I am writing from my annual Functional Medicine meeting with 850 Functional Medicine Medical Providers. One of the themes of the program this year is on sleep, and that many of us desperately need more of it.
A good night’s sleep has become harder to achieve. Not only does the SAD Standard American Diet disrupt sleep, but our exposure to screen time from computers, televisions, and phones also blocks our ability to sleep soundly.
You likely know that if you get only 5-6 hours of sleep, you are not as sharp and effective the following day. Many of my patients tell me they get by with this sleep deprivation during the week, and make up for it by sleeping in on the weekend. Unfortunately, studies show that after several days of inadequate sleep, sleeping in for 1-2 days is not enough to restore brain function back to normal. People just get used to functioning at only 60-80% of their optimal potential.
The US Public Health Service is now declaring that sleep deprivation is a threat to everyone’s health. People who fail to enjoy at least 7-8 hours of sleep nightly are more likely to gain weight, develop diabetes and heart disease, and are at greater risk for sudden death. Plus, chronic sleep deprivation doesn’t just decrease cognitive function, but it also increases the risk for depression and irreversible memory loss.
50-70 million Americans don’t get enough sleep and this same problem is far too common worldwide. Sleep is dependent upon circadian rhythms, which are impacted by different spectrums of light, activity, and by food and drink. The classic circadian rhythm pattern is characterized by a spike in melatonin as we go to sleep and a similar spike in cortisol levels when we wake in the morning. The cortisol spike revs us up and gets us moving just as the melatonin jump calms us down for restorative sleep.
Adding exercise in the morning complements the cortisol spike, revving up your metabolism during the early part of the day. Having had a work out early helps you calm down later in the day and relax. For some people, working out in the evening prevents them from achieving a good night sleep.
Blue-green light is the spectrum of natural sunlight that is most powerful in the early day, stimulating the brain to wake up. Orange-red light increases over the day and is the predominant light spectrum as the sun sets, stimulating melatonin production, helping you to fall into a state of deep sleep.
Just as different spectrums of light impact waking and sleeping, macronutrients in food have an impact too, as food modifies our metabolism and our hormones.
Eating protein in the morning helps to rev metabolism and burn calories. Your body handles carbs better in the afternoon and early evening. Have your veggies and fruits with lunch and dinner. Don’t eat within 2 hours of going to bed. Tryptophan-rich foods increase brain serotonin levels and help you sleep. Therefore, if you have trouble sleeping, consider consuming tryptophan-rich foods such as: turkey, bananas, peanut butter, or non-fat milk, 2-4 hours before bedtime.
Caffeine blocks your ability to sleep and everyone metabolizes and tolerates caffeine differently. 2-3 servings of coffee daily is likely good for your brain health and may help decrease your risk for memory loss; however, if you are overstimulated with caffeine, avoid it. If you tolerate coffee, you’ll probably find that drinking more than 3 cups of coffee daily will make you too wired at night to sleep. So, keep your intake moderate, and don’t drink caffeine after mid-day.
Alcohol in moderation (1-2 servings) is fine with dinner, but don’t drink alcohol within 1-2 hours of bedtime. A night cap might help you fall asleep, but likely you will wake up startled 2 hours later and will have trouble going back to sleep.
There are several additional things you can do to improve your quality of sleep.
A tip to help you sleep is a hot bath 1 hour before bed time. Warming the body helps you relax and decrease muscle tension. Add ½ to 1 cup Epson salts (magnesium, which will be absorbed through the skin and helps you relax even further) and 10 drops of lavender oil, which helps lower cortisol to calm you before bed time. Wear socks and pajamas after the bath to maintain body warmth. You have the option to keep or discard socks and pajamas when you go to bed in a cool room. The cooling from taking off your socks (drop in body temperature) might help you fall asleep.
A cup of warm herbal tea also helps you sleep. My favorite is a cup of valerian and chamomile infusion.
Going to bed and waking up at the same time improves your ability to sleep by helping you set your biological clock. You’ll sleep better in a cool room with a temperature somewhere between 66-72 degrees.
Getting the correct spectrum of lighting at the right time of day is critical for sleep. Get an exposure to natural sunlight in the morning by being outside, through a window, or exposure to wide spectrum light with the blue-green spectrum. People working in an office without natural daylight (blue light) tend to need 45-60 minutes of extra sleep at night to feel rested. In the evening, avoid bright white-blue light, (in particular avoid watching TV or using a white background screen on your computer within 2 hours of going to bed) and increase your exposure to orange and red light. If changing your lighting is not practical, then try wearing amber or orange-red sunglasses for 1-2 hours prior to going to bed. Absolutely sleep in a dark room. Your bedroom should be dark without white or blue light. Any night lights should be red light.
Coming soon will be my blog on supplements you can use for sleep.
I wish you the best of health!
Steven Masley, MD, FAHA, FACN, FAAFP, CNS