“Sleep is overrated.” How often have you heard or perhaps even said those words? We are busy people. We need to get things done. We need to exercise early, work long and late and play hard at this game of life. Lack of sleep is the honorable badge of busy and successful people. It may start with the ‘all-nighters’ of college years that seep into early adulthood habits of striving for success at your job. Then, as we age into adulthood, let us not forget the sleep depriving aspects of early parenthood. Life gets busy and our sleep often suffers. But even one night of poor sleep and not enough hours of sleep can affect your health. It compromises your ability to think, lowers reaction time and impedes cardiovascular health, your energy and your body’s immune function and ability to fight off infections.
How much sleep do we need? Adults need 7-9 hours of sleep and children and teens require even more. Even seniors require at least 7 hours a night.
Have you ever wondered why getting enough sleep is so important to your health? Why do we suffer health problems if we don’t sleep enough? Why do we gain weight when we don’t sleep enough? Why is it that we often find ourselves getting sick when we are sleep compromised? The answer is complicated, but much of it has to do with the unique patterns of our Master Clock- our circadian rhythm.
Circadian Rhythm: As much as we like to think we rule and control how our body will perform when we push it hard or treat it right, humans are guided by an internal body clock that determines our sleep and wake cycle and a multitude of body functions over a 24 hour time period. This is known as our Circadian Rhythm. Your overall health, cognition, metabolism, immune function and well-being are uniquely tied to this master clock inside of you and disrupting it can and will disrupt your health. Think of it as the background program that runs on your computer; always running critical functions out of your sight and performing while you are busy doing other things. That clock inside you responds to light and darkness, your physical activity and determines your body’s natural sleep and eating patterns. It also guides important functions in the body like cell regeneration, release of certain hormones and other biological functions. When this Circadian Rhythm gets thrown off, interrupted or remains inconsistent, the results can be disastrous for your overall health.
When you eat or sleep inconsistently, you throw this internal clock out of sync and with that comes a cascade of interrupted hormonal and biochemical processes including the natural timing of the immune system and the appropriate inflammatory responses necessary to fight off pathogens and disease.
Maintaining a consistent circadian rhythm is essential for general health.
One of the ways we can keep our Circadian Rhythm in sync is to begin to pay attention to our sleep. Sleep is our most underrated healthy habit; especially these days when we are focused on optimizing our natural immune defenses. We tend to focus on nutrition and exercise as the two key components of healthy habits, and in the rush to “get things done” we let our sleep often get compromised. But suddenly, we notice that our weight is creeping up. We crave sweets, carbs and high fat foods. We might notice we tend to get sick more often. How is it that sleep gets so deeply entwined into our metabolism, immunity and overall health and well-being? The answer is somewhat complicated, but if we look at one of the fascinating hormones of sleep it may make you think about getting your sleep schedule back on track.
The Magic of Melatonin: You may be familiar with melatonin as it is a common supplement used as a sleep aid. But melatonin is an important hormone that is tied to your circadian rhythm and your body produces it naturally at night. It is not only connected to making you sleepy, studies show that it is also tied to things like your weight, metabolism, glucose and cholesterol levels, inflammation levels and immune function. It functions as a hormone, an antioxidant and an important anti-inflammatory agent that works directly with your immune system.
- Melatonin makes you sleepy: Although you might think that getting sleepy and going to bed is just a consequence of how long or hard your day was, the ‘getting sleepy’ process is a bit more complicated. Sleep is regulated by our circadian rhythm as it responds to daylight and the darkness of night. Light exposure during the day stimulates the nerve pathways in the eye from the retina to the hypothalamus (that master gland that regulates circadian rhythms). Inside the hypothalamus is a special regulating system called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN). The SCN signals other parts of the brain to orchestrate different signals that make us feel sleepy when the sun goes down and gets us up and running when the sun comes up. Melatonin is known as the ‘Dracula” sleep hormone. As the sun goes down and daylight recedes, a gland in our brains called the Pineal Gland gets turned on by the SCN and starts to naturally produce a hormone called melatonin. As melatonin levels rise, you feel sleepy. These levels of melatonin stay elevated throughout the darkness of night.
- Melatonin and Immune Function: Melatonin’s lesser known secret weapon is its powerful influence on your immune system. The white blood cells, those killer cells that attack pathogens, are equipped with melatonin receptors. Remember, receptors are little doors on cells that only let extremely specific things into the cells. Your white blood cells need melatonin to function well. Melatonin stimulates the release of cytokines and other proteins that help to attack the pathogens. Melatonin is also a powerful anti-inflammatory agent. It can help prevent damage by the immune system if that system goes awry. Science is not sure how or why at this point, but what studies show is that melatonin has the unique ability to stimulate our immune system when necessary and suppress it when it goes amiss.
- Melatonin and Weight Gain: Other research shows that melatonin can slow weight gain and is uniquely tied to increased metabolism.
- Melatonin and Cardiovascular Health: Melatonin is cardioprotective in that it helps to lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
- Melatonin and Diabetes: Melatonin has been shown in animal studies to improve glucose function in diabetic rats. Conversely, low levels of melatonin are ties to insulin resistance
Ways to Naturally Increase Melatonin and Keep Circadian Rhythm in Balance:
Many people look to melatonin supplements in order to increase melatonin levels; talk to your doctor if you are having sleep issues to see if supplementation is the right path for you. Here are some lifestyle habits that you can put into place that can help naturally increase your melatonin levels and get your internal clock back in sync for better sleep and better health:
- Dim the lights in your house in the evening: After dinner, dim your household lighting. Create a soothing mood with some candles and dim lights. This will signal your body that it is evening. Bright lights inhibit melatonin production
- Turn off the tech one hour before bedtime: Electronics such as computers, phones and TV’s should not be in the bedroom. Make your bedroom dark with darkening shades and keep all the lights low.
- Get sun early in the day: In addition to getting that dose of Vitamin D, the sunlight helps you to create serotonin which is a precursor to melatonin. Serotonin converts to melatonin after the sun goes down. If you can’t get outside, make sure you are near a window that lets light in.
- Get some exercise: Exercise helps with circadian rhythm balance and helps to improve sleep quality. Don’t schedule exercise too close to bedtime though; make sure you give yourself a 3-hour break between exercise and bedtime as exercise causes cortisol levels to rise which can keep you awake and disrupt circadian rhythm.
- Foods that can help increase melatonin:
- Almonds and Walnuts
- Sunflower seeds
- Tart Cherries
- Sweet Potato
- Spices such as cardamom and coriander.
Sleep is much more than an overrated activity- your health depends on it as it is uniquely linked by way of your circadian rhythms to your overall health, weight gain and obesity and other inflammatory diseases as well as compromising your immune function.
By: Cindy Luisi, WHE, WHC, CCP, CDL Wellness Coach
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