Sleep is important. Adults need an average of 7-9 hours of sleep (uninterrupted) per night.
Why is sleep so important? Regulating your circadian rhythm (your sleep-wake clock) underlies all mental health improvement. Our circadian rhythm is the master clock in our brain that tells our body’s systems when to do what. It’s connected to the clock of Creation by hormones triggered by light exposure and dark. If that circadian rhythm is disrupted, say by shift work, or nightmares interrupting sleep, or light exposure (sunlight/blue light) at the wrong times of day (or night), your whole body is affected. Digestion is off, glucose handling is disrupted and hunger hormones get out-of-whack. It even plays a roll in the development of dementia.
Insomnia may mean you have trouble falling asleep, or it may mean you wake up multiple times throughout the night. Other signs of a problem with your circadian rhythm include needing medication to fall asleep, waking up feeling exhausted, or having the experience of being “tired and wired,” (exhausted in the morning and so wired at night that you can’t fall asleep at the right time). This is a sign of Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) dysregulation, or what is commonly referred to as adrenal fatigue. When this system is out of sync, your body doesn’t release the hormone cortisol at the appropriate times. In a healthy body, the cortisol is highest in the morning, because your body is waking up and getting ready to take on the day! The curve will slowly work it’s way down to be lowest in the evening, when you are preparing for sleep. When a person is “tired and wired”, their body may not be producing sufficient cortisol to wake them at the appropriate time in the morning and cortisol levels are too high in the evening, when the body should be winding down for rest. If you think you may have HPA dysregulation, ask your doctor or nutritionist for a salivary cortisol test to check. Managing stress, improving your diet, sticking to a daily routine and reducing caffeine can help heal your HPA axis.
When you don’t get enough sleep, your brain cannot grow or repair itself from the stress of the day. This means your body doesn’t actually get the chance to repair and recover, either, since the brain is the motherboard of the body. Sleep helps balance our hormones, improve our immune systems and regulate our metabolism. Insomnia and a wonky circadian rhythm accompanies mental health disorders like depression, anxiety, ADHD, OCD, PTSD, Bipolar Disorder, and more.
How can you improve your sleep? I remember reading so much on sleep training when I had my first baby. Everyone has an opinion, but the core of everything I read is essentially what benefits everyone, not just babies:
- Create the right sleeping environment. A cool, darkened room with a good mattress and pillows. Remove televisions, computers, and phones. Buy an old-school alarm clock. Make your room a sanctuary of peace and relaxation, not work.
- Limit caffeine after noon. As Dr. Leslie Korn says, “caffeine is a drug, not a beverage!” Did you know that one cup of coffee or tea can affect you for up to 48 hours? Every body is different, but if you’re having trouble sleeping, this is definitely something to evaluate in your life. If you need an afternoon pick-me-up, opt for green tea or a matcha smoothie. Green tea (especially matcha) has the amino acid L-theanine in it, which is a great promoter of relaxation and an anxiolytic (anxiety-reducing agent). It won’t make you drowsy, so you can have the boost from a small amount of caffeine without the jitters from coffee. It’s also interesting to note that our sensitivity to caffeine increases as we age. So while I could have a grande mocha at 4pm in college, if I tried that business now, I’d be up all night.
- Avoid electronics (screens) at least one hour before bedtime. For children, I’d suggest making that no screens for two hours before bedtime. The refresh rate in TV’s and computers stimulates our brains without us even realizing it, making it very difficult for sensitive individuals to “come down” after that stimulation. The blue light from hand-held screens (smart phones, tablets) has a similar stimulating effect. This is an especially important point for those with symptoms of anxiety and ADHD. You could even look in to glasses with blue-light blocker coatings to wear in the hours before bedtime.
- Create a bedtime ritual. This can be as simple as walking the house to check locks, brushing teeth, turning on a diffuser with some relaxing essential oils, and reading a little. Maybe you do a little bedtime stretching or meditation. These routines begin signaling to your brain that it’s time to wind down. As with anything, give yourself time to establish a new routine before you decide it’s not working. I like to recommend committing to at least two weeks (but a month would be better) of the new routine to help your brain recognize the signals to sleep.
There are herbs and supplements available that may also be a beneficial part of your new sleep routine. The holy trinity of sleep herbs is passion flower, chamomile and valerian root. A bath with epsom salts or drinking powdered magnesium supplement can also help you relax. I’m a big fan of this supplement, epsom salt baths, and Calming the Child essential oil in a diffuser.
Melatonin is a sleep hormone that is sold over-the-counter, but it warrants a word of caution, since it is a hormone. Dosage should be small, start with .05mg – 2mg, which means you should talk to a functional medicine doctor, dietician or nutritionist about getting the proper kind. Melationin is the final “stop” in the breakdown of the amino acid tryptophan. Tryptophan becomes serotonin, and serotonin becomes melatonin.
A safer approach to improving your melatonin development would start with ensuring you’re getting essential amino acids from protein in your diet as well as B vitamins (particularly B6) to help the amino acids develop into melatonin. Diets high in sugar and processed (packaged) foods and a lifestyle of chornic stress deplete vitamin B6, leading to mood swings, anxiety, depression, irritability, panic, difficulty concentrating and memory problems. This is in part because of the failure to turn amino acids in to the necessary nuerotransmitters serotonin, GABA, dopamine and melatonin. Eggs, cheese, peas, nuts, dark leafy greens, liver, pineapple, salmon and turkey are good places to start.
I know I am on a quest to improve my own sleep – I hope this is helpful for you, too!
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Korn, L. E. (2016). Nutrition essentials for mental health: A complete guide to the food-mood connection. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Haas, E. M., & Levin, B. (2006). Staying healthy with nutrition the complete guide to diet and nutritional medicine. Berkeley, Calif.: Celestial Arts.