Sleep is one of the three foundations for health, along with nutrition and exercise. Without proper rest, our health will suffer. Not just our physical health, but our mental health as well. Quality rest and sleep often trumps pretty much everything else, even food, when it comes to cultivating good health. You can eat the healthiest foods in the world, but if you haven't got your sleeping in check, your health will continue to suffer.
While resting and sleeping, your body has time to recover from the stresses put on it throughout the day. During this time of rest our brains are doing some housekeeping, our body is producing and managing hormones and our physiological processes slow down to focus on healing and preparation for when we wake up. Adequate rest is fundamental for brain development, problem solving, stress-handling and decision making.
This time of year we tend to miss out on sleep. Festive parties, Christmas meals, visiting family and friends and the days between Christmas and New Year all seem to merge into one.
Sleep deprivation can wreak havoc on your hormones. Just one night of poor sleep can increase cortisol and other stress hormones, lower levels of leptin (an appetite suppressing hormone), increase levels of ghrelin (a hunger stimulating hormone) and make your body more resistant to insulin. It's no big deal if it's just the odd night here and there, but over time that disruption to hunger and fullness hormones can lead to a problem.
It also has a profound impact on cognitive health. Over time it can have serious implications - ageing the brain, increasing the risk of depression, anxiety, irritability and affecting memory.
Start a bedtime ritual. Wind down and create a sanctuary that you can really unwind in. Make your bedroom a place for sleep, not work!
Try and go to bed at the same time each night to get into a routine. Getting to sleeping before 11pm is optimal for deep non-REM sleep.
Don't go to bed too hungry or too full.
Set the room to a cooler temperature at night.
If your're waking up in the middle of night for a trip to the loo then this could possibly be due to a blood sugar imbalance so take steps to reduce your sugar intake and eating healthy snacks regularly throughout the day to curb your cravings (if this is persisting for a long period of time then it's worth speaking to your GP about).
Magnesium. Magnesium is key for relaxation since it is responsible for hundreds of reactions in your body and plays an important role in the function of GABA receptors - a calming neurotransmitter that helps us switch off and chill out. Consume magnesium-rich foods, have an Epsom salt bath or try a transdermal magnesium spray (speak to a professional before you try this out to see if you need to supplement with this). Magnesium-rich foods include dark chocolate, leafy greens, pumpkin seeds and avocados.
Avoid caffeine after 2pm. Caffeine can remain in your system for 12 hours and some people find it more difficult than others to process. Less caffeine means better sleep and hopefully the need for less caffeine!
Be mindful of alcohol. It may help you fall asleep initially but disrupts sleep later at night.
Go outside during the day. Sunshine helps activate the circadian rhythm. Aim for at least 30 mins a day.
Avoid overstimulating TV and films and try to get rid of bright LED screens at least two hours before bed.
Focus on a happy gut! The vagus nerve connects your gut and brain. You need healthy levels of microbes to maintain adequate levels of neurotransmitters to help you sleep. Tryptophan is an amino acid found in protein that is a precursor for two important neurotransmitters to aid with sleep (melatonin and serotonin). So tryptophan is very important for optimal sleep but it all depends on how well your digestive system is functioning in order to break down and utilise amino acids effectively. Look at probiotics to help produce and regulate sleep induced hormones and neurotransmitters, introduce prebiotic-rich foods to feed the good bacteria (onions, artichokes, fenugreek, fennel, asparagus) and tryptophan-rich foods (oats, bananas, spirulina, watercress, almonds, pumpkin seeds).
Sleep inducing snacks/drinks include banana, tart cherry juice, handful of pumpkin seeds, oats, apple slices with nut butter, warm glass of almond milk with a pinch of cinnamon and herbal teas such as chamomile, oat straw or lemon balm.
As always, please make sure you speak to a qualified practitioner before introducing new supplements.