We spend between 25-30 years of our lives asleep and there is not a single biological function in our body that would not benefit from a good night sleep. The sleep is regulated by our circadian system, also known as “biological clock”. Biological clock is a group of nerve cells called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (“SCN”) located in our brain. This clock affects every single function in our body, from integrity of our immune system to multiplication of cancer cells.
In the morning when the sun light comes in our eyes and travels through the optic nerve, it activates the SCN starting a new day circadian rhythm. As the day progresses, everything will be controlled by your biological clock, your metabolism, hunger, sleep, digestion, hormonal flows, body temperature and more. After dusk, the SCN instructs the brain to release melatonin, a powerful hormone telling our body that it is dark and, therefore, it is time to sleep.
Our ancestors for 50,000 years were waking up with sunlight, spending the majority of their day outside, eating at twilight and sleeping in total darkness. In the modern times “work hard, play hard” culture dominates the Western world and sleep deprivation is glorified. We wake up and rush to work before sunrise, fuelled by caffeine and stress, spend the whole day indoors in front of the screens and under the artificial lights, have our last meal of the day way after the sunset and in general sleep less than 7 hours.
This misalignment with our biological clock greatly contributed to modern day epidemics of heart diseases, diabetes, cancer, obesity and mood disorders. Symptoms of disrupted circadian rhythms include insomnia, depression, anxiety, extra weight, feeling overwhelmed. It also contributes to ageing process.
Optimising your circadian rhythm would be the most important part in the “perfect sleep recipe” alongside with the stress management.
IN THE MORNING
- Get sunlight exposure in the first 30 minutes of waking up.
Find a reason to go outside and expose your eyes to the sunlight every morning to start your new circadian rhythm of each day. School run, walking a dog, walking to your place of work or exercising outside would be the best start of the day. If you have to be indoors before sunrise, for example, in winter months, than investing in a light box and getting some exposure each morning while getting ready for work would be recommended, in particular, if you struggle with getting a good night sleep.
DURING THE DAY
- Avoid caffeine after 2pm.
The half-life of caffeine is 6 hours, which means that half of your coffee would still be circulating in the bloodstream 6 hours later. If you are having a “pick-me-up” afternoon coffee, it would be equivalent of having a couple of sips of espresso just before going to bed at 10pm and hoping for a good night sleep.
- Avoid alcohol at least 3 hours before bed night.
Alcohol affects sleep quality, in particular restorative and rejuvenating deep sleep phase.
- Avoid intensive exercise 4 hours before bed.
Intensive exercise “stresses” your body causing release of stress hormone called cortisol. High levels of cortisol before bed would make it hard to fall asleep.
IN THE EVENING
- Avoid exposure to blue light from electronic devices at least two hours before sleep.
Electronic devices (smartphones, tablets, laptop screens) emit short-wave light within the blue spectrum. The retina in our eyes are particularly sensitive to this type of light, which causes suppression of melatonin production.
If it is not possible to avoid electronic devices, then invest in blue light blocking glasses and use them when working after sunset. Setting your phone to a night shift mode may be helpful too.
- Dim the light as the evening progresses.
Less bright lights will send a message to the SCN to release melatonin in preparation for the night.
- Avoid eating 2 hours before bed time.
Ideal dinner time would be before the sunset, however, it may not be practical for many people. Limiting your food intake just before bed, may support your sleep quality.
- Stick to regular bed time as much as possible.
The highest melatonin concentration occurs around 10-11pm, therefore, going to bed at the same time, when you are feeling tired would be the best for restful sleep.
DURING THE NIGHT
- Keep the room temperature to 18-19 degrees Celsius
While the skin needs to be warm to promote restorative sleep, the bedroom temperature should be cool. The ideal solution is wearing warm socks in a cooler bedroom.
- Ensure that your bedroom is quiet and pitch-black at night.
Invest in good blinds and curtains blocking any light coming from the street. If not possible, try a sleep mask.
- If possible avoid any disruption and noises, use ear plugs if necessary. It may be trickier with young kids or pets, of course!
- Remove any electronic devises from the bedroom to avoid any residual exposure from blue light indicators.
NIGHT TIME ROUTINE
Establishing your own night time routine may be helpful for a perfect night sleep.
Some of the examples include:
- Warm relaxing bath with a lavender oil
- Spraying your pillowcase with a mist of aromatherapy oils promoting sleep and relaxation.
- 10 min deep breathwork or meditation to switch your nervous system into “rest and digest” mode.
- Having a cup of herbal tea, such as chamomile, melissa, holy basil or lavender.
- Reading a book instead of looking at the screen.
Aim to sleep at least 7-9 hours every night. The quality of the sleep matters as much as the quantity. There are different phases of sleep and they have to be optimal for your optimal health and wellbeing. There are a number of health wearable devices (like Oura ring) available to monitor your sleep and investigate how your lifestyle and behaviour may be affecting your sleep quality.
Written by Elena Letyagina from Thrive expert panel. Elena holds a Nutritional Therapy Diploma (DipION) from the Institute for Optimum Nutrition and is working towards BSc (Hons) Nutritional Therapy degree from the ION. www.gutphilosophy.com