Sleep is glorious. It is probably one of my most favourite things to do and I look forward to going to bed every night. I look forward to bedtime and sleep, when I can finally switch off, rest and recuperate from the day’s stresses, wake feeling refreshed and anew, and ready to face another bright new day. If only it was always that easy to get a good night’s sleep, to fall asleep easily, sleep enough hours, and wake feeling completely rejuvenated every single morning. But alas, modern day civilisation provides us with so many obstacles to a peaceful restful slumber. Read on to learn about why we can struggle to sleep and get 14 great tips to improve your sleep.
In part one of this blog I explained the importance of sleep and what happens to our bodies and our brains when we lack sleep. Our cognitive function declines preventing us from learning new skills and storing new memories, our focus and concentration gets affected, as well as our rational thinking and emotional responses. Physiologically it increases our heart rate, blood pressure, levels of stress hormones and inflammation, and contributes to cardiovascular disease, dementia, insulin resistance, cancer, and other illnesses and disorders.
Sleep is one of the best natural medicines, helping us to heal and restore from the daily damage we cause just by living and breathing. But within our modern-day world, getting regular quality sleep seems so elusive. Our days are longer as we fill the hours with more things, more work, more stress, more activity, more stimulation, more reasons to stay awake and get things done. And even if we do manage to get ourselves to bed at a reasonable hour, we can have trouble falling asleep (AKA sleep onset insomnia) and/or staying asleep (AKA sleep maintenance insomnia) often waking numerous times in the night or far too early from which we then can’t fall back to sleep.
Understanding how our body clocks are involved in sleep and what can disrupt them, can help us to remedy poor sleep.
HOW DOES OUR BODY CLOCK AFFECT OUR SLEEP?
MELATONIN AND THE SLEEP/WAKE CYCLE
Our bodies are governed by an internal clock known as our circadian rhythm or sleep/wake cycle, which peaks and troughs at different times of the day making us more alert at certain times, or more sleepy. Circadian rhythms run approximately 24hrs in synchronisation with the rising and setting of the sun, where exposure to light through our eyelids tells the brain when to wake and when to sleep. When the body detects the approach of night time, it signals the release of our sleep hormone melatonin, which then tells the rest of the body to initiate the processes for sleep. As daylight approaches, melatonin levels decrease which then cues the body to start the process of wakefulness.
Melatonin is often called the Dracula of hormones as it only comes out in the darkness of night. With our use of artificial light melatonin release gets delayed, thus keeping us awake for longer than we should. This shift in light cues disrupts our circadian rhythm which forces the brain and body to adjust its usual pattern, causing disruption and disharmony to its usual daily processes. Travelling across times zones and the ‘jet lag’ we experience is a classic example of the effects of this disruption. Notice how tired you feel for the first few days that you arrive in the different time zone, while your body is fighting against the shift in daylight hours out of sync with your natural rhythm. But give it a few more days and your body clock is able to align itself to the new light/dark cycle and you no longer feel the lag in time.
But we don’t need to shift time zones to knock our circadian rhythm off kilter. Even a delay of a few hours, by sitting in an office with fluorescent lighting or using electronic devices that emit blue light, can delay melatonin release. Melatonin levels dramatically increase around 8pm to initiate sleep processes, it peaks around 2am, and then decreases as the morning progresses to initiate waking. Shifting this rise and fall of melatonin by a few hours can result in our struggle to fall asleep at bedtime. And as our alarm clocks still have to wake us at a certain time whether your body is ready to wake or not, we wake tired and unrefreshed.
SLEEP PRESSURE AND THE SLEEP/WAKE CYCLE
Have you ever felt so tired that you cannot help but feel sleepy? No matter how much you try to stay awake, your eyes just will not stay open. This is called sleep pressure, a desire to sleep that builds and builds until you just have to sleep. It is caused by the accumulation of the hormone adenosine that continuously builds up in the brain with every waking hour. After being awake for 12-16hrs levels of adenosine peak, and the pressure is so great we experience an irresistible urge to sleep. Adenosine breaks down after 8hrs of sleep and as levels drop the body begins the wakeful processes. When we wake, it starts to build up again and the cycle continues. If we do not sleep for long enough to clear all the adenosine from the system, the accumulating adenosine of the new day builds on top of the remnants of the previous day, increasing the pressure further. We wake tired and just can’t shake off the sleepiness. Napping can ease the pressure as it helps to clear some of the adenosine, but if it takes off too much pressure, it can delay sleep later in the evening further adding to the cycle of poor sleep. We also turn to stimulants such as caffeine to fight the fatigue which works by blocking adenosine receptors. But although the receptors are blocked, adenosine still continues to build until the caffeine wears off and we are then hit by the sudden high amounts of adenosine and we crash. We drink more caffeine to counteract it and by the evening we are so wired that we cannot sleep, and another poor sleep cycle ensues.
WHAT ABOUT ‘SECOND WIND’?
The circadian rhythm and sleep pressure cycle are aligned with one another in that when the circadian rhythm is winding down and at its slowest, sleep pressure is at its highest and thus we sleep. Inversely, when the circadian rhythm winds up and adenosine levels drop, easing the pressure to sleep, we are roused to wakefulness. Though the two cycles are aligned they do not communicate with each other or affect each other’s activity. The circadian rhythm continues to run whether we sleep or not i.e. whether adenosine gets cleared while we sleep, or if it stays elevated with lack of sleep. And so despite the build up of sleep pressure, when the circadian rhythm hits a peak, you experience a new wave of energy that we call ‘second wind’.
Now that we understand how our sleep/wake and sleep pressure cycles operate we can put practices into place to help us keep these cycles on track and get the sleep that we need. Here are 14 tips to help you fall asleep and stay asleep.
14 TIPS TO IMPROVE SLEEP
And an extra bonus tip:
When you can’t sleep avoid clock watching, and get out of bed and do something relaxing to prevent further sleep anxiety. Return to bed when the urge for sleep returns.
If you find yourself waking at the same time each night, you may be interested in learning what this means in Traditional Chinese Medicine. In Traditional Chinese Medicine it is believed that we have an organ clock where Qi energy flows through different organs at different times of the day. So the time in which you wake during the night can indicate which organ may be experiencing an energy disruption. For example, waking at 2am can be a sign of an overworked liver dealing with too many toxins, or you may have sinus issues at 4am when Qi is travelling through your lungs. Read more about the TCM organ clock and sleep disturbance in the link HERE.
Sleep is a natural process in all creatures but sometimes we need to give it a helping hand, especially as our lives are so full of disruptive activity and stimulation. Following these tips to improve your sleep, making a few simple changes to your lifestyle and daily routines, can drastically enhance your sleep quality and your daily vitality. Happy slumbering!