The Importance of Sleep
Sleep is crucial for the human brain and instrumental in cognitive function, reaction time, mental health and memory. It helps our brains form connections and synthesize information that we receive throughout the day. Insufficient or poor-quality sleep has been linked to greater risks of developing Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, according to neuroscientist Matthew Walker, founder and director of the Center for Human Sleep Science. It also has been linked with anxiety, depression and other psychiatric disorders, in studies cited in Harvard Health publications.
But the impact of our sleep (or lack thereof) goes far beyond brain health. Sleep, it turns out, is critical and regenerative on a cellular level, and affects every aspect of humans’ physiological well-being — including our immune, reproductive and cardiovascular systems.
For example, Walker points to the alarming results of one study, where participants allowed only four hours of sleep a night were found to have a 70 percent decrease in cancer-fighting immune cell activity. In another study, chronic sleep deficiency had negative effects on testosterone, with men who regularly slept for only four to five hours per night registering levels expected among those a decade older. Lack of adequate sleep results in an impaired ability to regulate blood sugar levels and may be a contributing factor in obesity. Even more concerning is the CDC’s estimate that one-third of American adults do not get the recommended seven-plus hours of sleep per night. Walker has called sleep loss an “epidemic” and “one of the greatest public health challenges we face.”
Getting better, more beneficial sleep may be as simple as making small lifestyle changes or it might require treatment options from a healthcare professional. Here are some places to begin:
Maintain consistent bedtimes and wake times: Walker and other experts suggest going to bed and waking up at the same time every day, both throughout the week and on weekends. This is because time is one of the key components of our circadian rhythm (our bodies’ internal clock that tells us when to wake and sleep), and when we don’t have a sleep schedule, we disrupt and throw off that rhythm.
Exercise: Daily aerobic exercise is one activity that promotes healthy sleep, according to the National Institutes of Health and Johns Hopkins Medicine. Exercise increases the amount of deep (a.k.a: restorative) sleep and also helps us fall asleep more easily. This could be true for several reasons, including exercise’s ability to lower stress, along with the initial rise and subsequent dip in core body temperature that accompany it. Researchers do caution against strenuous exercise one to two hours before bed, because the accompanying endorphin rush and elevated heart rate can make getting to sleep soon after difficult.
Avoid caffeine, nicotine, alcohol and marijuana in the hours leading up to sleep: Both caffeine and nicotine are stimulants, meaning they do the opposite of triggering sleep. While alcohol and marijuana may initially seem to relax you and have sometimes been found to speed up the rate at which people fall asleep, they ultimately interfere with REM sleep—especially during the second part of the night. This makes them overall detrimental to the quality of the sleep.
Supplements and herbs: There are a number of herbs and naturally derived supplements that promote falling asleep. Melatonin and L-tryptophan are two you may have seen on shelves at your local drug store or grocery store. Herbs such as valerian root, chamomile, lemon balm and lavender can also promote relaxation and restfulness and are often found in tea blends or as individual herbal teas. While these are readily available over the counter, always consult your health professional before you start taking them, especially to ensure that you are not missing an underlying issue. Melatonin, for instance, shouldn’t be taken outside the care and guidance of a health professional. It’s a hormone our bodies naturally produce, so a deficiency may signal that something is out of balance. As with any health concern, it’s better to understand the root cause of the problem rather than just treat the symptoms.
Breathing exercises: Many studies have found that slow, intentional, mindful breathing can calm the mind, relax the nervous system and provide numerous other health benefits. There are many breathing techniques and exercises that can help you ease into sleep and experience a better night’s rest. For instance, a simple one is 2-to-1 breathing, which involves making your exhale (outbreath) twice as long as your inhale (inbreath) and has been documented to calm the nervous system.
Bodywork: Whether it is soft-tissue massage or a more targeted practice like craniosacral therapy, various bodywork modalities can help you sleep faster, better and longer by easing stress, relieving tension and promoting relaxation. The key is ensuring that you are seeing a trained, knowledgeable professional who can both determine and provide the kind of body work that will help the physical issues that may be keeping you from great sleep.
Acupuncture: Acupuncture is another potentially helpful therapy for insomnia and other sleep disturbances. Studies found that acupuncture in conjunction with herbal supplements yielded better sleep quality results than herbal supplements alone, and the inclusion of acupuncture in patient treatment leads to a higher rate of sleep among those with insomnia, according to a study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. As with bodywork, it’s important to see a highly trained, qualified professional.
Neurofeedback: Certain types of neurofeedback—a treatment where brain waves are monitored and responded to with an external signal (a.k.a: the “feedback”)—are effective in promoting healthy sleep. LENS neurofeedback has been used to address insomnia in clinical settings. As with any other treatment option, the specific effects and benefits of neurofeedback can vary from patient to patient. It is important to work with a trained and licensed healthcare provider that you trust, who takes the time to understand your history and compiles a full, holistic picture of your health and needs.
While some individuals may benefit from certain treatments (or combination of treatments) more than others, everyone benefits from better sleep.
Nadia Noori, ND, is a Westport-based naturopathic doctor with a general family practice. She also specializes in optimizing brain health with a focus on neurodegenerative and neuropsychological conditions. Connect at 203-916-4600 and ShalvaClinic.org. See ad, back cover.