Do you find you are either struggling to get off to sleep or waking up at 3 am with racing thoughts or hot sweats? Then just feeling unmotivated and tired for the rest of the day!
Inadequate sleep is stressful for your body. The levels of the stress hormone cortisol remain elevated into the evening when they should decline. This not only messes with your moods but also wrecks your recovery by impairing tissue repair and growth. It also can cause insulin resistance, increased abdominal fat storage, injury, and overtraining. You are more prone to overeating when you are tired due to higher levels of the appetite stimulator ghrelin and lower levels of the appetite suppressor leptin (these were mentioned in previous posts). That’s why you find yourself craving more sugary snacks when you have a bad night’s sleep. Prolonged sleep deprivation blunts your insulin response (remember insulin is the key to your cells to let the glucose in for muscle energy storage).
How do our hormones affect sleep?
Progesterone helps control stress, lets you relax and chill, and has a direct sedative effect. As levels drop during menopause, it is harder to fall and stay asleep. Estrogen increases REM (dream sleep), assists serotonin metabolism, so you can relax, and helps to shorten how long it takes you to fall asleep. It also decreases the number of times you wake up in the night and increases total sleep time and quality. It helps regulate your internal thermostat and body temperature. So the decline in estrogen can lead to hot flushes and disruptive night sweats and make you more susceptible to night-time cortisol spikes. We also start producing less melatonin which is the key hormone for regulating sleep.
What can we do to help get better sleep?
We want to improve our sleep hygiene! First of all, let me explain, what is called our sleep architecture.
There are 4 stages to our sleep architecture:
Stage 1: the brain starts to drift out of conscious thought and into sleep.
Stage 2: Light Sleep
Stage 3: Deep, restorative sleep (NREM)
Stage 4: REM Sleep, where your muscle tone goes limp and you enter dream sleep.
We cycle through these stages throughout the night, waking up after the last stage briefly. We tend to get more deep sleep during the first half of the night going into more REM sleep during the second half of the night. So if you go to bed too late at night or wake up too early, you’ll cut into this REM-rich last sleep cycle.
What do the sleep cycles do?
Your NREM sleep (deep sleep) is when your body repairs, so this is when you produce the majority of your body’s greatest performance enhancers like human growth hormone, which helps you burn fat and stimulates tissue growth to build muscle and allow you to recover faster. During deep sleep is also the time you convert short-term memory to long-term memory.
During REM sleep, your body is completely paralyzed, this is so we do not actually act out our dreams! The primary role of REM sleep is when the brain goes through all the countless things we were exposed to throughout the day and decides what is worth storing in memory, so if you have been reading or learning some really useful stuff, you want to be getting enough of this type of sleep to remember it. It also figures out where in our web of knowledge to store these things. REM sleep is also crucial for developing emotional intelligence.
There isn’t enough space in the brain to keep all the information, so sleep is the time to consolidate and organize all the meaningful data.
How can we help improve our chances of a good night’s sleep?
- CORK THE BOTTLE BEFORE BEDTIME many of us (well I don’t really drink, so maybe not me) use alcohol to wind down at the end of the day, and it works temporarily. But it reduces sleep quality and increases restlessness toward the early morning hours, especially if you are drinking right before bed. Drinking within an hour of bedtime lengthens your NREM sleep and shortens your REM sleep during the first half of the night, as a result, you don’t get into deep restorative sleep for very long. During the second half of the night, your liver starts sopping up the ethanol from your bloodstream which causes your body to go into a bit of a withdrawal causing you to toss and turn. So the advice is to have your glass with dinner but then switch to tart cherry juice before bedtime. This naturally increases the production of melatonin.
- AN EARLIER DINNERTIME: making your body work on its digestion can interfere with your ability to go into your parasympathetic (rest & digest) nervous system during sleep. Having a large meal close to bedtime can prevent you from falling into the deep restorative sleep stages. Give at least 2-3 hours from your last meal and bedtime.
- TURN OFF SCREENS: shut down the electronics 30mins before you want to sleep. Blue light has been shown to suppress the production of melatonin and this is already dwindling with age. Your body temperature won’t fall as it should and you won’t get the signal that it’s time for sleep.
- KEEP COOL: the best temperature for good sleep is 65 degrees. This is more important for menopausal women who are prone to hot flushes and night sweats. Keep your bedroom cool, like you are sleeping in a cave. Things you can do are a cool shower before bedtime to help bring your temperature down.
- BLOCK OUT LIGHT AND NOISE: light and noise can keep you from drifting into deep sleep. Blackout curtains are good and can use a white noise machine (I have a fan on every night as 1. It keeps me cool and 2. It blocks out any outside noise or snoring/breathing). But sleep masks and earplugs can also help. Also, dim the lights as the evening draws in so it can help the melatonin to build up.
- JOURNALLING: if you have a busy mind before you go to bed, try writing a journal and getting all your thoughts out and onto paper, this has been shown to really help get to sleep. Also, if you wake up with a busy mind, keep the journal close so you can jot down any new thoughts as this will help you get back off to sleep. Then in the morning, you will have a much clearer head to deal with everything you wrote down.
- FLIP YOUR EXERCISE TIME: exercise in the evening is not an automatic sleep-wrecker, it can be better than dragging yourself out of bed at 5 am after a restless night. It has been shown that it can improve sleep as long as the session is wrapped up at least an hour before bedtime, top it off with a cool shower to bring your body temperature down.
- CAFFEINE: try to cut your caffeine intake after 12 pm. Adenosine hormone builds up throughout the day to make you feel drowsy in the evening. Caffeine is an adenosine decoy that floats through your bloodstream and binds to the adenosine receptors. So now, instead of slowing down, your pituitary gland senses something is up and that you need energy and gives you a shot of adrenaline. That’s fine early in the day but the half-life of caffeine is about 6hrs, so if you have a coffee at 3 pm you still have a shot of expresso effect kicking around at 9 pm and for some, it can be longer. So, try avoiding caffeine at the latest 2 pm.
- MEDITATION: this covers mindfulness and breathwork. This all helps your body go into a parasympathetic nervous system by activating your vagus nerve to move you out of the sympathetic nervous system into the parasympathetic nervous system. One breathwork routine I like which is to help sleep is the 4-7-8 method, you inhale for 4s (a big belly breath, so expand your belly), hold for 7s, then a long slow exhale for 8s – do this for about 4mins before bed.
Have a go at some of these sleep hygiene ideas and see if it helps improve your sleep quality.