Sleep: What is it good for?
Sleep is king or that’s how I always feel. Of all the things you can do each day to become the best version of yourself you cant beat a good nights sleep. The challenge is getting a good nights sleep. However one of the reasons we don’t sleep like babies is because we tend not to prioritise it as a healthy thing to do, we know we need or you suffer obviously in terms of being tired and needing more coffee, but do we really appreciate what sleep does for us? It’s like a supplement, a natural, free at the point of use supplement. It’s the extra part of your 24 hour day that really puts the icing on the water, good food, function shifting supplements, exercise, deep breathing, happy thoughts and stimulating relationships and brings it all together.
When you sleep is when your body changes and adapts to the stresses you placed it under during the awake part of the day. You lose weight and rebuild your muscles when you sleep. I am guilty of being full of beans in the evening and using the peace and quiet within the house as my chance to quality thinking time done and catch up on emails from the day.
However, I am well aware you need to have the self discipline to know when to switch off and close the laptop over before you find yourself slumped in a heap on the sofa. So being far from perfect even just writing this article reminds me of why I also have to listen to my inner expert on all matters health, my body, and get to bed regularly by around 1030pm.
Why we need to sleep
Sleep is essential for health and ultimately survival. It can be debated how many, but string too many days together of literally no sleep and the consequences can be extremely dire. Some would argue sleep is as important as our need for food and water. It would be normal to spend about one-third of our lives sleeping.
So much goes on when we sleep:
- The brain stores new information, the nervous system reorganises to support better brain function and through a special network called the glymphatic system it gets rid of toxic waste.
- If daytime is the “on” get things done time of day that comes at the cost of breaking down our bodies, sleep is the recovery, repair and regeneration to allow us to move on and progress from the wear and tear of our daily lives
- During sleep as cells as put back together again we work to regain our energy stores and this involves the formation and release of brain chemicals, hormones and a variety of proteins
Are you sleep-deprived?
A lot of us are sleep deprived without even knowing it. Researchers say that 7 hours’ sleep is the very minimum you need to be healthy. You might use an app to record your sleep and the numbers can look great but you still feel awful so ask yourself these questions to find out if you might be sleep-deprived.
- are you typically drowsy during a good portion of the day, especially the morning and/or around 4 pm?
- do you rely on coffee to get going in the mornings?
- do you suffer from sugar cravings, especially in the late afternoon
- do you fall asleep exhausted in just a couple of minutes at night, or alternatively lie awake for a long time before you fall asleep?
- are you tired in the evening only to have a second wind just before bedtime?
- do you you often wake up in the night to go to bathroom (or for any other reason?)
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may not be getting enough good quality sleep and your waistline may be suffering as a result!
What is a good nights sleep?
Getting to bed around 1030pm and being asleep before midnight and waking around 6-8am with no more than one trip to the bathroom and waking without an alarm and the feet hit the floor right away and you feel refreshed and ready for the day.
Top reasons to motivate you to focus more on your sleep
- Fat loss
- Stress and hormones
Reasons you don’t sleep
Simple Practical Reasons
Sometimes a good nights sleep is as simple as going to bed at the right time typically 10-11pm and not after midnight other times it’s avoiding caffeine or too much water after your dinner. However for some people their sleep becomes so disturbed for years that even sleeping pills from the doctors doesn’t guarantee a good nights sleep.
Complicated Reasons You Really Need To Test To Find Out
Chronic Sleep Deprivation causes increased evening cortisol, elevates insulin and blood sugar, decreases Parasympathetic nervous system activity/increases Sympathetic nervous system activity, increases appetite, energy expenditure, inflammation, blood pressure.
More Serious Chronic Sleep Issues
Sleep Apnea symptoms: short term memory, weight, tiredness, gastric reflux, dry mouth, sore throat, slow metabolism, high blood pressure, diabetes, depression. Sleep apnea is periods of pauses in your breathing whilst you sleep or shallow breathing.
- Magnesium deficiency
- Melatonin deficiency
- Hormone imbalance – progesterone
- Anxiety and Depression
- Digestive infections
- Caffeine intolerance
- Chemical toxicity
- Heavy metal toxicity
- EMF sensitivity
- Blood sugar imbalance
- Genetic weaknesses (variants)
When it comes to the many reasons you don’t sleep lie a baby some are obvious some less so but the role of posture it closely related to pain and discomfort. There can be your posture during the day from how long you sit for, the posture you sit in and made worse by phone calls, typing or driving in whilst in this less than ideal posture for prolonged periods. You can also factor in lack of activity or excessive activity in postures that aren’t ideal for standing up straight and tall, think, endurance cycling and digging big holes in your back garden. Then this posture that develops or the one you adopt whilst you sleep can impact your ability to get to sleep and stay asleep. Having the right mattress for you, bedding materials (eg feather pillows) and size of the bed never mind who you share or don’t share the bed with are factors impacting how you sleep from a physical perspective. Another factor that your Physiotherpaist or chiropractor may have brought up is the pillow you sleep on or even if you sleep without a pillow.
Most of us use pillows today, but it wasn’t always like that. Today forward head posture increases our propensity to mouth breathe. When you are awake we can focus on our posture and think about whether we mouth breathe or breathe our noses and how much we poke our chins out. However when you sleep not only do you have tight muscles from forward head posture from typing all day and breathe through your mouth affecting how efficient you are at sliding into a parasympathetic nervous system state of tranquility, relaxation and repair but if our heads are propped up at 45 degs and 6 inches or more off the bed held at that angle for 7-8 hrs on and off, thats a significant head slump as well as impact on our breathing.
With poor posture, sleep, and breathing all connected, you could see that your pillow may contribute to not just neck but also back, and shoulder pain. That leads to movement whilst you try to sleep, pain that wakes you up, agitation as you worry you wont get back to sleep and sleep through your alarm. All adding to the tension and stress, making the breathing more shallow and along with all that muscle tension far less likely to relax anywhere near enough to get into that deep restorative sleep you need, nightly.
During the day since I spend a lot of time typing, driving, on the phone, sitting at a desk I try to counter that by having periods where I stretch tight hips and chest muscles, focus on abdominal breathing (sometimes when its busy that can be when in the car driving home) and having clients in front of me whether in person or over Zoom helps keep you mindful that healthy people sit upright and have good posture, so the motivation not to slump in front of a client when you are attempting to be all knowing does keep it more front and centre of my daily patterns.
Then when I am in bed its easier for me to practise some abdominal deep breaths before sleeping, and I have managed for a number of years from using a specific neck pillow, to sleep on one small pillow and sometimes even no pillow, and all without pain and better deep sleep.
The fact that the height of your pillow increases peak pressures in the cranial and neck regions, while increasing the extension (lordosis) of the spine makes pillows not the best for a pain free sleep. Studies on the biomechanics of the head and neck suggest that the higher the pillow, the worse the sleep. So a higher pillow could lead to more neck pain and headaches when you are trying to sleep definitely make for a poor nights sleep.
While working towards nasal breathing and straight cervical spine posture during sleep, its worth trying
1) Sleeping with a lower pillow
2) Trying to sleep without a pillow
Melatonin that is made in the pineal gland within the brain, is often referred to as the sleep hormone, is a central part of the body’s sleep-wake cycle. Its production increases with evening darkness, promoting healthy sleep and helping to orient our circadian rhythm. The body naturally produces melatonin. However high levels of artificial light during the day and into early evening are likely to lower melatonin and reduce sleep quality. Reducing blue light in the evening by getting home and out of the office and then when home trying to minimise how much your are on your iPad or tablet especially after 10pm can help raise melatonin. There are also digestive issues caused by different infections that can lead to lower levels of melatonin being made. Also as cortisol your number one stress hormone lowers across the day your melatonin rises in its absence. So far, far easier said than done but minimising stress especially at the end of the day can help raise melatonin levels to the level you need for a great nights sleep. Late night or after work, workouts and scary TV programs can be common triggers for higher stress in the evenings before bed.
Magnesium is one of the most common minerals on earth and is present in many foods such as almonds, cashews, black beans, edamame, quinoa, spinach and one of my favourites, dark chocolate. It’s essential for human health and is used in over 600 cellular reactions throughout your body. In fact, every cell and organ need this mineral to function properly. It contributes to bone health, as well as proper brain, heart and muscle function.
Common magnesium deficiency symptoms include;
- Loss of appetite.
Magnesium is a sedating mineral and activates the parasympathetic nervous system, the system responsible for switching you off and getting you calm and relaxed, as well as increasing activation of the digestive and detoxification systems to allow daily restoration and repair. Magnesium is involved in how the brain uses its communication chemicals; neurotransmitters, which send signals throughout the nervous system and brain.
The neurotransmitter called GABA for short or gamma-aminobutyric acid, for long, is another key part of how the body sets itself up for a good nights sleep and magnesium improves its function. In addition just about all the issues with sleep, good or bad, are connected in some way to our sleep hormone melatonin and magnesium helps regulate that also. So magnesium has several important roles in helping to quieten the nervous system down prepare your body and mind for sleep.
Whether you try adding magnesium to your diet through food or supplements that in part improve the bodies use of the GABA neurotransmitter, you can also directly help raise GABA levels through GABA supplementation. Getting the exact extra help you need on board to deal with how your body works and manage symptoms is a challenge. I developed a love of combining in-depth questionnaires to score and prioritise symptoms and also indicate areas of weakness and systems losing function, this information is generally further investigated through the use of various lab tests. If your diet is low in dark chocolate well thats a travesty in its self but that can help explain why you have sleep issues and the role for magnesium, this knowledge also helps to highlight the need for more magnesium. If anxiety more accurately describes how you feel and you also struggle to sleep properly, then steps to lower anxiety and manage stress might include adding GABA. This neurotransmitter is inhibitory meaning it reduces activity in the nerve cells and switches off some off the worry thoughts in the evening pre-bed. Foods such as walnuts and banana for an evening snack or meals with spinach, halibut, liver, broccoli, potatoes all help raise GABA levels.
CBD Oil is one of those supplements everyone and their dog is taking and in the case of my dog literally. CBD or cannabidiol, extracted from the hemp plant has many potential benefits as it was discovered that we have an inbuilt system that goes round the whole body communicating with all our cells called the endocannabinoid system, this system is involved in balancing and stabilising our control mechanisms to keep us in whats called homeostasis ie. keep us stable. This indicates CBD taken as an oil in various formats, capsules, tinctures to vaping, can stimulate and bring about action globally therefore its been used for people with pain, stress, digestive issues, anxiety and sleep amongst others. So regards sleep a more calm, relaxed, less stressed, less anxious and less in pain person is likely to sleep better.
Low mood and depression
One of the essential aminos acids we get from protein, L-tryptophan becomes something called 5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan) which in turn becomes serotonin which is referred to as our head happy neurotransmitter. Serotonin also goes on to make melatonin. In a similar fashion to GABA you can supplement with 5-HTP for sleep disorders such as insomnia, but also depression and anxiety. 5-HTP works in the brain and central nervous system by increasing the production of the chemical serotonin. Serotonin can affect sleep, appetite, temperature, sexual behaviour, and pain sensation.
By eating more foods high in tryptophan you can increase the amount of 5-HTP your body makes, foods such as pumpkin seeds, dairy products, beef liver, chicken or turkey breast.
Progesterone, one of our key sex hormones that woman and also men have, is present in a wide spectrum of biological activity within a variety of tissues. This hormone is seen as a calming and soothing and also known to affect reproduction, sleep quality, respiration, mood, appetite, learning, memory and sexual activity.
Progesterone exerts a sleep induction or hypnotic effect and is a potent respiratory stimulant that has been associated to a decrease in the number of central and obstructive sleep apnea episodes in men. The literature also contains a substantial amount of data on the effect of apnea in women with obesity-hypoventilation during menopause. So women that are more overweight and have sleep disturbances specifically sleep apnea where you actually stop breathing in your sleep are likely to benefit the most. If you can breathe better as you sleep you are likely to stay calm and get into a deeper more restorative sleep.
If you were to run the DUTCH Stress Hormone Test you could see whether you had too much progesterone which can also cause issues but also whether even if its present at normal levels it might be low relative to oestrogen. Without getting too carried away on the biochemistry assuming you do a good balanced job of breaking down all the different types of oestrogen you have alongside sleep as a symptom of low progesterone you any benefit from supplementing with progesterone. This can be done through herbs to maximise your levels and potency of progesterone or some prefer to opt to be more direct and support progesterone production through bio-identicals. You don’t mess with your hormones willy-nilly as they have an intricate balance impacting the whole of your body and the hormone cascade is sensitive to which you push it with external and internal stress so as always with us holistic whole beings we need to consider our health giving strategies in the round which typically would also mean a conversation with your GP before diving in. I would never advise tinkering with your hormones without going down the route of proper testing to get a thorough understanding of where you are at currently; the effect of stress and what is and what is down and relative to each other.
Antimicrobial bug killing
Microbes come in many forms, there are the gut friendly ones we all here about in yoghurts and supplements called probiotics, these are life giving bacteria, designed to be living in big numbers in our gut and support health. Other microbes such parasites, bacteria, worms, fungi and viruses are also supposed to be there but ideally living in a symbiotic or synergistic relationship with us on the outside of the gut and the probiotics on the inside of the gut. This isn’t always the case. when we suffer stress; eat more processed foods, over consume alcohol, travel to foreign parts, add drugs and chemicals from the environment we breathe in, swallow or add to our skin these microbes can take a greater foothold in our digestive systems and start to shift the balance towards a more inflammatory state. The immune system can be over reacting to these foreign invaders or due to the overall loads placed on the gut with stress, poor diet so lack of nutrients, overloaded liver and detoxification system we can find the immune system decide to shutdown for a period to wait for the resources to restore balance. While we wait for that to happen we can experience lower energy and more digestive symptoms such as bloating, constipation, diarrhoea. If things get out of hand there is more work being done by the body at night during your repair and recover time of the day and you will find your detoxification system being more active when you are sleeping leading to disturbances in your sleep. However with the lack of resources from not enough good food of the right type and the extra help to speed up change from supplements you can find you are stuck in a spiral where you just don’t repair your digestive and immune system and as a result your sleep-wake cycle gets more and more disrupted and sleep becomes a real health challenge.
Running a stool test to see what is causing the gut stress and what the effect is in terms of inflammation and gut function makes sense in this situation. However as always we need to personalise our investigations and for some stress is king and we need to evaluate your hormones, to see when cortisol is and when its down and the balance back to your sleep hormone, melatonin before we can properly evaluate our strategy to remedy the primary health challenge of poor sleep. Knowing there are issues with sleep, stress during the day and then an additional nighttime symptom such as teeth grinding, bruxism we have a strong case to move forward with to create a truly personal solution.
If we find from the stool test that there quite a few bugs getting boisterous and we know which ones you will better understand how they can undermines the function of the nervous system, which regulates your sleep patterns and challenge the precise balance between your hormones being most active during the day and your immune system later in the day and through the night, generating spikes in your cortisol, stress hormone, your wake up hormone, then its not a surprise you are awake every night at 3am!
Inflammation can be caused digestive issues, stress, environmental toxins and heavy metals and also by mold toxicity that lead to the continual release of whats called pro-inflammatory cytokines. In the brain, the cytokine chemicals bind to receptor for a hormone called leptin, preventing its normal function in the hypothalamus of the brain. The job of leptin is to regulate energy balance and hunger. The release of this hormone also leads to more of another hormone being released, alpha-melanocyte stimulating hormone (MSH). The plot thickens, so less MSH production results in reduced production of melatonin, and then we have yet another reason for less melatonin and sleep problems.
Coffee and Caffeine
As well as serotonin and GABA another neurotransmitter, chemicals produced in the brain, adenosine, has an impact on your ability to sleep. Adenosine makes you feel sleepy. Levels are at their lowest when the alarm goes off and as the day goes on they rise, so you then feel more tired as the day goes on. The longer you’re awake, the more adenosine is made. If however you stay awake longer one day and then don’t sleep as long as your normal cycle you create a sort of sleep debt as you wake up with adenosine left over so you feel drowsy when the alarm goes off.
Coffee fits in to this challenge to your sleep as it binds to the same receptors in the brain. So a little battle ensues with caffeine from the coffee telling your brain you are wide awake and ready for action and adenosine shouting back its ready to drift off to the land of nod. However you may have noticed that after a cup of coffee there is a period of time it lasts doing its job of keeping you awake but can just then go, maybe thats the 3pm slump. So what happens here is the cup of coffee that maybe you had around breakfast time lasts about 4-6 hours in your system at significant levels so as the afternoon approaches and levels are now down and you haven’t gone back for another coffee, the adenosine is now well on the rise and in the absence of the caffeine that got their first it now jumps on those receptors with a vengeance and you get the exact opposite of the caffeine hit but its an adenosine slap, and your head wants to hit the desk even though it’s nowhere near bedtime yet.
There is also the stress response from coffee which is a fight or flight type, life or death stress. That drives the adrenals into action and pumps out cortisol. Then we have another reason stress, hormones and in turn your melatonin levels negatively affect your sleep. The degree to which this process impacts your sleep is based on several factors from genetics, daily stress levels, how active you are and various medications so again we have to personalise and look at whether this is a factor in your sleep challenge. Sometimes its as simple as avoiding coffee or tea after dinner or if you have a greater sensitivity to caffeine it needs to be only the morning.
There are over 800 non-metal, environmental toxins known as endocrine disruptors. The glands of the endocrine system such as thyroid and pituitary gland release hormones to help regulate our body functions such as metabolism, menstrual cycle and sleep. In deep sleep the pituitary gland secretes important hormones, like human growth hormone, leading to growth and development of the body. If you come in contact with more and more chemicals your toxic load increases that leads to a disruption of your ability to detox effectively. Your body is designed to detox when you sleep but when you have a lot of detoxing to do due to increased toxicity especially from endocrine disruptors you will find yourself awake more often in the middle of the night. This leads to a disruption in the production of key hormones and in turn reduces the restorative nature of sleep.
Examples of where these endocrine disruption chemicals come from include;
- Air bags
- Cigarette smoke
- Plastic cups and plates
Heavy metal toxicity
Additional environmental toxins such as heavy metals can also have a role to play in disrupting sleep. Heavy metals such as aluminium, arsenic, cadmium, lead, mercury, nickel and tin are stored away in the body for safe keeping when you don’t have the nutritional resources to remove them. They can be stored in organs such as brain, bone, kidney, liver, muscles and the circulatory system. These heavy metals come from the food chain, air pollution, pesticides and medicines. Specifically heavy metals such as copper and lead have been shown to impact sleep.
EMFs which is energy in the form of electromagnetic fields and radiofrequency radiation has been shown in many studies to disrupt our health in many ways; headaches, fatigue, emotional problems, hear issues and also sleep. EMFs from electrical devices such as Wi-Fi networks, computers, fluorescent lighting, household appliances, cordless phones, electric blankets, smart meters, mobile phones, cell phone masts, power lines and household wiring, radio masts, and television masts.
EMFs are believed to impact the brain at the level of the pineal gland where you body makes melatonin as the gland thinks the EMF energy is like a kind of light source. As mentioned above melatonin is key for sleep quality. EMFs also disrupt our sleep-wake cycle or circadian rhythm which is our bodies internal clock due to the amount we use them during the day the exposure to different EMF sources at different points across the day seems to lead to greater sleep disturbances.
There are a growing number of companies offering devices to limit or block our exposure to EMF radiation I have used different wallets that you use with your iPad or iPhone to block the EMF and also Energydots that you can place inside the devices protective case that absorb the EMF to limit the amount that leaves the device and potential be absorbed by your body. As with all potential toxins its about load, how much is there in your personal external environment and internally and then how much resources in the form of nutrients do you have to package them up and safely remove them. The balance between the in and the out can be supported with measures that increase how much you help your body remove such as sweating through exercise or a sauna, breathing from being more active, water and fibre intake to help with trips to the toilet to help remove them. So if sticking a wee dot inside my phone helps I am all in. With the drive towards more of us spending time at home and on devices, whether for leisure or stuck on Zoom for work, we are being more regularly exposed and at higher levels (and I haven’t mentioned the thorny controversial issue of 5G) so EMF is actually quite a big issue and arguable a health challenge solely in its own right.
Unfortunately blood sugar and sleep are closely intertwined. Unfortunately because a bad nights leads to higher blood sugar, then having high blood sugar by the time you go to bed and you struggle to sleep. High blood sugar in the evening also increases the likelihood you will be up for the toilet and thats going to disrupt your sleep further.
However you can always have periods of low blood sugar. When your blood sugar drops your body then makes more stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, and blood sugar goes back up which is great and very helpful, except when that happens during the night, and as a result you wake up. Even worse you wake up and want food.
Eating high sugar foods, artificial sweeteners, processed foods, even the wrong foods for how your body works, as well as caffeine, dehydration, and if you’re a woman your menstrual cycle and the shift in hormones can impact your blood sugar.
Sometimes your fluctuating blood sugars can be impacted by your stress and the subsequent hormonal response so testing hormone function will provide strong clues towards appropriate remedies. In the absence of that I really like using a simple, finger blood prick, blood sugar test. This is especially valuable when I am going through a phase of detoxing, fasting or focusing more on the right macronutrients and getting stricter with my diet or in periods of high stress and looking for clues to manage the situation with supplementation and the right foods for me. There plenty to choose from but my preference is the KetoMagic as it also measures blood ketones. It seems to be very accurate and syncs back to an app to save me having to remember my scores. The value of matching blood sugar and ketones its a great option to know how well your liver is doing, fat loss, diet and obviously blood sugar. My advice would be to eat normally before making changes, record your symptoms across the day and trying to keep the stress, sleep and activity normal then tackle a measurement upon awakening, before lunch, dinner, bed and if you are up during the night then as well. Ideally before a meal you would like to see the score, 80-100 mg/dL or 4.4-5.6 mmol/L.
Genetics and health is a massive subject as there are different versions of many genes we all have. Once we know what the hand we’ve been dealt looks like, we then need to do some thorough testing to ascertain if these different versions are active or expressing. With certain genetic variants we can see that the processes they are involved in are run faster than we would like and some of our symptoms can result from running out of the nutrients required for that process or pathway. In other cases the version of the gene you have runs too slow and you need to look at the nutritional steps you can take to speed things up and get them running at the right speed for you, in turn reducing symptoms and our health challenges.
The two most common genetic or more properly called variants, that have a strong connection to sleep, are referred to as, for short, MAO-A and COMT.
MAO-A – Monoamine Oxidase affects your relationship to dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin thus governing your mood, energy, and sugar cravings. MAO-A is also known as “the warrior gene” as its shown to be more active with those that fly in to rage or are quiet and worried about life. To help balance the function of this gene vitamins B2, B6, B9 and B12, vitamin C and magnesium can help. A herb such as ashwagandha that is known as an adaptogenic herb, meaning it helps protect the body from stress, also lowers cortisol, balances blood sugar, as well as minimising the symptoms of anxiety and depression.
COMT – Catechol-O-methyltransferase affects metabolism of the major neurotransmitters that influence your mood, oestrogen and energy levels, ability to calm down, and focus. COMT is a methylation gene which means its involved in energy production and detoxification in the cells. Specifically it is involved in the breakdown of the chemicals of stress, called catecholamines, dopamine, adrenaline and norepinephrine. Again this brings up the issue of stress and sleep, it’s such an important factor with many layers. This gene requires several B vitamins to operate smoothly such vitamins B2, B6, B9 and B12, magnesium is also required.
My top sleep tips
In the absence of testing and drilling into your health history with detailed questionnaires, these following tips can hopefully have an impact on your sleep. If on the overhand they don’t help, they do offer insights to how your body works on the inside, and then we are actually closer to uncovering why sleep is a challenge for you.
- Try to get to bed by 10-11 pm and aim for 7-9 hours of sleep
- Avoid caffeine or alcohol near your bedtime – caffeine can keep you awake and alcohol can disrupt the normal stages of your sleep
- Aim to be active daily, but avoid exercising within 3 hours of bedtime
- Do some light stretching in the evenings to help move your body into a parasympathetic nervous system state of calm, relaxation and recovery
- Sleep in a dark room as close to total darkness as possible using blackout blinds or a sleep mask if necessary
- Take a magnesium supplement or have an epsom salt bath to put you into a relaxed state
- Minimise electrical fields around your bed when you sleep by turning off and unplugging all electronics
- Keep the clock away from your view. If you have difficulty falling asleep, watching the clock will only make it worse!