2020 might go on record as being the most stressful year of our generation. Global pandemic, economic uncertainty, civil rights protests… lord, maybe we do need to change our views on the ability of plant medicines to help calm our collective nerves!
When it comes to stress, nature has provided the ultimate relief – SLEEP. The invention of the electric light bulb has done wonders for our species & technological advancement, but the impact it’s had on our ability to have a good night’s sleep is starting to take its toll on our health.
If your body is showing symptoms of exaggerated stress (excess body fat, fatigue, hormone imbalance, gut issues, low libido, low gains at the gym etc etc etc), then maybe you are missing out on natures panacea; SLEEP!
While I could do a weekend workshop on sleep, I know time is precious. So I thought I’d share my big 3 points when it comes to unlocking the ultimate healing power of sleep!
1) Make 7-9 hours’ sleep your primary goal!
People have so many crazy goals. Some want to lift 3-5 times their body weight. Some want to run further than anyone else, faster than anyone else. Others, simply want to put man on Mars… I encourage you to make 7-9 hours’ sleep, each night, your paramount goal.
While individual needs vary according to many factors, including age & physical stress, the best practice for healthy adults is 7-9 hours each night(1). I have friends & clients who take pride in being able to “function” on 6 hours sleep each night, but the reality is that their chronic sleep deprivation is putting their bodies under huge amounts of stress.
Emerging evidence suggests that lack of sleep increases risk of Alzheimer’s & dementia in later life (2). A more immediate concern is that chronic lack of sleep is generally associated with obesity, diabetes, hypertension & increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Studies also show links to chronic pain & gastrointestinal disorders! (3)
While in the short term, life lived on short sleep might seem manageable, at the end of the day, the resounding long-term evidence is that many endemic health issues can be prevented (I’d argue “reversed” as well!) with regular 7-9 hours’ sleep each night.
2) Keep it regular!
There are 11 organ systems in the human body & when they all work together, we’re healthy, vital & ready to seize the day!
Our bodies organ rhythms are set by the master clock of our circadian rhythm. This rhythm generally follows the sun because, as surprising as it may be, we are diurnal beings, i.e. we are “day-walkers” as my hospo friends would say.
When we interfere with our circadian rhythm, we disrupt the synchronicity of our hormones & organ systems, this disruption leads to a host of metabolic disorders like obesity & type 2 diabetes (4), as well as a host of mental disorders.
When we wake, a sequence of hormonal processes begins to play out over the following 24 hour period. Cortisol is a complex stress hormone that helps us stay alert so that we can “fight or flight”. In healthy people, cortisol peaks mid-morning, gradually fading away in the late afternoon as the sun sets. Irregular cortisol production, caused by exaggerated stress from say, an afternoon coffee, may play a role in advancing metabolic syndromes like obesity & diabetes (5)
Also in healthy people, darkness (to you technomorphs out there, “darkness” is what our recent ancestors experienced at night-time) signals to our brains that it’s melatonin time!
Melatonin is an EXTREMELY IMPORTANT HORMONE that has anti-inflammatory, antioxidant & anti-coagulopathic (preventing blood clots) properties, as well as protecting the walls of our blood & lymphatic vessels (3). Artificial light from blubs & screens inhibits the release of melatonin (3,6,7,8), therefore disrupting sleep & negating all the healing qualities associated with it!
By going to bed & waking up at the same time each day, we promote a regular circadian rhythm. It’s this rhythm that gives us regular hormone cycles (i.e. optimal cortisol & melatonin production) supports the synchronisation of our organ systems, & reduces overall stress on our bodies.
3) Time your exercise RIGHT!
Moderate to high intensity exercise increases cortisol levels (9), so it’s best to do in the morning. As mentioned, cortisol helps keep us alert so we can “fight or flight”, so why not use it to get the best out of your workout in the morning!?
It’s important to remember that when cortisol is in our system, melatonin is suppressed until the perceived stress has passed. This is because our bodies will do anything to survive & sleep is not conducive to a good “fight or flight” response… So, I’m sorry team, but from a physiological perspective, running, circuit training, HIIT etc in the evening is telling your body it’s not safe to sleep!
If you’re following the implications here, that also means that you’re not going to get the full physiological repair that’s needed to see the adaptations (gains) from all that exercise, if you don’t get a good night’s sleep either!
At night-time we want to promote a sense of calm, so slow walks or sleep promoting exercise like Yin Yoga are best. Meditation, journaling, or artistic expression (drawing, music etc) could be a good practice to introduce to help you wind down. You could also just read a book with a dim light to let your imagination take flight away from the mental & emotional triggers of your day.
Remember, exercise is extremely important for our physiology so it’s important to include movement in each day! Run your dog in the morning, then stretch with your cat at night…
So there you have it. Aim to sleep for 7-9 hours, at the same time each day (Ok, maybe an hour either side on weekends) & use exercise to boost your cortisol in the morning & promote melatonin at night time.
Give it a month, then let me know how you get on.
Further reading for those bookworms out there:
Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker