Much has been written about the 4 pillars of health: Sleep; Nutrition; Exercise and Stress Mitigation. The emphasis is usually on nutrition – however, some practitioners believe that sleep is the single most important hack for optimum health.
Sleep and Shift Work
The World Health Organization (WHO) classifies shift work as a class 2A carcinogen – a “probably carcinogenic to humans”. Class 2A is used when there is limited evidence of carcinogenicity in humans and sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity in experimental animals.
Night work affects our circadian rhythms. Every cell has a biological clock that is based on the light/dark cycles of the universe. When a person is up during the dark hours and has to sleep during the light hours, this disrupts our natural circadian rhythms and interferes with getting enough good quality sleep.
Sleep deprivation is dangerous because it affects every cell, tissue, and system in the body – which are all intertwined.
We know that people who do shift work are more are risk for cancer. Shift work also affects insulin sensitivity causing elevated blood glucose and it affects the body’s ability to repair damaged cells.
Poor Sleep and Weight Gain
Recent studies have shown that poor sleep quality or lack of enough sleep puts you at risk for weight gain. Lack of sufficient sleep will cause a disruption of the hormones that control hunger and appetite. The resulting daytime fatigue often discourages you from exercising and can lead to cravings for sweet and/or caffeinated foods and drink as a pick-me-up.
Excess weight in turn, increases the risk of diabetes, metabolic syndrome, high blood pressure and other cardiovascular diseases.
Much has been written about supplements that help insomnia.
There are several herbs such as chamomile, valerian, passion flower, hops, and lemon balm, as well as other supplements such as melatonin and phosphotydalserine. It helps to rotate what you take and what you do.
Lack of Sleep Chronically Elevates Cortisol
Cortisol is Part of the Fight or Flight Mechanism
There is an area in brain called the amydala, which is the alarm center that gets activated when we sense danger. When this is activated we get a huge influx of adrenal hormones – cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephine, (adrenaline and noradenalin). Other hormones that are secreted include aldosterone which regulates blood pressure and DHEA is converted to sex hormones and anabolic intermediates.
When in fight or flight, the body’s only goal is to try to get you out of the bad situation. All other processes such as reproduction, fighting infections, repairing tendon or muscle damage, digestion of foods, are shut down. Those processes are under the parasympathetic system (rest and digest) and are considered the maintenance and repair systems.
When there is chronic elevated cortisol due to stress – you are chronically breaking the body down without the benefit of repair.
Lack of Sleep Decreases Hormones
Growth hormone (GH) is produced while you are in a deep sleep cycle (slow wave sleep). You will produce 90% of your daily GH during sleep. If sleep is disturbed you will produce less GH and have a deficiency. For adults, growth hormone is necessary for anabolic repair of many cells and functions in the body.
Aging and longevity is controlled by GH (anabolic activity).
Other anabolic hormones include testosterone and thyroid hormone. T4 has to be converted to T3 and the iodinase enzyme is impaired by excess cortisol. When this happens, Reverse T3 is increased, which blocks Free T3 from becoming active.
People can physiologically age faster because of a lack of all these hormones. Anti-oxidants are decreased with decreased hormones and your ability to repair cell organelles, is reduced – further reducing fuel production (ATP).
All of this can be seen with patterns of aging such as thinning of the skin and face, sagging skin, loss of musculature and fatigue.
A Vicious Cycle
Loss of sleep leads to lose of cognitive function (which leads to death of brain cells), thyroid function, hormone sensitivity, slower movement, aches and pains and an increase in inflammatory markers.
However, the reverse is true – if you sleep well, you will look, feel and perform better than others in your age group. Your skin will be better, less pain, better cognition, etc.
Hacks for Better Sleep
Sleep is not a luxury – it has to be a priority. You must get good sleep each and every night. High achievers listen up!
It is NOT cool to miss out on sleep because you have over-scheduled yourself. You need to learn how to schedule appropriately and how much you can actually do WELL in a day.
For every hour you lose of sleep you lose 15-30 minutes of productivity. For every hour of sleep you lose after 12 midnight, you need 2 more hours to make up for it.
You need to appreciate the value of sleep and the enjoyment of your life when you have good sleep.
1- Learn How to Slow down Your Neocortex
The neocortex is the area of the brain that is involved in higher functions such as sensory perception, generation of motor commands, spatial reasoning, conscious thought, and in humans, language.
During the day this area is stimulated with all that goes on in your daily life. However, in order to fall asleep and sleep well, it should be calmed down at least one hour before bedtime.
This means you need to stop all stimulating activities such as TV, games, etc. and enact a bedtime ritual that involves calming activities.
My ritual involves turning off the computer at 8:00 or earlier, washing and getting into sleep clothes, stretching for 10 minutes, laying in bed and reading for as long as it takes to start falling asleep at the book. Shut the light and off to dreamland.
You can help this happen by exercising during the day. The amino acid adenosine is a sleep aid. It is the breakdown product of ATP – the more you exercise the more ATP you breakdown – more adenosine you build up – and this will increase the drive towards sleep.
2- Control Light Going Into Your Brain
For best sleep, at least 3 hours before bedtime – decrease the light saturation in your eyes. This involves dimming the lights in the house.
Try to avoid blue light as this is the type of light that will activate your brain. Put amber or red light bulbs in the rooms you frequent at night.
Alternatively you could wear light wear blocking glasses and use the free program f.lux for your computer. I use f.lux and it helps.
Additionally, install blackout curtains or shades so the room is very dark and turn off or cover all electronic devices in the bedroom. There should be no lights of any kind in the bedroom.
I cover my clock with a small towel.
Hacks for Staying Asleep
Most people wake because of stress – usually worrying about the next day. Thoughts about tomorrow’s schedule will often interfere with your ability to turn down your mind’s activity.
It really helps to have the next day organized with all that you want to accomplish – set out on paper. This way you’ve already thought about your tasks and know that you don’t have to think about it again until tomorrow.
If you are worried about something, this is also the time to write it down. Then say to yourself, this will wait until the morning.
Set an alarm. Say to yourself “I am most capable of handling the list if I get a good night’s sleep.” Now forget the list and get a good night sleep and allow yourself to fall asleep.
Do not look at the clock if you awake again. Don’t make a big deal about waking up again – don’t let it stress you. If you look at the clock you will start thinking about how you can decrease the items on you list, how you are going to deal with the items, etc. Just lay there, meditate and allow your brain to fall back asleep. (Source)
Want more information on how to get the best sleep? Paleo Mom Dr. Sarah Ballantyne has written a very informative and helpful book on just this topic.