Sleep is an often overlooked cornerstone to a healthy lifestyle. People tend to focus on diet and exercise. Often more/better sleep flies under the radar or is not prioritized on the pathway to health. With our overstimulated lives and packed schedules, sleep is often the first thing sacrificed to accommodate life’s demands. Have you ever noticed how poorly you feel when you don’t get a good night’s sleep?
It might sound weird, but sleep is the most important thing you can do for your health. You can have the perfect diet and if you don’t sleep it won’t matter. Sleep is when the body repairs itself and the brain cleans itself of waste products. Many of us struggle to fall asleep or stay asleep. This can be due to myriad reasons, some of which can be addressed with simple changes. There are many ways to attack the problem of disrupted sleep; from behavior changes, to specific supplements, to managing light exposure in your room. If you have ever struggled to fall asleep or stay asleep, this post is for you. In it you will find some tricks I have tried to overcome my sleep issues.
Sleep: What Keeps You Up at Night?
Before we take a look at potential solutions to sleep problems we have to address some of the potential causes. Acute or chronic brain chemistry disruptions can perturb sleep. This ties into circadian rhythms and hormone regulation throughout the day. Ideally excitatory neurotransmitters peak in the morning along with a rise in cortisol. If you can’t sleep, it might be that you have this inverted because of too much stress. You may also lack the ability to adequately produce inhibitory neurotransmitters or have down regulated receptors.
Another reason you might struggle to sleep is if you shy away from sunlight all day. Sunlight triggers cascade of responses, that by the end of the day, lead to an accumulation of melatonin. As the day wears on and the sun goes down, melatonin builds up and you fall asleep. This is tied in with the light cycles, of course. Later in the day, light blocks melatonin conversion from serotonin. Your electronic devices emit the same light wave frequency as the sun. Blue light. Therefore you should avoid artificial light at the end of the day before bed. Along the same lines, if you are sensitive to stimulus, you should avoid stimulating media immediately preceding bedtime. That means no working from the laptop right before bed. You should probably avoid action flicks too!
Block all sources of light in your room and place cell phones and tablets on airplane mode. If you want to get really “tin foil headed” turn off your wi-fi router. There are some theoretical arguments that the pulsed wave frequencies emitted from your router can disrupt brain waves, not allowing your brain to descend through the sleep cycles (which correspond to brain waves lower than the frequency of your wi-fi). At this point, accepting that concept is essentially belief and is not supported by actual studies as far as I know. What is certain is you will avoid the stress response associated with things on the other side of the internet. This can elicit a calming effect.
When it comes to brain chemistry, several things can adversely affect sleep. Obviously caffeine is not a good call late at night. While caffeine isn’t exactly a stimulant, it does bind with adenosine receptors in the brain, preventing tiring. Getting tired is kind of like a sprint race. The winners aren’t accelerating faster than the other racers, rather they are slowing down less. When you consume caffeine it’s not that you get a boost, it’s more that you aren’t continuing to get more tired. Adenosinetrophospate (ATP) is the energy currency in the body. As ATP is used up, a byproduct is Adenosine. This builds up during the day. Scientist call this a neuromodulator. It’s like a way the body keeps time. Adenosine binds to all of its receptors and a person gets tired. On the molecular level, caffeine is similar to an adenosine and can cover up the receptor sites and trick the body’s clock.
If you are on a normal sleep rhythm, the Adenosine accumulation and binding process is good. When you are sleep deprived it is problematic because you have a mostly full reservoir, thus you fatigue earlier in the day. That is where caffeine comes in handy. Caffeine blocks these receptors from six to 24 hours depending on the rate at which you metabolize it. Consider that caffeine consumed as late as 2 p.m. or 3 p.m. might effect whether you are tired when it’s time to go to sleep. Of course this creates a vicious cycle. The trick is get more and better sleep and you will be less tired, then you won’t need caffeine. At this point your natural rhythms can take over.
I would be remiss to write a blog about sleep and not discuss GABA. GABA or Gammaaminobutyric acid is an inhibitory neurotransmitter. GABA helps calm the mind. Problems with GABA production or inability to convert Glutamate to GABA could lead to sleep disturbances. Glutamate is the primary excitatory neurotransmitter, thus poor conversion is problematic for sleep.
Another chemical that flies under the radar when it comes to sleep disruption is alcohol. Alcohol might make you feel tired, but it actually hinders deep sleep. Here is an excerpt from a great Sleep article explaining one hypothesis as to why alcohol may adversely effect the entire night’s sleep:
Some investigators have separately analyzed alcohol’s effects during the first and second half of the nighttime sleep period. These studies found that particularly at higher alcohol doses, increased wake periods or light stage 1 sleep periods occurred during the second half of the sleep period (Williams et al. 1983; Reoccurs et al. 1991). This second-half disruption of sleep continuity is generally interpreted as a “rebound effect” once alcohol has been completely metabolized and eliminated from the body. The term “rebound effect” means that certain physiological variables (e.g., sleep variables, such as the amount of REM sleep) change in the opposite direction to the changes induced by alcohol and even exceed normal levels once alcohol is eliminated from the body. This effect results from the body’s adjustment to the presence of alcohol during the first half of the sleep period in an effort to maintain a normal sleep pattern. Once alcohol is eliminated from the body, however, these adjustments result in sleep disruption. ask the genie This hypothesis is supported by the known rate of alcohol metabolism, which leads to a decrease in BrAC [blood alcohol content] of 0.01 to 0.02 per-cent per hour. Given that in such experiments, the typical peak BrACs measured shortly before sleep are 0.06 to 0.08 percent, alcohol metabolism at this rate would be completed within 4 to 5 hours of sleep onset; thus, the sleep disruption during the second half of the night would coincide with the clearance of alcohol from the body.
What this means is that alcohol has a sedative effect because of its activation of GABA and inhibition of Glutamate. This helps to calm the drinker down, but every action has an opposite equal reaction. In this case it’s a compensation that prevents you from getting deep sleep in the second half of the night. This can be problematic for several reasons. Essentially glutamate levels peak too soon and cause arousal.
Sleep: Why Sleeping is Never a Waste of Time
The brain builds up toxins during waking hours. These toxins accumulate in the space between brain cells. During sleep glia cells, which control flow throughout the lymphatic system via expansion and contraction, expand. CSF (cerebrospinal fluid) can then flow freely through this widened cavity to flush out those toxins. The less you sleep, the greater potential for toxic build up. The cleaners will have less time to do their job. This does not happen during waking hours because Noradrenaline controls cell volume and is elevated during waking hours.
A study funded by National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) demonstrated this phenomenon in rats. At night the space between brain cells expands 60 percent giving ample room to flush out toxins. In a previous study, rats were induced with “labeled beta-amyloid, a protein associated with Alzheimer’s disease.” It remained in their brain longer when they were awake compared to when they were asleep. This supports the findings from the NINDS study mentioned above. This could be one reason why you feel so bad when you get a poor night’s sleep.
The brain cleans itself while you sleep. Makes sense. It’s similar to street sweepers coming out at night when there is less activity.
Sleep, in large part, mediates hormone regulation. Growth hormone peaks during sleep, which helps with recovery. Leptin and Ghrelin are sleep mediated. With low levels of sleep, Ghrelin increases. Ghrelin is a major hormone in appetite. Leptin levels drop with sleep deprivation. Leptin tells your brain you are full. Most people experience greater cravings for carbohydrates when they sleep less. More hungry plus less full equals more eating and fatter person.
Now What? How to Get Better Sleep.
We have established why sleep is important. We have discussed some behavioral changes you can do to potentially improve sleep. Like decreasing blue light exposure and keeping the room very dark. I took time to write a little bit about the brain chemistry associated with sleep because there are supplements to improve sleep. Please remember I am not a doctor. Any supplement you take can have some risk associated with it. I suggest digging in and doing more research, and/or consulting with a good doctor, before adding any supplement. Here are some things I have tried in the past with great success. (Also note, as an Amazon affiliate, I receive a tiny portion of the proceeds from your purchase.)
The best way to think of this is that there are two pathways to improved sleep. One is acute. Like taking a sleeping pill for example. Or a concoction of glutamine, raw honey and warm milk before bed. Or GABA combined with passionflower. This will affect you acutely to make you drowsy. The other pathway is chronic adaptation to longer-term ingestion of various items to improve sleep. An example of this would be taking probiotics and prebiotics to increase the amount of serotonin producing bacteria in your gut. This will lead to a better ability to create melitonin later in the day, which helps you to be better in tune with natural circadian rhythms. It will also make you happier.
Glutamine: Dose 1-2 Teaspoon (5-10 grams) 30 minutes before sleep. Glutamine is a precursor to GABA. Remember GABA is the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter. For some, taking GABA directly can be a little harsh and you run the risk of down regulating endogenous GABA production, ie making it yourself. By taking the precursor, you can support the body’s natural production of calming neurotransmitters.
Raw honey: Dose 1 Teaspoon (5 grams) 30 minutes before sleep. Try in warm organic whole milk. The honey will help to normalize blood sugar while you sleep. Low blood sugar can be one reason why people wake up in the middle of the night. By combining with warm milk you get the L-Trytophan from the milk and a healthy insulin response, which typically causes drowsiness. This is bad during the day, but good at night.
Pre-biotic Fibers: Pre-biotic fibers help to support healthy digestion and feed the probiotics that you are taking. Many people think just taking a probiotic is enough. For more on this check out my post where I reveal the striking results of my gut micro biome biohack.
Probiotics: Gut health is critical to many functions in the body. Sleep is no exception. Taking a good probiotic can help resolve sleep issues. Here is one of my favorites:
L-trytophan: Turkey makes you drowsy. L-Tryptophan is why.
GABA: 1 cap day 1 (250 mg), 2 caps day 2. No more than 3 caps any given day.
Ok. I know that was a ton of links. Here are some suggested protocols and implementations of those supplements.
Combine warm milk, glutamine and raw honey 30 minutes before you plan to sleep, drink, and you will sleep well. For an added bonus of reducing inflammation, mix in at least a Teaspoon of the spice Turmeric.
The first night try the milk, glutamine and honey. If that is not effective, try GABA on top of the first drink. If that doesn’t work, take the L-Trytophan with dinner, then do the milk, then take the GABA.
The Fiber and probiotics are more effective from the chronic standpoint compared to the others that work acutely. Some see immediate change with the introduction of probiotics and fiber, but generally you are rebuilding a system that supports sleep rather that directly affective neurotransmitter production short term like GABA, Glutamine and L-Tryptophan do.
So there you have it. Sleep in a dark room, shut off the wi-fi, drink weird drinks and sleep like a rock!