The entire month of September, I will be going through the top five factors you must address when working to achieve any weight loss goal: nutrition, mindset, stress, sleep, and movement.
Sleep, like stress, is another huge factor in the weight loss game that often goes overlooked in our attempt to live busy busy busy, go go go lives that leave us drained, but surprisingly wired and unable to sleep. Today, we are going to discuss why sleep is so important, as well as discuss how to troubleshoot falling and staying asleep.
Importance of Sleep
Sleep plays a huge role in every aspect of our health, including:
Healthy brain function and emotional health
Hormonal regulation - specifically cortisol and insulin
Fitness and nutrition goals
Healing of damaged cells
Immune system health
Bodily systems repair and protection
Regulating hunger and hunger hormones
If we don't get enough sleep, we put ourselves at risk for a host of issues including an inability to think clearly; medical conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, and strokes; poor energy throughout the day; anxiety and depression; frequent sickness; and sugar or junk food cravings. Plus, if weight loss is our goal, we aren't giving our body adequate rest and recovery time from the stress and toxins in our lives. Sleep is necessary to reduce that inflammation!
Building a Sleep Routine
Why is it that we place so much emphasis on building a sleep routine for children, but we throw it out the window as we get older? I would argue that establishing a sleep routine as you age is just as important as when you are young. Today, we are going to walk through how to build a solid sleep routine.
First, setting a sleep routine starts with knowing how many hours of sleep of sleep you actually need. I like to use this list as a guide:
Once you've determined the number of hours you need to sleep, adding more if necessary while healing from an autoimmune disease or other chronic health issues, it's time to count back, set your alarm, and make it happen!
However, let's not forget to address the common struggles most people have with sleep: fall and staying asleep.
Troubleshooting Falling Asleep
There's nothing worse than tossing back and forth with a racing mind before bed that keeps you from falling asleep. Try out some of these tips to help you fall asleep faster.
Journal Before Bed
When our mind starts racing, it's hard to calm it down! Instead of having an endless stream of thoughts before bed, take a few minutes to journal and get your thoughts out on paper. Write down 3-5 things you are grateful for, as well as anything that is on your mind. You might also write down anything that you have to remember to do the next day so that you won't worry that you won't forget!
Eat PFC Balanced Meals
Eat meals throughout the day that contain protein, fat, and carbs from real, whole foods (meat, eggs, seafood, vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, healthy fats) and avoid processed, refined foods (especially right before bed!). This will ensure that your blood sugar is steady throughout the day, which will also help your sleep. Erratic blood sugar levels can keep you from falling and staying asleep. Also avoid large meals before bedtime. Aim to finish eating 1-2 hours before bed.
Stop Caffeine After 12pm
Caffeine is an overused stimulus for many people who are sleep deprived, and its effects can last up to 12 hours. Don't drink any caffeine after 12pm so that your body can start to get back to its normal and regular circadian rhythm throughout the day. This will help you fall asleep and relax in the evenings as well!
Get Exposure to Natural Light During the Day
Natural light right away in morning helps reset our circadian rhythm so that we can get into a proper sleep-wake cycle. I like to look out my window when I get up right away in the morning for just a few seconds. It is also important, especially if you work inside a building all day, to make sure to get some sun/light exposure during the daytime hours, even for just a minute or two! This will help your body recognize when it is time for sleep and when it is time for work!
Exercise Earlier in the Day
Exercising earlier in the day (morning, mid-morning, or early afternoon) can help you fall asleep compared to working out later in the evening. Working out too late in the evening can get your adrenaline pumping too much, keeping you wide awake when you want to be sleeping!
Establish a Sleep Routine
Establishing a sleep routine that you follow each night will help you start to fall asleep quicker and easier.
Cut Out Blue Light Before Bed
This means that all electronics and tons of artificial light need to be turned off or dimmed. You can wear amber-tinted, blue light blocking glasses an hour or two before bed if you want to continue to use electronics but you don't want the stimulating effects of the blue light. In addition, you can also buy orange tinted light bulbs for lamps in your house or simply dim the lights at night. Any action that will help dim the lights you are exposed to at night will help your circadian rhythm naturally regulate so that your melatonin is rising at night and cortisol is falling, enabling you to fall asleep! My favorite brands for blue light blocking glasses are Felix Gray and this cheaper pair from Amazon.
Don't Stress Too Much
This goes for both sleep and life - stress is the opposite of calming on the body. Having too much stress in our lives (whether it's from our struggles with sleep, work, family, money, or anything else) will keep our cortisol (the stress hormone) high. When our cortisol is high, it suppresses our melatonin, which is our natural sleep hormone. Reduce stress and relax to the best of your ability, and your sleep will improve - promise!
Set the Room
Dim the lights, cool down the air temperature, and turn the TV off in the bedroom. Make your bedroom a place only for sleep and journaling - nothing else! This will not only help you fall asleep, but it will help your mind correlate your cool, dark bedroom with falling asleep, not staying up watching TV for hours.
Relax Before Bed
It doesn't matter how you do it - listening to music, yoga, meditation, a hot bath - but try to relax and unwind a few minutes before bed. This will help your body switch from the sympathetic state (fight or flight, go-go-go!) to the parasympathetic state (rest and digest, calm). Without making this switch, you will continue to have trouble falling asleep. But on a relaxing playlist of piano music, sit on the floor, and focus on your breath for 5 minutes before climbing into bed. It just might do the trick!
Remember that when you are having trouble falling asleep, the most likely cause is that your circadian rhythm is out of a routine due to stress, blue light exposure, caffeine, sugar, or any other disrupter. Take some time build your sleep routine, eat tons of nourishing whole foods, stay away from electronics at night, and see what happens after a week. Your body might take some time to adjust, but I promise that it is worth it! Your sleep determines your overall health, and is worth every second of investment that you put into it!
Troubleshooting Staying Asleep
Check Your Liver Health
My acupuncturist and I have had many discussions about the role of the liver and sleep. Typically, if you are finding yourself awake from 2-4am and have a hard time falling back to sleep, you need to check in on your liver health. The liver is a detoxifying organ in our body, and today's society makes it work extra hard to keep our body running properly. The liver has to detoxify the foods we eat, alcohol, and toxins from our environment. We are exposed to so many more things that stress our liver now more than ever, and when our liver is overburdened, it can cause problems with our sleep.
Supporting your liver is the one of the best ways you can help your sleep and your overall health. First, you want to make sure you're eating a real food based diet focused around meat, eggs, seafood, vegetables, fruit, and healthy fats (olives, butter, coconut oil, avocados, nuts, seeds). It's also a good idea to focus on liver superfoods such as organ meats (like liver itself!), leafy greens, bone broth, and seafood. However, it is almost more important that you are also avoiding processed foods, refined sugars, and gluten containing grains. These foods are high in refined carbs which are taxing to the liver as well as your entire body.
In addition, other ways to support your liver health include avoiding excess alcohol, switching to more "holistic" beauty products (the chemicals all have to be processed by the liver), and changing out your cleaning products for more natural options.
A quick note: liver detoxes are becoming a "buzz word" in the health world. Don't fall for any of those traps that have you taking a bunch of supplements or drinking only green drinks for weeks as a way to support your liver. The best way to support your liver is to drink plenty of water and eat tons of real, whole food (especially veggies) while avoiding grains, alcohol, and sugar.
Blood Sugar Regulation
This tip might be the most important one for helping you sleep through the night. Often, we wake up during the night because our blood sugar has fallen to low and our body is forced to wake up. You might not feel this as hunger necessarily, but it is still often related to your blood sugar levels.
It is critical to maintain stable blood sugar levels by eating a diet focused on a balance of protein, fat, and carbs from real food sources (meat, eggs, seafood, vegetables, fruit, healthy fats, etc). However, as with the section on liver health, it is even more important with blood sugar regulation to avoid processed and refined foods high in added sugars (real or fake) and grains. These foods cause all sorts of blood sugar issues as they spike our blood sugar very high, only to watch it fall 1-2 hours later resulting in an energy and mood crash.
It is also important with blood sugar regulation to make sure you aren't eating carbs alone (that even means fruit!). Always pair carbs with protein and/or fat to help control your body's response to the carbs. Examples include apples with almond butter or a sweet potato with butter on top.
Many people wake up during the night because they need to use the bathroom. This could be from drinking too much water before bed, which is an easy fix. However, this could also be a signal for blood sugar issues, in which case I'll direct you to my notes above!
Avoid Prolonged Naps
Napping for extended periods of time during the day can mess up your sleep schedule. If you feel like you absolutely can't make it through the day without one, consider evaluating your total sleep routine and habits. Are you needing naps during the day because you are getting less than 5 hours of sleep each night or are staying up late on electronics? Try fixing the root cause of the problem instead of covering it with frequent naps.
One quick note - I'm not saying naps are horrible, but if you are having trouble with staying asleep, it's definitely a factor to consider!
Establish a Consistent Wakeup Time
This goes back to make a regular sleep routine, but waking up at about the same time each day helps your body get into a regular rhythm and pattern. This will, in time, help you stay asleep through the night.
Consider White Noise
If you are a light sleeper, consider playing some white noise in the background or running a fan to help you from hearing every small little noise. I have two fans going at all times because I'm such a light sleeper!
Avoid Alcohol Before Bed
We talked about this with liver health earlier, but it bears repeating. Too much alcohol before bed can cause you to wake up in the middle of the night as your liver works to process the alcohol. Limit your consumption as your bedtime approaches, and maybe intersperse drinks with water.
Don't Look at Your Clock or Phone
If you do find yourself awake, don't look at the clock or phone. The blue light from the electronics, especially in a dark room, can mess up your circadian rhythm even more than it already is from waking up. This goes back to our discussion about avoiding electronics before bed or wearing blue-light blocking glasses.
Evaluate Stress and Anxiety Levels
Stress is the worst, and unfortunately, there is no magic pill to get rid of stress (if you know of one, let me know!!!). Stress effects every single area of our health, and until we start to manage it in a way that works for our bodies, we are going to continue to feel the nasty effects of stress. Having trouble staying asleep is one of those problems. With our circadian rhythm, we are supposed to have higher levels of our stress hormone cortisol in the morning. That is what wakes us up. We are also supposed to have higher levels of melatonin at night to help us go to sleep. However, when we are stressed all of the time (from work, finances, friends, family, food choices, too much/too little exercise, etc), we develop chronically high cortisol that never seems to go down and follow its nature cycle. This means that we have higher cortisol at night when it should be lower, allowing us to sleep. Reducing cortisol through stress management is one of the best ways to help your sleep become deeper and better! Stress reduction looks different for everyone, but examples include massages, yoga, talking with friends/family, journaling, deep breathing, going for a walk outside in nature, and acupuncture. Find what works for you and make it a priority. It's not easy by any means, but I assure you it is completely worth the investment of time and money.
Supplements and Food Sensitivities
Sometimes, certain foods or supplements you are taking might be affecting your sleep as well. It's always good to keep a journal of how you are feeling and what you are eating/taking to track this!
Everyone is different with what they react to, but it's definitely worth a shot to see what food or supplement sensitivities you might have. The best way to test this is to complete an elimination diet by removing all of the common inflammatory foods (corn, soy, dairy, grains, alcohol, refined sugars) and focusing on real foods for a period of 2-4 weeks. Then, systematically adding and reintroducing foods after the 2-4 weeks will allow you to see what you are reacting to specifically. It will definitely reveal an issues with sleep or other health issues!
Obviously, there are so many benefits to sleep other than weight loss, but just remember - you will NOT achieve weight loss or any other health goals unless you make sleep a priority now before it's too late!