By: Dr. Katie Gleisner
Every night is a good night to sleep well. However, one in three of us struggles on a nightly basis with sleep. Whether falling or staying asleep is challenging, a poor night of sleep impacts every facet of your wellbeing. Your health is based on your movement, nutrition, and sleep. We spend a third of life sleeping, and it is a fundamental aspect of our physical, emotional, and chemical wellbeing.
It seems everywhere I look there is another idea to improve sleep. As someone who loves and values my rest, I explore these ideas. Should I meditate? Should I take melatonin? Should I work out before bedtime? Should I read? And as a chiropractor, I care deeply about my patients’ sleep because those 7 to 9 hours of rest are essential for our bodies to detoxify, heal, and function optimally. Let’s explore the science of sleep and simple steps to catch some ZZZs with greater ease.
Sleep is a biological necessity for your brain and body. It is Mother Nature’s built-in recovery and restoration system. The brain needs sleep to learn, be productive, and adapt to stress. However, humans are the only species that deprive themselves of sleep with little benefit. Many of us struggle with sleep deficiency, which seriously impacts our ability to focus, learn, create memories, fight off infections, and age well. Sleep expert and neuroscientist Dr. Matthew Walker has dedicated his research to the importance of sleep and its health benefits. Through his research it is recommended that adults get a minimum of 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night. Your brain requires this period of rest after learning to save memories, and to prepare for the next day’s learning. Studies comparing well-rested to sleep deprived participants found a 40% decline in learning—the difference between passing and failing an exam, due to hippocampus activity. The hippocampus is the information campus of the brain. It collects and holds onto our memories. When we are sleep deprived our hippocampus shuts down, thereby negatively impacting our ability to focus and learn.
Your ability to cope with daily stress and handle anxiety or depression symptoms is impacted by your sleep. A lack of sleep causes the brain to revert to a primitive pattern of uncontrolled reactivity. We produce unmetered, emotional reactions due to heightened amygdala activity. The amygdala is responsible for processing fear and activating our sympathetic “fight, flight, or freeze” response. Less sleep creates a heightened amygdala response, resulting in increased sympathetic response and emotional outbursts. Decreased sleep leads to oxidative stress and inflammation, the root cause of ill health and disease. The hippocampus and amygdala are initial structures to suffer from this oxidative stress. Whether you slept poorly last night or you are suffering from chronic sleep deprivation, each evening with less rest decreases your ability to form new memories and cope with daily stress, as well as increases your risk to develop Alzheimer’s and cardiovascular disease.
Beyond the brain, your body needs sleep. Your genetic, immune, and cardiovascular systems all rely on sleep for proper function. Additional studies comparing well-rested to sleep deprived participants found a correlation between less sleep and upregulated gene activity. These activated genes are related to inflammatory and tumor promoting conditions. Also, decreased sleep is directly correlated with weaker immune system function. Our Natural Killer cells are your immune system assassins that identify and eliminate unwanted elements from your body. There is a 70% drop in Natural Killer cell activity with 4 hours of sleep, which studies correlate with higher rates of breast and colon cancer. While we sleep, our heart rate slows, blood pressure drops, and breathing stabilizes. Fragmented sleep negatively impacts the cardiovascular system, and every hour of sleep counts. Daylight Savings Time sleep studies found a 24% increase in heart attacks the day following springing ahead, and a 21% reduction in heart attacks after falling back. Sleep impacts every aspect of your physiology and health. The shorter duration you sleep, the shorter your life expectancy.
Sleep, just as every other facet of health, requires intentionality and commitment. So, let’s tuck in and discover simple steps to improve your sleep quality.
- Regularity and Routine. Your body prefers routine. Creating a consistent bed and wake time helps establish a healthy sleep-wake rhythm. Whether weeknight or weekend, aim to be in bed and rise at the same time to improve the quantity and quality of your sleep.
- Keep it Cool. Turn down the thermostat to 65-68 degrees, the optimal sleeping temperature. Your body needs to drop its core temperature 2 to 3 degrees to initiate sleep and stay asleep.
- Reduce Caffeine and Alcohol. Caffeine is a stimulant and blocks adenosine, an essential sleep chemical in the brain. Avoid drinking caffeine after lunch to fall asleep easier. A cocktail or glass of wine can be relaxing in the evening, but limit alcohol consumption four hours before bedtime. Alcohol sedates the body and inhibits deep REM sleep, which relates to frequent wake ups and prevents optimal brain restoration.
- Prioritize Unwind Time. Create a relaxing bedtime routine. Whether you journal, take a bath, listen to soothing music, do some yoga stretches, or follow a guided meditation, take time to connect to your brain, body, and breath. Avoid high intensity workouts 2-3 hours before bed as it can inhibit your brain’s ability to relax.
- Don’t Lie in Bed. Avoid lying in bed for too long, as it can increase frustration and anxiety around falling asleep. Your brain will associate the bed with being awake. If you continue to feel awake after lying down for 25-30 minutes, get up, move to another room, and do a relaxing activity until you start to feel sleepy.
Sleep is a biological necessity that you depend on to heal and restore on a nightly basis. Hopefully, this post brings awareness around your sleep habits and some simple tips to create a healthier sleep routine tonight. By prioritizing your rest, you boost your mental and physical stamina to take on the following day and achieve optimal health.