The importance of a good night’s rest is pretty widely understood. We all know we simply feel better if we get enough shut-eye, but we may not realize that not getting enough sleep can affect us beyond the way we ‘feel’.
Chronic lack of sufficient sleep can not only lead to weight gain, but it can also lead to serious health problems that include:
- Heart attack
- Heart failure
- Irregular heartbeat
- High blood pressure
Despite its importance, most people do not get enough sleep. Modern habits sabotage the body’s natural ability to fall into a regular sleep rhythm, but we can help change that.
The chemical ‘dance’ of sleep
Sleep is the result of a very complicated series of chemical interactions within the brain, but there is a basic two-step dance which helps provide an illustration of the process.
There’s a chemical in your brain that builds up all day long. It’s called adenosine. As long as you’re awake, it will continue to build up. You don’t notice it at first, but as it accumulates, you begin to get sleepy. The longer you’re awake, the more adenosine builds up, and the more ‘sleep pressure’ you feel (that desire to fall asleep). A lot of people feel that strong pressure to sleep around 9 pm and find themselves taking a little snooze on the sofa. Try to avoid doing this – it spends all the sleep pressure that’s been building all day. Regaining enough sleep pressure to fall and stay asleep later will be difficult – especially for older adults.
Melatonin is a hormone secreted by a gland in your brain that helps regulate our sleep and wake times. It is very much light-affected and starts to rise (typically) during the mid-to-late evening when the day begins to darken. It doesn’t actually cause the sleep (a common misperception), but it signals that it’s time to begin. Melatonin levels remain high during most of the night when it’s dark, continuing to signal it’s time to sleep, and then levels drop in the morning, signaling it’s time to wake.
The ‘dance’ between these two have a great deal of effect on your sleep. Imbalances impact how alert and attentive you feel throughout the day, and whether or not you will be sleepy at bedtime – and how well you will sleep after retiring.
Habits that affect falling and staying asleep
Caffeine holds back adenosine, a bit like a dam holds back water. It keeps your brain from feeling the effect of the rising tide, so you feel more energy and less fatigue. However, at some point, your liver will dismantle the dam (so to speak) and, you’ll be hit with a rush of all that previously held-back adenosine. The larger the amount you’ve held back (i.e. the more caffeine you’ve ingested), the more ferocious the backlash is going to be.
What we can do – It’s possible to get your sleep habits so balanced that you wake up feeling refreshed and energized without caffeine. If you do enjoy a cuppa in the morning, however, it’s best to restrict your intake. Remember, the amount you take in is directly proportional to the amount of backlash you’ll feel later. And caffeine consumption into the evening can prevent the release of the adenosine sleep pressure that helps you fall asleep.
Melatonin is extremely sensitive to light. In that regard, we are somewhat ‘solar powered’ because light keeps sleep-governing melatonin at bay. However, our lives are full of LED devices that flood light into our eyes long into the wee hours. Bright indoor lights, surfing computers, phones, and tablet devices, watching television – all of these things inhibit the production of melatonin when we need it.
What we can do – Start lowering the lights in rooms where you spend evening hours. Turn off those overhead bulbs and use softer ambient lighting. Try to give yourself at least an hour before bed that you put aside all electronic devices to let your body’s natural melatonin production get a fighting chance.
Our bodies have a natural balance and work best when we can find it. If you’re interested in learning more, talking to a health and wellness coach may be a good way to help you find balance in areas of fitness, nutrition, rest, and emotional well-being.