One of the best books I have read on sleep is called Why We Sleep written by a neuroscientist
He strongly cautions against the bravado of “I’ll sleep when I’m dead’, as his research has shown the
shorter your sleep, the shorter your life span. He points out that human beings are the only species
that will deliberately deprive themselves of sleep without legitimate gain.
Sleep is the single most effective thing we can do to reset our brain and body health each day. There
isn’t a single organ or brain process that isn't optimally enhanced by it.
Sleep guarantees a multitude of health-ensuring benefits, and we simply need to pick up a repeat
prescription every 24 hours. But some of us struggle to do so – for many reasons.
Sleep is vital for not just our mindset and mood but for our longevity and overall health.
Sleep enables time to repair. Whilst sleeping our bodies release toxic waste, hormones and
proteins. Tissues and cells are repaired, and cellular damage is mopped up. Nerve cells
communicate and reorganise which can support brain function and cognition.
The rhythm of sleep and wakefulness is part of our circadian cycle, our daily biorhythm. It is a
natural, internal process however it can also be modulated by external cues such as daylight and
Melatonin is a natural hormone made in the brain by the pineal gland. During the day it is inactive,
but darkness triggers its production, usually around 9pm, resulting in feeling less alert and sleep
becoming more inviting. Melatonin stays elevated throughout the night before falling back to lowest
levels at dawn when cortisol starts to rise.
During a night we progress through four to five sleep cycles, each cycle is made up of four
individual sleep stages and lasts around 70-120 minutes in total. The first three stages of
sleep are composed of non-REM activity. Stage 1 is the shortest stage and is the stage to
which we are dozing and falling into sleep. Stage 2 is when the body and mind slow down as
we settle into sleep, it is easiest to be awoken during these first two stages of sleep.
Stage 3 is known as deep sleep when our body starts to repair and remove any waste whilst
supporting in the maintenance and restoration of our bodily systems. The fourth stage is
REM sleep during which our brain activity increases back to levels similar as to when we are
awake. This is when we often experience intense dreams. During this stage our heart rate
and breathing increase and most of our muscles are paralyzed which help us not to act out
our vivid dreams.
Our sleeping body clock, otherwise known as circadian rhythm, play an important role in
regulating our hormone production including:
- Melatonin levels which help promote sleep
- Growth Hormone supports metabolism, muscle and bone development.
- Cortisol is a crucial part of the body’s natural stress response system.
- Leptin and ghrelin which helps to control appetite and satiety
Some foods contain tryptophan, an essential amino acid which provides the building blocks for
serotonin (our feel-good hormone) and for melatonin – and these are what we should consider
when struggling to fall asleep.
Tryptophan rich foods include salmon, lean poultry (chicken and turkey), eggs, dairy (milk, yogurt,
cheese), seafood (shrimp, salmon, halibut, tuna, sardines, cod) dark green leafy vegetables (spinach,
broccoli, asparagus, seaweed), seeds and nuts, some fruits (bananas, peaches, avocado).
Other important nutrients for sleep include GABA, calcium, potassium, magnesium and vitamin B6.
Chamomile tea is a well-known pre-bed beverage that can improve the quality of sleep. It contains
apigenin, an antioxidant that binds to certain receptors in your brain that can help promote
sleepiness and reduce insomnia. Other sleepy teas include valerian, passionflower and peppermint.
Tart cherry juice also promotes sleepiness. Research has shown it not only contains melatonin but
also the natural polyphenols in the cherries help to improve tryptophan bioavailability.
Avoid foods rich in sugar, caffeine and green tea which can all contribute to insomnia. Sleep duration
has been shown to be inversely associated with higher intake of sugar (
forget alcohol falls into that category too). Smoking is also associated with increased insomnia.
Here is a quick summary that Walker proposes as his Top Tips for Sleep:
1. Stick to a Sleep Schedule – go to bed and wake up at the same time each day. Sleeping later at
weekends won’t fully make up for a lack of sleep during the week and makes getting up on
Monday morning harder. Set an alarm for bedtime.
2. Exercise is important, but not too late in the day; ideally not later than 2-3 hours before sleep.
3. Avoid caffeine and nicotine; they are both stimulants that can contribute to insomnia. Coffee,
colas, certain teas and chocolate contain caffeine and its effects can take as long as eight hours
to wear off fully.
4. Avoid alcohol before bed. A nightcap may help to relax you but robs you of deep REM sleep. You
often tend to wake up in the middle of the night when the effects of the alcohol have worn off.
5. Avoid large meals and beverages late at night. They can contribute to indigestion which
interferes with sleep. Drinking too many fluids at night can cause frequent awakenings to urinate
interrupting deep sleep rhythms.
6. Don't nap after 3pm. Afternoon naps can make it much harder to fall asleep at night.
7. Dark bedroom, cool bedroom, gadget-free bedroom. Get rid of the distractions.
8. Take a hot bath before bed. It can help slow you down and the drop in temperature when you
get out may help you feel sleepy.
9. Relax before bed. Work on a regular, daily routine before sleep that helps you to unwind and
prepare for sleep.
10. Don’t lie in bed awake. If you cant fall asleep within 20 minutes get up and do something
relaxing until you feel sleepy. The anxiety of not being able to sleep can make it harder to fall
Here’s to reclaiming your full night of sleep without guilt or any stigma of laziness. It is a powerful
elixir of wellness and vitality dispensed through every conceivable biological pathway.
Wishing you deep, rejuvenating sleep daily!