Don’t undervalue your sleep!

Understand your chronotype!

We all have one but do you know yours?

Are you a Lark or an Owl and do you allow those natural tendencies to play out?  Perhaps you’re a lark and if undistracted would hit the pillow consistently around 8 pm but because you have pressure from work to complete deadlines and work late that doesn’t happen.  Or if it does not work, does binge-watching episodes on Netflix mean you stay up much later than you would naturally.  As I’ve mentioned your chronotype is innate and pre-programmed, in the sense that you can’t manipulate it, more than +/- 30 mins, without it affecting your sleep and consequently your health.  We are constantly learning about the influence sleep has on our biology but we know that impaired sleep WILL lead to impaired health.  Perhaps you’re a shift worker and it’s all very normal to work during the day and sleep in the day but just because it’s normal doesn’t mean your work-life has synced with your biology.  As a species, we are diurnal and should be sleeping during the night for the best health outcomes.  Clearly, getting another job isn’t always easy to ensure you maximise the duration and quality of your sleep when you do have it.

You might be a night owl but because of morning meetings and an early schedule means that your attempts to go to bed early like a good little worker are thwarted, and you find yourself laying in bed staring at the ceiling, counting sheep (pastured raised of course). This is because you’ve jumped the gun on your physiology.  The natural urge to sleep due to your hormonal shift is yet to kick in and it might be hours to come yet.  You might have even self-diagnosed yourself as an insomniac because you haven’t yet recognised your chronotype and go to bed around the same time as your partner or housemates that operate on a different biological timeline, and therefore find yourself mulling over thoughts, to-do lists, conversations you had with people 17 years ago etc.

You would most likely be better off staying up later, and of course, walking up later but as I mentioned before our society rewards the lark and not the owl…bummer for you owls!

Blue Light Devices

Did you know that your iPhone, laptop, iPad and TV will be impeding your natural ability to sleep?  Not only might it keep you awake longer than you would naturally with it’s gripping dramas and salacious reality shows but these screens emit blue light – just like a tiny sun!  Before the advent of TV’s and iPhones…yes there was a time, and before the invention of the artificial light then the desire to place your head on the pillow was strongly influenced by your hormones.  The urge to sleep was (as still is) determined by the rise of melatonin – our sleep hormone.  As the sun dipped below the horizon, the blue light hitting our receptors in our eyes called melanopsin (for those of you who wanted to know) dramatically diminished which triggered a physiological and hormonal shift towards sleep, rest and restore.

Nowadays with screens a plenty melanopsin is activated for longer, stalling the release of melatonin and the urge to sleep.
When I work with clients, we look at their sleep and drill down on where we can improve the quality and quantity.  I’m always surprised as to how we all are victims to the screens, but sadly this is the world we live in.  The best thing we can do is to install a blue-light filter on our devices – most have this as a native feature and you can set the time it comes on and off.  Alternatively there are also all sorts of blue-light glasses that are intended to block out blue light and help with the natural release of melatonin.

If you’ve ever gone camping for more than a couple of night and assuming you’re not watching your phone you will have experience the natural and primal reality of being compelled to sleep sooner than you would at home.  Deep in the woods, jungle or deserts, there is no blue light once the sun has dipped below the horizon and this is when the up-regulation of melatonin is unhindered.  It’s not long after getting your campfire crackling and the conversations turn to spooky tales that you’ll feel the urge to sleep.  Fire, unlike the sun, emits red light which doesn’t have the same influence on our hormones as blue light.

Staring at a LED screen such as an iPad or laptop prior to bed will stall the release of melatonin – studies have shown that using a screen for 2 hours prior to bed with inhibiting melatonin by 23%.  A study was conducted where participants were divided into two controlled sleeping group.  Half the group could read a book on an iPad and the other half could read a printed book prior to sleep. The results were astonishing, the group that read a book on an iPad had their melatonin suppressed by a whopping 50% at night, as well as having their precious REM sleep compromised.  The study also revealed that the rise of melatonin was delayed by 90 minutes in subsequent evenings despite no further iPad use – like a technological hangover.

One strategy I’ve incorporated into my evening routine is to resort to reading a book at least one hour before shut-eye.  If I need to work on my laptop or want to watch something then I do but I curtail the duration of it to allow one hour reading of a physical book.  Even when I do have the laptop open I run a blue-light filter to aid the production of melatonin.

Worrying about stuff

Worrying, stress, concern …whichever label we put on it or whichever route it takes, these emotions will increase the production of the stress hormone cortisol.  Cortisol is now in a tug of war with your sleep hormone which is trying to set the scene for rest and restore.  Now not worrying about something is easier said than done,  but just know that your biology cannot and does not distinguish between the stress of a work presentation you have to do tomorrow morning and the fear of impending threat from predation – stress is stress and interpreted in the same physiological way.  Thankfully the threat of predation is fairly rare or at least infrequent but your evolution is such that you are primed and ready to fight or flight when the stimulus is present.  Sadly, these days our body is primed in the same way even from non-predation threats – meetings, presentations, interviews, traffic, finance…the list goes on.  Worrying about something as you lay in bed will set your hormones in opposition to sleeping as it thinks you’re being attacked and will need you to be alert, have focus, heart pumping, muscles primed etc.  One strategy around this is to evaluate and access what use is it to be worrying about this particular thing at 9 pm at night …..99 times out of 100 there will be no use in worrying about it.  Allow yourself to sleep.  You could also override your thoughts by deliberately deflecting your thoughts when the negative thought comes into your consciousness, thus not giving it energy or gravity – it’s a skill you can try.

You’re too Hot

Now before you start putting tickets on yourself, I’m talking about temperature not how cute you are.  Basically, if your sleeping environment is unfavourable then it’ll harder to sleep.  The optimal sleeping temperature is between 17-19C so if you have too many layers on or to thick-a-doona’s, or too many blankets on your sleep will suffer.  Also if your internal furnace is cranking because you have eaten late in the day this can impact your sleep too.  As melatonin increases one of the physiological reactions is for your body temperature to drop – this is compromised if you have eaten before bed.  So give yourself time between eating and going to bed – 2 hours is sufficient.

You’ve had a nightcap.

Alcohol has long been associated with aiding sleep, and having a nightcap to send you off to dreamland is nothing new, however, alcohol is a sedative which is a big distinction from being a sleeping aid.  Sedation actually interferes with our sleep cycles, it thwarts REM and causes us to wake often during the night. The sluggish feeling the next morning is partly due to the drinks and partly due to the interrupted sleep caused by the drinks.  If you want to have a drink just know the implications for your sleep.

Bottom line

Invest in a consistent sleep routine that promotes 7-8 hours of good quality sleep.

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