It is no secret that I spend most of my time educating myself about health and wellness. Not only am I enrolled in a comprehensive holistic nutrition certification program, I also spend quite a lot of time reading books, blogs, journals, and articles, listening to podcasts, Ted talks, and lectures, and watching interviews and documentaries. Then I write about what I have absorbed. In all of that research, there are a few themes that stand out. They continually pop up in almost everything I read, listen to, or watch. These I have compiled and tagged for more research, then used as the basis of my six-month wellness program.
These common themes have become known, in my head, as the Pillars of Health. They are Sleep, Water, Vegetables, Movement, and Mindfulness. At first glance, these subjects may seem overly simple. I mean, is that all there is to being healthy? The answer is yes, health is this simple…and this difficult. Anyone who has suffered through several sleepless nights knows that it may not be so easy.
During the next few weeks, I will delve deeply into each of these topics in order for you to understand just how important quality sleep, clean water, vegetables, meaningful movement, and mindfulness are to your vitality. Even if you are just looking to lose a couple of pounds by summer, this is going to be an important series to pay attention to. So, without further delay, I give you the first in my Pillars of Health series: Sleep.
Sleep is one of the most important things you can do for your health. It is also something you can change today for drastic improvements in your physical, mental, and spiritual well-being. How many times have you heard, “Sleep on it” or “You will feel better in the morning”? When we are on good terms with sleep, everything works better. Unfortunately, many people are in massive sleep debt. Bragging rights go to the person who is operating on the least amount of sleep. “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” is heard quite often. Death will come soon enough if things don’t change.
One of the reasons we struggle to find time for or value in sleep is because we are so stinking busy. Finding time to fit everything into our busy lives is daunting, so we burn the midnight oil to get just one more thing done. If this happens brain function is diminished and work quality suffers. Additionally, our health suffers, increasing the risk of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and brain aging (1). Who knew sleep was so important, right? I’m sure in your own life you have noticed that your mood and outlook are negatively impacted when you haven’t been sleeping well and have probably noticed that your thought processes suffer as well.
“I once had dinner with a man who bragged to me that he’d gotten only four hours of sleep the night before. I resisted the temptation to tell him that the dinner would have been a lot more interesting if he had gotten five.” -Arianna Huffington from her book Thrive
Sleep allows the body to rest and perform clean-up duties. Your brain in particular benefits from quality sleep by taking advantage of the downtime to wash away any cellular debris or toxic molecules that can degrade neurotransmitters (2). Here’s a crazy fact: Brain cells shrink while you sleep to allow glymphatic fluid–or glymph, if you will–to flow between them, picking up the trash and flushing it away (2)(3). This process is not able to take place during waking hours because, well your brain cells shrink, and because it takes a large amount of energy only available when you aren’t doing other things. So, without sleep, you are left with a dirty mind. Plus, we all know that cognitive function decreases, decision making is negatively affected, and willpower takes a dive when you haven’t slept in awhile.
A Heavy Issue
Lack of sleep also affects your blood sugar regulation which not only eventually leads to insulin resistance, but prevents you from losing weight and may even cause you to gain weight (4). It is next to impossible to lose weight if you are not sleeping properly. This is due to the aforementioned poor blood sugar regulation, cognitive function impairment, and the willpower crash, as well as hormone imbalances.
The hormones in question, in this case, are leptin, ghrelin, melatonin, and cortisol among others. If you sleep five hours a night or less (give or take, everyone is different), ghrelin levels increase and leptin levels decrease (5). In short, ghrelin makes you hungry, leptin makes you feel satisfied. This, paired with increased stress hormone (cortisol)–which likes to store fat around your middle–and decreased willpower, cause weight gain.
Getting Quality Sleep
Sure, that’s all fine and well, but what if we really are trying to sleep but sleep eludes us? Maybe you know that quality sleep is important, but you have trouble getting to sleep or just wake up at 2 am for no known reason. You’re stressed because you’re not sleeping, you’re not sleeping because you’re stressed. Sound familiar?
These are common problems in modern day life. I know several people who have plain given up on having a good night’s sleep, thinking it just isn’t something that works for them. If sleep is hard to come by for you, take a look at your daytime lifestyle.
Hormones control everything, even sleep. Unfortunately, our modern lifestyle adversely affects several of them, especially the hormones governing sleep. One of the biggest factors, and possibly the most overlooked is light.
As recently as one hundred and fifty years ago, people honored the daily cycle of light and dark. Fuel to light their houses was limited and expensive so they would go to bed soon after the sun went down. The light that they had after dark was orange in color, like the sun (think candles, lanterns, fire), which does not adversely affect hormones sensitive to light.
Fast forward to today where blue light is absolutely everywhere. This is the light wavelength emitted by smartphones, computers, iPads, those environmentally friendly LED light bulbs, and now many streetlights. These are, as Dr. Sara Gottfried says, like a bad boyfriend that keeps coming back. According to her, and everyone else who pays attention to these things, “the fastest way to throw off your biological clock is to blast your eyeballs with ALAN (Artificial Light At Night).” (1)
Blue light suppresses melatonin (3). Melatonin is the hormone that, among other things, tells your body to sleep. It helps to regulate your Circadian rhythm which is your sleep-wake cycle. The best way to solve this problem is to get off of all devices at least an hour before bed.
- Read an actual paper book before bed.
- Change your lightbulbs back to the halogen bulbs.
- Install the Flux app to automatically dim your computer screen after dark. It’s annoying at first, but the benefits of higher quality sleep outweigh the temporary inconvenience. Get it free here: https://justgetflux.com
- Better yet, use only warm, orange light after dark. The type of light emitted by Himalayan salt lamps or candles is perfect, although it is hard to read in such dim light. I use a low-watt halogen bulb in my reading lamp.
- It is nearly impossible to avoid junk light outside of your own house. To save your Circadian rhythm, consider investing in some cool orange glasses that block the spectrum of light causing the problem. This is the kind I like: TrueDark
- Blackout all of those little lights that tell you your devices are on. You know–the light on the fire alarm, the TV, the humidifier, electric toothbrush, power strips, alarm clock, etc. All those little lights can affect your sleep.
- Use an orange night light in the bathroom. Getting up in the middle of the night and turning the bathroom light on pretty much guarantees that you will not get quality sleep the rest of the night.
Fun Fact: Getting sunshine in the morning increases melatonin at night.
Eat Right for the Time
I have largely given up sugar, including refined carbohydrates, altogether. I find that this alone improves my sleep dramatically. However, for you to get better sleep, you wouldn’t necessarily have to change your diet in the sense of what you eat, it could be that when matters most. According to Dr. Alan Christiansen, our modern habit of eating sugar early in the day and large amounts of protein at night adversely affects the cortisol cycle with respect to getting quality sleep (6).
One thing to know about the relationship between melatonin and cortisol: They have are inversely related, meaning when one goes up, the other comes down. Cortisol is supposed to be high in the morning. This gets you going for the day. Thus, melatonin is meant to be low. At night, cortisol is meant to be low so that melatonin can take over and get you to sleep.
Sugary cereals, pancakes and waffles with copious amounts of syrup, and other sugar-laden breakfast foods increase melatonin production, which suppresses cortisol. If cortisol is suppressed in the morning, we crash at 2 in the afternoon and, incidentally, crave sugary foods to help us push through. As it turns out, protein increases cortisol production so the opposite will happen if you have a big steak at night. Cortisol goes up, melatonin goes down, and you can’t get to sleep.
Of course, watch the caffeine, especially in the afternoon and evening. Alcohol consumption before bed can help you get to sleep, it’s true, but it also tends to wake you up at 2 am. Different people have different tolerances to carbohydrates, caffeine, and alcohol, so be aware that what works for you may not work for your spouse or best friend.
Take Time to Wind Down
An evening ritual can help to induce sleep. Here are a few ideas to help you get some quality z’s tonight:
- Essential oils: Especially lavender, rosemary, chamomile, vetiver, ylang-ylang, and sandalwood, or really anything that makes you feel calm. Diffusing these oils consistently in the evening sends a signal to your body that it is time for bed. These are the oils I use: Young Living
- Decrease light and sound stimulation. We’ve already talked about light, but loud sounds can be very stimulating, too. Try to create a nice, soothing atmosphere to calm your overworked brain and get it into rest mode. Bright, flashing lights and loud music is fine for a dance party, but not for quality sleep.
- Take a warm bath. Not only does it feel awesome, a warm bath relaxes muscles and raises your temperature. Then, when you get out of the bath, the warm water evaporates, quickly lowering your skin temperature which is another signal for your body to get into sleep mode. Bonus: Use Epsom salts to get a little extra magnesium.
- Take magnesium and ashwagandha at night. Magnesium reverses the effects of stress on the brain and is great for relaxation (3). As far as supplements are concerned, ashwagandha may be my favorite. It is an adaptogen, which means it does several different things depending on the circumstances at the time. One of the things it does well is relaxation.
- Drink a nice cup of herbal or mushroom tea. I really love to have a cup of Four Sigmatic’s Reishi Hot Cacao at night. It’s a lower sugar version of your favorite hot chocolate from childhood made with Reishi mushroom which helps you to wind down after a busy day. Herbal teas such as blends including chamomile, passionflower, and hops are nice, too.
- Exercise during the day, but try to get it in earlier in the day. Many people have a hard time getting to sleep because they haven’t been active enough during the day. They are left with all of this unused nervous energy. Getting some kind of meaningful movement in during the day can help. Try to exercise away from bedtime. Otherwise, you may stimulate your system and work against your best sleepy-time efforts.
- Keep a journal beside your bed. I don’t know about you, but I get some really great ideas right after I shut my lights off before bed. Keeping a journal handy allows me to download these ideas onto paper so they aren’t banging around in my head all night.
Of all the things you can do for your health, I believe sleep is on the top of the list. Yes, losing weight is good, watching what you eat, exercising, and harboring a good attitude about life. None of these things are possible without adequate amounts of quality sleep. A chronic lack of quality sleep, whether it’s due to shift-work, stress-related insomnia, or poor sleep hygiene, can even lead to serious diseases, premature aging, and a shortened life-span. For your long-term good health, get some sleep!
Be sure to check back next week for the next thrilling episode of Pillars of Health: Water.
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