Struggling to Sleep?
Sleep has become a struggle for many during a year in which Coronavirus has affected almost everyone around the world. Articles in the Guardian, Daily Mail and Telegraph all attest to a sleep crisis fueled by stress and anxiety over finances, health, bereavements, social distancing, home-schooling etc, the list of changes to our previous routines in life perhaps, forever changed. We also know that poor quality sleep can decrease the effective functioning of our immune system, not something we would want currently. If you are someone that finds the quality of your sleep, and perhaps energy levels in the morning, are not what they used to be, read on to see what you can do to increase your chances of better rest.
Previous to the Sars-Cov-2 pandemic it appears we were in sleep crisis already. Scientists claimed we are getting between one to two hours less sleep per night than we did sixty years ago, in the context of an eight-hour sleep cycle this equates to up to 25% less sleep. And that’s not all, it’s not just the quantity of sleep that had been dropping but also the quality of the sleep we are achieving, which ensures that our physical, psychological and energetic functions actively recover to maintain optimal health, energy, immunity and resilience on a day-to-day basis.
Every time we are sleep deprived, we’re putting our lives at risk. Scientists have demonstrated that relatively moderate levels of fatigue impair performance to an extent equivalent to or greater than alcohol intoxication. To put this into context, three hours of sleep leads to worse driver stopping time reactions than when individuals have had a drink.
So why is sleep important?
In recent years, quality sleep (i.e. the ability to achieve the deeper sleep cycles several times during a night) has been shown to underpin the mechanisms and pathways that keep our cells, organs, receptor and hormone systems in optimum health. In turn, sleep deprivation is now linked to nearly every chronic inflammatory disease, from obesity to Inflammatory Bowel Disease, cancer to diabetes, heart disease to Alzheimer’s disease. There’s no getting away from it – quality sleep is important no matter who you are!
How much sleep do I need?
Everyone is different in terms of the sleep quantity they need (on average between six to eight hours sleep a night) but you can gauge your overall sleep quantity and quality by how you feel when you wake up.
If you can say, hand on heart, that within ten minutes of waking you feel ready to take on the day ahead (without the use of a pick-me-up such as caffeine or nicotine) then you have had a good night of quality sleep. However, if your get-up-and-go doesn’t surface for an hour or two (or doesn’t get started during the morning!), then you are not getting the restorative sleep quality that you, your mind and body needs to function at your peak during that day and also to maintain long-term health.
There are some simple habits based around improving sleep quality that you can consider for great health, energy and resilience. Pick between one to three from the list below to focus on for the next month ahead:
1. Create a bedroom for sleep – try to keep your bedroom dark (use blackout blinds or curtains) and free of televisions and e-devices. Darkness triggers the production of melatonin in the brain, which is the hormone that is largely responsible for sending us to sleep. However, we often get too little light in the morning and too much light at night. This throws our body clock out of whack and in turn, all the chemical signals that support the complex symphony of cycles in our body occurring throughout a 24-hour cycle, including sleep, digestion and the immune system responses.
2. Manage technology – the constant overload of information stresses our brains making it hard to switch off for sleep and the blue-light emitted from screens suppresses melatonin production, as it’s the same wavelength as natural sunlight so signals to the brain to wake up.
3. Embrace morning light – spend at least 20 minutes outside every morning. Light is quantified in lux units. If we spend our time mostly inside (and let’s face it, in winter that’s a distinct possibility especially if we’re going to and returning from work in the dark) then we only ever hit around 500 lux from indoor lighting. However, the sun gives us about 30,000 lux and even on a cloudy day, we can get 10,000 lux exposure from being outside. Getting the right kind of light at the right point in the day can have an amazing effect on regulating the body clock (i.e. the circadian rhythms) and support all the associated cycles surrounding essential body activities such as sleep and our immune system.
4. Create a bedtime routine to unwind – start your evening wind-down with no technology one to two hours before bed and do something relaxing like taking a warm bath or shower, and reading a good book. As you know by now, we are creatures of habit so getting into a consistent pre-bedtime routine will signal to the body that rest and sleep is coming up.
5. Have a consistent sleep and waking time – go to bed at the same time (no later than 10.30pm) and wake the same time at least five times a week. This helps to train a strong sleep pattern and circadian rhythms. Irregular sleep schedules are associated with significant changes in circadian rhythms and poorer performance at work with feelings similar to jet lag.
6. Manage caffeine intake – ensure that any caffeine you choose to consume, including green tea, is enjoyed before 2pm. Caffeine has a long half-life, that is it hangs around for up to eight hours in the body before full detoxification by the liver, so can disrupt your sleep. Caffeine also blocks adenosine receptors in the brain, which are normally triggered by natural adenosine build up in the body over the day that helps us to feel sleepy. By blocking these receptors, we break another one of the body’s natural mechanisms to help us fall and stay asleep.
Natural sleep remedies
Alongside the lifestyle changes, there are several herbal and food supplement products designed to support sleep quality and quantity. A frequent flyer favourite in the US is melatonin supplements; these are not legally sold in the UK so will not be discussed in this blog, However, there are other vitamins, minerals and nutrients that can work together synergistically with lifestyle changes to help you achieve successful sleep..
5-HTP (5-Hydroxytryptophan) is the amino acid your body makes from tryptophan, an essential amino acid found in the diet and also the precursor to the neurotransmitter serotonin and hormone melatonin.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter also involved in regulating sleep, as well as mood and many other areas of health including heart and gut. Serotonin deficiency can lead to mood disorders, such as anxiety, emotional instability and depression, as well as gut and heart problems. So if you’re low in 5-HTP then your body is going to struggle to make serotonin and melatonin therefore affecting sleep and also your mood.
Tryptophan can be found in foods such as egg white, turkey, lamb, chicken, milk, nuts, oats, and cheese and superfoods such as seaweed and spirulina. In theory, eating these foods should help your body produce enough serotonin and melatonin, but tryptophan does not easily cross the blood brain barrier. In fact, most of the available serotonin in the body is found in the intestines and it cannot easily cross the blood-brain barrier to help in the production of brain-derived melatonin for sleep. This means that the brain requires its own supply of 5-HTP, which can cross the blood brain barrier with ease, to produce sufficient melatonin levels in the pineal gland.
Tryptophan is best derived from the diet; it’s not available as a single amino acid supplement. 5-HTP, however, whilst not present in food can be taken in a natural supplement form derived from the seeds of an African shrub know as Griffonia simplicifolia boost brain levels of melatonin and serotonin to support sleep, as well as boost mood and reduce anxiety. One human study showed that 5-HTP supplement significantly reduced the time it took to fall asleep, increased sleep duration and improved sleep quality. These results are corroborated in a recent study.
Magnesium and sleep
Magnesium is an essential mineral that is needed for many areas of health, including stress reduction and sleep. It helps cells produce ATP, activates enzymes required for the production of hormones including melatonin, as well as aiding muscle relaxation.
But are you getting enough magnesium in your diet? Magnesium deficiency is more common than you think so supplementing your diet with magnesium citrate can help boost levels of this essential mineral.
Herbal extracts to support sleep
There are some well-known herbal remedies for promoting better sleep with one of the most popular being a cup of chamomile tea before bedtime. Chamomile is widely regarded as a sleep-inducer, in part due to the flavonoid, apigenin that binds to benzodiazepine (BZD) receptors in the brain in such a way as to promote health sleep cycles. This helps improve sleep quality but without the addictive side effects of prescription BZDs. Chamomile also has other therapeutic benefits in diverse health areas including hay fever, inflammation and gastrointestinal disorders.
Passionflower (Passiflora extract) may help treat anxiety and insomnia as supplement extracts appear to boost the level of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in your brain; a compound that calms brain hyperactivity so may help you relax and sleep better. One study has shown that passionflower extract in combination with chamomile had hypnotic-like activity when sleep was disturbed.
L-theanine is the amino acid found in green and black tea leaves, as well as some other food sources including some types of mushrooms. In fact it’s the compound that is associated with the calming benefit that is often described when drinking a cup of tea. However, tea contains caffeine, which for many people can lead to overstimulation of the nervous system and may lead to difficulty getting to sleep. For this reason, supplementing with L-theanine, alongside other nutrients that help promote sleep, can be a better alternative to staying awake during the night with caffeine jitters!
Research shows that L-theanine calms the brain and nervous system in several ways: L-theanine boosts GABA levels and other calming neurotransmitters including serotonin and dopamine; it lowers the levels of excitatory neurotransmitters including-glutamate; enhances alpha brain waves that are associated with the state of relaxation such as you may experience when mediating, being creative, as well as during REM sleep. , Therefore, L-theanine is commonly associated with improving sleep and reducing stress and anxiety.
Vitamins for sleep
The conversion of 5-HTP into serotonin and melatonin (as outlined in the serotonin/melatonin conversion pathway) requires vitamins such as Vitamin B6 and Vitamin C. Vitamin B6 is best supplemented in the bioactive P5P form, alongside 5-HTP. Zinc and magnesium also help in the enzymatic conversion; organic citrate forms of these minerals improve their absorption and bioavailability in the body.
So hopefully the above gives you some ideas for tackling sleep at a difficult time for all of us and that there are some elements of this within our control. As we begin to look towards the easing of lockdown restrictions alongside the rapid rolling out of vaccines, we may even allow ourselves a glimpse of the spring to come, which may well bring a lessening of our worries and a seasonal change can sometimes help us too.
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