As important as sleep is to our health, and as much time as we spend doing it, it is sometimes frustrating to discover that sleep is not something you can decide to do. It sort of either seems to happen, or not. But as you will discover, it might be more accurate to say that even though we can’t decide to fall asleep, we can decide to create circumstances that invite and induce sleep.
If you are one of the sleepless, you are not alone. It is estimated that over 15-80% of the adult population suffers from problems with sleep(1, 2). And many more simply feel they don't have time to sleep the 7-8 hours an adult needs. Some believe they don’t need as much sleep as the average person, but many who feel they are doing great on 6 hours a night actually turn out to be chronically sleep deprived when tested, and would benefit from sleeping more.
But what's the big deal with sleep, you may ask, and why on earth would a physical therapist choose it as a subject for a blog? Lets look at some of the effects of not getting enough sleep.
Sleep is part of our circadian rhythm. We are very specifically adapted to life on this planet, and our life cycles around it's position in space. The various functions in the body follow a certain daily and monthly pattern, and the correct timing of these functions in necessary for good health. Every cell has an internal clock telling it what time it is, and this system allows for the various functions in the body to be synchronized, sort of like an orchestra where a great number of instruments are playing together in beautiful harmony. Now what would happen to the symphony if all instruments were played randomly? Chaos, instead of beautiful music.
Our body functions in the same way; it needs for the clocks of the cells to be synchronized in order for our bodies to function harmoniously. If we disrupt the rhythm, chaos ensues.
Sleep is one of the important metronomes of the body. When sleep is disrupted, shortened, happens randomly or at the wrong time (think shift workers) our balance is disrupted, resulting in an endless array of problems - infertility, obesity (3), depression, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, poor immune function and of course poor cognitive functioning and general grumpiness. The list could go on, but you get the picture, sleep is crucial to your health and well-being. Famously, a tired driver is a greater danger on the roads than a slightly intoxicated one(4). But at the same time, good and regular sleep is also the result of properly maintained biological rhythms.
Our ancestors probably didn’t have nearly as many problems getting enough zzz’s as we do. They lived in a world where nature set the pace. Our modern-day inventions have freed us from many of the constraints of the natural world, but at the same time that new-found freedom may be hurting us. It behooves us to live in such a way that we are benefiting from all the wonders of modern technology without allowing them to harm us.
Lack of sleep also makes you hurt more(5), hence my choice of topic for this blog. The mechanisms through which sleeplessness makes us hurt are many. For one, nighttime is the time for repair. Every part of the body is constantly being broken down and replaced - you literally don't have the same body you did a few years ago. All the cells have been replaced. Lack of sleep interrupts this rebuilding process. Exercise and even normal use of the body creates microscopic breakdown of muscle tissue, and as this is repaired at night the body emerges from sleep stronger. But what if you don't sleep? Well, you can guess the answer to this one - you feel stiff and sore. And yes, athletes need even more muscle repair, and hence more sleep.
The National Sleep Foundation lists the following effects of a good night's sleep: blood supply to muscles increases, tissue growth and repair, memory consolidation and release of hormones regulating growth and appetite, release of hormones such as growth hormones, which are essential for growth and development, including muscle development, maintenance of a healthy immune system.
Normal sleep has many stages, from lighter to deeper non-REM sleep, and REM, or dream sleep. The patterns vary depending on a persons age, degree of sleep deprivation and whether sleep is natural or chemically induced through the use of sleep medication.It is believed that tissue repair and release of growth hormone happens during the deepest stage of sleep. Growth hormone stimulates protein synthesis, helps break down fat (wohoo, right?)) that supplies energy for tissue repair and stimulates cell division. This repair process is essential to recovering from athletic endeavors and the wear and tear of everyday life. In fact, some scientists theorize that the decline of deep sleep as we age may contribute to physical decline by depriving us of growth hormone.
With that in mind, here are some practical steps to incorporate into your life in the new year to help you fall asleep easier and experience a better quality of sleep.
-Think of sleep as something that happens when your body knows that it is nigh-time.
-Think of your activities during the entire day as signals to your body about what time it is. Signal appropriately, i.e. do not engage in activites at night that tell your body it’s morning, and vice versa. This can be though of as circadian rhythm enhancement.
-Light is one of the most powerful circadian rhythm regulators (6). Expose yourself to bright light in the morning and during the day. A brief walk outside first thing in the morning, working in front of a window and using light boxes http://www.verilux.com/light-therapy-lamps/happylight-6000/ are ways to accomplish this. As the sunlight gradually fades outside, so should the lights in your home - otherwise you are signaling to your body that it’s daytime when it actually is night. Trying to fall asleep 10 minutes after you’ve been telling your body it’s 12 noon is not going to work very well! In the evening, use orange-colored lights instead of white light bulbs. the orange/red end of the light spectrum does not suppress Melatonin production the way the blue light (in sunlight, regular white light bulbs etc) does. Install http://stereopsis.com/flux/ on your computer. This program will change the light on your computer screen according to the time of day to filter out the blue lights that most strongly signal “daytime!” in the evening. Another way to filter out blue lights is to use orange-tinted glasses http://www.amazon.com/Uvex-S1933X-Eyewear-SCT-Orange-Anti-Fog/dp/B000USRG90/ref=pd_bxgy_hi_text_y while watching TV or using a computer or other backlit device in the evening. Also remember that the intensity of light is important, so dim your lights as much as you can in the evening. Sleep in a completely darkened room, using black-out curtains and a sleep mask http://www.amazon.com/Bucky-Blinks-Sleep-Mask-Lacey/dp/B007MEBEXY/ref=sr_1_cc_3?s=aps&ie=UTF8&qid=1356889817&sr=1-3-catcorr&keywords=bucky+sleep+mask if needed.
-Seek social interaction, even just images of human faces, during the daytime.
-Take vitamin D supplements in the morning, not at night. Take your Magnesium supplement at night.
-Eat food during daylight hours only and eat your last meal around 7pm. Eating signals “daytime” to your body. If you often have trouble sleeping, eat more of your carbohydrates later in the day, and make sure your breakfast contains sufficient amounts of protein.
-Be aware of the effect of temperature: a drop in body temperature such as after exercise or after a warm bath signals “night-time”. Keep your bedroom temperature cool.
-Research the temporary or occasional use of Melatonin supplementation at night, and/or 5HTP or Tryptophan to support Serotonin levels during the night. Melatonin is produced by the Pineal gland in your brain when your eye is not exposed to light, i.e. at night. It has multiple very important functions in the body and when taken as a supplement it can help you fall asleep and stay asleep.
-Research the use of calming herbs such as Valerian, Hops etc at night-time as a temporary support or when weaning off prescription sleep medication.
-Consider health-promoting forms of care such as acupuncture to help support normal sleep rhythm.
-Decrease your overall stress levels through changing your life situation and changing how you react to your life situation. Living in a constant state of “fight or flight” is not exactly the ideal prelude to sleep. Think about how dangerous it would have been for our ancestors to fall asleep if danger was lurking right outside the tribe’s compound! Your body is equipped with the same reaction to danger, even though it isn’t very helpful when the perceived danger consists of real-estate taxes or health concerns.
-Use and Earthing pad or sheet http://www.earthing.com/product_p/umck.htm
Earthing technology supplies the body with a steady flow of electrons to compensate for our modern-day lack of contact with the ground, resulting in a multitude of benefits, including normalization of diurnal cortisol secretion (7). Cortisol is the body’s activity/daytime- or stress hormone, and like other hormones is secreted in a specific pattern during a 24-hour cycle. High levels of Cortisol at night are a common reason for sleeplessness.
-Incorporate meditation into your life. Mediation helps normalize bodily functions and supports normal sleep (8). Tech-loving folks can harness the power of the em wave
http://bio-medical.com/products/emwave2-personal-stress-reliever.html?gclid=CKuRurDiwrQCFetDMgodckgAUQ to achieve many of the effects of meditation.
Keep in mind that even when you’ve started treating your body in a way more consistent with it’s natural rhythms, change make take some time. Be patient and equip yourself with knowledge, support and the openness to listen to your bodymind and its signals.
Sweet dreams in 2013 and beyond!