Recently, I posted about balancing stress hormones and the dramatic impact this can have on overall health. Today, I’m elaborating on one of the most important and most-often missed aspects of reducing stress.
I’ve written before about the importance of sleep, and I’m sure you’ve read it many other places as well. Yet, statistically, most of us (me included) don’t always get enough quality sleep. Some of us struggle to fall asleep, others to stay asleep, and others to make time to actually get enough sleep.
Not surprisingly, sleep is a hormone dependent process, and with all the variables in our lives that can affect proper hormone balance (foods, toxins, artificial light, etc) it makes sense that many people struggle with sleep. This is also why times when hormones change often have a negative effect on sleep (menopause, puberty, pregnancy, etc)
While mainstream thinking might recommend a pharmaceutical option to help deal with sleep issues, artificially augmenting the hormone system to induce sleep isn’t without its problems (just check out the side-effects and warnings list!) and can have an impact on other hormone functions as well.
Often, lack of quality sleep stems from one or more lifestyle causes, and it is important to address these underlying issues as they can impact more than just sleep.
Lets' take a look at The Problem...
Lack of sleep = Stress on the body = weight gain, premature aging, hair loss, hormone imbalances, infertility, and lowered immune function.
Hormone problems that cause sleep disturbances don’t just begin at bedtime, and they can’t be fixed by just addressing them at this time. Ever noticed that animals don’t have trouble sleeping and waking when they are supposed to? They don’t toss and turn to fall asleep and they don’t need pills to help them do so (speaking about outdoor animals… I don’t have any, but indoor animals could potentially have some of the same struggles that humans do).
Proper sleep hormone production (melatonin) depends on proper hormone function during waking hours (serotonin and others). As the endocrine system is a complete system, hormone imbalances (PCOS, Endometriosis, etc) can often lead to poor sleep and vice versa.
Stress hormones can have a tremendous impact on the sleep cycle as well, and it is a two-way street. Lack of sleep elevates stress hormones, and stress hormones can cause sleep problems.
How you can Optimize Sleep While You Are Awake...
To optimize sleep during the night, one must also optimize factors during waking hours including food, supplements and exposure to light/outdoors.
Getting a quality night of sleep actually begins when you wake at the beginning of the day and there are many factors that can have a dramatic impact on sleep length and quality.
-Foods for Sleep
Just as foods can impact health in other areas, foods can contribute to good or bad sleep. To help improve your chances of quality sleep, these are the best foods to consume:
- Healthy Fats- such as coconut oil, organic and pasture raised meats, eggs, avocado and butter all help provide your body with the necessary building blocks to manufacture sleep hormones.
- High Antioxidant Foods- Also important for hormone production and removal of toxins that can impede sleep. Focus on vegetables, high nutrient fruits, and herbal or green teas (green tea early in the day only).
- Quality Proteins, especially at dinner: For best sleep, it is better to stop eating at least 4 hours before bedtime, and preferably by 6pm every night. Your evening meal should include proteins, vegetables and healthy fats. Eating enough protein at this meal will help prepare the body to enter the sleep cycle.
Foods to avoid:
- Sugars: Sugars and carbohydrates, especially at night, can cause a blood sugar spike and crash that will lead to difficulty falling or staying asleep. Many people crave carbohydrates (chocolate, anyone?) in the evening, which is a sign of an underlying hormone problem to begin with but eating carbohydrates late at night can cause problems falling asleep or lead to waking in the middle of the night when blood sugar levels drop.
- Grains- I’ve written before about the negative effect grains can have on health, and if you have an intolerance to grains, this can cause physical stress in your body, which alters the hormone cycle and can impede sleep.
- Vegetable Oils- No one should ever eat them anyway, but I have a theory that just as these artificial fats can cause problems in new skin formation(skin cancer) they can cause problems in the hormone cycle, as hormones need (saturated) fats for production and giving the body the wrong building blocks for hormones can wreak havoc with hormone production.
-Supplements for Sleep
Sadly, it is often difficult to get enough nutrients from foods as our soil is depleted and foods are picked before ripe so they can be shipped around the world. Especially if you struggle from a health challenge or sleep problem, it is often helpful to supplement some key nutrients, at least in the short term, as you build your body back up.
- Fermented Cod Liver Oil/High Vitamin Butter Oil Blend (also great for remineralizing teeth)-I have personally noticed a difference in my sleep quality since adding this to my regimen. I take it in the morning and at night (about 1/2 tsp each time) and don’t sleep as well when I don’t. The presence of fat soluble vitamins A, D and K plus Omega-3s can explain why this particular supplement is great for promoting hormone production and improving sleep. For this reason, it also helps balance other hormones (in cases of infertility, etc) and is great for growing children.
- A couple tablespoons of coconut oil melted in a cup of herbal tea per day can help give the body the building blocks to make sleep hormones
- Magnesium- Many people are deficient in Magnesium and this particular deficiency can have a big impact on sleep quality. Some people find that just adding a product like Natural Calm about 30 minutes before bedtime can really improve sleep.
- Gelatin- Many of us eat a disproportionateamount of animal muscle meat compared to bone broths, organ meats and marrow. If you aren’t a fan of consuming liver daily, drinking natural gelatin (from grassfed sources) can help balance your intake. Consumption of only muscle meats, which are higher in stress hormones, can cause problems in the sleep cycle. Personally, I often drink a cup of chamomile or herbal tea with a tablespoon of gelatin dissolved in it each night a couple hours before bed.
- If you have a solid diet and are already taking the things above, specific sleep related herbs might help your fall asleep. Try my sleep tincture, or some chamomile or catnip to help you relax.
-A Healthy Daily Routine
A daily (and nightly) routine can make a big difference in how easily you fall and stay asleep. You’ll have to experiment to find out what works best for you but here are some helpful suggestions:
- Wake up and go to bed at the same time, even on weekends to keep your hormone cycle regular.
- Eat a high protein/high fat snack a few hours before bed (7pm or earlier) or consume a lot at dinner.
- Avoid caffeine after 1 pm.
- Install F.lux (it is free) on all computers and devices to reduce blue light and help you sleep better (it is also easier on the eyes!)
- Drink enough water during the day and stop drinking about 2 hours before bed so you don’t have to wake up to use the bathroom.
- Take a soothing salt bath about an hour before bed with some relaxing music or a great book.
- Get at least 30 minutes of sunlight each day (even if you aren’t trying to get your vitamin D). The exposure to the wide-spectrum light during the day boosts serotonin levels, which will help improve melatonin levels at night
- Avoid artificial light as much as possible after the sun goes down.
- Pray, meditate or find a way to reduce stress.
- Give yourself a massage before bed to release stress and help relax (Personally, I love this for home-massage)
- Stretch before bed to relax muscles.
-Cold Therapy for Improved Sleep
If lack of sleep is really affecting your life and you are willing to try anything to improve it, consider cold therapy (and you might lose some weight too). Popularized lately by Dr. Jack Kruse, this method has been around for a while and if done correctly, it can help you sleep like a rock.
From what I’ve read, full immersion in a cool bath (below 60 degrees) is most effective, though even a cold ice pack on the front and back of the neck (as suggested by Tim Ferriss) can be helpful for improving sleep and weight loss. I’m still working up to full-body immersion (which I dread) but I’ve noticed a difference from using cold therapy two ways:
- After dinner, sitting with ice packs on the front and back of my neck for 30 minutes
- After dinner, dipping my face in a bowl of very cold water (about 50 degrees) and holding underwater for as long as I can, up to 30 seconds. I do this several times and it definitely helps reduce stress/improve sleep. There is a theory that this activates the dive reflex, which helps reduce stress.
Don't Forget The Sleep Environment...
Your sleep environment is also extremely important for sleep quality. Artificial light, warm temperatures, sudden noises, and EMFs can all effect sleep quality, but these things are almost always fixable. Again, you’ll have to experiment to figure out what works best for you, but in general, here are some tips:
- Remove ALL artificial light, including the light on your alarm clock, TV light, phone, etc. I use blackout curtains because we have artificial light outside, and cover my clock light with a towel. Our kids don’t have night lights, and they typically sleep very well.
- Keep the temperature around 65-68 degrees and always below 70 degrees.
- Try some white noise like sounds of rain, ocean or our kids’ favorite, Gregorian Chant (though if any of them ever decide to become a cloistered religious, they will have trouble… chant always puts them to sleep!)
- Trade out your jolting buzzing alarm clock for a gentle sunlight alarm clock that will wake you up much more gently. I don’t know about you, but my dread of the sound of the alarm clock sound always caused me to wake up a few times in the early morning in anticipation of it
- Try an earthing mat. I am still experimenting with this one, but there is some evidence that sleeping on a grounding mat reduces your exposure EMFs and improves sleep quality. While I have noticed a big difference on myself, I don’t know how much is mental, so I’m experimenting with having the kids sleep on it without them knowing what it does. The book Earthing explains more of the theory behind this method and I’m working on finding a good source of the mats. According to the book, you can also create the same effect by spending time barefoot outside on dirt, grass or rocks daily for at least 30 minutes (If you garden barefoot in the middle of the day, you’ll get three benefits in one! Exercise, Vitamin D and the negative electrons from the earth)
- Going to bed before 10pm (or transitioning to this schedule) will also greatly impact your body’s healing ability, as there are supposed to be additional benefits to sleep before midnight.
This is definitely a complex topic and different methods will work for different people. A couple of books that might provide more helpful information are Lights Out: Sleep, Sugar and Survival, and Earthing. Robb Wolf also talks a lot about sleep importance and quality in The Paleo Solution. Though not specifically health-related, the book A Mother’s Rule of Life has been incredibly helpful to me in developing a schedule and routine that actually allow me to get to bed on time.