Sleep is something many of us take for granted and don’t give a second thought to, but for others it’s a huge obstacle in their life. Sleep deprivation actually has more negative effects on our health than starvation. Without enough sleep, our bodies can quickly go downhill with difficulties concentrating, low energy, memory lapses, low mood and low immune response, this also includes children as they need lots more sleep than adults.
Children from 6-12yrs should be getting between 9-12 hours of sleep per 24hrs. Teenagers between 8-10hrs, although my teens don’t need any help with that as they regularly don’t surface until noon at the earliest. Insomnia can affect up to 25-30% of the population , this can vary from difficulty falling asleep, early awakening or broken disrupted sleep and waking unrefreshed.
Then of course there are those of us who won’t go to bed until 1 or 2am because they don’t feel tired, well only about 2% of the population can survive quite well doing that. This reminds me of Margaret Thatcher who back in the day famously boasted she only needed 4hrs sleep per night, but for many years suffered with dementia. For the rest of us mortals, we do actually need between 7 and 9 hours sleep.
When we sleep our brain ‘takes out the rubbish’, it cleans up the mess from the day previous, it helps our body rest, regenerate and get rid of dead cells. Sleep has been found to help our immune system function, it has a big impact on how we gain weight and can actually regulate how hungry we feel during the day. This is all done through hormonal signalling.
When we don’t get enough sleep, our satiety signalling hormone ‘leptin’ decreases and the hunger signalling hormone ‘ghrelin’ increases. So in essence, if you don’t sleep enough you could be hungrier and you could also keep eating till the cows come home without feeling full, hence lack of sleep causes weight gain.
So what causes poor sleep and what can you do to help better sleep? There are many reasons of course but we will start with the simple ones that we can help quite easily.
Sleep problems are more common in people who have Type 2 Diabetes possibly due to poor blood sugar control. I was speaking about blood sugar in the first week and how it can have a significant impact on weight gain; well, diet can also have a big impact on sleep.
The blood sugar rollercoaster I was speaking about where the breakfast you eat will cause a spike in blood sugars along with hormones like insulin and cortisol can also impact the quality of your sleep. These hormones, particularly cortisol the stress hormone play a significant part in sleep or rather lack of it.
If we have balanced blood sugars all day from eating good fats, proteins and fibrous carbohydrates we will have steady energy and feel calm into the evening. This is due in part to the Cortisol diurnal rhythm of the day, cortisol naturally rises in the morning to get us up for the day, gradually falling during the afternoon and should be at its lowest in the evening, preparing us for bed.
However if we have been going up and down the rollercoaster all day with blood sugar , insulin and cortisol surges, our hormones are dysregulated, we don’t feel calm and relaxed in the evening when we should be.
When someone wakes every night at 2am after going to bed at 11, it is a good sign that what they ate before bed may have been too high in sugars so their low blood sugar and consequent cortisol surge has woken them up.
More hormones are involved with sleep, these are serotonin and melatonin, and the source of these is interesting and not really talked about a lot. 80-90% of serotonin production is found in the gut and microbes in the gut communicate with cells that produce these neurotransmitters. Serotonin is our feel good hormone which is used to make melatonin our sleep inducing hormone. Good gut health is imperative not just to sleep of course but to all parts of health.
So what can you do to help you sleep better, it isn’t an overnight switch that is for sure but small daily habit changes do make significant positive changes to sleep quality and better energy the next day in my clients. There is a bit of work involved.
Food to Avoid:
- Highly processed foods, these are usually high in sugar and salt and generally nutrient sparse so why bother?
- Sugary snacks before bed as above the sugar will give you a surge of energy but will cause wakefulness during the night.
- Caffeine - Some people metabolize caffeine quite quickly, others don’t.
- Caffeine has a half life of 6 hrs, meaning half of it has gone in 6hrs so it would make sense if like me you love a good coffee, have one before lunch but maybe not later in the day.
- Alcohol - many find a drink in the evening sends them to bed but in our later year , we find it actually causes rebound insomnia and causes wakefulness, try a night without it and see.
What to focus on instead:
- Nutrient dense snacks - if hungry before bed, apple slices with almond butter, full fat yoghurt with walnuts and blueberries.
- Avoid eating a heavy meal before bed, it is the worst thing you can do for your digestion, metabolism and your dreams.
- Herbal teas - chamomile tea is a favourite but any calming tea is good, not too close to bed though as you will be getting up in the night.
- Fermented foods - Kimchi/Kefir/fermented veggies/sauerkraut - these all feed the microflora of the gut and help to regulate hormone production (serotonin and melatonin) in the gut. Start slowly with a teaspoon and build up to having a portion with a salad everyday for good gut health.
- Hydration during the day not just in the evening, sometimes we are waking because we are actually dehydrated. Increase daytime water and herbal teas.
- Avoid caffeine in the afternoon.
- If menopause is causing wakefulness try cutting out caffeine altogether.
- Foods to help produce serotonin - bananas, oats, poultry, cheese, milk, salmon, tofu, sunflower seeds. An example of a good night time snack: Oatcakes with almond butter and sliced banana, or Warm milk with cinnamon, or full fat yoghurt with walnuts and 1⁄4 sliced banana.
Sleep Hygiene: How we prepare to go to bed is very important.
- Wind down time - A good bedtime is around 10.30/11pm.
- 1-2 hours before bed - try and get prepared for the next day whatever that may be, pack a bag, make your lunch, select your clothes if going to work.(This makes a huge difference in the morning - so less stressful).
- 1 hr before bed Stop watching devices/tv.
- 30 mins before you go to bed - start to wind down.
- If a particularly stressful day, soak feet or a bath of Epsom Salts for 20mins.
- Have a chamomile tea or any other calming herbal tea.
- No electronic devices in room - laptops, tablets (put phone on airplane mode to avoid blue light which stops melatonin production).
- Try to get into the habit of going to bed at the same time every night. This helps your body clock get into the rhythm of going to sleep at the same time.
- Turn off big lights in the bedroom, only have bedside lamps on, bright lights prevent melatonin production.
- Practice gratitude of the day and hope for a great day ahead in your reflection.
- Add some lavender drops or spray near the edge of your pillow. Vitamin ZZZ
- If you wake, try breath work; Breathe in for 4, hold for 4, breathe out for 6. Repeat. This practice helps lower cortisol.
- When you wake in the morning , make sure to get Vit D sunlight straight away, this helps serotonin production which is needed for melatonin production. Melatonin is what helps us sleep, darkness is needed in the evening to let our body know to produce the melatonin for bedtime.
Recipe Pancakes - Makes 5-6 10cm Diameter size pancakes. Quick nutrient dense pancakes that can be varied quite easily by substituting different ingredients. These are more the american style thick pancakes. 2 eggs - organic if possible or free range 2 heaped tbsp Ground almonds 1 heaped tbsp milled flaxseed (The ready mix bags are fine) 1 heaped tbsp ground walnuts or pecans or sunflower/pumpkin seeds or Gluten free brown flour 1 tsp baking Powder 1 tsp ground Cinnamon 50 ml approx to desired texture any milk of choice, mixture needs to be pouring texture. A Pinch sea salt.
Mix all together and let sit for 5 mins. Heat pan add a knob of butter and pour in about a 4 inch/10cm diameter round heat until bubbles are seen , then flip and heat for another 2-3 mins. All done. Serve with sliced banana, yoghurt, almond butter. Make a great snack or a hearty breakfast with tinned sardines, cherry tomatoes and parsley, (Don’t knock it till you try it!)