How to get a great nights sleep

Glymphatic-System-Cartoon

Sleep is essential to health.  In fact its arguably more essential than food, as you can survive weeks without food but only days without sleep.

 

While essential to health many Aussies struggle to get a good night’s sleep.  Poor sleep causes a long list of health problems including:

-          Cardiovascular dysfunction

-          Brain degeneration

-          Fatigue

-          Poor hormonal control

-          Mood disorders

-          Lowers IQ

-          Memory loss

-          Headaches

 

What happens when we sleep?

 

Stages of sleep:  The sleep cycle involves roughly 90 minute cycles made up of the 4 stages of sleep:

 

-          NREM (drifting off, more easily woken)

-          REM (dreaming)

-          Light sleep

-          Deep sleep (brain rejuvenation)

 

Each stage is important and has its benefits.  Roughly 5 cycles with enough of each stage of sleep is thought to be ideal for most adults, or 7-8 hours.  Kids need more.  The amount of each stage per cycle changes throughout the night with most of your deep sleep happening in the 1st 2 cycles, whereas most REM sleep is in the last 2 cycles.

Sleep cycles throughout the night

When we get into deep sleep our brain cells shrink, opening up canals for fluid to flow.  The brain cells dump the accumulated waste from the day (just like we put the rubbish out) and the brain fluid washes it away from the cell and out of the skull via the GLYMPHATIC drainage system.  This only happens during deep sleep so if you sleep lightly or get woken frequently during the night your brain cells are accumulating waste.  This causes fatigue, brain fog and is thought to accelerate brain aging and degeneration.  Deep sleep only happens for the last 10-20 minutes of an approximate 90 minute sleep cycle.

 

 

  •    Dreaming:  Rapid eye movement (REM) is a stage of sleep where we are dreaming.  REM sleep allows super complex processing of the previous days events which are stored and compiled in the memory.  It also allows the mind to mentally co-ordinate and prepare for what is to come the following day.  Dreams are mysterious and fascinating but like all other functions of life are very important to normal health.

 

HOW TO IMPROVE SLEEP

  • Chiropractic: Glymphatic drainage

Chiropractic care has the commonly reported side benefit of improving sleep quality and duration in people who have difficulty.  There are many possible explanations.  Misalignments of the upper neck can impede both blood flow and brain fluid (CSF) flow in and out of the skull.  This fluid movement is critical to remove waste from the brain and provide adequate nutrition and blood to the brain.  Even a subtle reduction in this flow could potentially affect glymphatic drainage and sleep.  Another explanation is that dysfunction of the joints in the spine is stressful for the body.  Stress increases stress hormones which inhibit sleep related hormones such as melatonin.  Not to mention spinal problems can be painful making it very difficult to get comfortable whilst lying in bed.  Chiropractic helps.

  • Super sleepers – positive imagery

Studies examining people who seem to sleep really well and without effort, waking refreshed and rested discovered an interesting phenomenon termed “positive imagery”.  This is where prior to falling to sleep the ‘super sleepers’ thoughts drift to things that make them happy.  It could be their grandkids, or an activity they love to do, their favourite tv show or even a fantastical adventure like from a movie scene.  The common feature of this imagery is that it was positive and put them in a good mood.  It turns out that thinking positively before sleep is not what most people do.  What most people do is think of the things that stress them out from the past or future.  This stress raises cortisol and activates the brain in ways which inhibit healthy sleep.  The action step here is to consciously focus on positive thoughts as you lay your head down to sleep and notice when your mind drifts to past or future stressful events so you can improve this habit.  You can choose a thought you like.

  • Exercise and physical fatigue as opposed to mental fatigue to allow sleep

Sleep is difficult without physical fatigue.  We are designed to move.  Sedentary behaviour leads to fatigue where we would love to sleep, but we’re not sufficiently fatigued physically for the brain to trigger the sleep cycle to begin.  Sleep is rarely as difficult when physically exhausted, so more exercise is crucial if you currently find sleep difficult and lead a sedentary lifestyle.  One example could be to aim for 10000 steps per day using a wearable step tracker.

  • Circadian rhythm light in AM dark at night

Sleep is controlled by cycles of hormones in the body, the best known sleep cycle is called the “circadian rhythm”.  This internal cycle involves the rise and fall of cortisol which every 24 hours spikes early in the morning to stimulate us to wake up energetic, and falls after the sun goes down making us feel tired whilst also allowing a surge in melatonin, the “sleep hormone” to be produced in the brain.  The circadian rhythm is set by our brains internal sleep program in response to light and dark (evolved in response to changes in light from the sun rising and setting).  The more we live out of sync with the sun rising and setting, ie: restrict light exposure during the day and increase light after sunset the further we drive our circadian rhythm out of sync which can make it very challenging to sleep well.  The best example of this is jetlag, where our body clock is completely out of sync and we cannot sleep when we would like, and cannot easily stay awake when we would like.  A great tip to get back in sync is to be outside soon after you wake up and the sun is up and also limit how light exposure after the sun goes down by dimming inside lights and setting your screens to night mode after sunset.

  • Sunglasses before bed

So how can we reset our circadian clock?  Get exposed to a lot of light when the sun comes up, ie: go outside for a few minutes in the morning and wear sunglasses before bed to block light, helping the brain produce all its sleep chemistry, ready for sleep.

 

  • Screen time

Computer, phone and device screens emit light which prevents melatonin production.  Do your sleep a favour and turn the screens off 1 hour before you want to sleep, or at a minimum turn the screens to night mode.

  • Supplements: Valerian root/magnesium/passionflower

Various supplements have been studied for their ability to improve sleep quality and duration or simply to support nervous system function allowing greater relaxation.   If you have implemented other strategies without success these 3 supplements are definitely worth a go.

 

  • Breathing

Deep controlled breathing such as box breathing stimulates your parasympathetic nervous system, otherwise know as your “rest and digest” nervous system.  The parasympathetic nervous system reduces stress, slows your heart rate and relaxes your body which is excellent preparation for a great night’s sleep.

  • Cold shower before bed

Better sleep is achieved at an ideal temperature range.  Being too warm is not helpful for sleep, so a cold shower prior to bed may be very helpful.

  • Room temperature.

Cooler room temperatures seem to favour a better nights sleep.  I would recommend around 20-22 degrees celcius.

 

  • Bed orientation North south

The idea that sleep is improved by your North-South orientation is not new.  Traditional Chinese medicine practitioners and Indian Aryuvedic proponents have been recommending people sleep with their head to the south and feet facing North for centuries.  There are studies suggesting sleep improves in this orientation, and theories as to why revolve around the earths magnetic pole having an effect on our nervous system ability to relax.  There seems no down side to adopting this practice, and maybe it is very helpful, so why not give it a try.  Orient your bed so your head points south and your feet point north.

  • Sleeping position/posture

An ideal sleeping position for most people will be on there side in a neutral position with the head supported by a pillow.  Sleeping on your back is often difficult for breathing and may promote apnoea (difficulty breathing) and may cause snoring

  • Reduce alcohol

Whilst alcohol inhibits many brain functions this does not lead to better sleep.  In fact it has the opposite effect for most people.  (for me any alcohol dramatically reduces my amount of deep sleep as measured on my wearable device)

 

  • Caffeine

Caffeine and other stimulants prevent nervous system relaxation and for many people can impact sleep quality.  I recommend reducing caffeine prior to sleep.  I am particularly sensitive to caffeine (for me caffeine after lunch time dramatically affects my sleep quality)

  • Wearable devices to track sleep quality such as the OURA ring

Many devices exist now to help you track your sleep quality and duration.  Such as the Oura ring, fitbit, garmin wearable etc.  What gets measured gets managed, so I am a big fan of wearables to monitor sleep.  Most wearables will also monitor other lifestyle/health data such as temperature, heart rate, steps, heart rate variability etc so are a fantastic way of keeping you up to date with your personal health information.

  • Set alarm 1 hour prior to bed and begin sleep optimisation routine

Its very popular to set alarms to wake up.  If you struggle with sleep and know your routine could be improved set an alarm 1 hour before bed.  Once this alarm goes off begin your sleep routine.  This could be to turn off screens, dim the lights, have a shower, brush your teeth, write a list for the following day etc.  The habits you put in place predict your future health better than any other factor.

 

 

Hopefully this information inspires you to work on sleep optimisation so you can reap the benefits of great sleep.