Have you made sleep-friendly lifestyle changes only to find you’re still struggling to get enough zzzzs? Sometimes strategies like cutting caffeine and meditating are not enough to sort all your sleep problems. If you’re affected by hormonal or health issues you may need an extra repertoire of slumber hacks to boost your sleep quality and quantity.
Together with 36 other passionate experts, I recently gave a presentation about the impact of hormones on sleep at the online Sleep Success Summit. We discussed everything from the sleep impact of adrenal fatigue, trauma and dark and light to the influence of genes, the thyroid glands and digestive health. Their advice and observations were based on the most up-to-date research and treatment strategies for sleep problems. I’ve added my own know-how to some of their cutting-edge hacks so that you can make the most of them:
1. Jump Into The Morning
You don’t literally have to jump out of bed, but getting a short burst of exercise in the morning is important.
Let me back up a little to explain. Do you often feel both tired and wired, particularly when you try to sleep? Then it’s likely you have a few issues with cortisol, a hormone that helps give you energy but is also released due to stress. It’s part of your fight or flight response, which prepares your body to flee from danger or wrestle a saber tooth tiger. Unfortunately, in our modern world, constant pressures can lead the fight or flight response to be switched on all day, causing excess cortisol to be circulating all the time. This may then compromise your digestion, reproductive system and immune function. And it has big impacts on your zzzzs.
If your body clock is in sync with night and day, your cortisol levels should rise within an hour of rising and dip to their lowest between midnight and 4 am. Unfortunately, when stress, sugar, and too little sleep elevate your cortisol, it can start to rise at night, when it should be dropping. This is bad news for your sleep. Cortisol can prevent you from falling asleep or getting into a deep sleep. The sleep loss and high cortisol also lead to hunger and greater fat storage, particularly around the belly.
- Eat breakfast: Women who skip breakfast have higher circulating cortisol levels in the afternoon, shows research.
- Enjoy a morning exercise burst: Moving for 5 or 10 minutes (preferably between 7 and 8am) is all you need to do to combat low morning cortisol and help your cortisol levels rise. This can set you up nicely for your cortisol to start naturally lowering by the end of the day. If you’re up to a HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) workout, go for it. If not, you could try a power walk around the block or a little rebounding exercise on a mini-trampoline. I do not recommend running and over-exercising as it depletes the adrenals.
Or if possible, shift your afternoon workout to between 7 and 8am. Research from Appalachian State University looked at the impact of exercise times (7 am, 1 pm and 7 pm) on people with slightly elevated blood pressure. When doing morning exercise they spent more time in deep sleep and enjoyed lower blood pressure.
2. Boost Melatonin In Your Kitchen
Getting morning sun and reducing screens and electric light at night are important to ensure you have good levels of the Sleep Hormone, melatonin. But food and drink can also give this powerful hormone a boost.
- Cherry juice: Cherries are rich in melatonin. And tart cherry juice helps people fall asleep faster, enjoy better quality shut-eye and sleep for around 40 minutes longer, shows research from Northumbria University.
To enjoy these benefits, people drank eight ounces (30ml) of cherry juice concentrate (equal to around 100 cherries) in a glass of water. They did this twice a day, 30 minutes after waking and 30 minutes before their evening meal. Montmorency cherries are the best variety because they contain four times the amount of melatonin. Or for an alternative to juice, you can try my cherry sorbet recipe.
- Eat leafy greens: These include spinach leaves, broccoli and kale. They are high in the mineral, folate and without sufficient folate, you don’t properly engage in methylation. This has become a buzz word in recent years because methylation is an important process. It’s needed for your body to conduct hundreds of processes, including making hormones and energy and repairing cells. Bottom line for your sleep? If you’re not methylating, you can’t make enough serotonin, The Happy Hormone. That creates a domino effect. Because just as you need flour to make bread, you need serotonin to make melatonin, the Sleep Hormone; serotonin is the precursor hormone for melatonin.
3. Nurture Good Bacteria
In your brain you have a tiny organ called the pineal gland, which is shaped like a pine-cone. Also known as the third eye, it has long been regarded as a little factory for producing melatonin. But new research shows that 80% of your body’s melatonin is actually made in your gut. Meanwhile, your belly also makes around 90% of the Happiness Hormone, serotonin. But an imbalance in belly bacteria may put the brakes on that.
Research from Caltech has found that mice raised to have no belly bacteria produce around 60% less serotonin than mice with healthy bacterial colonies:
When a normal balance of gut microbes was then introduced, their serotonin shot back up. A group of around 20 species of spore-forming bacteria appeared to be particularly key for helping the belly to make serotonin – which not only boosts your mood but also helps you make the Sleep Hormone, melatonin. Here is a video interview with a gut bacteria and spore expert where we discuss how to revive the microbiome (I also talk about how I can now eat gluten and not react – a major attribute to the mighty spores).
- Eat fermented foods: Mix up your intake of good bacteria by eating a range of fermented foods such as coconut kefir, kimchi (a fermented Korean vegetable side dish). Or make your own at home. You can follow a simple recipe I discuss in the “How to Use Food to Rebalance Your Hormones” free online workshop I offer nearly daily.
Use different starter cultures, including one that contains the probiotic, Lactobacilli Plantarum. I like to use the Kefir Starter from Body Ecology. Here’s why. In the animal world, natural plant chemicals called oxalates can be toxic to insects – which is how they protect the plants that contain them. When humans eat oxalates in those plants, they can form microscopic crystals. These crystals may bind to minerals like calcium and magnesium so they are not absorbed and can in some people, cause arthritic pain and kidney stones. Oxalates are found in foods like soy, kale, seeds, nuts (and nut milks) and seeds, sweet potato and Swiss chard. Plantarum bacteria can help break oxalates down, keeping your belly bacteria more balanced, which helps you make more serotonin.
- Filter your water: If you’re drinking tap water that contains chlorine and fluoride it can work like an antibiotic in your gut, damaging good bacteria and inhibit your thyroid function. Over time this may contribute to an imbalance where your bad belly bacteria outweighs the populations of good bacteria. While jugs with carbon filters may remove the smell and taste of chlorine, the chemical itself will still be present. My favorite filters are from Berkey Filters and be sure to add the fluoride add-on filter.
- Try MegaSporeBiotic supplements: These have helped improve my own gut health and I recommend them to women undertaking my thyroid program or simply trying to balance their hormones.
4. Drink Banana Tea
If a hot cup of chamomile or valerian tea doesn’t even start to take the edge off your insomnia, then according to sleep guru Dr. Michael Brues, banana tea is a good alternative. It’s loaded with magnesium, which is a natural relaxant.
- Brew some banana: According to Dr. Brues, here’s how: “Thoroughly wash an unpeeled banana to rinse away the dirt and pesticides. Then cut the ends and cut the banana in half with the peel still on it. Place it in a saucepan with three-and-a-half to four cups of boiling water and boil for three minutes. Steep according to taste and drink the delicious water (with a dash of cinnamon or honey if desired).
5. Switch Off That Serial Killer
Research shows that thinking upsetting or disturbing thoughts right before sleep can interfere with your sleep cycle. It stops you from entering sleep stages 3 and 4, when your brain produces the slow delta waves.
- Write a gratitude journal just before sleep: Name at least three things you are grateful for today.
- Recall a lovely memory: Go to sleep with that image in your mind.
- Avoid watching murder mysteries, thrillers or shows about serial killers too close to bedtime. Research shows that we process the information we saw last before going to bed.
6. Take a Nature Break
It combines mindfulness and movement with the beauty of the sky, trees, flowers, ponds or ocean waves. Research from the University of Rochester shows that nature-walks boost vitality, vigor and mood.
Other studies have confirmed that nature-walks also decrease tension, anxiety, depression, anger and fatigue – which can, in turn, encourage better quality sleep.
- Take a forest bath: In Japanese, this is called shinrin-yoku. While you walk, focus on the dappled light, smells and sounds of the forest.
- Go to a local park: Cloud-watch or stand near a tree and look closely at the patterns in the leaves and bark.
- Look at a forest photo: Stuck in the city far from a park? Too busy at work to take a nature break? Simply looking at beautiful photos of nature on your computer or cell phone can be calming and improve brain function, shows research from the University of Michigan. It is well documented that we can “cheat”our brain into believing that we really are in a park by just looking at it.
7. Shift Your Sex Routine
Some women find that sex at bedtime wakes them up. Then while their partner enjoys floating off to sleep on a rush of endorphins, they can’t nod off for hours.
- Schedule sex earlier: If you can get the kids to bed on time or don’t need to work or study, get the dishes done then head to bed instead of sinking into the couch. Give each other a foot massage or cuddle up and chat. Hopefully, your libido will kick in and you can enjoy sex before bed instead of getting late to bed then rushing late-night sex (when you really should be sleeping!)
8. Counter Blackout Curtains
If you live in a built-up city area or neighborhood, light spills into rooms from streetlights and other buildings. So curtains that block the shine seem like a no-brainer. The only problem? They also block out the morning light that helps suppress your melatonin.
- Wear a sleep mask: This will block out most of the light spill but still allow you to sense daylight so that it can start shifting your hormones once the sun rises.
- Buy a light-simulator clock: This slowly lights up in the morning, countering the blackout curtains.
- Invest in ‘smart’ blinds: These can be programmed to open in the morning (creating a more natural alarm clock). Or you can purchase retrofit devices that clip on to blinds and can also be programmed to open and close on a timer.
9. Use Light Therapy
Light boxes and lamps are often prescribed by sleep specialists to restore sleep to normal by resetting your body clock. You can sit with one shining on you while you work or move it around in the morning when doing your hair or make-up and having your breakfast.
- Buy a light box or lamp: Companies like GoLITE and SUNBOX produce different varieties or you can search for light boxes on Amazon. Once you have one, use it this way:
- If you have trouble sleeping: Get light exposure from the box/lamp 10 minutes after waking for at least 10 minutes. Or use it for 20 minutes between 7 and 9am.
- If you have early morning waking from around 3 or 4am: Have 10 minutes to half an hour of bright light in the evening about four hours before you plan to go to bed. If this proves a little too energizing, try the light exposure a little earlier. Or, if your device allows it, change the globe to a lesser light – of around 2,500 lux of light instead of 10,000 lux (the level you would enjoy while on the beach on a sunny day).
- Invest in LED re-timing glasses: These have been developed after 25 years of research and in consultation with sleep experts at Flinders University in Australia. Follow their directions for the best way to use them to shift your body clock.
10. Reduce Time In Bed
Sick of lying in bed wide awake and tossing and turning? Then go to bed for a shorter length of time. This may sound counter-intuitive, but it can prove an effective approach for reducing insomnia and the stress that goes along with it.
- Restrict hours in bed: For a few days or weeks, restrict your time in bed to the hours that you know you normally sleep. Doing this can help reduce ‘conditioned insomnia’, where wakefulness has become an anxious habit and the worry that you won’t fall asleep is the main reason you can’t nod off.
While you’re up, avoid any behaviors that may wake you up, such as using a computer or drinking caffeine. Once you are falling asleep sooner every night, slowly make your sleep time earlier and hopefully, you will sleep longer too.