The Power of Sleep
Two thirds of us are not getting enough sleep2 but other than keeping us from feeling tired, why is sleep so important? What can impact sleep and how can we ensure we are getting enough quality zzz’s? Well, to answer this, we must first learn a few basics when it comes to sleep…
Why sleep? What does sleep do for us?
A critical function necessary for life, our night-time snooze-fests benefits our brains and our bodies. Matthew Walker, Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology at the University of California, has studied sleep for over 20 years. In his book, Why We Sleep, Walker argues that there doesn’t appear to be a single bodily organ or process that isn’t ‘optimally enhanced by sleep, or is detrimentally impaired when we don’t get enough2;7.
Within the brain, sleep enriches our ability to learn, memorise and make logical decisions2. It recalibrates our emotional brain so that we are more likely to make pragmatic choices and handle the next day’s psychological challenges with composure2 while helping support a healthy mood. Our immune system is replenished, blood sugar levels are fine-tuned and our appetite is regulated, which in turn, helps us regulate our body weight2. Sleep will also help maintain a healthy gut with flourishing microflora so we are able to digest and assimilate nutritious food effectively2.
And, as if we needed more convincing, adequate sleep also conditions the heart and lowers blood pressure2 while our liver does it’s detoxing overnight (waking at about 3am is even an indicator the liver is struggling!). Sleep is so important for body and mind that Walker posits that it is ‘the preeminent force of the healthy trinity’ alongside diet and exercise2;8.
What is the circadian rhythm and why is it vital to nurture it?
One of the most important functional rhythms in human life is our circadian rhythm – a 24-hour cycle that controls our wake-sleep pattern in collaboration with other metabolic processes1. Our circadian rhythm is controlled by an internal ‘clock’ called the suprachiasmatic nucleus within the hypothalamus (a small region of the brain), which it is regulated by exposure to light and darkness; light is sent along the optic nerves in your eyes towards this ‘clock’, which samples the light and uses it as information to ensure 24-hour time accuracy2.
Our circadian rhythm can be disrupted by exposure to bright light in the evening, jet lag, shift work, staying up late and blindness1. This interference with our natural sleep-wake rhythm can cause sleep-onset insomnia (difficulty falling asleep), sleep-maintenance insomnia (waking throughout the night) and irregular sleeping patterns. As adults, most of us need about 8 hours of sleep per night. Research has shown that routinely sleeping less than 6-7 hours each night hinders your immune system and more than doubles your risk of cancer2.
Short-term, sleep deficiency will decrease alertness, cause excessive daytime fatigue and contribute heavily to mood disorders and emotional imbalances1,2. You may also be interested to learn that car accidents caused by driver fatigue exceed those caused by alcohol and drugs combined; the lack of sleep causes a reduction is alertness, focus and attention creating the perfect storm for these devastating fatalities2.The shorter your sleep, the shorter your lifespan2
With a long term sleep deficit we are looking at associations with cardiovascular disease, stroke, congestive heart failure, diabetes and neurological diseases1 as well as depression, anxiety, weight gain and obesity1,2.
Research has shown that even as little as five hours per night results in a loss of hunger control2. Among other factors, without enough sleep, your body will increase levels of a hormone called ghrelin which makes you feel hungry and suppresses the hormone leptin, which signals that you have had enough to eat during a meal; so, even though you are full, you will continue to eat more2. Of course, this ‘overeating’ will lead to weight gain in both adults and children2. Further, when you then attempt to balance your diet to lose weight, most of the weight you will lose will come from lean body mass rather than fat stores2, therefore, ensuring you are getting good quality sleep is a must for any weight loss efforts.
Due to the seriousness of a lack of sleep, we need to start learning about how to take control of our sleeping patterns to ensure we are getting the recommended eight hours of quality sleep each night. As we will learn below, sleep is impacted by a variety of lifestyle factors as well as hormones and neurotransmitters including melatonin, cortisol and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which all work together to co-ordinate sleep, wakefulness alertness and arousal1.
So, what elements can disturb our precious sleep?
Firstly, regulators of sleep-wake cycles involve both hormones and neurotransmitters. One such hormone you are most probably familiar with is melatonin. Melatonin is secreted by the pineal gland in the brain in response to a decrease in light (darkness), and its primary role is in the regulation of the circadian rhythm. Often taken in supplement form a few hours before the desired sleep time, melatonin may advance sleep onset and elicit an earlier wake time, reducing sleep latency, increasing total sleep time and improving sleep quality1. Long-term pharmacological doses of melatonin, however, can lead to a decrease in effectiveness as the body becomes de-sensitised1.
Historically, melatonin supplements had been extracted from animals, however now it is almost exclusively synthetic1. Excitingly, scientists have recently discovered how to extract melatonin from plant sources; this ‘phytomelatonin’ delivers an organic, physiological dose of melatonin for improved sleep1. Structurally identical to human melatonin, phytomelatonin behaves exactly the same way our own melatonin does; it is suitable for vegetarians and vegans and is free of the chemicals and synthetics1. Further, phytomelatonin is slow-release, ensuring we fall asleep and stay asleep without morning-after drowsiness1. Should a melatonin shortfall be the causative factor getting in the way of your good night’s sleep, phytomelatonin may just be the answer.
On the other hand, there are other factors that can impede upon a peaceful slumber. In today’s fast-paced world, many of us are stressed, and this is often one of the first issues that becomes apparent when patients are not sleeping well.
Our stress response can significantly impede upon our sleep-wake cycle. Cortisol, a key stress-induced hormone, works closely with melatonin in coordinating our circadian rhythm. Under normal circumstances, our ‘internal clock’ stimulates the release of cortisol from the adrenal glands (triangular shaped glands that sit atop each kidney) to facilitate waking and alertness during the day, the when darkness sets in, melatonin takes over4.
When darkness is mitigated with bright light, or stress triggers the release of excessive amounts of cortisol, the circadian rhythm becomes disrupted4. Cortisol inhibits the release of melatonin and has been clearly linked with insomnia4. Inadequate levels of magnesium may also cause sleeplessness and insomnia. Magnesium is an essential nutrient that helps to relax excessive nervous energy and tense muscles5. Because it provides for the nervous system, magnesium is not only useful in times of stress, but has also been shown to reduce sleeplessness and support healthy sleep patterns associated with insufficient magnesium intake5. If this is the case for you, your Medical Herbalist or Naturopath will prescribe or recommend the correct adaptogenic and anxiolytic herbs or supplement for your individual needs.
Knocking yourself out: The trouble with sleeping pills and alcohol
Walker states that sleep medications or sedatives do not provide natural sleep, damaging health and increasing the risk of life-threatening diseases’2. Sleeping pills and alcohol can make you drowsy place you into a state of unconsciousness, where deeper brain waves produced during REM sleep are restricted2. Because sedation is not sleep, the usual sleep restorative functions do not kick in and you can feel groggy and forgetful the following morning, which may lead to an increase in consumption of high-energy, low-nutrient foods and drinks and poor decision making, while perpetuating the cycle of difficulty sleeping2. Further, if used over long periods of time, your brain can become less sensitive to these drugs2. While we vehemently advise not to come off any medications without your doctor’s supervision, it is possible to gently wean off sleeping pills while initiating natural sleep support in collaboration with the care of your Medical Herbalist of Naturopath.
Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is a neurotransmitter in the brain that also plays a vital role in sleep onset and maintenance4. GABA also promotes relaxation and reduces anxiety as it inhibits the release of cortisol4. Herbs such as Zizyphus, Californian poppy, Passionflower and Lavender elicit a GABAergic activity, and may present a safer alternative to medications such as benzodiazapines4. Herbs are miracle workers in the realm of sleep – helping to relax nervous systems, tone down stress and anxiety and provide the phytonutrients necessary for a healthy sleep. Because we humans are complex creatures, we require thorough consideration of all systems, on all levels, to ensure the correct advice is given and if necessary, appropriate supplementation is prescribed in accordance with individual needs. Remember that no amount of supplementation will support healthy sleep if lifestyle and factors impacting sleep patterns are not sufficiently addressed.
Different lifestyle factors that may need to be considered:2,3
- Introduce a relaxing bedtime routine with relaxing activities such as meditation, yoga nidra or breathing exercises
- Take a hot bath before bed; your body temperature will drop after getting out which may help you feel sleepy
- A little of the right aromatherapy oils may also help you relax before bed – make sure the oils you are using are safe to use around babies and animals where relevant
- Avoid eating after 6pm and drinking excessively at night so that your body can relax and regenerate while you sleep. Ensure evening meals contain a good portion of protein.
- Significantly reducing/eliminating sugar and caffeine, alcohol and nicotine intake before bed
- Ensuring bedtime and wake times are consistent – get that circadian rhythm down!
- Getting plenty of outdoor physical activity during the day, especially in the morning
- Ensuring natural light exposure in the morning and reduced light exposure in the evenings
- Creating a dark, quiet, peaceful and well-ventilated sleeping environment – no electronics in the bedroom!
- Wearing loose, comfortable clothing to bed and keep the room cool
- Reducing screen time during the day, and switching devices off at least one hour before bed
- Consider block-out curtains or eye masks if you are a shift worker – make the room as dark as possible when sleeping
- Review your medications with your doctor and seek integrated support from your Herbalist of Naturopath
- Stop deliberately avoiding sleep - go to bed when your body is indicating it is tired!
Of course, other issues such as co-sleeping, living with a shift-worker, hormonal fluctuations, medications, eating habits/diet, alcohol consumption, recreational drugs, and existing health conditions can also impact sleeping patterns and quality of sleep. When considering natural supplements for any condition, getting the right advice from a qualified natural health practitioner is vital. We encourage you to reach out for support and guidance – we would love to help you on your way. A consultation may be necessary to best establish which supplements or remedies are the safest and most suited to your unique needs, especially if you are taking medications or are under medical care.
*This article does not replace medical advice and is not intended to diagnose or treat any conditions. References available on request.