A couple of weeks ago I was asked to be part of a panel of wellness experts for an event run by the green beauty store Follain. As part of the conversation, we were asked to give our number one self-care tip. As a nutritionist, the rest of the panel was convinced my answer was going to be ‘eat more veggies’, or 'cut out sugar’. Now whilst both of those are great habits, and will certainly improve your health, there is one component of great health that I prize above all, and that is quality sleep.
Let's qualify and quantify what quality sleep actually means.:
In 2002 a study published in 2002 by the National Sleep Foundation that 7-9 hours of quality sleep is optimum for most individuals. Now that is not 7-9 hours in bed (resting reading), but 7-9 hours of restful, uninterrupted sleep through which you do not wake up.
The same study showed that 67% of Americans experience frequent problems sleeping, and 43% say sleep interferes with their daily activities. Remember that study was published in 2002, 15 years ago, before most of us had Smartphones, Instagram, Snapchat, Game of Thrones, etc…
Unfortunately getting less than adequate sleep during the week, and making up for it over the weekends does not undo the negative consequences of the weekly missed sleep. We cannot repay our sleep debt.
So why is sleep so important?
During sleep almost all of our bodily systems are in a heightened anabolic state (growth and repair), including our immune system, central nervous system and skeletal and muscular systems.
What are the negative consequences associated with too little sleep?
- 9x more likely to get ill during cold and flu season
- athletic performance goes down - no strength or muscle gains in the gym, more likely to get injured, or if you play a sport your performance will suffer
- increased inflammation - (inflammation is the cause of all chronic disease in the body)
- resulting in increased risk of cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and doubles your risk of dying from cardiovascular disease
- poor gut health (constipation, diarrhea, bloating, not digesting food properly or assimilating the nutrients
- increased bone loss
- a decrease in insulin sensitivity (how much of the carbohydrate we use as fueler our cells and how much we store as fat) and an increase in the risk of developing Type 2 Diabetes
- increased musculoskeletal aches and pains
- neurochemical imbalances - mood, irritability, memory, patience, learning, communication, depression and anxiety
- weight gain and food cravings - when we don't sleep enough the levels of 2 hormones that control hunger, grehlin and leptin become imbalanced, making us both hungrier and more likely to crave high-calorie food - one study showed that participants who got 4 or fewer hours of sleep at night ate over 300 extra kcals the next day!
- increased risk of cancer
So that's the bad news. The good news is that there is so much within our power that we can do to improve our quality of sleep, and a number of easy to do nutrition and wellbeing habits that we can all implement on a daily basis.
The key aspect I want you to take away from the post is that elevated nighttime cortisol causes poor quality sleep. Cortisol is our stress hormone, and just like all of our hormones is neither good or bad, but problems arise when it is out of balance.
When our bodies produce cortisol throughout the day as a reaction to stressful situations (what we call our 'flight or flight’ mechanism), it leads to us having high levels in our blood at nighttime, preventing us from falling asleep, staying asleep, or both.
Now, I can’t reduce the amount of stress you are exposed during the day, but I can give you strategies to help you reduce its negative effects. Likewise, I cannot give you more hours of sleep, but I am going to take you through the holistic health strategies you can implement to manage stress throughout the day, leading to a great nights sleep
Reducing stress and improving sleep quality starts from the moment you wake up. Consider replacing your alarm clock (or your phone) with a natural light alarm clock that wakes you up naturally and gently, without spiking your cortisol.
A 3 min cold shower can improve sleep. If you cant bear cold water work up to the 3 minutes!
Daylight is the master regulator of our circadian rhythm - if you can get outside as soon as you have woken up to expose yourself to the natural light, and this is the perfect time to take a walk or run outside. If this is impossible make sure you open all of your curtains and even switch on all the lights.
Coffee: the caffeine in coffee actually raises our cortisol levels, which is why we should try to limit it to the earlier part of the day. However, 2-3 hours after you wake up is ideal as this is when our cortisol levels and energy naturally drops.
Those with higher cortisol levels and/or adrenal fatigue should avoid coffee as it can put too much of a strain on the body. A good test for this is when your coffee doesn't ‘work’ anymore, or if you feel even more tired after drinking it's a good idea to take a break from it for a while! Coffee can actually be considered a health food for the right person. It is super high in antioxidants, and good quality coffee can be over 7 times higher in antioxidants than green tea.
How to make your coffee healthier: choose an organic, low acid coffee. Coffee is one of the most highly pesticide-sprayed crops, so organic is a must. Coffee is naturally acidic, so choosing a low-acid version is a good idea:
The best alternative to coffee is hot water, lime, and Himalayan salt. This will help to alkalize the body and will give the adrenal system a boost. Another alternative here is to look at some energizing adaptogens such as maca or cordyceps.
Breakfast: make this protein and fat based to keep blood sugar and energy levels constant through the day, think eggs, chicken, avocado, nut butter, or a protein smoothie.
Keeping blood sugar levels steady during the day is a big part of stress management that can often get neglected. Those in high stress and busy jobs can find themselves not eating for long stretches during the day, which causes fluctuations in blood sugar levels and elevated cortisol, and causes cravings for high carb/high-fat foods in the evening.
Start the day right with a breakfast of protein, fibre, and fats, and be sure to keep some healthy snacks handy during the day such as fruit, nuts or jerky if you have a long time between meals.
Being hungry in the mornings is a sign of raised cortisol, which is what we want in the morning and can indicate a healthy cortisol curve, as it raises the amount of the hunger hormone ghrelin in our bloodstream.
Take your foundational supplements after breakfast (see my PRIME Principles)
Exercise in the morning: ideally would be a cardio, running, spinning, boxing etc.
During the Day
At lunch: choose a combo of protein, veggies and fat, a maybe a little complex carbohydrates if you are working out in the evening.
A walk outside after lunch is the perfect way to both enhance digestion and to ensure some time in the natural light, especially if you work in an office with limited natural light. We want to aim for at least 30-60 minutes in natural light a day for normal circadian rhythms. The exposure to the sunlight will also help provide some Vitamin D during the summer (anyone from the U.K. or the East Coast of the U.S are usually deficient in Vitamin D)!
If you find yourself needing to take a 'time out' during the day you can use the box breathing method. This is super simple and you can do this at your desk, whilst commuting, or whenever you feel your stress spiraling out of control.
- Inhale for the count of 4
- Hold for the count of 4
- Exhale for the count of 4
- Hold for the count of 4
Introduce a caffeine curfew: for me this time is 11.30pam, for others, it may be later or earlier, depending on your tolerance for caffeine. If you find your mind racing the minute you close your eyes start moving your caffeine curfew back by half an hour to see if it helps, or switch to caffeien free options.
If you are working out in the evening, try and make it as early as possible to give cortisol and melatonin levels time to normalize before bed, and consider a post-workout supplement to help bring down Cortisol levels. Strength training rather than cardio is going to be better in the evenings, and a yoga class is perfect too.
Find a way of ‘making space’ between home and work. Have a routine or ‘ritual’ when you get home or on your way home to separate home and work mindset. This can be a great time for a meditation practice (which is clinically proven to reduce stress levels and improve our quality of life in many ways), or even something as simple as changing your clothes the minute you come home or enjoying the same herbal tea every day after work.
In the Evening
Bring down artificial light during after sunset. If you need to use your technology in the evenings you can download an app called f.lux that brings down the blue light on your cell phone and laptop, reducing its impact. You can also buy some very fetching blue blocking glasses such as these (these are the pair I am wearing as I type this):
Your evening meal should be a mixture of complex carbohydrates such as sweet potato, rice, quinoa, starchy vegetables, some protein, and veggies is perfect (a turkey is a great option as it contains the amino acid L-Tryptophan which can help us sleep)
The carbohydrates will help release serotonin and dopamine, our feel-good hormones that will help to relax us and make us sleepy, and can be used for muscle repair and growth whilst sleeping
It will also help late night snacking and carbohydrate cravings - sometimes this can be a sign of low serotonin levels (not just lack of willpower), and if you find yourself reaching for a cookie (or three) late at night consider adding in more carbs in your evening meal to raise serotonin levels.
Don't eat dinner any later than 8 pm, or 2 hours prior to going to bed. Eating late in the evening can hinder digestion of the food, disrupting our sleep, and make us more likely to store fat.
You can also look at adding in a herbal tea such as chamomile here, or there has been some great research into tart cherry juice as it contains phytochemicals that reduce inflammation and lead the body to secrete more melatonin.
You could also have a hot bath - soaking in a hot tub raises your body temperature but then cools it rapidly after, this lowering of body temperature mimics the bodies natural drop in temperature, which helps with melatonin secretion.
Choose a regular bedtime and stick to it, even on the weekends. Your body temperature peaks at sunset in order to keep you warm at night, and this coincides with the release of leptin which surpasses hunger and releases fat for burning whilst you are asleep (yes, fat burns whilst we are asleep, another reason to make sure we are getting enough). This is turn reduces melatonin and reduces brain function, readying the body for sleep. Studies have shown that people who have sleep issues can improve quality and quantity of sleep by keeping a set bedtime between 9.30 and 11 pm.
So there you have it, 12 hours of managing cortisol to ensure a wonderful nights sleep! If sleep is your biggest challenge consider booking a Sleep Session with me (they are just $99 for the month of December).