Happy National Sleep Awareness Week, we certainly hope you slept great last night. Setting up good sleeping habits and getting a solid 7-10 hours of sleep per night is critical to lasting wellbeing but it can be tough to do. To help we called in an expert. This week’s blog has been graciously written by our friend and wellness partner Michelle Zellner, owner and founder of Better Beings. Michelle has been a trainer, coach, and facilitator for over 20 years. Seeking to inform, influence, and inspire, Michelle’s experience allows her to deliver on a wide variety of topics, including exercise, nutrition, weight loss, stress management, sleep, preventing and managing chronic disease, and work-life balance just to name a few.
Sleep – The Luxury You Can’t Live Without
How did you sleep last night? No, really, HOW did you sleep? I’ve spent years asking this question to those around me who always seem to get a good night’s sleep. What’s the secret? People who have no trouble sleeping don’t give it a second thought, but there are so many things needing to go right to get that good night of sleep, I think it’s amazing anyone does! I have come to believe sleep is like most other things—some people are naturally better at it than others.
As a kid, I was the one at the slumber parties who was up, ready to go, at 6am. Let me tell you, parents were not so thrilled! Growing up, I remember lying awake, unable to fall asleep, for what seemed like forever. I was certain I was missing out on some kind of fun! I always wondered how my sister could sleep sooooo late, even on Christmas morning. She would tell me—”just wait until you get older and you’ll be sleeping in too.” Nope, never happened. By the time I moved away for college, things were getting especially interesting. Sleep talking and sleepwalking became regular occurrences. Japanese was my foreign language of choice and my roommate would tell me I’d sit straight up in the middle of the night and start speaking Japanese (more fluently than when I was awake). I would often find my way to the stairwell at the opposite end of our dorm hall and have conversations with friends as they were coming home from a fun night out. On several occasions, I woke up to find myself sleeping on the floor outside my friend’s door. I had no recollection of any of these events, but it turns out I was a pretty social, conversational person, while completely asleep.
At the time, I thought this was funny, odd, weird. It made for great stories but was definitely a bit scary. I wish I had been more interested in figuring out WHY this was happening, but eventually it became less frequent and then ceased altogether. I now know that change, stress, irregular sleep patterns, and chronic sleep deprivation are triggers for this type of nighttime activity.
These are just a few of the challenges I’ve had with sleep. For a period of time, I battled severe insomnia. It would take hours for me to fall asleep and then would wake at 1:00 or 2:00am, unable to fall back to sleep. This would happen several nights in a row and led to anxiety about going to bed. My journey on the quest for the magic answer to blissful sleep has led me to discover I am far from alone in this struggle. While your challenges may be different, the root causes of sleep issues, and the consequences of sleep deprivation, are the same. When we are young, we can get away with a lot. I did well in school, had energy for gymnastics (as a kid), work and fun. I was a generally pleasant person and any moodiness could be attributed to A) being a teenager or B) being hungry. As with many things, the older we get, the less resilient we become.
Unfortunately, societal norms including schedule patterns (school, work, activities, and dietary habits) and the overuse of technology, are making it increasingly difficult for children, teenagers, and adults to get the quality sleep necessary for optimal human functioning and performance. The side effect of not being tired the next day is just one small piece of why we need anywhere from 7-10 hours of quality sleep per night. This should be the time for rest, repair, and hormonal reset. Parts of the brain and body get to relax, while other parts of the brain and body get busy. Chronic sleep deprivation can lead to the increased risk for every single physical and mental health issue, because the critical functions designed to take place during various phases of our sleep cycle are either cut short or not happening at all. Sleep is actually a necessity—not a luxury!
There are many reasons why we are sleep deprived, and identifying your obstacles to healthy, quality sleep is the first step. I have come to realize that a good night’s sleep starts in the morning. The behaviors we engage in throughout the day will either promote or obstruct our sleep that night. Let me outline a few of the basics.
Back in the day, we operated on a natural day/night cycle…hunting and gathering during the day and, as darkness approached, we got quiet and hid from all the dangers that lurk. With that darkness, the pineal gland produced and released melatonin—one of our sleep-inducing hormones. Our movement throughout the day allowed the body to produce adenosine triphosphate—a byproduct of the glucose burned as fuel in the body. Adenosine is a brain chemical that also signals it is time for sleep. Upon rising with the sun, the body released adrenaline and cortisol—two hormones that help get us going by releasing glucose and triglycerides into the bloodstream for fuel and circulating that fuel by increasing heart rate and blood pressure.
We ate real food (in appropriate amounts), which provided nutrients that enabled the body to produce adequate amounts of melatonin (think Omega-3 fatty acids), we did not eat fake food that the body had to work really hard to get rid of (think excess sugar), and we were not overconsuming stimulants (which trigger a release of cortisol, keeping you alert!).
We had the occasional big stressor (a big beast that wanted to eat you) and we did not have artificial light and physiologically and cognitively stimulating media devices.
For most people today, life looks nothing like that! In fact, it may be quite the opposite. The environment in which we live is not the one the human brain and body were designed for, so we need to do the best we can to simulate or create such an environment. To set ourselves up for quality sleep (and a quality life!) we need to:
- Eat real food more often than not—consuming most calories early and often during the day and fewer as bedtime approaches.
- Minimize caffeine intake (no more than 200mg/day) and make sure you cut off consumption at least 10 hours prior to going to bed. In addition, avoid alcohol at least 4 hours prior to going to bed.
- Move your body as much as you can, as hard as you can, as often as you can.
- Manage your stressors during the day (meaning do not allow cortisol to be released unless it is really a threat to your existence).
- Have an evening winding down routine, allowing the house, the body, and the mind to get ready for sleep. The house gets dark, the body gets relaxed, the mind gets quiet. Turn off the devices!
- Listen to your body and brain! If you find yourself snacking at night, it may be because you are ignoring the signals that it is time for bed. When you override the messages from adenosine and melatonin and force yourself to stay awake, you reach for some form of sugar. Instead—GO TO BED.
If you struggle with getting quality sleep, here is my suggestion.
- Identify the obstacle to sleep (check all that apply)
- Busy Mind
- Stress (cortisol released throughout the day)
- Eating too late/types of food/amount of food
- Caffeine consumption
- Interruptions (kids, animals, full bladder, significant other)
- Create a real strategy to modify a behavior that could be impeding quality sleep.
- Recognize that it is the cumulative effect of all the things we do consistently over time that have the largest impact on the outcome. Multiple behaviors may need modification, and they have to become your habits to really reap the benefits.
Through analyzing my own tendencies, and acknowledging which ones were potentially impacting my sleep, I have been able to restructure and modify many of those habits. While I occasionally have a difficult night of sleep, I am happy to say that insomnia is no longer a regular part of my life. I also know, that even though that I am doing all I can right now to set myself up for quality sleep, it is not always in my control. I try to make really healthy choices in every other area—what I put in my body, how much I move my body, and how I manage my stress triggers—to hopefully minimize the damage that inadequate sleep may be causing. The healthy choice is usually the harder choice, but ultimately, I believe those healthy choices will produce a healthy, happy, productive human being. So far, I have found it worth the effort—and I believe you will too!
To your wellbeing,
Michelle Zellner, Owner/Founder of Better Beings