Making Sense Of Modifiable Personal Lifestyle Behaviors
Sleep is a factor that often is overlooked when it comes to optimal health. However, we know that it’s a critical factor that affects all of us in both mental and physical ways. Sleep is a naturally occurring and cyclical state of the mind and body. It is best characterized by altered consciousness, inhibited sensory activity, reduced muscle activity, and inhibition of nearly all voluntary muscles during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Sleep experts agree that most adults need 7 to 9 hours of sleep a night for optimal health. Although some people may need as few as 6 hours or as many as 10 hours of sleep each day, 8 hours appears to be ideal. But what exactly does sleep do and why is it so essential? And more importantly, why do so few of us get enough of it?
WHY DO WE NEED SLEEP?
We often think of sleep as the time when the body and mind unplug or shut down. This is an over simplification of sleep and may actually misrepresent what sleep is truly for. In fact, sleep is an active period in which essential processing, restoration, and strengthening occurs. The exact science of how this happens and why our bodies are programmed for such long periods of sleep is still not completely understood. However, we do understand some of sleep’s critical functions as well as the reasons we need it for optimal health and wellness.
From a mental point of view, sleep helps us solidify and consolidate memories. As we go about our day, our brains take in a large amount of stimuli and information, especially in our current fast-paced world. Rather than being directly logged or recorded as a computer might do, our individual facts, data, and experiences need to be processed as well as stored by our brains. These steps happen while we sleep. Overnight, as we sleep, pieces of information are transferred from more short-term memory areas to more long-term memory areas. Research has shown that when people get enough sleep, they tend to retain information and perform better on memory tasks. In a sense, sleep is the great organizer of our day and consequently our lives. Equally important, sleep becomes a kind of cooling and restorative period for dissipating the large amount of heat our brains accumulate throughout the day. For this reason, sleep is essential for reversing inflammation and oxidation, organizing, repairing, and rebuilding our brains.
From a physical point of view, our bodies require long periods of sleep in order to restore and rejuvenate, to grow muscle, repair tissue, and synthesize hormones. During sleep there are a great deal of anti-inflammatory and detoxification processes that occur in order for the body to restore and recalibrate from the activity and stressors of the day. Depending on the level of imbalance, stress, and activity within our day, sleep requirements may vary from person to person, but it is still a necessary requirement for balanced and optimal health.
Healthy and adequate sleep is critical for everyone. We all need to retain information and learn skills to thrive in our world as well as recover from every day stressors. Despite the arguments for age or personal experiences, there is an agreed upon theory that for every 2 hours of work and wakeful time there needs to be a matched 1 hour of sleep. This is where the golden “8 hours” of sleep comes into play. However, it is clear that our individual sleep needs can change with age and vary with our personal learning experiences and stress levels.
The National Sleep Foundation Advisory Council makes clear recommendations that give us some reasonable guidelines for sleep duration related to optimal health. As of 2020, the panel revised the recommended sleep ranges for several groups across many age ranges:
- Newborns (0-3 months): Sleep range narrowed to 14-17 hours each day
- Infants (4-11 months): Sleep range widened to 12-15 hours
- Toddlers (1-2 years): Sleep range widened to 11-14 hours
- Preschoolers (3-5): Sleep range narrowed to 10-13 hours
- School age children (6-13): Sleep range widened to 9-11 hours
- Teenagers (14-17): Sleep range widened to 8-10 hours
- Younger adults (18-25): Sleep range remains 7-9 hours
- Adults (26-64): Sleep range remains 7-9 hours
- Older adults (65+): Sleep range remains 7-8 hours
Falling short of these recommendations often leads to sleep deprivation and sleep debt. So, what happens when we do get sleep deprived? Sleep deprivation has been shown to lead to greater physical injury as well as detriments in mental health and mental function. Research has demonstrated that people of all ages are more likely to get hurt when they haven’t had adequate sleep. Industrial accidents are more common, and sleep related car accident rates are higher. An epidemiological study concluded that chronic insomniacs are 2.5 to 4.5 times more likely to have an accident. In addition, older people with sleep deficiency are also more likely to experience increased falls and bone breaks.
What’s more, the further you look into it, the worse insomnia seems to affect us. It has long been known that cytokines (biochemical signals that help with communication between cells) are involved in regulation of sleep. Scientists have found that even partial sleep loss results in the lower numbers of natural killer (NK) cells in the blood stream and decreased activity of lymphokine-activated killer cells. This implies that a lack of sleep also affects our immune system and our susceptibility to immune related illnesses and infections.
Sleep and neurological health are closely connected as well. Sleep deprivation affects your psychological state and mental health. Individuals with mental health problems are more likely to have insomnia or other sleep disorders. Americans are notoriously sleep deprived, but those with psychiatric conditions are even more likely to be sleep deprived. Chronic sleep problems affect 50% to 80% of patients in a typical psychiatric practice, compared with 10% to 18% of adults in the general population. Sleep problems are particularly common in patients with anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Although scientists are still trying to determine the specific mechanisms, they’ve discovered that sleep disruption affects levels of neurotransmitters and stress hormones. This biochemical disruption impairs thinking and emotional regulation. In this way, insomnia may amplify the effects of psychiatric disorders, and vice versa.
Unfortunately, a person can’t just make up for extended sleep deprivation by depositing many hours of sleep into a sleep bank. Although paying back “sleep debt” is always a good idea if you’re sleep deprived, it is not a long-term solution. The best sleep habits are consistent, healthy routines that allow all of us, regardless of our age, to meet our sleep needs every night.
Making Sleep a Priority
To begin a new path towards healthier sleep and an optimal lifestyle, begin by assessing your own individual needs and habits and use the guidelines from the National Sleep Foundation to help you.
Pay close attention to your mood, energy, and health after a poor night’s sleep as compared to a good night’s sleep. Like all other modifiable lifestyle behaviors, sleep is a critical component to overall health.
To begin your journey of improved sleep, follow these common and simple, yet effective, habits recommended by the National Sleep Foundation:
- Stick to a regular sleep schedule, even on weekends.
- Practice a relaxing and consistent bedtime ritual.
- Exercise daily.
- Evaluate your bedroom to ensure ideal temperature, sound, and light.
- Sleep on a comfortable mattress and pillows.
- Beware of hidden sleep stealers, like alcohol and caffeine.
- Avoid sugar and refined carbohydrates at least 3 hours before bedtime.
- Turn off all electronics at least 1 hour before bedtime.
ADDITIONAL SUPPORT AND SUPPLEMENTS FOR SLEEP
Even after we have placed and practiced the habits listed above, sometimes we need a little more help to get back into the rhythm of sleep. Here is a list of some of the functional testing, botanicals, and supplements that are helpful for better sleep and sleep habits:
- Check to your glucose and insulin levels.
- Check all of your thyroid hormones and thyroid antibodies.
- Check to see that your testosterone and estrogen are at healthy levels.
- Check your cortisol levels; if possible, through out a 24-hour time period.
- MAGNESIUM: This is best in the form of Magnesium Glycinate or Magnesium Citrate. Magnesium plays a role in supporting deep, restorative sleep by maintaining healthy levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter that promotes sleep. Research indicates that supplemental magnesium can improve sleep quality, especially in people with poor sleep. Magnesium can also help insomnia that’s linked to muscle spasms or restless-leg syndrome.
- B VITAMINS: Adequate levels of vitamins B3, B5, B6, B9, and B12 may help achieve a good night’s sleep, as they help regulate the body’s level of the amino acid tryptophan, which helps the body produce sleep-inducing melatonin.
- MELATONIN: This is a form of the natural hormone your body produces to regulate sleep and the circadian rhythm. It is best used for resetting the body’s internal clock from time shifts like jet lag or shift work.
- VALERIAN ROOT: This botanical contains a number of compounds that may help promote calmness by reducing GABA breakdown, improving stress response, and maintaining adequate levels of mood-stabilizing brain chemicals.
- LEMON BALM: Considered a calming herb, it is used to reduce stress and anxiety, promote sleep, improve appetite, and ease pain and discomfort from indigestion.
- PASSION FLOWER: This is used to boost the level of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in your brain. This compound lowers brain activity, which may help you relax and sleep better.
- MAGNOLIA BARK: This botanical has a sedative effect likely due to the compound honokiol. Honokiol works by modifying GABA receptors in your brain, which may increase sleepiness.
- CANNABIDIOL (CBD): Although the specific mechanism of action is unclear, CBD has neuroprotective, anti-depressive, and anxiolytic benefits. It has been shown to help with the quality and quantity of sleep as well.
At the end of the day, and this article, my final words would be, “Don’t sacrifice your sleep”. I realize, in our modern world, we have multiple demands on our time and it seems we can hardly fit everything into our day. Rarely do we have time to just relax much less get a full 8 hours of sleep. However, sleep is a critical factor to our health and well-being at so many levels. Our mental and physical health depend on it. So, when it comes to setting priorities for our lives, make sure that a good night’s sleep is one of yours.
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