Sleep is absolutely essential for your health. Adults should get at least 7 hours of sleep each night while teens and children should get 9 hours per night. A lack of sleep can increase your risk for developing mental health disorders, obesity, stress and possibly increase the risk of dying earlier in life.
We all have internal biological clocks known as a circadian rhythm. Your sleep is regulated by a dance of hormones and external signals over a 24-hour cycle. Light is the main external signal that drives our circadian rhythm. A lack of light signals your body to produce the hormone melatonin while simultaneously signaling your body decrease cortisol, a hormone produced in your adrenal glands that signals alertness. Despite the negative attention, cortisol is not an unhealthy hormone. It helps wake you up in the morning and keep you alert throughout the day. However, when you have too much cortisol, it can elevate your level of stress, as well as increase your risk for developing conditions like obesity or depression.
The hormone melatonin is the primary hormone that regulates your sleep. Melatonin levels rise as we get into the evening hours causing your blood pressure and body temperature to drop. Your body’s functions begin to slow down as well.
Circadian rhythms can be altered by our lifestyle, diet, activity levels, electronics, and traveling across time zones. Things such as these can alter which hormones get released, when they’re released, and how much gets released.
There are 3 stages of sleep:
- REM (Rapid Eye Movement)
Light – This stage of sleep makes up about 50% of your total time asleep. It usually marks the beginning of a sleep cycle.
REM – Stands for Rapid Eye Movement. This is the final stage in a sleep cycle. This is the part of the cycle that is associated with dreaming, memory consolidation, learning and creativity.
Deep – We receive our most restful and restorative at this stage of the cycle. This is where our muscles can undergo growth and repair.
One of the best ways to get that deep, restful sleep is to get some exercise. You don’t have to go to the gym and pound weights all day but simple light exercise such as walking, jogging or playing a sport can help you get a deeper more restful sleep.
Dynamic Action = Dynamic Rest
Your diet can also influence your circadian rhythms and help you get to sleep. What you eat, and more importantly when you eat, can help you get back into rhythm. Getting a good night’s rest consistently, can improve your mood, alertness, energy, thinking, sex, and overall health. Foods to focus on are those with magnesium, tryptophan, serotonin or melatonin. Magnesium helps relax your muscles while the amino acid tryptophan helps you produce serotonin, which is a neurotransmitter that helps you feel happier and calm. Your body can take serotonin and transform it into melatonin. Foods that have one or more of these compounds will help you get to sleep and help reduce your cortisol levels.
Here are some foods that will help balance your circadian rhythms so you can go to sleep…Now.
An ancient remedy for sleep disorders and insomnia. Try a cup of tea a little while before going to sleep. People with ragweed allergies should steer clear of chamomile.
A good source of Vitamin D. A cup of 1% Milk can contain up to 130 IU’s. A large egg can contain between 30-40 IU’s. The vitamin D in eggs is found only in the yolk. The amino acid tryptophan found in milk and dairy proteins can be absorbed by your gut to produce melatonin and seratonin, which are hormones involved with sleep.
A great source of melatonin. They also help get tryptophan to your gut and central nervous system to be made into serotonin and melatonin. Use milk instead of water when making a bowl of oats to get a extra boost of sleep inducing melatonin.
Strawberries contain melatonin. So, if you’re having a hard time sleeping try eating a cup of strawberries to help boost the amount of melatonin in your body.
Cherries are another great source of melatonin. A type of tart cherry called Montmorency cherries contain up to six times more melatonin than other cherries. In addition, these cherries will help boost your own body’s production of melatonin as well. Typically, you can find these and other tart cherries as a juice or as dried cherries. Try a glass of tart cherry juice a few hours before bed.
Almonds contain tryptophan and magnesium, which is a muscle relaxant. This combo is great for loosening tension and helping you get to sleep. Try a handful of almonds a couple of hours before bedtime. It also makes a great snack if you’re on the go.
Bananas actually have a trio of sleep inducing compounds. They contain vitamin B (more specifically Vitamin B6), which helps reduce anxiety. They also contain tryptophan and magnesium. This combo is, in essence, a natural sleeping pill.
Honey contains a compound called orexin, which is a protein in the brain that promotes sleep. You only need a little bit of honey so try a half teaspoon before bedtime. When there’s too much orexin in the brain it can have the opposite effect and help keep you awake.
These seeds are a great source of tryptophan. Try eating a handful of seeds a few hours before bedtime.
Chia seeds are a surprisingly good source of tryptophan. In fact, one serving contains about twice as much tryptophan as turkey. All you need is about a teaspoon worth of dry chia seeds a few hours before bedtime to get the sleep benefits.
Here is a description of what circadian rhythms are and how they work. (Courtesy of Discovery News)
Light Exposure and Sleep
A recent study1 done on males examined the link between sleep deprivation and the release of a hormone called glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1), which is one of the primary signals that tells your body to release insulin. The test subjects, who were sleep deprived, were given a fairly high calorie meal (850 calories). Some test subjects were purposely sleep deprived and constantly exposed to light, while some were sleep deprived in dark conditions. The study found that hormone levels of melatonin, cortisol, insulin and GLP-1 were all out of balance, which was expected. Melatonin levels were lower while cortisol, insulin and GLP-1 levels were higher. However, the group that was under constant light exposure had an even greater imbalance of these hormones than those who were just sleep deprived.
Why is this important for sleep? It turns out that GLP-1 is controlled by your circadian rhythms, much like cortisol and melatonin. Eating a fairly big meal during the day while sleep deprived had a negative effect on their stress hormones like cortisol and sleep hormones like melatonin. The hormone levels of the group under light exposure were disrupted even more than the group that was sleep deprived but not exposed to light. Higher stress levels coupled with sleep deprivation over time can affect your health leading you to more belly fat, increased weight, and increased insulin resistance, all which pave the way for diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular disease as well as mental disorders like depression and anxiety.
The take home message from this study is to limit or eliminate (if possible) your light exposure after dinner. Light exposure will throw off these circadian hormones even more than sleep deprivation alone, making it harder for you to get your hormone levels back to where they should be. Avoiding unnatural light sources after sunset will help curb the effect of sleep deprivation on your hormone levels. Try to stay away from light sources like your TV, computer, or smartphone especially at or around bedtime. So, if you are sleep deprived, which means if you aren’t sleeping 6-8 hours each night, light exposure, especially blue light, will have the strongest disrupting effect on your circadian regulated hormones and make it harder to recover from insomnia or sleep deprivation.
- Gil-Lozano, Manuel, et al. “Short-term sleep deprivation with nocturnal light exposure alters time-dependent glucagon-like peptide-1 and insulin secretion in male volunteers.” American Journal of Physiology-Endocrinology and Metabolism 310.1 (2016): E41-E50.