The importance of sleep and tips for an optimal slumber
Sleep is such a precious thing! Although we still do not fully comprehend the effect that sleep plays on our body physiology, we do know is that it is vital to our health and well being, and humans simply could not survive without it. For decades the purpose of sleep remained somewhat a mystery. However, the many functions of sleep are slowly being uncovered, and we now know that it plays an essential role in many of our body systems. These include immune and cognitive health, mood, energy, muscle growth and repair, metabolism and insulin sensitivity, among many. The stages of sleep and the essential functions associated with those phases can be broken down into four key stages:
Light Sleep: The transition between wake and sleep, this should constitute 5% of total sleep time.
Stable Sleep (Non Rapid Eye Movement): A light stage of sleep that should make up roughly 50% of our sleep time.
- Eyes don’t move
- Low muscle tone
- Slower heart rate
- Deeper sleep
Deep Sleep (NREM – or non rapid eye movement sleep): This stage usually starts 35-45mins after falling asleep and totals around 20% of total sleep time
- Growth hormone is released
- Tissue healing and repair occurs
- Muscle and bone building
- Immune system strengthens
REM Sleep (rapid eye movement): Associated with sudden and dramatic loss of muscle tone, increases in rapid eye and middle ear movements plus muscle twitches. This is the closest state to waking.
- Revitalizes cognitive function and memory
- Psychological repair and integration
What is an optimal night’s sleep?
Numerous studies suggest the optimal number of hours of sleep to be 7-8 hours per night of uninterrupted sleep, between the hours of 10pm-6am. However, the reality is that many people rarely, if ever, achieve this. Night shifts, young children, late night screen use, jet lag, excessive caffeine intake can all take a toll on our ability to both fall asleep and stay asleep.
Just one night of poor sleep can negatively impact our memory, judgment, eating patterns and mood. While prolonged sleep deprivation is linked to mental illness, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity.
All too often the quick fix for poor sleep is to turn to medical sleep aids. However, long – term use can result in serious dependency as well as increase the risk of side effects including changes in appetite, bowel disturbances, daytime drowsiness, falls and confusion. As little as 10 sleeping tablets taken in a row may actually worsen sleeping difficulties.
Tips for a good nights sleep
Fortunately, there are many natural approaches that can be very effective in improving sleeping patterns. The first place to start is with basic sleep hygiene principles…Sometimes simply turning off your screen a couple of hours early can be all the difference you need.
- Reduce or avoid stimulants such as tea, green tea and coffee from 2pm (these also act as diuretics and can make you wake up to pass urine).
- Avoid intense exercise prior to bedtime.
- Make sure your evening meal is completed by 8pm at the latest and contains some complex carbohydrate foods such as brown rice, kumara, pumpkin or quinoa. No food 2hrs before bedtime.
- Avoid screens 1-2 hrs before bed. Keep TV’s and computers out of the bedroom. Sleeping after using an ipad is like trying to sleep after being in full sunlight.
- Try to keep to a routine, same time to bed each night and same time to wake.
- Keep the room well ventilated, a cool room is easier to maintain sleep.
- Make sure the room is dark and there are no stimulating blue or red lights from alarm clocks or chargers.
- A warm bath with Epsom salts, and/or relaxing essential oil such as lavender, frankincense or sweet orange can help to alleviate stress and promote sleep.
- Relaxing teas to enjoy before bed include chamomile, lemon balm, passion flower and valerian skullcap. Some supermarket brands of sleepy teas can be effective.
Herbs and supplements for a good nights sleep
Magnesium helps to relax muscles and calm the nerves – an essential component of being able to sleep. It is also involved in the production of the sleep hormone melatonin. Magnesium supplementation has been shown to improve sleep efficiency, onset and length. Busy lifestyles, stress, and chronic lack of sleep greatly increase our requirements of this essential mineral.
Vitamin D deficiencies can cause day-time drowsiness as well as low mood and depression, all of which can lead to ongoing sleep issues if not treated. Again, Vitamin D deficiencies are common in New Zealand due to heavy sun block use and low sun exposure.
Zinc is another important nutrient involved in the production of melatonin. Low levels of zinc are common in New Zealand and are often linked to depression and hormonal imbalances, both of which can contribute to sleeping problems.
Vitamin B12 deficiency can result in difficulties with falling asleep and staying asleep. It plays a part in the production of melatonin, one of most important sleep hormones. Low levels of B12 can also result in depression, which can be a common cause of secondary insomnia.
Herbs to support sleep
Passion flower has been traditionally used for centuries to help promote sleep and reduce nervousness and anxiety. It helps increase production of the sleep hormone melatonin as well as increasing GABA production and uptake. GABA is an important hormone for supporting sleep maintenance. People subject to ongoing stress, or menopausal women are often depleted in GABA.
Zizyphus is an excellent sleep support that has been found to improve an individual’s ability to both fall asleep and stay asleep. It acts as a gentle sedative as well as promotes sleep by improving GABA function.
Valerian has been used as a safe and effective sleep aid for over 2,000 years. It is both calming to the nervous system and mildly sedating. However, a small proportion of people tend to be stimulated rather than sedated by valerian, so it is not for everyone.
A naturopath will often use a combination of herbs when addressing sleep problems to help address the underlying cause of problem. Chamomile, Hops, Oats, Lemon Balm, magnolia, St John’s wort or Withania can all help improve the outcome and also alleviate other issues such as anxiety, hormone imbalances, and depression.
If you are experiencing ongoing sleep disturbances or insomnia that are not alleviated by the steps above, we would recommend visiting your naturopath or holistic doctor at the Holistic Medical Centre (ph. 09 370 0650) to help establish the root cause of your sleep issues and create a more targeted treatment approach specifically for your situation. We do not recommend using therapeutic doses of herbs or supplements without qualified support.