Are You Feeling Sleepy?
This week I’ve been talking about sleep. Before you nod off, let me assure you this is an important health concern. It’s been estimated that millions of Americans go through life more or less sleep deprived on a daily basis. As a result, everything from public safety to public health expenditures suffer. Sleep is one of the foundations of good health, for numerous reasons. When we fail to get enough sleep, virtually every aspect of health suffers.
So what are some natural ways to ensure you’ll get the restorative sleep you need? Sleep experts often point to sleep hygiene as a good place to start. This involves a set of guidelines designed to enhance falling asleep and staying asleep. For starters, it’s important to sleep in a cool, dark room. Sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people skip these important steps.
Let’s unpack those two recommendations a little. “Sleep in a cool room.” In recent years, scientists have discovered that cool temperatures at night appear to enhance deep sleep. Special pillows that remain cool longer have been linked to more restful sleep, as have cooler room temperatures. As an added bonus, a small study showed that healthy volunteers who slept in a room cooled to 66-degrees F increased stores of “brown fat”. This rare type of body fat is metabolically active, meaning it encourages calorie burning and helps lower blood sugar levels. Which suggests that sleeping in a cool room just might help you lose weight.
“Sleep in a dark room.” This seems obvious. Artificial light has been around for little more than a century. Our ancestors had access to fire, but candlelight is weak, and does not produce the energetic short wavelengths (blue light) that we’re commonly exposed to these days. Blue light from electronic devices—including televisions, smart phones and other digital devices—has been shown to interrupt the production of melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone released by the pineal gland in response to absolute darkness. In addition to being an important antioxidant, it’s linked to sleep onset and maintenance. When we expose ourselves to blue light at night, melatonin release is impeded. And that affects natural sleep.
Which brings us to some things you can try to enhance your own sleep. Avoid light at night—especially light from electronic devices, including e-readers. Turn down the thermostat and consider investing in a special “cooling” pillow. Avoid caffeine in the evening and avoid drinking more than the recommended one unit of alcohol, too. Alcohol may bring on sleep, but the quality of sleep will suffer significantly.
Melatonin is available as a supplement to help you drift off, if really necessary. But a better choice may be tart cherry juice. This food includes a natural form of melatonin that may enhance the ability to fall asleep. Avoid napping if possible. If you do nap, try to keep it under about 40 minutes per day. Another strategy: Boost your intake of the amino acid, tryptophan. This nutrient, found in foods like egg whites, sesame seeds, soy beans and hard cheeses, is used by the body to make certain important brain chemicals linked to sleep, including melatonin. Eating one of these foods with some carbohydrates before bedtime may enhance tryptophan levels in the bloodstream, and facilitate sleep. Sweet dreams!
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Kashefi Z, Mirzaei B, Shabani R. The effects of eight weeks selected aerobic exercises on sleep quality of middle-aged non-athlete females. Iran Red Crescent Med J. 2014 Jul;16(7):e16408. doi: 10.5812/ircmj.16408. Epub 2014 Jul 5.