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 sleep better, you can enhance the quality of your sleep and subsequently, support your general health.
We all have an internal body clock that controls our sleep-wake cycle. This cycle is managed and regulated through the communication of neurotransmitters and secretion of hormones that either halt or induce sleep. The hormones cortisol, adenosine and melatonin, and the timing of their release, play important roles in regulating this cycle.
Cortisol production should follow a natural 24-hour rhythm. It should be at its lowest overnight, rise slowly in the morning and peak a few hours after you wake up, which helps you get going for the day. As the day progresses and you head into the evening, cortisol begins to drop to allow your sleep hormones, adenosine and melatonin, to rise, triggering mechanisms that help bring about sleep.
If you 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 sleep better: Good sleep hygiene
Make a sleep-wake routine
Setting a regular bedtime and wake time each day is one of the best ways 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, aim to finish your evening meal 2-3 hours before going to bed. For those people who do better with a snack before bed, foods rich in the amino acid tryptophan can help to boost melatonin production. Chicken, turkey, eggs, cheese, yogurt, nuts and seeds are all good choices. Combining these foods with rice, pasta or potatoes for your evening meal can help your body get the most benefits from tryptophan and aid sleep.
Time your workouts strategically
Cortisol is produced in response to high intensity exercise. If you're having trouble sleeping, it may be a good idea 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
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 (2).
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 (4).
Kiwi fruit: Kiwis are rich in serotonin and antioxidants, both of which may improve sleep quality when eaten before bed (5).
Chamomile tea: Chamomile tea contains antioxidants that may help to promote sleepiness, and drinking it has been shown to improve overall sleep quality (6).
Passionflower tea: Passionflower tea contains apigenin and has the ability to increase GABA production, which may influence sleep (7).
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 (10).
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 (11, 12, 13, 14).
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 (15).
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 (16) (17).
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. You can also try calming essential oils such as lavender, chamomile or ylang ylang in a diffuser or on your pillow.
Diaphragmatic breathing (also called belly breathing) can help to reduce stress and increase relaxation. Here’s how to try diaphragmatic breathing:
While lying down, place one hand on your upper chest and the other hand at the top of your belly, right below your rib cage.
Breathe in through the nose so your belly pushes against your hand. Your other hand and your chest should remain as still as possible.
While continuing to keep your chest still, tighten your stomach muscles and exhale through pursed lips (the way you might hold your lips when you whistle).
Repeat this process.
Because many of us aren’t used to engaging our diaphragm when we breathe, this exercise may take some practice. Try starting with just a few minutes of diaphragmatic breathing when you get into bed, then gradually increase the time to maximise benefits.
Body scans are a type of meditation that involves a slow, focused attention to different parts of the body. Once you’re lying comfortably in bed, try these steps for a relaxing body scan:
Start by taking a few deep breaths, perhaps trying diaphragmatic, to get your body into a relaxed state.
Bring your attention to your feet, noticing any sensations in your toes and if you’re holding any tension in this part of the body.
If you notice discomfort here, acknowledge it and try to let go of any thoughts of stories you have. Visualise the tension leaving the body through the breath.
When you’re ready, move your focus to your calf muscles, repeating the process of noticing sensations, letting go of thoughts or stories, and visualising the tension leaving through your breath.
Methodically move your attention to each part of your body, one-by one, moving from your feet to your forehead until you’ve scanned your entire body.
Writing down your thoughts requires a deeper level of mental processing, more than simply thinking. Journaling helps us slow down, calm down, and put any challenges we're facing in perspective. Journaling before bed has been found to decrease distractions, overthinking, and worry, allowing you to fall asleep faster (18).
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 take steps to manage it so you can feel and perform at your best.