According to the CDC, 35.2% of American adults sleep less than the recommended 7 hours per night. Sleep medications like Ambien and Lunesta are advertised every day, but sleep scientist have studied and explained how these medications cause sedation, not sleep, and prevent your body from carrying out many of the important functions of sleep. Over the counter supplements like melatonin are rather safe but have been shown to give mixed results as to their efficacy. So how do you go about getting good, reliable sleep in today's world? The first step in achieving healthy sleep is to understand how sleep works.
Most people know that sleep occurs on a circadian rhythm, but what does that mean exactly? It means that being awake and being asleep are an interrelated and regulated 24-hour cycle; in other words, what you do when you're awake can determine how well you sleep, and your body tries to establish a time based pattern in order to better control this process. Sleep doesn't just happen when you snap your fingers or for no reason, and is actually a complex chemical and physical process. Even the slightest interruptions in that process can throw the body and mind off and cause sleep disturbances, and in today's modern society, with the modern American diet and lifestyle, it's shocking that anyone can get a good night's sleep. Environment and diet are the main factors that you should consider when trying to get better sleep.
Hundreds of years ago people slept on hay mattresses with no heat or air conditioning after working in the fields all day and yet somehow in the modern era, people working in offices all day are often too uncomfortable to sleep even on their 12-inch thick, memory foam, cooling, hybrid mattresses. The first step to understanding where people have gone wrong is understanding what has changed. While people used to spend the majority of their time outdoors during the day, now the majority of their time is spent indoors. Fresh air and physical activity are healthy things, but the main issue related to sleep in the current scenario is the sun. Your eyes do more than help you to navigate the world, they also help your body keep time and stick to the aforementioned circadian rhythm, and they do that by sending the signal to your brain that the sun is up. When the photosensitive cells in your eyes see the sun, your brain activity increases, and your pineal gland begins to produce melatonin with the expectation that it will be used at the end of the day. Studies have shown that getting around 30 minutes of sunlight early in the morning increases your melatonin levels and can help you to sleep that night.
Now you might be thinking that those bright office lights that give you a migraine are comparable to the light of the sun, but studies have shown that they do not produce the same melatonin inducing effect. This is because as bright as they are, they deliver only around 400 lux to your eyes, compared to the 3000 lux of light that reach your eyes from the sun. After these findings, therapy lights were developed that are 10,000 lux, which is enough to give you some of the effects of natural sunlight.
While indoor lighting isn't enough to provoke your pituitary gland into making melatonin you need to enact sleep, it is more than enough to stimulate the increased brain activity that keeps you awake. This is why having a sleep environment that's completely dark is essential, or else your brain is getting both wake and sleep signals, causing you to be exhausted but unable to sleep.
Environment is not the only thing that has undergone drastic change in the modern era; human diets are wildly different from what they once were. For the purposes of sleep, only a few of those changes matter. In an effort to treat the taste buds to magnificent wonders, humans have slowly been consuming more refined and more concentrated foods. However, the body was never designed to process ultra-concentrated substances in high quantities. Humans have sugar cravings because sugary foods like fruit are things people would need to naturally seek out in previous eras to meet nutritional needs. However, those cravings were developed to suit food that was actually available, and didn't account for food that would later be artificially developed and refined into a concentrated substance.
Everyone knows that giving a kid sweets will keep them from falling asleep, but you may not know that eating added sugar or refined carbs throughout the day will cause insulin spikes and falls similar to what diabetics experience. This not only interferes with your ability to sleep, but also with your energy levels throughout the day. Sugar goes in, blood sugar levels rise, insulin takes that blood sugar and turns it into energy or fat, then melatonin suppresses that insulin when you sleep because you don't need all that energy. If you don't have enough melatonin to suppress your insulin production, the insulin will continue to turn your blood sugar into high levels of energy, not only keeping you awake, but also wearing out your pancreas so you develop insulin resistance. Cutting back on foods that are highly concentrated or highly refined will help you to maintain consistent energy and allows your body to regulate your sleep-wake cycle in the way it was built to do so.
Caffeine dependency is another dietary issue that effects the sleep wake cycle. You get an energy high when you drink caffeine, but it doesn't last long, so you might assume it's out of your system an hour later. Well you'd be wrong. The half-life of caffeine is about 6 hours, and it's not fully out of your system for 12 hours. So while you may not be feeling an energy high from that coffee 6 hours later, you're still buzzing with it, and it can still keep your brain awake.
Many readers at this point might be asking how they're going to get their energy if not from added sugars or coffee. Think about the days before added sugars and caffeine: people still had energy, but the energy wasn't from an energy high that could be felt. People are addicted to the feeling of energy highs just like if they were taking stimulant drugs, even causing the brain to release the same reward hormone, dopamine, to encourage them to continue seeking out that high. Just like with any dependency, there's a period of adjustment and withdrawal after you stop consuming concentrated substances, and it can be pretty unpleasant. If you come out of the other side though, you'll be sleeping better with more consistent energy during the day with less risk of health conditions.
In short, you might want to cut back to one cup of coffee per day, and spend more time outdoors. Gaining a better understanding of your diet and it’s influence on your sleep hygiene may also help to improve your sleep quality. Starting your morning with mediation and a walk can help you get needed and peace of mind. If you’re struggling to get a full nights rest or just feel sluggish, these simple tasks may be the difference maker in your daily routine.