Written By: Karla Tafra
Better sleep has become one of the most critical goals in everyone’s health and longevity journey. And for the right reasons. Sleep helps repair damaged cells, restore energy, consolidate memories, improve cognition, boost the immune response, lower blood sugar levels, improve mood, and keep your brain cells healthy and strong for years to come.
Sleep deprivation and poor quality sleep have been tied to everything from cardiovascular diseases and brain degeneration to chronic fatigue and stress. If you’re struggling with falling and staying asleep, or feel tired more often than not, here’s the ultimate sleep guide for a restful slumber.
WHY DOES SLEEP MATTER?
Sleep is a biological action of the body, no matter the life form. Animals and plants sleep just like we do, even though the way it manifests itself in their systems might drastically differ from one another. Still, the reason behind why we sleep stays the same whether we’re talking about a dog, a mouse, or a human being.
Sleep is the ultimate action your body takes to rest, recover, regenerate, repair, and recharge your batteries. It’s the only time your brain and body get a chance to relax and not be constantly engaged, leaving room for decluttering, growth, toxin release, and strengthening the bonds between your neurons in order to improve your brain health, protect you from disease, and optimize all of your body’s systems.
Studies show how sleep deprivation and deficiencies can have a detrimental and dangerous effect on your overall health and well-being, linking them to everything from cardiovascular diseases and chronic stress disorders to depression and diabetes. And with the busy and stressful lives most people lead, sleep quality often doesn’t come high on the list of priorities. That’s why the shift surrounding how we sleep, how much we sleep, and how good or poor our sleep quality is, is so remarkable and undoubtedly worth paying attention to.
HORMONES THAT PLAY A ROLE IN SLEEP
There are many biological actions and reactions in the human body that occur once we enter sleep mode, and hormones play a huge role. These chemical messengers of our endocrine system govern almost every single function in our bodies, from hunger and satiety to growth and reproduction; and sleep is no exception. Hormones are extremely powerful and it only takes a slight imbalance to cause a complete disruption in various functions of the body, which is why focusing on making sure your hormone levels are where they should be is essential for long-term health and quality of life
All humans have the same hormones produced by their hormonal glands, with the exception of sex hormones. In the endocrine system, our major endocrine glands include the pituitary, pineal, thymus, adrenal glands, thyroid, pancreas, and reproductive glands, which are called testes in men and ovaries in women. All of these glands need to work in synergy between each other as well as other organs and cells in the body in order to ensure the proper release of the right hormones.
Melatonin is one of the main sleep hormones in the body, and it’s also one that’s most commonly out of balance. The production and release of melatonin are governed by the circadian rhythm, which coincides with sunset and sunrise. Once the sun starts to go down, your pineal gland gets a signal to start releasing melatonin in response to darkness and rest. Equally so, once the sun rises and your eyes get exposed to more light, their production decreases.
Even though this sounds as straightforward as it seems, due to artificial lights and, even more importantly, blue light-emitting devices such as computer screens and smartphones, melatonin production is often impaired, making more and more people reach for sleep aids and melatonin supplements to help boost their supply and sleep better.
Another important hormone that gets released during sleep is the growth hormone. This chemical messenger plays an essential role in thousands of processes in the body, from stimulating bone and cartilage growth in kids and managing insulin sensitivity, to helping you grow muscles after resistance workouts. Its levels naturally decrease as we age, which only increases the importance of getting good quality sleep during the night, each night.
Ghrelin and leptin are a pair of metabolic hormones that help regulate hunger and satiety. Ghrelin is known as the hunger hormone, but it also affects growth hormone release, fat storage, blood sugar levels, and more. Leptin, on the other hand, is known as the satiety hormone, and it helps regulate your appetite, neuroendocrine function, energy homeostasis, and a variety of physiological processes. During sleep, your ghrelin levels decrease and leptin levels increase, but even one night of poor sleep can cause a complete shift in these hormones, making you overeat the following day.
And lastly, cortisol is another hormone affected by sleep. This stress hormone is produced by your adrenal glands, and its main role is to increase glucose levels in the bloodstream, helping you regulate your body’s response to stress. It enhances your brain's use of glucose, suppresses inflammation, increases the availability of compounds that repair tissues, and it also pauses those functions of the body that would be nonessential or harmful in a fight-or-flight situation. Its levels are usually the highest in the hour after you wake up and the lowest right when you fall asleep, but even a slight increase in their levels can cause sleep disruptions and insomnia.
Some of the most common sleep disruptors affect almost everyone worldwide, and the problem seems to be only getting worse. Research points out how almost one third of the population is sleep deprived, deficient, or is suffering from some kind of sleep disorder, and it’s become obvious how some of the main factors include lifestyle habits we’re all prone to. These typically involve:
Overconsumption of caffeine
Blue light-emitting screens and artificial lighting, especially one to two hours before bedtime
Inadequate room temperature and sleep setting (mattress, pillow, covers)
Late-night meals and workouts
High-stress environment, making it impossible to calm down and transition from fight-or-flight into rest-and-digest mode
Inconsistent sleep schedule
Snoring, chronic pain, sleep apnea, or other health conditions
Frequent urination wakes
Pets, children, or even the simple notion of having a sleep partner
One might wonder about daytime naps and whether or not they’re actually beneficial and whether they count for the total sleep hours in the day. We are well aware that infants, toddlers, and even some children well into adulthood express the need to take a daily nap. We might also know a lot of adults (including ourselves) who practice napping on a regular basis and swear by the benefits it provides them.
Studies show how daytime naps reduce fatigue, increase productivity, and improve energy levels, especially after a night of insufficient sleep, a night shift, or when you’re fighting jet lag. Some even go so far as to say they help reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases, strokes, and aneurysms. Even though there are more factors at play when it comes to these serious health conditions, it’s safe to say that having a healthy nap during the day can only be helpful in the long run.
In general, it’s thought that a nap should really be a power nap, and it shouldn’t last longer than 30 minutes. Anything longer than that might take your short sleep stage into deep sleep, making it harder to wake up, causing drowsiness, and worsening your ability to fall asleep in the evening.
However, how much you nap and the consequences it has on your energy levels, fatigue, cognitive performance, and productivity depend on you as an individual. Some people never nap, others swear by their daily 20 minutes of Zzzzs, and some people might not even have the opportunity to do so during their day and can therefore never know whether it would help them or not.
BEST WAYS TO IMPROVE SLEEP
Since telling people to nap on a daily basis isn’t exactly the best solution and might not work for everyone, a better way to help someone combat fatigue and overall effects of sleep deprivation is by focusing on all the tools and techniques that can help improve their sleep quality during the night. We all have to sleep sometime during our 24-hour window, and here is our sleep guide that includes all the best ways to improve your sleep quality and duration.
By now, we all know how technology and blue light can disrupt our sleep, most specifically by inhibiting melatonin production and keeping cortisol levels too high too late in the day. The general rule of thumb is to avoid any technology at least one to two hours before bed. If for some reason, that isn’t possible in your situation, invest in a good pair of blue-blocking glasses that can at least minimize the effect blue light has on your system.
Breathing and Meditation
There are few things in life that can help you relax to the fullest, like your own breath. Controlling your inhales and exhales is one of the most powerful self-soothing tools you can have at your disposal. It’s completely free, you can do it anywhere and anytime, and it absolutely works. A large variety of breathing techniques have been proven to help you fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer, such as the 4-7-8 breathing pattern and the alternate-nostril breathing exercise.
If you’re just looking to start somewhere, close your eyes and simply observe your breath. Start naturally extending your inhales and exhales, and feel how your body naturally starts to relax from head to toe. Even this is plenty!
On the other hand, if you want to take it a step further and dive into meditation techniques, there are plenty of meditation apps and classes you can choose from nowadays to help guide you to relaxation and better sleep.
Mattress and Pillow selection
Many people neglect the impact their mattress and pillow selection has on their sleep quality. In recent years, there’s been a whole influx of companies that have come up with specialty fabrics and designs for mattresses and pillows that can even be personalized to fit you and your specific sleeping habits in order to improve your sleep to the fullest.
All of this was followed by results of multiple studies that have shown how mattress and pillow selection can not only improve one’s sleep but also help deal with insomnia and other sleep disorders, aid in pain management and provide an increased level of comfort, ultimately leading to better sleep.
Another factor that can drastically contribute to sleep quality is bedroom temperature. Experts agree that the optimal sleep temperature should be between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit, depending on the person. When we fall asleep, our body temperature naturally drops a few degrees, which is once again a result of our internal circadian rhythm. This also goes hand in hand with a slower heart rate, slowed-down breathing, and the release of melatonin.
Sleeping in a hot environment might make it hard for your body to cool down, inhibiting the release of melatonin, as well as causing you to perspire and elevate your heart rate. For that same reason, sleeping in a cold environment results in a need for your body to warm up, skin irritations, and discomfort.
Sleep Aids and Supplements
There are many different herbal and non-artificial chemical sleep aids that can naturally boost your melatonin supply, lower your stress levels, and help improve your sleep. They are by no means necessary, and they should never be taken without the green light from your physician, but they’re known to help you relax and make it easier for you to get some restful hours.
Some of the most popular include:
- 5-HTP - a chemical that your body makes from tryptophan, a compound found in foods that induces sleep)
- adaptogens like Ashwagandha and Rhodiola contain powerful plant compounds that help your body adapt better to stress and lower anxiety.
- Valerian root contains active plant compounds like iridoids that promote sleep.
- Magnesium - one of the most essential trace minerals involved in over 300 enzyme processes in the body, including rest, sleep, and the production of melatonin
- CBD - cannabinoids (without THC) that binds to cannabinoid receptors and has the potential to lower stress, alleviate chronic pain, and help treat insomnia.
Foods That Improve Sleep
Some foods contain powerful compounds like the aforementioned tryptophan, magnesium, and other compounds that lower your stress and inflammation while at the same time increasing your serotonin levels and helping you relax. There are also foods, like almonds, that contain melatonin and even though dietary melatonin isn’t the same as the one your body produces itself, it’s still a great way to help stimulate your internal production.
Some of the best foods you can add to your diet include:
Almonds and other tree nuts
Sleep and Hydration
Staying hydrated during the day will ensure proper hydration during the night, as we’re not meant to be getting up and filling our water bottles with liquid. Still, many people do. This results in frequent bathroom wakes during the night and impaired sleep. The same problem occurs when you go to sleep dehydrated and don’t want to get up and drink water during the night as you’re tossing and turning, waking up at random times, and overall experiencing negative symptoms that affect your sleep quality. Making sure you’re properly hydrated during the day will promote better sleep, as you won’t wake up feeling thirsty or get up every hour to run to the bathroom.
Sleep and Exercise
We all know that exercise is good for long-term health and longevity, but studies show the positive impact working out has on sleep quality. Even though the exact mechanism of why exercise helps is still not entirely understood, there is no doubt that it helps lower your stress and anxiety levels, allowing you to relax and unwind. There's also the aspect of physical exhaustion that drains your energy and helps transition you into sleep mode.
Still, timing often does count. Exercise increases your core body temperature and elevates your heart rate, so working out too close to bedtime might result in your inability to fall asleep. That’s why it’s usually recommended to avoid intense exercise an hour or two before bedtime, while low to moderate exercise is actually encouraged to help you bring your heart rate down and relax your body.
Finding ways to help you sleep better will undoubtedly be beneficial in the long run. Whether you implement all or some of our tips, there’s no reason not to test them out. Getting quality rest every night shouldn’t be a goal; it should be the natural state of things.