(this article by Klara was originally written for - and first appeared- on Call Me Lore)
Every night while you’re sleeping, when there isn’t very much else going on, your body is working hard to clear out all the dust and cobwebs of the day.
Did you know that your brain has its own nocturnal cleaning service? It’s a relatively new discovery, but researchers have found that a plumbing-like set-up, called the glymphatic system opens up between the brain cells at night and literally sweeps and flushes out toxic molecules involved in neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s disease.
The rest of the body does a good night time deep clean as well. The liver amps up its processing power, breaking down toxins and excess anything, to be flushed out first thing when you wake up. Intestinal activity overall also increases, as muscles around the gut relax to get things moving along.
These activities are all part of the Parasympathetic Nervous System or the “rest and digest” state, which is most active at night during restful sleep when restoration and repair become the body’s focus.
There are so many different factors that could interfere with a good night’s rest. This is where personalized health care becomes really useful at identifying the unique emotional, psychological, genetic, hormonal, dietary and mechanical reasons why you might be struggling to get your ZZZs.
Lorena: What is the average sleep we should be getting?
Klara: It’s really more about quality than quantity, but anything between 7 and 9 hours depending on how otherwise healthy you are and what else is going on in your life. Sometimes we need more and during some periods we’re good with very little. Quality sleep means you cycle through all 4 stages of sleep (from falling asleep, to light sleep, deep non-REM sleep and finally REM) at least 5 times during the night before awakening in the morning.
L: Are there better times than others to sleep? Aka does the night owl vs. the early bird get better sleep or does just the number of hours matter?
K: Biologically and genetically we’re hardwired to sleep when it's dark because before we had electricity there wasn't much else to keep ourselves busy with at night. The mechanism that naturally enabled this was the production of melatonin in the brain, triggered by diminishing daylight. This is still the way melatonin production works today in a post-modern world but our night-time use of laptops, TV screens and smartphones is messing with the signals of this system. The blue light emitted from our devices are tricking our brains into thinking it’s still daytime.
We sleep better during the time that melatonin is secreted, which is why black-out curtains, eye-masks, no screens and a low light environment before bed, can all help to improve sleep.
Additionally, the first part of your night-time slumber consists of non-REM sleep which is allegedly deeper and more restorative then the lighter, dream-rich REM sleep of the morning hours. So the old saying of “Every hour of sleep before midnight is worth two after midnight” probably holds some biological truth.
What are the effects of not getting a good night's sleep?
K: There are so many, ranging from immediate to longer-term. On days following a poor night’s rest you wake up feeling groggy and blunt-minded - the most basic things feel like a struggle. Cravings for stimulants like coffee and chocolate, sugar and carbs increase as lack of sleep boosts hunger, eventually leading to weight-gain if left unchecked. Shift work has been linked to obesity, heart disease and even lower brain power (lower scores on tests of memory, processing speed and overall cognition in this study) . Lack of sleep is a stressor on the body, and as we all know by now, any type of chronic stress interferes significantly with overall health and wellbeing.
What supplements are natural sleep remedies?
K: Magnesium glycinate is nature’s chill-pill, helping the body and brain to relax and focus, which could improve sleep if body tension or worry is what’s keeping you woke (it often is). Annoyingly, stress depletes the body’s magnesium levels and low magnesium levels exacerbate the negative effects of stress. So that’s a fun cycle to keep an eye on. Foods high in Mg are spinach and other dark leafy greens, quinoa, almonds, cashews, black beans, avocados and some fatty fish.
L-theanine is another great relaxant, recently broken down here in my article on @mindbodygreen. Herbs like chamomile and lavender can also offer some sleepy relaxation.
How do they help? Do they make you drowsy or are there other effects?
K: The great thing about both Mag GLycinate and L-theanine is they tend to promote relaxation without sedation or drowsiness. This is why some people take some Magnesium or a Magnesium -L-Theanine combination in the morning or during the day, for general calmness and focus.
Are there certain foods or drinks that help us get a good night's rest?
K: Oh yes. I’ve had success with sleep improvement by just making dietary changes. It’s nothing you haven't heard of -- natural, unprocessed whole foods, enough good quality fats and proteins, no sugar, artificial sugar or preservatives and for most people no dairy or gluten either. An article I wrote called “Eat Yourself Calm - 10 Foods That Fight Anxiety” on Mind Body Green, outlines what to eat to avoid drastic spikes and dips in blood sugar, for a calmer body and brain. Having a low carb, high fiber stabilizing meal for dinner that is satisfying and filling (without weighing you down) helps a lot.
Are most natural sleep remedies safe? Are they safe for pregnant or nursing mothers?
K: Your Magnesium needs increase during gestation and lactation and doses up to 350mg have been found to be safe but it is always best to speak to your integrative / functional medicine doctor before taking any supplements or making any changes to your diet especially if you’re pregnant or nursing. Just because a remedy is considered ‘natural’ doesn't make it safe. Listen to experts you trust, and then also listen to yourself after you’ve been informed on what the most up-to-date research says.
Are there any tips for toddlers who are having trouble sleeping?
My first tip would double-down on diet. Foods that spike blood sugar - bread, crackers, ripe sweet fruits and juice, pasta, sugary sauces like ketchup - put your toddler on a glucose-insulin-adrenaline roller coaster that leaves them wired and over-tired... No fun for anyone.
Secondly, turn the lights down. A study published earlier this year in the journal Physiological Reports, found that children, (having larger pupils) are more sensitive to bright light exposure which suppressed melatonin by almost 90 percent, and the effects persisted even after the kids returned to dim light. Bottom line? Avoid having children exposed to very bright light a few hours before bedtime.
Lastly, the same calming rituals that ground and wind you down, are likely to have at least a similar calming effect on your toddler - A bath with some epsom salts, calming music, a bedtime story, candle light, meditation, some lavender essential oils in the diffuser...etc, etc.
Are there routines, rituals, stretches, etc. that we can do to help us sleep?
Here comes the inevitable M word: Mindfulness. Meditation. Learning to wind-down from your day and your worries is a very handy skill, not just for sleep, but for just about everything else in your life. Doing a restorative work-out followed by some meditation will go a very long way to help set the stage for solid sleep.
Making your bedroom a calm, dimly lit zen zone (and a no-screen-area, see next point) has helped me and a lot of my friends and clients get into a mood conducive to deep rest.
Keep the screens away at night: The blue-wavelength light emitted from our phones, tablets and laptops suppresses the secretion of melatonin and affects our Suprachiastmatic Nucleus (SCN), a pinhead sized structure that controls our sleep cycle. Some nights when I have to work, I use the F.lux app F.lux is an app (introduced to me by a dear friend in Brooklyn) that filters the light emanating from your device so that in the morning it is blue/black predominant and in the evening it is red predominant, mimicking sundown and reducing your exposure to blue light at night.
Is there anything that could be secretly inhibiting our sleep that most of us don't even realize? Things to avoid.
Undiscovered food intolerances are a surprising one for many people. Other potential sleep-disturbers that may affect some people, but not everyone:
- Cortisol imbalances (high cortisol at night) or another adrenal dysfunction
- Evening workouts (spikes cortisol levels for some people)
- Electromagnetic hypersensitivity
- Changes in our sex hormones (menstruation, pregnancy, oestrogen imbalance, menopause, low testosterone)
- Thyroid problems
- Sleep apneoa
- Sensitivity to the detergent on your linen
- Lack of darkness in your bedroom
- And of course coffee (if you’re a slow caffeine metabolizer due to a genetic variant of the CYP1A2 enzyme, which millions of people have)
What is the best thing to do when one finds themselves up at night with a restless mind struggling to sleep?
I usually encourage people to get up when they wake up. Staying in bed rolling around letting your midnight anxious thoughts loop on repeat like a mouse in a spinning wheel tends to make it all worse. If you find yourself awake and restless - don’t panic, maybe you’re just at the start of a new sleep cycle, in the first phase. Or maybe your mind is just working through something, cleaning something out - try give it space and stay as cool as you can. Try keeping a notebook next to your bed (you don’t even have to turn on the lights), write down anything that wants out, whether it’s a to-do, to-remember, or to-let go of thing….scribble it down. Next time you wake up at night, get up and get out of bed, stretch, do a child’s pose, meditate, have sex, or go fix yourself a little snack. Everything’s gonna be okay. The sun always rises.