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:
- “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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Cardiovascular health: Serious sleep disorders have been linked to hypertension, increased stress hormone levels, and irregular heartbeat.
- 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:
- Sleeping in complete darkness- cover clocks, alarm clocks, TV off lights, etc
- Sleeping on an earthing mat or sheet
- Using Magnesium Oil on my feet and legs before bed
- Not taking Vitamin D supplements or Fermented Cod Liver Oil after 2 pm
- Keeping the bedroom below 68 degrees and using a muslin sheet.
- Using blackout curtains (they also help insulate house and save energy) -
- Sleeping as much as my body needs, usually 9 hours.
- If an alarm clock is needed, using a wake up light instead of a harsh alarm clock
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.
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!