The Most Important Thing You Can Do for Your Health

The most important thing you can do for your health The Most Important Thing You Can Do for Your Health

I’ve written a lot before about diet and finding ways to reduce the toxins you are exposed to in everyday life, but there is one simple, easy, and free thing you can do that immediately boosts health: sleep!

My father in law is fond of saying that it is the one thing that all the health gurus across the board can agree with. Some may advocate eating no meat or all meat, no dairy or tons of raw dairy, all raw veggies or only cooked, but they all agree that sleep is important and with good reason.

I’m yet to see a doctor, nutritionist or health expert suggesting that the way to optimal health is through limiting sleep or finding ways to sleep less but statistically that is exactly what many of us (me too *ahem*) try to do all to often.

On the flip side, if you want to gain weight, shorten your life, get wrinkles, stress your organs and increase your likelihood of injury, you can have all that and more by simply not sleeping enough!

What Happens When You Don’t Sleep?

Sleep is important for optimal health in so many ways. The National Institutes of Health list some of the reasons:

  • “Sleep plays an important role in your physical health. For example, sleep is involved in healing and repair of your heart and blood vessels. Ongoing sleep deficiency is linked to an increased risk of heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and stroke.
  • Sleep deficiency also increases the risk of obesity. For example, one study of teenagers showed that with each hour of sleep lost, the odds of becoming obese went up. Sleep deficiency increases the risk of obesity in other age groups as well.
  • Sleep helps maintain a healthy balance of the hormones that make you feel hungry (ghrelin) or full (leptin). When you don’t get enough sleep, your level of ghrelin goes up and your level of leptin goes down. This makes you feel hungrier than when you’re well-rested.
  • Sleep also affects how your body reacts to insulin, the hormone that controls your blood glucose (sugar) level. Sleep deficiency results in a higher than normal blood sugar level, which may increase your risk for diabetes.
  • Sleep also supports healthy growth and development. Deep sleep triggers the body to release the hormone that promotes normal growth in children and teens. This hormone also boosts muscle mass and helps repair cells and tissues in children, teens, and adults. Sleep also plays a role in puberty and fertility.
  • Your immune system relies on sleep to stay healthy. This system defends your body against foreign or harmful substances. Ongoing sleep deficiency can change the way in which your immune system responds. For example, if you’re sleep deficient, you may have trouble fighting common infections.”

Harvard Medical School echoes some important reasons to get enough sleep:

  1. “Learning and memory: Sleep helps the brain commit new information to memory through a process called memory consolidation. In studies, people who’d slept after learning a task did better on tests later.
  2. Metabolism and weight: Chronic sleep deprivation may cause weight gain by affecting the way our bodies process and store carbohydrates, and by altering levels of hormones that affect our appetite.
  3. Safety: Sleep debt contributes to a greater tendency to fall asleep during the daytime. These lapses may cause falls and mistakes such as medical errors, air traffic mishaps, and road accidents.
  4. Mood: Sleep loss may result in irritability, impatience, inability to concentrate, and moodiness. Too little sleep can also leave you too tired to do the things you like to do.
  5. Cardiovascular health: Serious sleep disorders have been linked to hypertension, increased stress hormone levels, and irregular heartbeat.
  6. Disease: Sleep deprivation alters immune function, including the activity of the body’s killer cells. Keeping up with sleep may also help fight cancer.”

In fact, sleep is the one similarity across the animal kingdom. The amount of sleep needed varies greatly by species, but all animals (humans included) need sleep. Lab rats started dying after only a few days of being kept awake.

Research is also continually finding a link between lack of sleep and obesity, diabetes and disease:

“”We did a study where we restricted sleep to four hours per night for six nights,” Van Cauter explains. “And we noticed that they were already in a pre-diabetic state. And so, that was a big finding.”

The study’s subjects were on the road to diabetes in just six days, and that’s not all – they were also hungry. Van Cauter has made a radical discovery: that lack of sleep may be contributing to the epidemic of obesity in this country through the work of a hormone called leptin that tells your brain when you’re full.”

If you struggle to lose weight and stick to a healthy way of eating despite knowing what/how to eat, it might not be that you pack willpower, but that you are battling a surge of really powerful hormones that are telling you to eat. Rather than trudge on on sheer willpower, why not correct the underlying hormonal problems?

Does Quality Matter?

In a word: yes.

Sleeping with the TV on after downing a sugary drink and being awakened by an alarm clock is not quality sleep! On a personal level, I know my body enough to know that if I don’t get enough quality sleep I can NOT lose weight. period. Doesn’t matter if I cut calories (don’t do that), cut carbs, cut fat (really don’t do that!), exercise like a maniac, etc. If  I don’t sleep, I won’t lose weight and I usually end up gaining some.

Sleeping in the right environment makes a big difference too! From my previous post:

“We’ve all heard how important sleep is, but it turns out that it is likely even more important than we thought.

I recently read the book Lights Out: Sleep, Sugar and Survival, which though poorly written in parts, has a lot of good information on the science behind the importance of sleep. I’ve also gotten about 20 emails in the last week from readers who have an almost-perfect diet but still are struggling with weight, depression, skin issues or other problems… so I decided this post was well overdue.

It turns out that lack of sleep impacts your health (and your heart disease and cancer risk) just as much as a bad diet or constant exposure to toxins.

A report published by the CDC 11 years ago showed some fascinating evidence linking lack of sleep to cancer. The study reported that profoundly blind women had less than half the breast cancer risk of women with normal vision and profoundly blind men had less than half the risk of prostate, lung, colon and other cancers as normally sighted men.

Even more interesting, this reduced risk of cancer was not present in those who were legally blind but could still see light.

This led researchers to investigate the link between exposure to light (especially after the sun has gone down) and rates of disease.

Further studies revealed that night shift workers have higher rates of many diseases and that blue and green types of lights (from computers, TVs, alarm clocks, mobile phones, etc) are the worst offenders.”

We spend about 1/3 of our life sleeping, so sleep environment should be a priority for us. This radio interview addresses a lot of the important points for optimizing sleep environment, but here are some of the ones that I have found help me the most personally:

How I Sleep

I find that I sleep best when eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly (resistance/weights and high intensity). I’ve also noticed a difference in my sleep from some of the supplements I take regularly anyway:

  • Fermented Cod Liver Oil/High Vitamin Butter Oil Blend  (also great for remineralizing teeth)-I have personally noticed a difference in my sleep quality since adding this to my regimen. I take it in the morning (about 1/2 tsp -1 tsp) and don’t sleep as well when I don’t. The presence of fat soluble vitamins A, D and K plus Omega-3s can explain why this particular supplement is great for promoting hormone production and improving sleep. For this reason, it also helps balance other hormones (in cases of infertility, etc) and is great for growing children.
  • A couple tablespoons of coconut oil melted in a cup of herbal tea per day can help give the body the building blocks to make sleep hormones
  • Magnesium- Many people are deficient in Magnesium and this particular deficiency  can have a big impact on sleep quality. Some people find that just adding a product like Natural Calm about 30 minutes before bedtime can really improve sleep.
  • Gelatin- Many of us eat a disproportionate amount of animal muscle meat compared to bone broths, organ meats and marrow. If you aren’t a fan of consuming liver daily, drinking natural gelatin (from grassfed sources) can help balance your intake. Consumption of only muscle meats, which are higher in stress hormones, can cause problems in the sleep cycle. Personally, I often drink a cup of chamomile or herbal tea with a tablespoon of gelatin dissolved in it each night a couple hours before bed.
  • If you have a solid diet and are already taking the things above, specific sleep related herbs might help your fall asleep. Try my sleep tincture, or somechamomile or catnip to help you relax.”

My Pre-Sleep Routine

A daily (and nightly) routine can make a big difference in how easily you fall and stay asleep. You’ll have to experiment to find out what works best for you but here are some helpful suggestions:

  • Wake up and go to bed at the same time, even on weekends to keep your hormone cycle regular.
  • Eat a high protein/high fat snack a few hours before bed (7pm or earlier) or consume a lot at dinner.
  • Avoid caffeine after 1 pm.
  • Install F.lux  (it is free) on all computers and devices to reduce blue light and help you sleep better (it is also easier on the eyes!)
  • Drink enough water during the day and stop drinking about 2 hours before bed so you don’t have to wake up to use the bathroom.
  • Take a soothing salt bath about an hour before bed with some relaxing music or a great book.
  • Get at least 30 minutes of sunlight each day (even if you aren’t trying to get your vitamin D). The exposure to the wide-spectrum light during the day boosts serotonin levels, which will help improve melatonin levels at night
  • Avoid artificial light as much as possible after the sun goes down.
  • Pray, meditate or find a way to reduce stress.
  • Give yourself a massage before bed to release stress and help relax (Personally, I love this for home-massage)
  • Stretch before bed to relax muscles.

Just Sleep!!!

I implore you… please make time to get enough sleep. It is tremendously important for your health and it doesn’t cost anything!

If you can’t afford supplements or organic food or don’t have time to workout, at least make sleep a priority!

I understand how tough it can be, especially with kids when those precious hours at night are sometimes the only time a couple gets alone, but in the long run, the extra hours of sleep will equal happier, more patient parents and hopefully many more years of time together.

I also know how tough it can be to sleep with nursing babies, and my personal solution is to have baby in our room/bed so I don’t have to completely wake up to nurse. There is also some evidence that there are protective hormones for mom and baby that allow mom to wake to nurse baby without ill effect to her sleep patterns.

So… are you getting enough sleep? Fess up below!

Reader Comments

  1. angela says

    Does anyone have tips on dissolving the grassfed gelatin into warm beverages? I sprinkle about a tbsp very slowly with my fingers while using a spoon to stir it still forms a jell ball and floats to the bottom or sticks to the spoon? Thanks. This is a great article.

  2. Tyra says

    Neither myself or any of my kids get enough sleep! They have all been born with health/sleep issues and that seems to be the biggest challenge we have in figuring out how to change it. Let’s just say that I know first hand how bad not getting enough rest makes you feel. (and it’s been going on for almost 10 years with my oldest….who woke up at 5:30 am this morning after about 7 hours of sleep. sigh) Thanks for this article and all the great suggestions!

  3. Kimber says

    I definitely don’t get enough sleep, mostly due to schedule issues. My husband and I work opposite shifts in order to care for our baby. He works nights and I work at 5 am. It feels like the only time I can get anything done is once I get my baby to bed, so its always late nights, early mornings, and long days. Thanks for the article, just reminds me that I need to make it a priority over my “to-do’s”

  4. Clytie says

    Thanks, Katie, for yet another extremelly helpful post and important issue.

    As for the sleep. If anyone can not sleep for a longer period of time is really important to get some sleep between 9 PM and 2 AM (at least couple of hours during this period will do miracles). That’s the period of melatonine secretion, and melatonine works as a regenerator for our body. It’s also important for the kids as it’s a prerequisite for a growth hormone.

    So it’s very simple. Hormones, the most important factor in our lives, depend on our sleep and nutrition. If we don’t sleep, the hormones can’t really secrete during the night and we create a sick sick body with time.

  5. Tiffiny says

    Would sex right before bedtime actually wake you up? Usually I am wide awake and my husband is sleeping like a baby. Are there different chemical reactions in men vs. women? We are both night owls and although we eat very well (I follow the leptin reset right now – Dr. Jack Kruse) I still struggle with my weight and I know I definitely don’t get enough sleep. Average about 6 hours a night. I love all of your post. Just started taking the magnesium powder. Thank you for such wonderful info.

  6. Timmi says

    I am a big believer of sleep. I know people that let their kids stay up for who knows how long and then they have school in the morning, first graders or younger! I’ve been told I am a party pooper because I don’t want my kids staying out late when they’ve had a long week and we would all benefit from going to bed early. My husband and I have some sleep issues where we go through periods where we just can’t sleep and it sucks! I do drink some herbal tea almost nightly to help calm me, I have been drinking it since I was a teen and swear by it even just for relaxing purposes.

  7. Rachel says

    I wonder why complete darkness is needed? I mean, realistically humans weren’t evolved to sleep in complete darkness because the moon is pretty much unavoidable unless you’re deep in a cave somewhere. So wouldn’t sleeping in complete darkness be unnatural?

    I know that doesn’t change the fact that it does help me sleep better. Just a wandering thought.

    • says

      Great question… from my understanding, just natural moon light is ok, but for a lot of people, it is almost impossible to avoid street lights, headlights, etc if there isn’t complete darkness…

  8. Samantha says

    Thank you for a great article! A couple of questions. You state that you shouldn’t take Vitamin D/Cod Liver Oil after 2pm but then you say that you do take it before bed. Which is best for optimal sleep? Also, just curious what the benefits of muslin sheets are. Thanks!

    • says

      That was a quote from an old article and I need to update that…. taking it early in the day is better and magnesium is better before sleep. Our sheets are organic muslin and I just prefer that kind :-)

  9. Heidi says

    Hi Katie! Thanks for such an informative article. I was wondering about something you said that counters what you said earlier in the article:
    “Not taking Vitamin D supplements or Fermented Cod Liver Oil after 2 pm” helps you to sleep and then:
    “I take it (FCLO) in the morning and at night”

    So does taking FCLO after 2pm affect sleep? If so, why?

  10. says

    It continues to amaze me how simple health can be. While some spend a lot of time and money on supplements, or worse, prescriptions to find relief for their health problems- it could be just as easy as getting a good nights sleep.

    This post was really in depth and valuable, a good reminder.

    Thank you!

    Alexis

  11. says

    I think this is such a hard thing to manage as a parent. I force myself to go to bed (relatively) early most nights, because I know I just can’t function without enough sleep, and I got into some reasonably good habits when my first kid was young and woke All.The.Time. – so if I didn’t get to bed early, I barely got any sleep.

    BUT, I do struggle with it now they’re a little older, because it is so nice to have some alone/couple time. And my husband just can’t bring himself to go to bed and ‘waste’ that me-time. (Or he won’t anyway).

    On a different subject my eleven year old (the one who woke constantly as an infant), is now having some trouble with sleep again – having trouble getting to sleep, mainly, but he is also completely unable to sleep in. Although at least now he usually sleeps till about 6:30, not 5am like when he was little, LOL. I will try some of your suggestions with him.

  12. says

    Oh, also, I was going to ask – you listed “Not taking Vitamin D supplements or Fermented Cod Liver Oil after 2 pm” as something that helps, but then you said you take “Fermented Cod Liver Oil/High Vitamin Butter Oil Blend” morning and night – was one a typo, or is it that you take FCLO in the morning and HVBOB at night?

    Thanks.

  13. Leslie Pritchard says

    My boyfriend works a crazy schedule that totally throws us off when it comes to the weekend. He works 3:30p-4a, so when it comes to Saturday night, he is tossing and turning til 3 while I’m out by midnight. I was reading your posts about earthing mats and magnesium, and thinking about trying something like that… Any tips/thoughts about crazy schedules?

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