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Learn More About Sleep / Insomnia

Do you wake up feeling well-rested every day? You should! However, 43% of men and 55% of women report trouble with falling asleep or staying asleep. We know how great it feels to fall asleep easily, get a deep and restful sleep, and wake up feeling refreshed. What you may not realize is how important sleep is for our overall well-being.

Think of sleeping like cleaning up your office after everyone else has left for the day. No new information or calls are coming in, and you finally have time to sort through the stack of paperwork on your desk, consolidate and file it properly, and empty the recycling bin. This active tidying-up sets you up for success when you arrive at work the next day. You can make-do with skipping the clean-up for a short period of time, but after a while, it catches up with you. Chronic non-restorative sleep is like having years of paperwork piled up on your desk: paperwork gets lost or takes extra time to find, the recycling bin is overflowing, and your productivity at work declines.

Sleep is part of our circadian rhythm, which is the light-dark dependent cycle that keeps our body functioning in a healthy way. Melatonin is our “sleep hormone”, and it is released in response to darkness. It should be highest at night, promoting a deep, restful sleep, and lowest during the day. In opposition to melatonin is our “stress hormone”, cortisol, which inhibits melatonin to promote alertness and wakefulness.

There are five distinct stages of a healthy sleep cycle. Stage 1 is when you are drifting off to sleep. Stage 2 is light sleep where heart rate and brain waves start to slow down. Stages 3 is characterized by very slow delta waves in the brain. Stage 4 is the deepest state of Non-REM (NREM) sleep, and it’s when the body undergoes most of its healing. Stage 5 is when we dream, called Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep.

We should repeat this cycle 4-6 times during a healthy night’s sleep, which requires both sleeping for enough time and repeatedly entering into the deep sleep of Stages 4 and 5. When we face challenges with falling asleep, staying asleep, or entering into a deep sleep state, our overall health is significantly impacted.

When we don’t get enough sleep, or get poor quality of sleep, our ability to think clearly, learn and retain memories is significantly impacted. Our immune system is weakened, causing frequent cold and flu or difficulty with getting over infections. Our appetite and blood sugar levels are negatively impacted, linking insomnia to increased risk of weight gain, heart disease, and diabetes. When we don’t produce enough melatonin, we have an increased amount of cortisol, our stress hormone, which can lead to anxiety, depression, irritability and difficulty coping with stress.

Dr. Hilary’s Lifestyle Changes To Improve Sleep

  1. Set a bedtime: What is your ideal number of hours of sleep per night? Your ideal number should be between six and eight hours. What time do you need to wake up to start your day? Use these parameters to set a bedtime and stick to it whenever possible.
  2. Develop a bedtime routine: Turn off all electronics and screens for 30 minutes before your bedtime. Instead find a quiet bedtime routine: get ready for bed, spend time with family, meditate, journal, or read a book. Light from our screens significantly inhibit melatonin production, so I suggest giving your body a 30-minute head-start where you engage in calming, screen-free activities before you get into bed.
  3. Protect your relationship with your mattress: When you tuck yourself into bed, your body should know, “this is where we sleep”. If you watch TV, work, or even read in bed, your relationship with the mattress can become broken, and that signal to sleep in that space is lost. Keep other activities outside the bedroom, even reading before bed should be done on or near bed, not in bed, to help re-connect your body with the idea that “this is where we sleep”.
  4. Sleep in a dark room: Even a small amount of light inhibits our natural melatonin production. I suggest using a sleep mask nightly to block out ambient light. It takes a few weeks to get used to but stick with it! A mask will also help to re-program your relationship with your mattress, as mentioned above.
  5. Balance blood sugar: Eating sweet snacks or simple carbs before bed can spike our blood sugar, making it difficult to fall asleep, and causing us to wake up when our blood sugar crashes during the night. Limit snacking after dinner, but if you do reach for a snack, focus on high protein and low sugar snacks such as nuts or unsweetened nut butters.
  6. Limit caffeine, nicotine and alcohol: Avoid caffeine, even lightly caffeinated beverages like green tea, after 3:00pm if you experience insomnia. Nicotine dependence causes waking about four hours after your last exposure, so smoking and vaping cessation helps us to sleep through the night. Alcohol may help us fall asleep but prevents us from achieving a deep sleep, so avoiding alcohol is important for waking up feeling well-rested.
  7. No napping: Napping is for babies, toddlers, pregnancy, breastfeeding, and the elderly. Napping might help you feel energized to get through your day, but it undermines getting a deep, restful sleep at night.
  8. Additional screening: Insomnia and fatigue may be indications that another health concern should be addressed. Start with blood work to assess thyroid health and anemia, a sleep study to look for sleep apnea and other sleep disorders, and address underlying concerns like anxiety, depression, frequent urination, and chronic pain.

Sleeping well is one of the most important things we can do to support our overall health. When we don’t get a good night’s sleep, the body’s ability cope with stress, regulate hormones, repair muscle, strengthen the immune system, and support mental clarity and capacity are profoundly impacted. This can result in fatigue, anxiety, depression, weight gain, frequent cold and flu, brain fog, and increased risk of diabetes and heart disease.

We should aim for six to eight hours of deep, restful sleep per night. Sleeplessness can be improved by developing a consistent bedtime routine where we avoid screens, sleep in a dark room, avoid stimulants, and keep blood sugar balanced. From time to time, we benefit from additional support to re-set our sleep cycle and achieve a deeper sleep.

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