs and nicotine.
Reduce or avoid unnecessary medications and/or supplements. Although avoiding many medications may not be possible, taking them earlier in the day or reducing their dose may minimise their impact on sleep. Always speak to your doctor first before changing medication schedules.
Treat mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, stress, and other psychiatric disorders. This can be achieved though psychological therapy, improved diet, supplementation, relaxation practice, and medication. It is important to note that mental health can also be improved by better sleep.
Try natural supplements. Several herbal and over-the counter supplements can improve sleep. Common ones include valerian, hops, passionflower, lemon balm, and chamomile. From recent, good-quality research, nutrients such as glycine, magnesium and taurine can also be particularly helpful for sleep and can reduce daytime sleepiness.
Minimise exposure to electromagnetic fields (EMFs). This can be achieved by placing all electric devices at least one metre from the bed, including lamps, alarm clocks, televisions, and heaters.
Engage in regular physical activity. Exercising reduces stress hormones, improves mood, and increases sleep=promoting hormones. Exercising no later than 5pm has the most positive impact on sleep.
Treat medical and pain-related conditions. Improving physical health, treating medical conditions, and managing chronic pain can greatly improve sleep.
Improve digestive health. Better digestion will improve energy levels, mood, nutrient absorption, sleep, and overall health.
Medication/ sleeping pills. Pharmaceutical sleep medications can be used as a short-term strategy to improve sleep, however, long-term use can do more harm than good. When used for excessive periods (longer than 2-4 weeks) they can lead to a range of side effects, increase day-time drowsiness, and can become addictive. Discontinuing these medication can cause 'rebound' insomnia.