Although sleep plays an integral role in our health and wellness, the benefits of sleep are often overlooked. Adults need between seven and nine hours of sleep every night, but over 35% of adults in the United States report sleeping fewer than seven hours per night on average.
How much we sleep and our sleep quality vary from person to person, and may change depending on our age and circumstances, but one certainty that remains is that sleep is an essential function. Without enough sleep, the brain can’t function properly. Not only does adequate sleep help the body remain healthy and stave off disease, but it’s critical to cognitive function.
One of the primary roles of sleep is to clear toxic metabolites.
In 2012, researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York discovered a waste-disposal system that clears toxic metabolites from the brain. Much like the lymphatic system, a network of tissues and organs that helps rid the body of toxins and waste, scientists found a second “set of pipes” that flushes the brain of its waste. They call this the “glymphatic system.”
The constant flow of fluid that helps shuttle waste out of the brain is primarily active during sleep. Interestingly, it’s not controlled by the body’s circadian rhythm, meaning it doesn’t just happen at night; you have to actually be sleeping. This daily clearance of metabolites and toxins from the brain may be the evolutionary reason sleep is a necessity and not a choice.
It’s well known that people sleep less and less as they get older. Quality of sleep also worsens with age. Insufficient sleep doesn’t just leave you feeling tired; it leads to the accumulation of toxic metabolites in the brain, thereby contributing to and worsening neurodegenerative diseases, like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Think about it – if this glymphatic system is predominantly active (>90%) during sleep, and you’re not getting enough sleep, what happens? Eventually toxins aggregate in the brain and kill neurons, leaving people with devastating consequences, like cognitive and movement-related deficits.
The consequences of lack of sleep are numerous.
We’ve all heard the term brain fog, but sleep deprivation can also cause metabolic grogginess. Sleep is intricately involved in hormonal and metabolic processes in the body. Researchers have discovered that within just four days of sleep deprivation, the body’s ability to properly use insulin becomes completely disrupted. Insulin, the body’s main storage hormone, is responsible for how the body uses and stores glucose and fat. Insufficient sleep reduces insulin sensitivity, thereby causing the body to store fat in all the wrong places. This contributes to inflammation and diabetes.
Lack of sleep also affects the way you eat and the foods you crave. Most people believe hunger is tied to willpower, but this is not true. Hunger is controlled by two hormones: leptin and ghrelin. Leptin is a hormone stored in fat cells that helps keep you feeling full; ghrelin is known as the “hunger hormone” – it causes you to eat more.
Sleeping fewer than six hours per night triggers the area of your brain that increases your need for food. When the level of ghrelin spikes and the level of leptin falls, it creates a vicious cycle of hunger that leads to cravings and blood sugar spikes. This cycle not only causes you to store fat and gain weight but ultimately leads to the development of obesity, prediabetes, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and chronic inflammation.
That’s not all, of course. When you don’t get enough sleep, cortisol levels rise. Cortisol, the “stress hormone,” is frequently associated with weight gain. It activates the brain’s reward system, making you want all the wrong foods. The bottom line is even with the best diet and exercise regimen, sleep deprivation is detrimental to your health and well-being in every way.
What can you do to optimize your sleep? Here are some tips:
1. Avoid electronics at least one hour before bedtime. Excessive use of electronics (like smartphones, TV, iPads, etc.) is associated with poor sleep. These devices emit blue light that stimulates the brain and makes it harder to fall asleep. Fortunately, many smartphones now have a bedtime mode, which helps establish healthy bedtime routines and limit phone use. Some sleep trackers, like the Oura Ring, also remind you when it’s time to start winding down for bed.
2. Establish a regular sleeping pattern. Going to bed and waking up at the same time sets the body’s internal clock and makes falling asleep and waking up easier. Often we ignore the body’s internal cues to go to bed because we’re on the couch watching TV or keeping ourselves otherwise occupied. Once you miss that window, your ability to fall asleep can be affected and you will spend a lot of time tossing and turning just to get to sleep.
3. Avoid daytime naps as much as possible. If you absolutely need to nap, try to limit them to no more than 15 minutes and take them earlier in the day. This minimizes the risk of offsetting your nighttime sleep. Longer naps, particularly in the late afternoon, decrease sleep drive.
4. Sleep in a quiet, cool, and dark room, using your bed for only two activities: sex and sleep. To get the best sleep possible, create the best sleep environment possible. This strengthens the mental association between your bedroom and sleep. If you’re lounging around in bed working or watching TV for hours on end, that’s what you will associate your bedroom with. The optimal room temperature to yield the best sleep is 65°F. Hotter environments are more disruptive to sleep.
5. Exercise during the day – the earlier the better. We have long known that exercise helps you fall asleep faster. The problem is, depending on the type of exercise, this may actually hinder your sleep. As we get closer to bedtime, cortisol levels fall, indicating it’s time to go to bed. Exercise (particularly moderate- to high-intensity exercise) increases the stress hormone cortisol, which keeps the brain alert and makes it difficult to fall asleep. If you can’t exercise in the morning hours, try to avoid it within 3–4 hours of bedtime to minimize this risk.
6. Create a bedtime ritual. This can mean different things for different people. If you find it hard to shut your mind off before sleep, keeping a bedside journal or to-do list for the next day may help ease your mind. Breathing exercises or meditation may help lessen stress or anxiety, allowing you to fall asleep with less effort. If you find the act of brushing your teeth or washing your face wakes you up, do those things earlier and opt for a warm bath right before bed. If you like to read, try to read something fictional (it’s less stimulating than nonfiction) and save the murder mystery for another time! Try to read an actual book or other material printed on paper, too, as reading on your electronic device may emit blue light that can disrupt sleep. Dimming the lights in the room can also help during this time.
7. Get some afternoon sunshine! Exposure to daylight is something many people overlook. Daylight exposure, particularly in the afternoon, helps melatonin production that helps set the sleep-wake cycle.
8. Avoid eating or drinking 3–4 hours before bedtime. Avoiding caffeine or other stimulants (like tea, chocolate, or soda) within three hours of bed may be the most obvious, but there are other things you should avoid, such as eating dinner or a heavy meal within three hours of bedtime. Your body uses sleep to regenerate and restore itself. Eating a meal before bed forces your body to use sleep time to digest food rather than get the restoration it needs. Also, refrain from drinking alcohol within 3–4 hours of bedtime. Alcohol is a known sleep disruptor. It can contribute to muscle relaxation, which worsens snoring and sleep apnea, causing you to wake up more frequently. It also prevents and shortens the period of sleep known as rapid eye movement, which in turn causes sleep fragmentation.
9. Consider holistic sleep remedies. Everyone knows about melatonin, but other good sleep remedies include valerian root, lemon balm, magnesium, L-theanine, cortisol manager, and gamma-aminobutyric acid. Be sure to talk with your healthcare provider before starting a new supplement routine.
Sleeping well impacts every area of our lives.
My IIN training helped me realize health is not just about what we’re eating and how much exercise we get. Emotional and mental well-being is just as important as physical health. In order for all these components to be in sync, sleep must be optimized. Sleep helps you recharge so you can wake up refreshed and ready to conquer the world.
As a physician, I can’t begin to tell you how many patients struggle with sleep and turn to prescription medications to do what their bodies are designed to do naturally. The importance of sleep is significantly underrated. People think they have too much to do and not enough time to sleep, but when they prioritize everything except sleep, their physical and mental health really begins to decline.
I’m bringing awareness to this issue by sharing these simple, healthy habits. By learning how to optimize what your body is naturally designed to do – sleep – you will see improvements in every facet of your life. Learn more about this holistic approach to sleep and wellness by taking a free Sample Class today.