We all know that quality of sleep the night before can have a huge influence of how we feel and behave the next day. On average, humans spend nearly two-thirds of their lives asleep and this is time well spent. The rejuvenating effects of sleep are not so much about time with eyes closed in bed, but the quality spent there.
Sleep is a state of altered consciousness, where we drop into brain cycles where we have a relatively low sensory relationship with the external world. Nearly all of our voluntary muscles – the ones we can control to move around – are inhibited and we move between two distinct states; REM (Rapid Eye Movement) and non-REM sleep.
During both waking and sleeping, our brains run through 90 minute cycles – these are similar, but obviously the night-time ones involve dropping down deeper into unconsciousness. In sleep, within this period, there are four stages of non-REM sleep (about 75% of the night), followed by REM, which gets longer each time throughout the night, with the longest period lasting an hour.
REM asleep is unique to mammals and uses up more energy than when we are awake. Non-REM sleep uses 11-40% less, so is where we rest and recover. In REM, some researchers believe that the quick eye motions are not following what we see in dreams, but are an external manifestation of memory processing. REM is where we dream and emotion centres in the brain light up in this state, whereas dampen down during non-REM.
Sleep is all about recovery – physical, emotional and energetic. To be able to function optimally whilst awake, we rely on the immune clear-up, detoxification, tissue healing and emotional processing that occur during the wee small hours. If this downtime isn’t respected, we may quickly see symptoms like fatigue, irritability, poor concentration and poor recovery from stress, injury and skin complaints.
Researchers believe that part of the role of sleep is simply to conserve energy, a kind of daily hibernation and this does correlate with studies that people sleep longer in the winter, when we need more energy in the day simply to keep warm. Other studies show that our brains prune away unused neural pathways during sleep, leaving us with clearer memories and less stress-inducing ‘background noise’. Unlike the intermittent napping of your cat or dog, primates tend to sleep in one long chunk per day where all of these processes take place.
In winter, when sunlight levels are lower or if your job or lifestyle doesn’t allow you to get much outside time, the balance of the neurotransmitters serotonin and melatonin can become skewed. These two oppose each other in a see-saw action, between wakefulness and drowsiness. Sunlight triggers serotonin, for being awake and using energy during the day, whilst darkness signals melatonin for sleep. Getting out into sunlight helps regulate these cycles and allow better quality sleep.
The state of sleep is at the opposite end of the spectrum to the excitation of the stress response. Ideally we produce the stress hormone cortisol on waking to provide motivation and energy for the coming day. This production then reduces throughout the day, to drop down (particularly after 4pm) to allow sleep. When stress tends us to create more cortisol than this natural cycle, this can affect quality of sleep.
It is usual for many of us to spend much of our days sitting and only move in periods designated for exercise. This can mean we become tense, inflexible and even with excess energy left at the end of the day. Regular exercise and spontaneous movement during the day and both keeps down stress hormones, allows our muscles to be able to relax later for sleep.
Lack of sleep, even at a small accumulative level can lead to craving sugar and stimulants as our bodies try to fuel up in the face of less vitally built-up energy. Too little sleep and we can struggle to regulate levels of the hormones ghrelin and leptin, which are responsible for feeling of fullness and satisfaction. Insomnia has been associated with incremental weight gain through increased appetite for this very reason.
Sustained sleep throughout the night relies on the very mechanism that also helps to regulate appetite in the day. Balanced blood sugar levels throughout the day mean that we can sustain body energy levels through the long sleep period. But when we are lurching from highs to lows of blood sugar, we are more likely to drop more suddenly during the night, when this hypoglycaemia can cause us to wake with a sudden jolt. As our bodies’ survival mechanism to prevent us slipping in a low blood sugar coma is adrenaline, this waking can come with a sudden awareness of our environment, fear and racing thoughts. This is the root cause of many an unpleasant time spent going over worries, anxieties and negative projections of reality.
For those with this tendency, starting with a bedtime snack to provide energy through the night can help; try oatcakes, half a banana or celery with nut butter – each of these provides different chemicals to help promote sleep too.
Drinking camomile tea or sleep teas including this herb, help to keep us asleep by raising levels of the neurotransmitter glycine. This is effective not just before bed, but has an accumulative effect when camomile is regularly ingested, reducing anxiety and allowing us to
To raise levels of another soothing neurotransmitter GABA (gamma-amino butyric acid) eat foods high in the amino acid with dinner:
Magnesium is a key mineral for the calming parasympathetic nervous system aka ‘rest and digest’ – the opposite tone to the ‘fight or flight’ sympathetic nervous system stress response. We can use up magnesium quickly when stressed, yet need it to be able to calm, self-soothe and sleep. You can safely take a supplement of 300–400mg magnesium citrate with dinner to promote sleep, such as Lamberts Magasorb (link here).
If you have long-term insomnia you may also find supplementation of 500–1,000mg of the amino acid taurine helpful alongside magnesium and often found in calm or sleep supplement formulas. This is found in fish, meat and milk so vegetarians may need to supplement it; the body can produce some but this may suffer in times of stress or low vitamin B6 levels. Taurine and magnesium act like GABA, our brain’s natural ‘braking system’, acting to help us switch off and fall asleep. This may be particularly helpful if overthinking or recurrent thoughts are getting in the way of sleep.
L-Theanine is an extract of tea, known to have calming effects on body and mind. Taken in concentrated form in supplements, it may help reduce mental and physical stress and increase mental focus. It is often found in sleep formulas, but can also be taken – as all the supplements in this section – to help promote a calm attitude and body responses throughout the day. They will not make you sleepy, but simply allow your nervous system to come down again after feeling on ‘constant alert’; where you can feel more clarity, safety and perspective.
One supplement that includes magnesium, taurine and L-Theanine is Nutri Calmeze (link here).
Sleep isn’t something that just comes upon us, our bodies are preparing metabolically from about 4pm onwards and some people are particularly susceptible to over-stimulation in the evening. Paying attention to your nervous system needs helps smooth the path to slumber-land:
Yoga practice is linked to raised levels of the neurotransmitters serotonin and GABA, vital for healthy sleep. See How to Stay Calm for how yoga increases vagal tone, the self-soothing mechanism that allows us to fall asleep. Several studies have shown that a regular yoga practice over a period of at least 8 weeks showed benefits to sleep efficiency, total sleep time, the amount of time it takes to fall asleep and sustaining sleep (J Clin Nurs. 2015; Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2017).
There are many variations on a moon salutation, this is a very simple version to focus close to the ground and moving around the belly to bring us down out of our heads at the end of the day. The movement fully moves through fascia to release stored tension and allow us to fully relax for sleep.
Repeat the motion as whatever pace your body tissues feel is right, dropping back into a child pose at any point you need to come into a quiet place.
Opening the back body induces the parasympathetics, allowing full calming of mind-body. Forward bends also promote a quality of surrender and letting go, as we let the weight of the head and thoughts drop away. This version of paschimottanasana, with a bolster under the knees, takes the hamstrings out of the equation to allow the lower back to fully soften before bed.
Yoga teacher and research scientist Roger Cole PhD showed reclining and restorative postures like promote sleep by relaxing the baroreflex, a reflex known to maintain constant blood pressure. This twisted version of a child pose, supported over a bolster (or other lift) has the feeling of wringing out the last stresses of the day.
A long savasana at the end ensures we bring everything back to symmetry in the mid-line to give the brain and body full rest from continually processing change. Focussing on a full and spacious out-breath allows tension to fully release. Move straight from here to bed if you can.
This version of mindfulness of breathing gives your brain something to focus on, taking it away from thoughts going round your head that make interfere with falling asleep or dominate of you wake in the night.
Spend a few moments moving your jaw to soften your face and eyes. Then begin counting ‘one’ on the inhalation, ‘one’ on the exhalation. Continue counting the full breath cycle like this up to ten and then start again. If your mind wanders or you lose count, simply start again at one.
Listen to Charlotte's Podcast on 'Tips to Sleep Soundly' here