10 Ways to Optimize Sleep

sleep Oct 22, 2022
Functional medicine sleep optimization

10 Ways to Optimize Sleep

Over and over again, I hear people saying that they are struggling to sleep.  Maybe it's challenging to fall asleep at the end of the day as thoughts or worries or to-dos race through your mind.  Maybe you wake up heart pounding part way through the night and have trouble falling back asleep. If either of those situations happen to you (or if there's some other mysterious issue plaguing your sleep) this is for you.

It's no surprise that getting good restorative sleep is pivotal to how you feel during the day.  Poor sleep is a common culprit causing fatigue, brain fog, moodiness, emotional outbursts as well as being known to worsen weight gain and make you more susceptible to getting sick. Sleep regulates hormones and poor sleep can cause disruptions in cortisol, testosterone and more causing you to feel tired, low, and uninterested in things like connecting with your partner. 

Unfortunately, getting better sleep can be a sore spot.  Of course no one is trying to sleep poorly!  Getting good, restful sleep can feel elusive, like trying to find a unicorn in a world where only horses exist.  If you stick with me through this article, I'll share some secrets that will help you unlock your body's natural ability for better, healing sleep.

 

1. Use a sleep tracker or wearable device

Accurate data helps immensely with optimizing.  Many smart watches and apps can be used to get data.  Some of the best data for sleep out there comes from the Oura ring; other devices still provide plenty of useful data.  When starting to optimize sleep, you'll want to start paying attention to when you go to bed, how long it takes to fall asleep (called sleep latency, normally between 10-20 minutes), how frequently you wake up and how long these interruptions occur, percentage of REM (Rapid Eye Movement Sleep), percentage of deep sleep, and when you wake.  If you find that you are consistently falling asleep before or after the normal sleep latency window, it may be worthwhile to have a discussion with your provider that knows you. 

2. Keep a habit journal

As you start to notice (I'll invite you again to do this without judgement) how you are sleeping, it may also be helpful to pay attention to the habits that surround sleep.  Good sleep is influenced by what you are doing and how you are feeling during the day.  You can use a sleep app like SleepWatch or Pillow or do it the old fashioned way and create a log on your own.  Some habits to keep an eye on that have been shown to influence sleep include: exercise, naps, nutrition, caffeine, alcohol, illness, or stressors.

3. Consider reducing caffeine intake

Caffeine stays in the body for hours after consumption.  The mean half life of caffeine (meaning how much time it takes for the body to get rid of half of the amount of caffeine consumed) is 5 hours and can range from 1.5 hours to 9 hours. This means that even if you're drinking caffeine in the morning, there will still be some in your body by the time you go to bed. If you choose to continue to drink caffeine, it may be worthwhile to consider stopping by noon to allow your body time to start reducing the amount in your system so it does not interrupt your sleep.

4. Moderate alcohol consumption

People sometimes think that alcohol helps them sleep better so I want to explain why it may sound confusing to say that it is one of the biggest culprits for poor sleep.  Alcohol is a nervous system depressant, which means it acts on the brain to slow down activity.  While initially this may cause symptoms such as drowsiness and sleepiness, as the alcohol wears off this causes an increase in nervous system activity which is a common reason for waking up. Alcohol also suppresses REM sleep and heart rate variability, which indicate that the body is not performing its functions to repair damage during sleep, leaving the body unrecovered, unrestored, and in worse shape the next day.

There are a few ways to minimize the impact of alcohol on sleep while still allowing yourself to enjoy a drink or two. One option is to stop drinking about 3-4 hours before you go to bed.  This will allow the depressant effects to begin wearing off.  Another option may be to use a probiotic supplement such as Zbiotics that breaks down acetaldehyde (the neurotoxic substance from alcohol) with drinking to reduce the negative impact on the central nervous system. It's worth noting that if you choose to use a probiotic supplement such as Zbiotics, it will also reduce the buzz from alcohol which may inadvertently cause an increase in alcohol consumption if that's what you're looking for, something to be mindful of. Prior to taking any new supplements, you should always discuss with your provider. 

5. Consider progressive relaxation or yoga nidra before bed

Progressive relaxation and yoga nidra are two different practices that help with muscle relaxation.  Both practices have a positive effect on supporting sleep.  The body doesn't turn off as easily as turning off the lights before bed.  Using these practices allows the body to enter a state of relaxation and rest that allows for restorative sleep.  Test it out for yourself by watching this YouTube video on Progressive Muscle Relaxation.

6. Regulate blood sugar

Blood sugar spikes and dips may be a cause of poor sleep.  If you worry that this may be a culprit for you, I encourage you to talk with your provider. There are some ways to help balance your blood sugar that may help support better sleep at night.  For some people, it can be helpful to increase protein intake. Protein takes longer to digest and can be easily broken down into glucose as the body requires it rather than causing huge spikes after meals.  This can help stabilize blood sugar. Following a low glycemic diet that reduces sugars and fast carbs and increases fiber and healthy fats may also be helpful.  It may also be helpful to get data on what your blood sugar is doing throughout the day in response to foods and stress through a device called a continuous glucose monitor.  Your doctor may be able to order one for you if you have a diagnosis of diabetes or there are options to purchase for yourself through companies such as Nutrisense. 

7. Optimize cortisol levels

Cortisol is a chemical messenger called a hormone in your body that is released as part of the body's stress response. It is essential to survival. However, stress can cause deviations in cortisol levels that may greatly affect energy levels and sleep.  When cortisol is elevated, it causes the body to release glucose, so if you have glucose fluctuations, you may also want to take a look at cortisol as well. Cortisol levels can be influenced by light, food timing, and stress. Normally, cortisol levels will spike about 30 minutes after waking (called the Cortisol Awakening Response), decreasing as the day goes on until they reach their lowest point before bed.  Sometimes, trouble falling asleep may be a result in cortisol rising again before bed.  If you are worried that this may be a culprit for you, it may be worthwhile to talk to your provider.  Diurnal salivary cortisol testing or dried urine testing may help identify fluctuations in cortisol.  For some people, implementing habits such as progressive relaxation, medication/mindfulness, and food timing may be enough to regulate.  For others, additional supplements may be helpful and should be considered with your provider.

As mentioned earlier, sleep also has an influence on cortisol as well as other hormones, so the relationship here is bidirectional.  If you want to dive deeper into optimizing your hormones, check out my free How to Hack Your Hormones webinar. 

8. Use food intake and timing

Food timing plays a big role in supporting sleep.  Melatonin is the chemical messenger in your body that helps your brain know it's time for sleep.  Melatonin is primarily created and released by the gut. When you eat in the evening as melatonin levels begin to rise, melatonin interferes with blood glucose metabolism causing blood sugar to rise, disrupting sleep. Additionally, a breakfast rich in the amino acid tryptophan (from protein) coupled with morning sunlight has been shown to increase evening melatonin production (https://doi.org/10.1186/1880-6805-33-33)

9. Take a hot bath 

Another control lever for good sleep is through body temperature.  To fall asleep, the body needs to experience a drop in internal temperature.  Certain conditions, such as depression, have been associated with disruptions in homeostatic control of body temperature.  To encourage the body's natural drop in temperature, you can do things such as take a hot bath or warm shower.  This encourages dilation of the blood vessels in the skin which will bring blood to the body's surface and allow it to cool.  The best time to do this may be about 1-2 hours before bed to allow for the body to cool after. 

10. Use light intelligently

Optimizing light exposure is a free and easy way to support sleep.  The best way to do this is start your morning with natural light as much as possible.  Natural light exposure (whether or not it's sunny) helps regulate cortisol production and as highlighted above, also helps with melatonin production.  To optimize natural light, try getting outside in the morning within about 30 minutes of waking for about 15-20 minutes.  You will not get the same benefits sitting inside by a bright window, it's essential to do this outside.  An ideal way to do this might be to go for a walk outside before having your cup of coffee.  Evening light also helps set circadian rhythm, so try doing the same thing in the evening.  You will still get amazing benefits from natural light even if its grey and cloudy.  In the winter months, it may be helpful to use a SAD lamp.  

There is often a lot of discussion about blue light in the evenings.  Some sources warn of looking at blue light emitting devices after dark.  There is also some emerging discussion on whether or not this is the case and if the sleep disrupting propensity of devices is more linked to the neurological activation most devices cause vs the light they produce.  Regardless, it's likely a good idea to disconnect from your phone about an hour before bed and avoid doomscrolling as you go to sleep or wake up.  

These are just a few ways to consider optimizing your sleep.  There are so many additional options to improve your energy and sleep, aspects like how dark, cool, and quiet your room is; type of clothes (or not) you wear to sleep; the way you wind down before bed and more.  If you are struggling with sleep and want to sleep better, consider talking with your health professional or someone who can help you problem solve what ways best suite your body and its needs. 

May you have everything you need to heal,

~Christine~

 

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