By Colleen Trombley-VanHoogstraat
Being sleep deprived isn’t much fun. I spent years in and out of a state of chronic sleep deprivation, so I know the feeling all too well.
What most folks fail to consider is that chronic sleep deprivation is a source of toxicity. It causes the release of stress hormones. That means that a chronic lack of sleep is a risk factor for all chronic illness, because we’re chronically toxic and chronically not cycling through the optimal levels of cellular repair and restoration that are supposed to take place each night while we’re sleeping.
There are serious consequences of not getting better sleep.
- increases the risk for all chronic illness – cancer, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, digestive issues, thyroid imbalance, and so on.
- mental, emotional and cognitive effects – more easily stressed, brain fog, short-term memory decline, learning disorders, lack of clarity and focus.
- looking more tired and less healthy (I feel like I look a decade older if I’m sleep deprived. As if being exhausted isn’t insult enough!)
- weight gain and/or challenges with dropping excess pounds – this is due to the long-term release of stress hormones, like cortisol, as well as the lack of the fat burning hormone, growth hormone, which is supposed to be released during deep sleep cycles.
These less-than-desirable effects are cumulative. The more nights you’re deprived of good, deep sleep, the worse the effects are, especially in the area of cognitive function.
In a two-week sleep restriction study reported in the New York Times, the subjects only getting 4-6 hours of sleep per night (as opposed to 8 hours) for two weeks had the same level of cognitive impairment they would have if they were drunk. Imagine all the people out there functioning at this level each day!
Here are 6 suggestions to start getting better sleep:
1) Live a healthy lifestyle overall.
The majority of the time, eat healthy foods and get regular, invigorating exercise. Aim for balance.
2) Prepare for sleep – Chill out and power down.
Don’t do intense exercise within 2-3 hours of your intended bedtime… even longer, if you can help it.
Go to bed when you’re tired. Not the couch. Not the recliner. Bed.
Decrease mental stimulation as sleep time approaches. Again, not the time for scary movies, late night (bad) news, or stressful encounters. This also includes backing away from all your connections and screens for the night – computer, phone, ipad, television, and whatever gadgets you’ve got these days.
Have relaxing rituals and routines at night. Deep breathing, relaxation, meditation, light reading, writing in a gratitude journal, whatever works for you!
I like to jot down plans, action steps, and ideas for the next day so that my brain can calm down when it’s time to sleep.
3) Watch your evening intake.
No alcohol a couple hours before bed. (If you’re really sleep deprived and really desperate to improve here, cut it out all together for a couple weeks and see what happens)
Keep all liquids to a minimum for your last couple hours – helps with night time trips to the bathroom.
I wouldn’t recommend having caffeinated beverages in the afternoon, or at least not 8 hours or so before you’d like to sleep.
If you need a late night snack, base it on healthy fats and protein, not starchy carbs or other high-sugar foods.
Really, the same can be said for dinner. I know this can be tough, but dinner (especially a late dinner) is not a wise time to scarf down a big plate of pasta, a loaf of bread, or a bunch of grains in any form. While we’re at it, you should pass on the high-sugar dessert for the same reasons.
4) Consider your sleep environment.
Sleeping in complete darkness is best. This allows optimal release of the “sleep and relaxation hormone”, melatonin. Even if you have to get up to use the bathroom during the night, try not to flip on lights. It interrupts this hormonal release.
Move anything giving off EMFs (electromagnetic frequencies) away from your noggin. E.g. your digital clock.
Several studies indicate that an air temperature around 60 degrees, give or take, is the best for optimal sleep. Most people have trouble sleeping when it’s too hot, or the heat is cranked all night.
Having a window cracked for fresh air in and the escape of carbon dioxide can also be helpful.
Make sure your feet are warm. I found this to be true for me. Cold feet keep me tossing and turning all night. Solution? Socks. You’re welcome. That’s why they pay me the big bucks, right there.
Try some “white noise” or use ear plugs if external noises are disrupting your sleep. I keep a small fan on in our room.
The more peaceful, relaxing, and ‘tidy’ your bedroom is, the more likely you are to be fully relaxed in it.
5) Go to bed and get up at the same time each day.
I’ve resisted this in the past, no doubt, thinking I’ve “earned” some extra shut-eye on a weekend morning. But, it’s probably no coincidence that I’ve been very consistent with my bedtime and waking time for the last few months and my sleep has dramatically improved. Therefore, so has my focus, memory, clarity, and productivity. Give it a try for a couple weeks and see how it works for you.
6) It could be something else.
Your challenges in getting better sleep could be the result of certain medication, or a combination of medications, you’re taking. Many have that effect. Talk to your prescribing doctor about an exit strategy and a real solution for whatever you’re currently taking.
You might have some chronic hormonal imbalances or hormonal resistance. This could be from chronic toxicity and inflammation. Until that’s resolved, all hormonal function can be skewed.
In the case of sleep, some of the big hormonal players are cortisol, melatonin, and insulin, to name just a few. In some cases of hormonal imbalance, the result is that you can’t fall asleep. In other cases, you can fall asleep, but then you wake up often and can’t get back to sleep. I feel your frustration.
By the way, remember that if your cortisol levels are off (or the receptors are congested due to toxicity and inflammation) you’re going to gain weight and have a tough time losing it.
Having sensitivities to certain foods can keep you awake at night, too. If you have gut permeability issues (most likely the case if you’re sensitive to many foods), this can cause symptoms and discomfort that keeps you restless.
The good news is that there are solutions that address (and correct) the root cause of inflammation, toxicity, hormonal resistance, and gut permeability issues. I wouldn’t expect to find them via your family doc, however! Typically, you’ve got to branch out from the basic treatment protocol offered by conventional practitioners and get into more functional diagnostics and care.
Of course, there can be other reasons for occasional or temporary loss of sleep; things like stressful situations or events, or certain seasons of our lives (like co-sleeping with a baby or young children), or travel, or a major change in life, and so on.
The occasional and temporary loss of sleep isn’t so horrible. Humans can be pretty amazing at adapting to stressful environments when we need to. When the sleep deprivation becomes chronic, though, we need to take it seriously and work to correct it just like we would with any other health condition.
Dr. Colleen Trombley-VanHoogstraat (“Dr Mom Online”) is a leading expert in Natural Health & Wellness. Her unique perspective and understanding of the science of Wellness provides predictable solutions and transformational results for those struggling with chronic health issues, as well as those striving for lifelong health. To discover her simple strategies for creating better health through the science of nutrition, movement and mindset, visit DrMomOnline.com