Even at the best of times around a third of the UK population get less than six hours sleep each night and experience problems sleeping. The nature of these problems are sometimes complex, however many issues may be quite simple to fix. With the current changes to our living environments and interruptions to our working habits, even more people may notice an impact on their ability to get a good night’s sleep. Sleep has been hypothesised to be essential for optimal immune regulation, as well as memory consolidation, regulation of mood and toxin eradication, so is perhaps even more important at times like these.
Sleep is regulated by two specific processes, one which regulates sleep intensity, and the other the timing of sleep (circadian rhythm) and alertness levels, which is roughly in tune with the day-night cycle. The pandemic that we are living through will understandably cause some potential anxiety and worry. This may impact our biochemistry and imbalance some of the hormones required for a restful sleep. Here are a few ways to support a good night’s sleep:
Keeping to a regular routine during the day where possible may help us regulate our sleep hormones more effectively. This includes waking up within the same 90 minute window each day. Our sleep hormones rely on a finely balanced circadian rhythm, which is an internal process that regulates our sleep-wake cycle and is dictated largely by our exposure to daylight. The more our wake-up times fluctuate, the more our hormones will need to adjust, to catch up with us. For example, the stress hormone cortisol naturally increases in the morning to help wake us up but if we have too much circulating in our blood later in the day, it may be harder for the sleep hormone melatonin to have an effect. Having a routine keeps us calm and may prevent spikes in stress hormones and promote well-being.
Eating meals at similar times each day ensures that we are also stabilising appetite hormones, such as ghrelin (the hunger hormone) and leptin (the satiety hormone), which can also impact our sleep. Additionally, sleep restriction is associated with decreasing levels of leptin and an increase in circulating levels of ghrelin, potentially leading to over-eating. Reducing our sleep may also stimulate regions of the brain that are sensitive to food stimuli, therefore we may be more likely to experience food cravings. So, try sticking to a regular eating pattern of 3 main meals, rather than grazing throughout the day. It will allow our bodies a chance to control blood sugar and keep energy levels balanced.
When we exercise, we release endorphins (chemicals which trigger positive feelings in the body and brain). Stress hormones such as cortisol on the other hand, hinder the effects of calming hormones, such as melatonin, which is required for relaxation and sleep. The activities that we do during the day will therefore impact on our ability to switch off, so getting a good dose of those exercise derived endorphins could tip the balance in favour of promoting good sleep. There are many forms of exercise, for example, gardening or cleaning, alongside more traditional activities such as weight training, yoga and aerobics, which may help to maintain a healthy lifestyle and regulate stress hormones.
As mentioned, our circadian rhythm regulates our sleep-wake cycle, so our bedtime routine is as important as our daytime routine. Creating the correct environment during bedtime is important, as it helps prepare our bodies for rest. Potentially, we could be disrupting our body’s natural circadian rhythm on a regular basis with the use of artificial lighting and looking at computer or television screens late into the night. Make sure your room is dark, at a comfortable temperature and without distractions; this will lay the foundation for a restful sleep. When our bodies are regulated; sleeping patterns, digestive function (including hunger, satiety and bowel movements) and energy levels should become more synchronised with the 24 hour light/dark cycle.
Stress and sleep interact in a bidirectional way, in other words they affect each other. The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis is concerned with our reaction to stressful situations. For example, when we perceive stress, our HPA axis revs up and provides us with hormones that are needed to deal with the situation (like cortisol). The HPA axis modulates our sleep by following the 24 hour light/dark cycle, and provides us with cortisol in the morning and melatonin at night. Loss of sleep puts the HPA axis in a state of over stimulation and tries to compensate our tiredness with stress hormones – to wake us up! Reduce stress where possible, whether it’s practising mindful meditation, listening to music or breathing exercises. These activities may put our bodies in a state of rest, known more specifically as the parasympathetic nervous system. It brings our heart rate and blood pressure down and it might allow us to feel more in control and able to more easily cope in stressful situations.
Avoid caffeinated food and drinks such as chocolate, alcohol, coffee, energy drinks and too much tea. Avoiding food that is high in simple carbohydrates and refined sugars may also aid our sleeping habits as when we consume food that contains little fibre or high amounts of sugar, this can spike blood glucose levels, which has a short-term stimulating effect, and we need to release hormones in order for us to deal with this additional load.
Food’s high in fibre may be particularly good at supporting our sleep, especially those known as prebiotics (for example, leeks, Jerusalem artichoke, garlic, asparagus, slightly green bananas and onion). These may aid restful sleep as they selectively promote the good bacteria within our gut, which supply us with many helpful compounds that form and support our sleep hormones.
A study in 2019 found that those with higher sleep quality were found to consume higher levels of vitamin B6 and magnesium. Magnesium is a great mineral which aids relaxation and the normal function of the nervous system. Reduced selenium and calcium intake has also been associated with insomnia, so don’t underestimate the role of these compounds! Foods containing these nutrients include nuts, wholegrain versions of bread, pasta and rice and green leafy vegetables such as spinach, kale and cabbage.
Getting the balance right with protein is important. Low protein intake is associated with poor quality sleep, whilst too much protein is associated with difficulty maintaining sleep. Try to incorporate good quality protein sources such as fish, turkey, eggs, pumpkin and sesame seeds and chicken. These foods also contain tryptophan which is needed to make melatonin (our sleep hormone). Other than increasing tryptophan, sufficient protein may support folate and vitamin B12. These compounds have a role in melatonin metabolism and balanced circadian rhythm (the light/dark cycle).
There is growing evidence of a link between our microbiome (the bacteria within our gut) and our brain, with the majority of signals actually being relayed from our gut to the brain, rather than vice versa. If we look after our gut health, it could help our bodies produce more sleep promoting hormones such as serotonin, which is turned into melatonin. Poor sleep and feelings of fatigue are often reported alongside digestive issues, however, even in those who do not suffer with noticeable digestive complaints, sleep disorders may provide a clue that the community of bacteria that reside in the gut may be out of balance.
A human trial in 2015, suggested that multi-strain live bacteria supplements may help to regulate melatonin production, which naturally increases during the evening and encourages relaxation and sleep. Studies have also suggested that live bacteria supplements could help to reduce stress levels and anxiety,13 which may therefore help to restore disrupted sleep patterns. A multi-strain live bacteria supplement, such as Bio-Kult Migréa 60 capsules £19.94, containing 14 different strains, plus magnesium and vitamin B6, could therefore potentially help to restore the body’s natural circadian rhythm, and improve gut-brain communication leading to improved sleeping patterns.