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Do you have a sleep debt?

Feeling sleepy? You are not alone. Most adults need 7-9 hours of sleep for optimum performance, health, and safety. Sadly, many of us only get 5-6 hours per night leading to a sleep debt that can be difficult to pay back if it becomes too large. The resulting sleep deprivation, debt if you will, is linked to health problems such as obesity, high blood pressure, negative mood and behavior (depression), decreased productivity, and safety in the home, on the job, and on the road. Yikes!

Because so few us are actually getting the sleep we need, this sleep debt is now a wide spread problem. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 34.8% of American adults get fewer than 6 hours of sleep per night. That is why nearly every week we have a patient or two ask about treatments and supplements to "help them get better sleep."

All humans since the beginning of time have had a night or two where sleep comes with difficulty or something wakes them up. But until about 30 years ago, we generally woke up around dawn and went to bed an hour or two after dark. We did minor chores like the dishes, and activities like read books or told stories to children. Fast forward to today, we are doing stimulating activity later into the night. Let's be honest here, many of us are up talking on social media (or ranting?), watching the latest intense thriller movie or cop show on Netflix, playing intense console games, dancing to loud upbeat music (guilty) is common place to be heavily stimulated until 10-11pm at night or even later on the weekends. All of this stimulation sets our bodies into high gear, sending out hormones that tell us to be wide awake and ready for something like a bear attack. This might be fun at times, but when the body builds a sleep debt, it gets harder to pay back over time and then we become exhausted. If we keep going without enough sleep, seemingly unrelated health and mental functions break down. Of course, you will experience less vibrancy and are less capable of doing all the amazing things you want and need to do. Worse yet, at some point this lack or sleep will contribute to dysfunction, illness and diseases.

Poor sleep can add on the pounds

Studies have found a relationship between this sleep debt and many health problems. For example, insufficient sleep affects growth hormone secretion that is linked to obesity; as the amount of hormone secretion decreases, the chance for weight gain increases.

Another example, blood pressure usually falls during the sleep cycle. However, interrupted sleep can adversely affect this normal decline. This contributes to hypertension and cardiovascular stress.

Research has also shown that insufficient sleep impairs the body's ability to use insulin, contributing to the onset and progression of diabetes.

Those are just a few examples, in fact there are stacks of scientific studies showing a correlation between insufficient or poor quality of sleep and chronic disease.

Let's talk about the sleep and what you can do to tune into this natural cycle and set yourself up for some high quality sleep and a healthier more capable you.

Circadian clock and being awake or a sleep

Your sleep-wake cycle is regulated by what is called a circadian clock. Your circadian clock regulates sleeping and feeding patterns, alertness, core body temperature, brain wave activity, and is part of hormone production, regulation of glucose and insulin levels, urine production, cell regeneration, and many other biological activities. Important hormones affected by the circadian clock, at least insofar as they affect sleep, is cortisol and melatonin and these two help balance your wake time with sleep time. The tricky thing is that this circadian clock is also in tune with the natural world.

Late night hours with lots of stimulation can alter your sleep

Light and noise are two factors that stimulate the hormone cortisol to be released. Cortisol does many things in your body including playing a crucial role in adaptive responses to various types of stress. When bright light and/or loud noise are present, cortisol is released helping you to adapt to be awake and alert. Before the advent of our modern technology we rarely had bright light or loud noise after say 9-10pm. That meant that you had plenty of time to start unwinding from the day, be asleep and sleeping for a good seven to nine hours. In our modern world, we keep lights on full tilt, stare at bright screens, watch thrilling programs, or stay out late into the night. All of this late night light and noise tells the body to be ready and awake, not winding down and sleeping.

What can you do to get better sleep, feel more vibrant, and be healthier?

Plan time to calm down, unwind.

First off, finish arousing activities like heavy exercise, paying bills, competitive games, problem-solving, intense programs and movies about 60-90 minutes before you need to be asleep. That cortisol needs time to come down and to recognize that there is no need to adapt to a stressful event or environment.

Relax, turn down the stimulation

During your unwinding time, focus on doing light chores like washing dishes or folding laundry. Or catch up on reading lighthearted magazines articles or read out of a real book without a back-light. Write about your day in a journal or start a gratitude journal to lighten your mind and spirit. Take a very slow stroll out in the night air (weather permitting of course). Keep it low key and relaxing.

Turn down those lights.

There is a reason why we tend to sleep during the night and that is because light stimulates us to be awake. Once bright light hits our retinas a signal goes out to release, you guessed it, cortisol. Remember, that cortisol release is designed to help wake you up. Light also suppresses melatonin production and release. Melatonin helps with relaxation and that feeling of sleepiness. So the more time spent at night with lots of light, the more you will feel like moving around, aroused and awake.

So help your body reduce cortisol production and increase the production and release of melatonin by turning off unnecessary lights, or if you have a dimmer, turn down the light about 50% in the evenings (or an hour or more before your desired bedtime) to help increase your feelings of sleepiness. When it is time to go to bed, turn off all lights in the bedroom or any light that streams into the bedroom. Even small amounts of light send out the signal to release cortisol and awake you up.

Another tip on light, cover up alarm clocks and other technology lights especially if they are in your bedroom or on the trip to the bathroom. Get rid of night lights even in the kiddos room to ensure they are also getting quality sleep. If you must have a light to keep monsters at bay or to keep yourself from tripping over stuffed animals and breaking your leg, select one with a red light. Red light is the least stimulating light. You can even use an old Christmas tree bulb to substitute in a night light if cannot find a night light in red.

If you are waking up in the middle of the night, instead of turning on the TV or computer, turn on a red light and do relaxing things like drink a warm cup of tea. You will find yourself drowsy faster without the stimulation of bright lights and noise (or should I say the release of cortisol and suppression of melatonin).

An eye mask can help improve sleep

Lastly, get some darkening shades or an eye mask to block out morning light into the bedroom. Just like light will keep you up at night, early morning light will wake you up too. Unless you want to be up at dawn, tone down light until it is time to wake up (say around that 7-9 hours of sleep mark).

We forget about the light and noise that technology brings. It is good to start turning off things like TV's, laptops, computers, cell phones, and tablets around 9pm (or 60 - 90 minutes before your desired bedtime) so your body can adjust and let that cortisol come down and melatonin release.

Temperature equals comfort.

Make sure your are warm and your surroundings are cool. Humans are fussy when it comes to temperature. Get too cold and you will have a hard time falling asleep or staying asleep because you are tense from being cold. If you tend to be on the cool side, take a warm bath or shower about a half hour before bedtime. We all have experienced the warm bath drowsies, why not use that to your advantage?

Being too hot can also deter good sleep as well. With a healthy human circadian rhythm, sleep occurs when your core temperature is dropping. Research suggests that a cooler core body temperature is associated with better sleep too. So having a too warm bedroom temperature can affect your sleep and cause you to wake up during the night and make it difficult to fall back asleep. In fact, during REM sleep, your brain takes a break from regulating your body temperature. If your environment is already too warm, your body will have a hard time adjusting.

The ideal temperature for falling asleep is generally between 60° and 67° F. Find the temperature in that range that works best for you. It should be cool enough to help you fall asleep in comfort and without being too warm to cause you to wake up uncomfortable in the middle of the night. It is better to keep it cool in the room and have an extra blanket available should you need it.

A few other self-help tips to help get a good nights rest:

Warm herbal teas can help your relax
  • Drink a warm cup of herbal tea. Chamomile, lavender, valerian, hops, and lemon balm are all herbals that provide a calming affect that might help you get to sleep easier and faster. You can find three excellent teas for relaxation from Pukka Tea. Their Relax Tea, Chamomile, Vanilla & Honey, and their Night Time Tea are great and you can find them at Wellevate™ with a 5% discount.

  • Use essential oils to help relax your body and mind. Lavender, bergamot, vertiver, roman chamomile, sweet majoriam, and ylang ylang can be helpful. You can use them in a diffuser or in a carrier oil on your temples, chest, and wrists.

  • Do a few minutes of light stretching, self massage, meditation, or belly breathing to relax both body and mind.

  • If you tend to be running the next days tasks in your head, take a moment to write down what they are so your mind can let go of the fear that you will forget them and relax.

  • Listen to low level white, pink, or red noise. There are lots of gadgets, apps, and youtube videos out that can provide this noise. Just be sure to turn off or cover up the gadget so the light does not keep you awake.

  • Lastly, make sure your bed and pillow are supportive and appropriate for good sleep. A lumpy bed or over fluffed pillow can make sleeping uncomfortable or even painful. Investing in your sleep is worthwhile. (We have some affordable pillows that are sized to the person in clinic.)

If these self-help actions are not doing the trick and you are still having difficulty getting to sleep and/or staying asleep, or just not getting restful deep sleep, contact a natural health care provider who can assess the underlying reason. There are many safe and natural therapies to help improve sleep duration and quality. You need to be capable of being your best!

Dr Dobelbower is a doctor of chiropractic with a post doctorate in clinical nutrition, a member of Rehab to Performance, certified in FMS. He works with people to help them be more capable of living a healthy full life through a variety of safe and natural therapeutics like Chiropractic adjustments, rehabilitative care, functional movement, exercise therapies, nutritional and herbal supports, and life style coaching. Contact his clinic at 406.222.9373 to schedule appointments.

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