If we had to pick the two things you can do to improve your health, we’d say ‘improve your digestion and get good sleep.’ We spend a lot of time with our patients talking about their sleep. That’s because getting enough quality sleep is key to healing most ailments, including digestive imbalances.
Most of us associate good sleep with better alertness and improved cognitive function during our waking hours. While it is true that good rest is essential for the brain, its benefits are far reaching throughout the body. “Sleep affects almost every tissue in our bodies,” says Dr. Michael Twery, a sleep expert at the National Institute of Health. “It affects growth and stress hormones, our immune system, appetite, breathing, blood pressure and cardiovascular health.” Poor sleep even contributes to having more wrinkles!
Our sleep is strongly regulated by hormones, especially cortisol and melatonin. The decrease in one triggers the release of the other. This is our circadian rhythm. In nature, the darkness and coolness of night stimulate melatonin production and the sun’s light and heat trigger cortisol release to wake us in the morning. Modern lifestyles have interfered with this natural process but there are many simple things you can do to reset your sleep/wake cycle.
1. Keep a Routine
Go to bed and wake up close to the same time every night and morning; this helps establish your internal clock. While sleeping late on weekends can feel indulgent, it does disrupt your biological clock. Try to keep weekday and weekend schedules similar.
2. Cool Down
Lower the temperature in your bedroom at night. Studies have found 65°F to be optimal. Seek a balance between the room temperature, the bed clothes and your sleeping attire. A fan may be useful. In addition, taking a cool shower before bed also helps quickly reduce your body temp, which triggers melatonin to be released.
3. Say No to Blue
Avoid blue lights (ie. electronics with screens, some LED lights, night lights). Our circadian biology is in sync with the sun, specifically to the wavelengths of light that make it to earth during different times of the day. Blue light promotes wakefulness, boosts reactions times and mood by suppressing melatonin production. The amount of blue light we receive from the sun peaks at noon and decreases as the sun sets, changing to mostly red light. As blue light decreases, melatonin production increases, causing you to want to fall asleep when it gets dark. If you must use your phone before bed, use the “Night Shift” setting to change the back lighting from blue to yellow. Click here for a how to. Consider keeping your phone at least 3 feet away from you with the Wi-Fi turned off or in Airplane mode.
4. Make it Dark
Keep lights dim in the bedroom in the evening. If you need a nightlight, try placing one in an outlet behind a piece of furniture so the floor and walls are slightly illuminated but the light itself is not visible. Better yet, use dim red lights for night lights. Red light has the least power to shift circadian rhythm and suppress melatonin.
5. Keep Calm
Refrain from stimulating TV shows, books (action/mystery stories), and conversations before bed, which can cause a release of adrenalin. Adrenalin is the enemy of sleep. Studies indicate that watching television before bed disrupts sleep cycles.
Also, try to stop working at least 1-2 hours before bedtime to allow your mind time to relax and unwind.
Take an Epsom Salt bath in the evening. If you don’t have time for a bath, a foot soak with Epsom Salt may do the trick. Epsom salt is high in magnesium, a mineral that is very calming to the body. Also, you can add a few drops of a calming essential oil such as Lavender, Rose Bergamot or Chamomile to your soak.
7. Eat Meals
Skipping meals could be affecting your sleep. Eating 3 solid meals or 4-5 smaller meals throughout the day helps to manage your cortisol levels. Intermittent fasting is one of the latest health trends. However, if you have poor sleep or poor blood sugar management, missing even one meal can have a negative impact on your hormone levels. We hear from many patients that they skip breakfast due to lack of appetite or lack of time in the mornings. If you don’t have much of an appetite in the morning, your stomach acid may be low. Try sipping on water with apple cider vinegar before meals. Cooking breakfast items ahead of time that you can grab as your rushing out the door may save you from not eating until lunchtime. Consider the fact that you have already fasted 8-11 hours overnight. Breakfast is called ‘Break Fast’ because it is the key meal to eat at the end of your nightly fast.
If you’re a habitual grazer, consider trying to eat more balanced meals with breaks between eating of at least 2-3 hours to rest your digestion. Often when we snack throughout the day, we eat more carbohydrates and sugar and not enough good fat or protein which are key to avoiding cortisol spikes. Frequent eating also overtaxes our digestive tract.
If you’re someone who snacks throughout the day or skips meals and also suffers from poor sleep, this little tip could really help.
8. Say No to Afternoon Coffee
Avoid stimulating foods and drinks that contain caffeine after 4:00 in the afternoon. One study shows that caffeine even 6 hours prior to bedtime has significant disruptive effects on sleep reducing both the quantity and quality of your shut eye.
Additionally, skip spicy and heavy foods that may cause indigestion. For many, spicy foods cause acid reflux and heavy foods (such as large portions of animal proteins and dairy) that are difficult to digest can cause pain and discomfort. Both are culprits that keep sleep at bay. Consider enjoying these foods earlier in the day.
9. Save Carbs for Early in the Day
Eat mainly vegetables and protein at dinner. If you need a snack before bed, eat protein. Say no to sugary snacks and refined carbs in the evenings. These foods are designed to give us quick, short bursts of energy, making falling asleep an insurmountable task. In addition to keeping you up longer than you intended, high sugar / refined carbohydrate foods at the end of the evening may also cause your blood sugar to dip in the middle of the night, resulting in a wide-awake you. Avoiding these foods at night could make all the difference in how well you sleep.
10. Unplug and Shut Down
Unplug electronics in room at night, especially the TV. Many people enjoy falling asleep to TV, but this can be a very disruptive part of the sleep environment. Studies indicate that watching television before bed disrupts sleep cycles. A large screen in the middle of your sleep sanctuary not only throws off the feng shui of your sleep sanctuary but it increases the temptation to stay up unnecessarily later at night.
Along with the television, clear out your gaming systems, VCR, DVD player, Blu-ray player, and any other entertainment devices.
11. Stay Awake
Avoid napping during the day for more than 30 minutes or any napping after 3 PM. Naps that are more prolonged or that occur close to your intended bedtime can compromise your ability to fall or stay asleep at night. This resulting insomnia is due to a diminished sleep drive.
12. Focus on Relaxing
A meditation or prayer practice before bed can be calming. Harvard Medical School suggests this simple routine that anyone can do before bedtime:
Step 1: Choose a calming focus. Good examples are your breath, a sound (“Om”), a short prayer, a positive word (such as “relax” or “peace”), or a phrase (“breathing in calm, breathing out tension”; “I am relaxed”). If you choose a sound, repeat it aloud or silently as you inhale or exhale.
Step 2: Let go and relax. Don’t worry about how you’re doing. When you notice your mind has wandered, simply take a deep breath or say to yourself “thinking, thinking” and gently return your attention to your chosen focus.
If you want to get real down and dirty about the scientific effects meditation has on sleep, check out this in-depth article here.
13. Don’t Drink Before Bed
Avoid alcohol 2-3 hours before bed. Alcohol is the most commonly used sleep aid, but the truth is, drinking regularly is much more likely to interfere with your sleep than to assist it (even if you’re drinking moderately). The immediate and short-term impact of alcohol may help you fall asleep quickly BUT will disrupt sleep during the night. Research also indicates that alcohol consumption up to an hour before bedtime will suppress melatonin production by up to 20%.
14. Get Moving
Aerobic exercise at least four times a week may improve sleep quality. Be sure to wrap up your workout session several hours before bedtime. While researchers haven’t yet pinpointed exactly what mechanisms connect the two, we do know that exercise is linked to how much slow wave sleep you get. Slow wave sleep is that deep, rejuvenating sleep that our bodies desperately need. In addition to that, exercise helps stabilize our mood and unwind the mind, two cognitive processes necessary for sleep.
15. Get Outside
Ensure adequate exposure to sunlight during the day, especially first thing in the morning. Stretching or drinking your coffee while standing in a sunny window and looking outside will help to wake you up and get the cortisol flowing. Robust cortisol in the morning helps you feel energetic throughout the day and is an important component of a healthy circadian rhythm.
16. Multitask in the Kitchen, Not in the Bedroom
Keep your bed dedicated to sleeping. Avoid using your bed for working, studying, eating or watching TV. If your hardworking brain associates your bed with work, it will be more likely wake you up after a few hours of shut eye to get back to work. Your body responds well to habit and routine. Create a simple bedtime routine that is focused on sleep preparation. This will signal your mind that when you climb into bed, that the day is done and it’s time to sleep.
17. Create a Sanctuary
Keep your bedroom free of clutter. Rather, make it your sleepy sanctuary – a peaceful place where you can relax and escape. Most people underestimate the mental burden that clutter places on the mind. Clear it out and rest peacefully at night.
18. Make a List
Before going to bed, organize your thoughts for the next day. Write down a to-do list, a plan for the day or reminders for yourself. The key is to write them down so your brain isn’t burdened with having to remember.
19. Block it Out
Block noise by using a white noise machine or app on your phone (keep phone at least 3 feet from bed). You may also wear earplugs while you sleep.
20. Keep ‘Em in Their Own Beds
Pets and children can be very disruptive to your sleep. It may be best to keep them in beds nearby but out of your bed if they won’t stay in their own rooms. If children waking during the night are keeping you up, try applying these tips to them to improve their sleep. If children don’t eat enough protein and quality fat during the day, they are more likely to be up when you want to be sleeping. Be sure to keep their consumption of refined carbs to a minimum, especially at dinner.
Children who wake up frequently during the night may be suffering from parasites. Other common symptoms of unwanted pests are teeth grinding, nightmares and itchy bottoms. A simple stool test can identify if a gut infection is causing your sweet darlings to wake you up in the middle of the night.