Sleep: The First Issue to Address to Improve Health?
There are various areas in a lifestyle that positively and negatively impact our health, but none more impactful than Sleep Hygiene. Sleep is responsible for resting the mind and body, of course, but so much more. Our brain is the central headquarters for decision-making, memory storage, recall, involuntary process management (digestion, heartbeat, metabolism, breathing, network communications, etc.) and emotions. With such a huge load and expensive set of tasks to perform, restoration is imperative for optimal efficiency. When proper sleep is a consistent part of a person’s regiment, these processes and the vast amount of working parts that are reliant upon their contributions are like a well-oiled machine. Let’s take a look at when sleep lacks consistency.
Circadian Rhythms and Health
Our incredible brain contains an internal clock that manages our sense of timing for a 24-hour cycle. This cycle is referred to as the circadian rhythm. This mechanism helps to regulate our sleep and awake processes. A very special region of the hypothalamus called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) is the master clock that connects with various brain regions. One important connection is the pineal gland that secretes the powerful sleep inducing hormone melatonin. The presence of melatonin is essential for deep sleep and restorative processes to take place. One important restoration of sleep is clearing adenosine and other waste products that accumulate during the waking hours (Interesting fact: Coffee works by blocking the effect of drowsiness that comes from the buildup of adenosine).
Sleep Is Necessary for the Brain and Body
This master clock is not the only clock in our bodies. There are trillions of clocks within our cells that communicate with each other to regulate processes like digestion, metabolism and fat regulation. In a healthy individual, these clocks work in synergy with the master clock. When these clocks are out of sync, health takes a hit. For instance, animal studies show that when rodents are fed outside their normal feeding schedule, that is, against their internal clocks, they gain more weight than rodents fed the exact same diet but on a schedule. It appears, that when the hypothalamus is in rest mode from the absence of blue ultraviolet light and nighttime eating occurs, there are cascading effects that impact the digestive process, the regulatory process of metabolism and adiposity (fat) retention causing inflammation.
Human studies, like ones performed by sleep researcher David Dinges of the University of Pennsylvania found that sleep disruption impairs cognitive ability. In one study, sleep was restricted to 4 hours for the target group while an another group was allowed 6+ hours of uninterrupted rest. Both groups were given problem solving and memory retention tasks to perform. The results were clearly demonstrated that the group with less sleep performed poorly compared to the rested group. This study was a short term test that begs the question of how would these subjects be affected in a long term study? There were many studies with substantial sample sizes performed by Marie-Pierre St-Onge that not only observed an increase of food intake of sleep deprived subjects, but measured food cues by using an fMRI to view activity of food rewards in various brain regions.
Sleep deprivation stimulates the risk/reward regions of the brain that compromise executive option generators to stave off impulsive stimuli. This reaction is what I refer to as the Gambler’s Nightmare because it heightens the consideration of ignoring conventional wisdom and going with risky behaviors more readily. How does this work? A night of shortened sleep with a visual cue (advertisement) of that oh-so-delectable sugary donuts first thing in the morning, can arouse an attack on conventional wisdom. Conventional wisdom suggests that the importance to lose some pounds to bring down high blood pressure, to lower glucose blood levels and omit demon foods, is all that we need to focus on. However, the powerful influence of food cues on the basal ganglia (the gatekeeper to actions to be taken) can bypass the prefrontal cortex (planning, weighs pros/cons). Donuts happen to be full of refined sugar that are deep fried in (possibly reused) hydrogenated vegetable oil that will wreak havoc on health…
But one donut won’t hurt…
Can one lousy night’s sleep be that much of an impact on health?
To properly assess the impact of this one night scenario we must look at it in context, beginning with the last meal from the previous evening. Ask yourself these questions:
- Was this meal roughly two hours before bedtime? Our bodies are regulated to produce melatonin once the blue UV rays of the sun have declined in which we refer to “night”.
- Were your eyes exposed to artificial light from lamps, television, computes, mobile devices or other emissions of blue light within minutes of bedtime?
- Once all devices and lights were turned off, are the curtains in your bedroom the “light blackout” version?
- Are there any electric clocks that emanate blue lights or night lights that brighten your room throughout the night?
Any or all of these mentioned, will slow the production of melatonin telling your brain that you’re not ready for deep sleep where the restorative processing begins. By the time you reach deep sleep, it’s time to get up and start the day. The delay in reaching deep sleep means your brain will not ready to face the day. This begins the cascading effects of impulsiveness, decision making and physiologically impacts poor decisions we otherwise wouldn’t make. If we’re willing to be honest, most of us will not and have not just experienced this chain of events for one night. Our busy lives and ability to rationalize, allow this scenario to be recycled many times over before we realize what is happening. Sleep hygiene, thus, isn’t solely about length of sleep or quality, but the balance between both entities in synergy.
Optimizing sleep hygiene is often perceived as difficult because we are not conscious during this process. It is easier than we think. Here is how we begin to give our health a proverbial shot in the arm.
- Stop eating at least 2 to 3 hours before bedtime.
- Do not consume any beverages containing caffeine at least 4 to 5 hours early before bedtime.
- Begin to reduce blue UV Ray light from artificial light sources (bright light bulbs, television, computers, mobile devices, etc.) an hour to 2 hours before bedtime.
- Reduce stimuli an hour before bedtime. Do not read materials that are challenging or require cognitive problem solving. Do not listen to music that arouses stress hormones. Take soothing bath/shower. Demonstrate a deep appreciation/gratitude for the day, kiss/hug/express forgiveness to loved one(s).
- Perform tasks that reduces work to be completed in the morning. Put out clothing, prep breakfast/lunches for family, place book bags/briefcase by the door, etc..
- Meditate/pray/reflect an hour before bedtime.
Make all of the bullet points a set schedule every night that occurs at the same time each night consistently. This will set the circadian systems and cement the processes for beneficial outcomes.
Invest in your health and wellness with a solid commitment to sleep hygiene!
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