Food, water, sunlight, companionship, exercise, and sleep are the fundamentals of good health and should be the foundation of any treatment plan. They’re integral to happy and healthy human beings. This is where I start with my patients.
And, yet, Americans aren’t sleeping. At least 35% report that they are sleeping less than the recommended 7-9 hours. Adults that sleep less than 7 hours per night are more likely to develop heart disease, type II diabetes, and obesity. Furthermore, when they are sleeping many struggle with insomnia, sleep apnea, frequent waking, or poor sleep quality. Insufficient sleep or poor quality sleep can make you irritable, crave carbohydrates or binge eat, gain weight, decrease work productivity, and limit cognitive performance.
In a fast-paced society that seems to put constant motion on a pedestal, it’s important to realize and respect the natural rhythms of the body. In doing so, we prioritize ourselves, our happiness, and ultimately ensure we are living to live and not to work.
When we are sleeping we actually are in motion- biochemical motion. Our body is flooding itself with sleep hormones and decreasing levels of cortisol (stress hormone that keeps us awake and alert). It sends out chemical messengers called cytokines that act as immune regulators and decrease inflammation. We are filing away new memories and learnings from the day; sleep is integral to how we remember and think. It’s also been well studied in improving muscle recovery, cardiovascular outcomes, and improving mental health.
Here I outline 4 natural ways to start optimizing your sleep.
1. Block out the blue light.
We sleep better in darker rooms. Reason being is our body’s strong sensitivity to light. Before electricity and well-lit homes, our day was structured according to the sun. When the sun was out at its brightest we were wide awake, when the sun was down and we were asleep.
The sun is one of the most prominent sources of blue-light in our environment. Blue light acts on the photoreceptors in our eyes to trigger a sense of alertness and boost in attention. Our bodies work best having slowly increasing exposure to bright light (eg sun rising) and then decreased exposure when close to bed.
Unfortunately, exposure to phone screens, televisions, and tables provides these same receptors with an artificial blue light. The eye responds to these screens as if they were blue light from the sun and it disrupts natural sleep rhythms. Imagine laying in bed thinking the day was over only for you eyes to think the sun has risen again, while you scroll through The Epoch times on your phone.
You can start with downtime from all screens at least an hour before bed, as well as, ensuring your room is as dark as possible. Most department stores now offer a wide array of black out curtains. Additionally, while this is not condoning blue light scrolling, there are now various “blue light blocker” apps that you can put on your computer and phone which help diminish the intensity and may lessen the impact on your photoreceptors.
2. Ensure adequate nutrient intake.
In order for the body to produce adequate amounts of melatonin, a sleep inducing hormone, it requires specific nutrients. Folate, zinc, magnesium, B6, and iron are all needed as cofactors for production of melatonin. Cofactors are essentially “helper molecules” that help our body create different things.
Liver is one of the most nutrient dense foods that contains all of these nutrients. However, for those unwilling to fry up chicken livers there are other options. Beef, pork, poultry, salmon, and tuna are all rich in B6. Beef, nuts, and seeds have large amounts of magnesium, iron, and folate. And most seafood like scallops and oysters are rich in zinc.
It’s not enough to consume a couple servings and expect miraculous results. Many people consume enough calories in a day, but most of these calories lack nutrient density. Ensuring regular dietary nutrient density to correct underlying deficiencies will help you over time. I’m a strong proponent of food to heal first prior to supplementation, however, many times they are an effective tool. Many over the counter sleep aids contain these nutrients in varying amounts.
3. Stick to a routine.
The body does best with routine. While the human body is drawn to the thrill of new things, it can also be taxing on the body not to have balance around natural biological rhythms like sleep.
The nervous system learns the patterns of routine and knows what to expect and how to respond to the day. The nervous system in turn “talks” to other aspects of your body to increase or decrease alertness and arousal.
Making sure you go to bed and wake up at the same time each day, even on weekends, can help improve your overall sleep quality. It can often take up to 2 weeks to adapt to a set sleep schedule, so give it at least a couple weeks!
4. Consider common over-the-counter sleep aids.
Melatonin is one of the most common sleep aids. If chronically sleep deprived, lacking essential nutrients, or a gamut of other reasons causing low melatonin levels direct supplementation can be helpful. There are rapid release and slow release forms, the latter is often more beneficial to individuals that wake frequently at night as it allows for a more continuous release of melatonin over the course of the night. Typically 1-3 mg is best as larger amounts may impair the body’s natural production.
Magnesium is also well tolerated and many stores offer magnesium supplements targeted toward sleep, these are often flavored and become fizzy when mixed with water. There are varying forms of magnesium, but magnesium citrate is the most readily available and often well tolerated. Healthy adults can tolerate 500-800 mg daily.
Various herbs offer sleep support by helping gently sedate the body, as well as, decrease feelings of anxiety, restlessness, and promote drowsiness. Most “sleepytime” teas contain ingredients like passionflower, lemon balm, chamomile, and kava kava which all help sedate the nervous system and promote relaxation. For teas to be taken therapeutically they need to be steeped at least 5-10 minutes and the liquid squeezed out of the tea bag. This helps ensure that the active ingredients in the plant are best extracted. It’s also important to make sure your tea is fresh so that the herbs used still contain active ingredients. Many of these herbs are also available in capsules or liquid forms, as well as, in combination sleep aid products often containing melatonin, magnesium, and B6.
Your body is constantly listening and responding to the environment and stimuli like food, temperature, and routines. These changes work best over time as they are not quick fixes. Their aim is to retrain the body and nudge it back to its more optimal natural state. Prioritizing your sleep helps prioritize your health and happiness.
Senthilan PR, Grebler R, Reinhard N, Rieger D, Helfrich-Förster C. Role of Rhodopsins as Circadian Photoreceptors in the Drosophila melanogaster. Biology (Basel). 2019;8(1):6. Published 2019 Jan 10. doi:10.3390/biology8010006