What’s your biggest sleep problem? Trouble nodding off? Waking at 2 or 3 am then tossing and turning? Or difficulty losing weight because you don’t get enough good-quality shut-eye?
Zzzs And Your Waistline
There’s a big connection between sleep and weight. But are you mostly in the dark about it? Did you know that poor sleep quality can add to your waistline as much as poor food choices? And lack of sleep can recalibrate your appetite hormones, so you produce 15% less leptin (which makes you feel full) and 20% more ghrelin, (which makes you hungrier)?
Sleep is the foundation of good health and wellbeing – your body repairs and renews cells while you slumber. Yet daily habits and activities could be sabotaging your sleep and hormones without you even knowing it.
What are these sleep thieves? And how can you address them? In this two-part series, I will be looking at the biggest sleep problems affecting women (and clue you up on how to fix them).
The Top Sleep Stealers
1. Bright Light At Night
Light and sleep go hand in hand. Exposure to light in the morning and evening impacts on your circadian rhythm. This roughly 24-hour cycle dictates when plants open their flowers, animals eat or rest and insects like butterflies emerge from their chrysalis. It’s linked to night and day and switches on and off a complicated network of proteins and genes. In humans, it helps set our body clock, affecting energy levels and when we wake and sleep. That’s why you feel better if you hit the sack before midnight – it keeps your body clock in time with night and day.
Research from the University of Paris V1 has shown that a particular protein molecule found in many different human tissues responds to light, indicating we may discern light through our skin. And even when your eyes are closed you still detect light (just as you sense light and shadow when lying outdoors with eyes closed). This is why devices like clock radios that emit light in the dark can undermine your sleep quality. They cause ‘circadian desynchrony’, where your body clock is out of step with night and day.
- Open curtains on waking: This helps suppress melatonin levels, which should lower in the morning and rise at night.
- Breakfast al fresco: Go without your sunglasses for at least 10 minutes to ensure you get direct light exposure to your eyes.
- Banish electrical devices: That means no clock radios, TVs, computers or their standby lights in your room while you sleep. They can truly interfere with melatonin production in these vital night hours.
- Enjoy a soft glow: At night, use candles or lamps instead of bright overhead electric lights. Need a toilet visit? Use a low-wattage flashlight or dim hall and bathroom globes with an amber glow.
- Set a sleep routine. Rise and retire at the same time every day to synchronize your body clock with light and dark.
2. Texting In Bed
Do you catch-up on texts or emails last thing before turning out the light? Or fall asleep watching YouTube videos in bed? This too could be compromising your sleep quality.
Computers emit 30 to 50 lux of light. Over the course of the week, this constant light exposure, particularly after dark, can shift your body clock. Then hormones that make you wakeful or sleepy are less in sync with night and day.
Looking directly at bright light from a computer screen, cell phone or tablet device also reduces your levels of melatonin (the sleep hormone), so it can’t do its job to help you fall asleep.
Digital screens, fluorescent and LED lights all add to this problem because they give off blue light. Research from Harvard University shows that exposure to blue light suppresses melatonin for twice as long as other colors and can shift your body clock by as much as three hours. Even just eight lux of light can have an effect.
Reduce the light intensity by:
- Dimming the light on your screen.
- Installing an app called f.lux. This reduces the blue wavelength coming from your screen, in favor of warmer more sleep-friendly tones.
- Going to system preferences on your computer and electing to flip the colors so that you turn the white background black and the black writing to white.
3. A Few Glasses of Red Or White
Sure you want that chardonnay or shiraz? Alcohol might be a sedative, but many women observe that it triggers shallow sleep. This is partly because alcohol delays and shortens the slow wave and REM dreaming phases of the sleep cycle. And a few glasses of wine, beer or spirits, may also suppress your natural breathing pattern. Alcohol may also make you wake later from dehydration and thirst. And because it’s a bladder irritant and diuretic, you may also need to get up to pee!
Red wine can be a particular problem. It is high in natural chemicals called salicylates and amines, chemicals which can cause blocked nose and headaches in some people, waking them overnight.
- Supplement with magnesium: It has a calming effect on the nervous system. More on this in Part 2 of the Sneaky Sleep Sleepers article, when I will discuss which forms of magnesium are best.
- Savor an herbal tea: Choose valerian or chamomile for their calmative benefits.
4. Living on Stress Street
When you’re always rushing and stressing, your body pumps out more adrenalin and cortisol. If these stress hormones are still circulating when you hit the sack, they keep your body in ‘fight or flight’ mode so your brain won’t allow you to fall into a deep sleep. An herbal supplement or spot of visualisation often won’t be enough to help.
When my own partner was in a toxic work situation, his high cortisol prevented him from sleeping well and we tried every sleep remedy we knew. But once we moved away, his stress reduced. To our great relief, he has since been sleeping like a baby – because his ongoing stress is clearly no longer trying to keep him awake.
I have seen many of my clients with unresolved past traumas and PTSD experiencing the same issue. For many, the sleep problems went away when they sought proper treatment.
- Remove yourself from the stressor: If your job, relationship or living situation is a constant source of distress or conflict, seek support and change it.
- Talk over your feelings With an empathetic partner, friend or relative. If you’re experiencing trauma, depression or anxiety, see a counselor.
- Keep a worry diary: Jot down your problems and a few solutions to debrief and get troubles off your mind before bed.
5. A Cup of Joe
Love a good macchiato or strong cup of matcha tea? Don’t overdo it. Caffeine triggers the release of adrenalin and cortisol, which can keep your body on high alert for hours. Research at the American Academy of Sleep Medicine shows that caffeine can significantly disrupt your sleep six hours after your last hit.
- Set a caffeine curfew: That means no caffeinated tea or coffee after 12 midday. If you crave a milky hot drink, try this fabulous Chicory Latte.
6. Binge-Watching a TV Series
You only intended to watch two episodes of Game of Thrones or House of Cards. Now, 4 episodes later, it’s 2 a.m. This is not harmless entertainment if it’s stopping you from getting enough shut-eye. The huge fallout from skimping on sleep can cause:
- Reduced insulin sensitivity: After only four to six hours of sleep, your body finds it harder to stabilise blood sugars, shows research from the University of Chicago. Meanwhile, your fatty acids in the blood go up. The end result? Increased risk of elevated blood sugars, weight gain and diabetes type 2.
- A slower metabolism: The rate that the body burns calories when at rest is 5% higher in people who sleep better, compared with poor sleepers, shows research from Uppsala University in Sweden.
- Snack attacks: Sleep loss triggers chemicals that light up the brain’s pleasure centers in response to food. These endocannabinoids remain 33% higher in sleep-deprived people, encouraging them to choose snacks that are higher in fats.
Try making these fat and protein-rich Cashew Butter Protein Balls and have a couple before bed.
- Set a one-episode limit: Then switch off the television.
- Boost your melatonin: This is the sleep hormone, so if you have the right levels, it will make you too sleepy to stay up super late.
7. Unhealthy Late-Night Snacks
Do you know the best sleep-friendly food choices (hint – they’re not cake or chocolate)? If you gorge on the wrong late-night snack it can hinder sleep (and go straight to your waistline). But the right snack could help you sleep through the night.
- For healthy sleep-boosting snack options, check out my high protein snack recipes.
8. Breathing Too Fast
If you rush all day, you also over-breathe all day. According to sleep expert Dr. Michael Breus, when you later hit the hay, your heart rate won’t be slow enough for sleep. Enter deep, slow breathing. This helps slow your heart rate and stimulates the Vagus nerve, which runs all the way from your belly to your brain. As you slowly breathe, your Vagus nerve then changes its signals. Working like a chill pill, it soothes your parasympathetic nervous system and triggers drowsiness and calm.
- Breathe to A Count: Dr. Breus recommends you breathe in for 5 counts, hold for 4, and then breathe out over 7 counts.
- Wind-down before bed: For the last 30 minutes, read, listen to soothing music or savor a candlelit bath to unwind and set the tone for a restful night’s sleep.
In Part 2 of this sleep series, discover 10 sleep hacks that can help you get more of the rest you need to support your health.