Brain fog, hormonal imbalances, weight gain and mood swings are all symptoms of a disrupted body clock and lack of deep sleep. It’s not entirely surprising. Sleep is your nervous system's chance to rest, when your brain detoxifies, when memories are stored and when your body recovers from illness.
Yet, getting the recommended 7-8 hours of sleep a night is not always as easy as it sounds.
By discovering what it is that regulates your inner sleep-wake cycle and getting clued up on how to improve your sleeping habits, you can enhance the quality of your sleep and subsequently, support your general health.
How well you sleep and eat in synchrony with night and day determines the healthy or disordered production of hormones that change your behaviour. These include hormones responsible for stress, appetite, sleepiness and insulin control. It’s common to feel energy dips throughout the day, and these dips can vary based on your individual sleeping habits and age.
If you establish good sleeping habits and follow your body’s natural cues of when to go to sleep and wake up, you should maintain a balanced circadian rhythm. Any changes or disruption to this body clock can deprive you of deep sleep and impact your health.
Tips to improve sleeping habits: Good sleep hygiene
Make a sleep-wake routine
One of the best sleeping habits you can establish is to set a regular bedtime and wake time each day to keep your circadian rhythm - your body’s master clock - balanced. As tempting as it can be to sleep in on weekends, this can throw off your circadian rhythm during the week.
Get natural sunlight
Exposing yourself to natural light in the day does more than just boost your energy; it can actually help you sleep better at night. Melatonin production is reduced when you're exposed to light, so getting outside, ideally in the sun, for a 20 minute stroll first thing in the morning is one of the most powerful ways to regulate your circadian rhythm and tell your brain that it’s time to start the day. If you can’t get outside, open your blinds or switch on a bright light. Melatonin release works like an elastic band - the more you suppress it by getting outside in the day, the more it rises in the dark to promote sleep.
Reduce exposure to artificial blue light
Overexposure to bright light, in particular electric and artificial blue lighting (the type that laptops, tablets and mobile phones emit) late at night disrupts the secretion of melatonin levels, tricking your brain into thinking it's still daytime and making you feel less tired. Dim your lights or use candles when the sun goes down, and set your screens to ‘night mode’ or ‘twilight’ a few hours before bed. Ideally, switch off screens an hour before bed and turn on aeroplane mode when you go to bed to avoid being tempted by notifications.
Heat can trigger wakefulness and decrease important, slow-wave and REM sleep stages, so try to keep your bedroom cool to ensure you'll rest easier.
Avoid going to bed too full or too hungry
The timing of when you eat may have a significant effect on sleep patterns. Eating large portions in the evening, close to bedtime, may result in disruption to healthy sleep patterns. So, a good sleeping habit is to aim to finish your evening meal 2-3 hours before going to bed.
Time your workouts strategically
Cortisol is produced in response to high intensity exercise. If you're having trouble sleeping, it may be a helpful sleeping habit to schedule higher intensity exercise in the morning or early afternoon to work with your natural cortisol curve. If you do want to do some gentle movement in the evenings, stick to yoga, pilates or a light stroll. Mindful movement can also incorporate breath work and meditation, which can help promote relaxation right before bed-time.
Foods that help you sleep
One of the most important sleeping habits you can establish is to make sure you’re eating the right kinds of foods to help you sleep. There are many amino acids and nutrients that can help to promote good sleep and regulate the sleep cycle. These include:
Tart cherries and tart cherry juice: Tart cherries have been found to have high concentrations of melatonin, which is a hormone that helps regulate circadian rhythm and promote healthy sleep.
Turkey: Turkey can be a great food to eat before bed as it has high amounts of protein and tryptophan, both of which can help to induce tiredness.
Kiwi fruit: Kiwis are rich in serotonin and antioxidants, both of which may improve sleep quality when eaten before bed.
Chamomile tea: Chamomile tea contains antioxidants that may help to promote sleepiness, and drinking it has been shown to improve overall sleep quality.
Passionflower tea: Passionflower tea contains apigenin and has the ability to increase GABA production, which may influence sleep.
Other foods and drinks, such as dairy products, bananas, and oatmeal, also contain nutrients including tryptophan, magnesium and fibre known to improve sleep quality.
Supplements for sleep
Melatonin: Melatonin is a hormone that your body produces naturally, and it signals to your brain that it’s time to sleep. It improves sleep by helping to strengthen the body’s sleep-wake cycles, and stronger sleep-wake cycles translate into a more consistent sleep routine. Melatonin also shortens the time it takes to fall asleep, increases overall sleep time and improves the quality of your sleep.
Magnesium: Getting enough magnesium is important to help your body maintain healthy levels of GABA, a neurotransmitter that promotes sleep, as well as elevating and stabilising mood. It helps to regulate your body’s internal body clock and melatonin and research indicates supplemental magnesium can improve sleep quality, especially in people who sleep poorly.
L Theanine: L-theanine increases levels of GABA, as well as serotonin and dopamine, neurochemicals that regulate emotions, mood, alertness, and sleep. L-theanine can help people fall asleep more quickly and easily at bedtime. Research also shows L-theanine can improve the quality of sleep.
Valerian root: Valerian helps to boost production of GABA, a calming brain chemical that promotes sleep. Valerian has been shown to help people fall asleep more quickly, reduce restless sleep, increase sleep amounts, and improve symptoms of insomnia.
Relaxation techniques for sleep
Having an evening relaxation practice such as meditation, mindfulness or breathing exercises can help you get into a state of relaxation. This will not only make it easier to fall into a deep sleep, but it can also reduce stress and quieten the thoughts and emotions you've built up throughout the day.
Sleep is so important for optimal health and wellbeing and not getting enough of it can impact you both mentally and physically. Acknowledge the importance of sleep, what might be preventing you from getting enough of it and try to establish good sleeping habits to manage it so you can feel and perform at your best.