Why is sleep quality critical to your wellbeing?
We all have some sense of the relationship between sleep and our ability to function throughout the day. After all, everyone has experienced the fatigue, crankiness, or lack of focus that so often occurs after a night of poor sleep. However, what many amongst us are not aware of is the fact that sleep quality has a far deeper impact on our critical body functions, repair, and recovery as well as on chronic medical conditions. Let’s explore how it works and how can we improve our sleep!
High-quality sleep is vital for healing
Although the body appears from the outside to be still and inactive during sleep, it is a time when the body is quite busy. During the night when we are asleep, the involuntary systems in our body are on overdrive. We re-stock our hormone supply, process significant toxins, repair damaged tissues, generate vital white blood cells for immunity, eliminate the effects of stress, and process heavy emotions.
Unfortunately, we have an epidemic of sleep disorders – from trouble falling asleep to often-interrupted sleep to actual insomnia.
There are, however, several straightforward remedies you can do to fix these. Sleeping soundly will increase your motivation to make further lifestyle changes. For example, when we are well rested, it is always easier to eat more healthily.
Sleep is ultimately a gift of the Pineal Gland!
We fall asleep due to the gifts of the pineal gland, a small ant-sized lobe near the middle of our skull in the interbrain. Although its functions aren’t fully understood yet, researchers do know that it produces and regulates some hormones and plays a critical role in regulating sleep patterns.
Sleep patterns are also called circadian rhythms. Following our circadian rhythm, the pineal gland secretes a neurotransmitter and hormone called melatonin.
Melatonin suppresses the activity of other neurotransmitters and helps to calm the brain (in part by countering the stress hormone cortisol from our adrenal gland). And as we become more drowsy, the brain slowly begins to turn off our voluntary skeletal muscle functions, so we don’t move around too much and try to act out our dreams or disrupt the body’s internal revitalisation work. Note: This is also why it’s so hard to move your limbs or shout out in response to a nightmare.
Preconditions for melatonin secretion
For ideal sleep, melatonin should be rising steadily and cortisol should be rock-bottom low at bedtime. But there’s a catch here: the pineal gland secretes melatonin largely in response to darkness, and our evening cortisol levels are lowest in environments with low noise.
With our addictions to TV, mobiles, and laptops in the evening, however, our choices can get in the way of these natural pro-sleep chemical shifts. These devices mostly display full-spectrum light which can confuse the brain about whether it’s night-time or not.
We also, unfortunately, tend to watch shows or view emails that can be loud and/or stressful (e.g. the evening news, a crime show, work email, or the ever longer to-do lists). Digesting a heavy meal eaten later in the evening can also prevent (or interrupt) sleep. Lack of manganese can also have a direct effect on sleep quality.
Some healthy habits to promote good sleep (Sleep Hygiene)
For having an adequate and quality night sleep the first thing we can do is to support “sleep hygiene”. I am amazed at how often this is all you need in order to get better sleep.
- Help identify more calming, quieter evening activities e.g. reading a book, taking a warm bath, going for a light stroll outdoors, playing with a pet, etc.
- I recommend no email, TV, next-day-planning, or stressful conversations in the full hour prior to bedtime. If noise is an issue, I often recommend soft foam earplugs or the white noise of a fan.
- It is also important for the bedroom not be too hot, as this can disrupt sleep during the night.
- Herbal tea (e.g. lavender, chamomile) can also help one to relax and set the tone for sleep.
- I also recommend no food a full two to three hours before bed and no caffeinated food or drink after 2 pm in the afternoon (e.g. tea, coffee, soda, chocolate). Many of my patients are stunned to realize how much a late-evening, heavy meal prevents sound sleep.
However, there are definitely many cases where pro-sleep behaviour is simply not enough. For some clients, their brains simply aren’t able to make enough melatonin to ensure solid sleep all night long. Or there is a chemical imbalance preventing sufficient relaxation and these need more than just lifestyle changes. But at the end of the day, lifestyle changes will matter in the long run
Addressing the root cause of “poor sleep” is the key
There are many sleep medications available today. These can be useful in emergency situations when one is going through short-term trauma or stress. Unfortunately, all of them work essentially as mild sedatives and are not addressing the root cause of any long-term sleep disturbance.
They also come with a wide range of side effects that render them unacceptable for long-term use – from dry mouth to stomach ache to hangover-like fatigue the following day. It’s also important to make you understand that many of these medications can increase the risk of both Cancer and Death.
If you are currently taking these medicines, I would recommend to stop taking these and encourage you to do so slowly (weaning) so as to avoid any chemical backlash from neurotransmitter imbalance.
Without restful sleep, it can be challenging for many of us to consider a lifestyle change. Speak to a trained professional who can work with you by understanding your unique case and providing unique intervention accordingly.