Hormones rule our lives. They are the chemical messengers that make us feel happy or sad, hungry or full, tired or ready to get up and go. They make us sleep or keep us awake, put on weight or lose it, make us love, bond, enjoy sex and procreate ... or prevent all of those. But are we slaves to our hormones? To we have to put up with what we're given? Are some people just lucky to get all the good ones?
According to a report published by The Sleep Council in March 2013 the number of Britons getting just five to six hours sleep per night has risen dramatically: 40% of us are not getting the six to nine hours recommended by the NHS. Why is that? In the majority of cases health conditions, such as depression and anxiety or chronic pain are keeping us awake at night. Many are unable to sleep due to worry, but a great many of us are just not going to bed on time to get the rest we need. Some see sleep as a waste of time, which would be better spent working. Others don’t like going to bed early, because the only me-time they can get is in the evenings, when at last they get home after a long and stressful day at work or when the kids are finally tucked up and asleep. Understandable. But is it wise?
The fact that sleep is something our body just demands is a strong clue that we need it and that it is in fact good for something. If we are prevented from sleeping – and remember: sleep deprivation is a form of torture! – we will die. But even without this drastic outcome, sleep deprivation seriously affects our health.
While we sleep, the body is very busy repairing and maintaining muscles, bones and organs. The brain needs sleep-time for clean-up, not just of “mind clutter”, but also of the chemical waste of brain cell metabolism that accumulated in the course of the day.
In the short term, sleep deprivation affects our memory and creativity, slows reaction time, and leads to micro-sleeps and drowsiness during the day, impatience and moodiness. Tiredness also shows on your face, and you won’t be looking your best. Apart from the fact that most of us really want to look good, research has found that people can easily spot a tired person and we instinctively know not to expect much from them, a fact that can affect your career and business.
Prolonged sleep deprivation, however, has much more serious consequences as it can lead to hormonal and neurological changes and even depression. With 40% of us not getting enough sleep, it is no wonder that symptoms are so common that they are easily mistaken as normal.
Sleep deprivation impairs insulin sensitivity, which promotes weight gain and contributes to diabetes II over time. It also affects weight by messing with the hormones ghrelin and leptin: Ghrelin is the "hunger hormone", which makes you feel peckish and slows down your metabolism, i.e. you'll burn energy more slowly. Leptin is the "satiety hormone", which makes you feel full, tells you when to stop eating and speeds up metabolism. If you are not getting enough sleep, leptin production is suppressed, while ghrelin production goes up. You'll want to eat more and the calories thus consumed will stick.
As if that wasn't bad enough, sleep deprivation is also pro-inflammatory. Continuous low-grade inflammation is known to promote degenerative diseases such as heart disease, diabetes II, Alzheimer's disease and multiple sclerosis.
If you need an alarm, use the snooze button, tend to fall asleep when you’re not in bed – for example on the train, a plane or in a meeting, the theatre or cinema – and feel the need to catch up on sleep on weekends or on holiday, you are not getting enough sleep. When we do, we wake up naturally, without needing an alarm. We should be able to get through the day without copious amounts of caffeine, and remain alert until it is time to go to bed at night. Yet for many of us that is not the case.
If you suffer from insomnia, whether you have trouble falling asleep (sleep-onset insomnia) or staying asleep (sleep-maintenance insomnia), you should go and see your doctor, especially if you suspect that you might suffer from depression and/or anxiety. Insomnia can be a side effect of medication, most commonly thyroid drugs or oral contraceptives. Ask your GP whether there is an alternative drug that you might tolerate better.
If there is no obvious medical reason, you could look at your diet:
Are you eating late and/or having heavy dinners?
If you need to digest during the night, your sleep will almost certainly be disturbed. Eat no later than 3 hours before bedtime if at all possible. Ideally, you should have your main meal at lunchtime and a lighter meal in the evening. If you have a business dinner, ask if it can be arranged a little earlier – perhaps at 18:30. This will get you all home earlier, too (more sleep time – bonus!). Choose light meals for dinner and avoid refined carbohydrates and sugar to balance blood sugar.
Balance Blood Sugar
Keeping blood sugar levels balanced throughout the day is the best way to ensure a steady supply of energy without mid-afternoon slumps and to get a good night’s sleep. If your evening meal is rich in refined carbohydrates, e. g. from white rice, white pasta, or sugar, this can cause a blood sugar spike which is soon followed by a steep drop. If this drop occurs during the night, stress hormones are released to increase blood sugar, and they are likely to wake you up (cortisol is in fact what gets you out of bed in the morning). A blood sugar drop can also happen if you have eaten a very low-carb meal too early in the evening. If that is the case, a small (!) snack of complex carbohydrate paired with protein just before bed can help stabilise blood sugar to get you through the night. Think one oatcake with hummus, cottage cheese or a piece of smoked salmon; a piece of banana with peanut butter, a small tub of plain yoghurt with berries.
Are you having too much caffeine?
Different people detoxify caffeine at different rates. While some can drop off easily after a post-dinner espresso, others are kept awake by caffeine even if they had their last cup at lunchtime. To find out whether you are sensitive to caffeine, cut it out completely for 7 to 10 days and see what happens. Make sure to eliminate all caffeine during that time: tea, coffee (including decaff), green tea, chocolate, caffeine drugs and energy drinks all contain varying amounts of caffeine. If it turns out that you sleep better without it, you may want to stay off it or at least not drink coffee any later than lunchtime.
Are you using alcohol to help you sleep?
Using alcohol to help induce sleep is very common, and it does in fact do that. The problem is, however, that it can disturb sleep further into the night. Alcohol is known to suppress the rapid eye movement (REM) phase of sleep, when we would normally dream and when the brain tidies up our memory, discarding what we don’t need and consolidating what we do. Also, carbohydrates in alcohol can lead to blood sugar spikes followed by drops, which then encourage the release of stress hormones (see above). Moreover, alcoholic drinks – especially beer – act as diuretics and may encourage you to get up and use the toilet during the night.
Eat your greens!
The minerals calcium and magnesium are required for relaxation of both the mind and the muscles. You are more likely to be low in magnesium than in calcium: Magnesium-rich foods are nuts and seeds, green vegetables, wholegrains and seafood. Green vegetables, nuts and seeds, seafood, tofu and molasses are also great sources of calcium. Adequate B vitamins, too, are important for good sleep, but if you are taking a multi-vitamin or B-complex supplement make sure to take them earlier in the day as B vitamins are involved in energy production.
Eat lettuce at night: Apart from magnesium lettuce contains the natural sedative lactucarium, which encourages deeper sleep. Lettuce can also be eaten cooked in soups or stir-fries. Try it, you may be surprised. Foods that are high in the amino acid tryptophan, such as chicken, cheese, tuna, tofu, eggs, nuts, bananas, dates, seeds and milk can help improve sleep. For more on tryptophan, have a look at my blog on Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Other foods associated with inducing sleep are celery, oats and kiwi fruit.
To learn more:
The Sleep Council’s website is a great resource for everything sleepy. From mattresses to jet lag, there’s great advice here.
Tomorrow’s Nutrilicious News will have more tips on how to get a good night’s sleep, a sleepy recipe and some links. There is still time to subscribe!