Most of us tend to skimp on hours of sleep to be more productive during the day. Sure, you get your work done, but is this really a good idea? Every night, while you sleep, your body is actually working on repairing internal problems. Therefore, sufficient sleep is necessary for optimal cellular repair. So when we cut our sleep short, we are doing more internal damage than we may assume.
What happens when you sleep, the Sleep Cycle:
We all have a natural circadian rhythm, or internal clock, that cycles based on the sunrise and sunset. Naturally-made hormones regulate the sleep-wake cycle. Cortisol stimulates alertness during the day and works better with exposure to natural sunlight. The other hormone is melatonin, which is released at nighttime to prepare your body for rest. Melatonin starts being released a few hours after sunset, usually around 9 pm, and slowly rises as it gets later in the night. As melatonin increases, you become naturally more tired and ready for bed. Once asleep, you cycle through various stages of sleep including REM (rapid eye movement) and non-REM.
Non-REM: lighter sleep, can be easily woken up
REM: deeper sleep, brain active for dreaming, learning, and memory function
If the sleep cycle is interrupted you’ll often feel tired and groggy the following day. This is because while sleeping, the body is actually going to work by repairing cellular damage and ensuring that all systems are functioning properly. If we interrupt this process by cutting sleep short, it leads to increased levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, and higher levels of ghrelin, the hunger hormone. Increased ghrelin causes you to eat more the next day and over time can contribute to weight gain. Higher levels of cortisol are released to keep you awake the next day. Higher cortisol levels also impair melatonin production leading to more sleeping problems. Stress on the body causes the release of more stress hormones. Sleep disorders, like insomnia and sleep apnea, have not only higher levels of cortisol, but also an increased risk for heart disease. Elevated levels of cortisol cause increased blood pressure, heart rate, and weight gain. This is why chronic sleep deprivation is associated with more chronic diseases.
So, Can you “catch up” on sleep?
The short answer is no. You can’t get that time back, but it’s important to ensure you get plenty of rest the next night. The key here is to make sure you aren’t continuing to cut your sleep short all week. One night can be salvageable by ensuring the rest of the week you are getting sufficient sleep. So, how much sleep do you really need a night?
How much sleep do you need?
The amount of sleep needed each night varies for everyone. You may feel well-rested after 6-7 hours or you may need the full 8-9 hours of sleep. The average goal is at least 7 hours of sleep a night. I usually base this on how rested you feel the following day.
Keep in mind that the body is doing repair work while you sleep. So if you are in need of a lot of repairs, as in suffering from other chronic diseases or during a growth spurt, it would be best to ensure you get plenty of sleep. Think about babies and how much they sleep a day. Puberty and pregnancy are also times when the body needs more sleep. With disease, especially multiple comorbidities, it’s not a good idea to add extra strain on the body by skipping sleep.
How Does Your Body Know When to Sleep: Melatonin
Melatonin is considered a natural sleep aid since we naturally produce melatonin from the pineal gland in the brain. Supplemental melatonin is non-habit forming and although it won’t necessarily make you fall asleep, it will promote a more restful state. It’s up to you to listen to the cues, turn off all the lights, and get into bed.
When taking a melatonin supplement, less is more. I recommended taking the lowest dose about 2-3 hours before bed (1- 3mg, 5mg max). With any sleeping aid, it’s best to only use them as needed, not every night. Most sleeping aids are habit-forming and meant to be used sparingly. Melatonin, since it’s naturally occurring, is considered a non-habit-forming sleeping aid. However, taking too much melatonin can hinder your own body from producing it, hence less is more. Taking it every night will suppress your own natural melatonin production so it’s best to cycle it on and off if you’re using it frequently and alternate with something else like a calming sleepy tea.
Insomnia, or chronic sleep deprivation, is linked to poorer overall health and increased risk for chronic disease. If you have trouble sleeping, the first thing to do is get yourself on a schedule. That’s right! Even as adults we need to set a bedtime. This can help get your natural circadian clock in rhythm again. Start exploring with natural sleep aids and herbal remedies that are over the counter, I’ve listed my tips below. What you won’t see on my list are prescription sleep aids. As a provider, I’m pretty selective on writing prescriptions for sleeping pills. When prescribing sleeping pills, you really must evaluate the situation as well as risks vs benefits.
Here’s the thing, prescription sleeping pills work great, but are ONLY meant for short-term use and often have terrible side effects. Because prescription sleep aids usually inhibit your natural sleep-wake cycle, over time you become dependent on sleeping pills, which means without them, you can no longer fall asleep naturally.
Although there are newer medications on the market, many of the commonly prescribed sleeping pills (often sedative-hypnotics) are highly addictive and dangerous, especially when mixed with other medications and/or alcohol. Tolerance is another issue with sleeping pills. With prolonged exposure, your body will not respond to the medication the same way as when you first started taking it. When taking a sleep aid it’s important to cycle their use so you reduce the risk of dependence and tolerance (depending on the medication).
Generally, problems with sleep stem from a restless mind and/or body. Your mind could be keeping you up with thoughts, anxiety, worry, or excitement. Your body could also be keeping you awake if you experience restless legs, chronic pain, or other problems getting comfortable. This is where physical activity and mental health play a role in our rest. Getting regular activity in during the day can promote more restful sleep at night. Routine exercise helps with chronic pain, anxiety, and depression. An activity like yoga can be very helpful before bed to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which reduces cortisol levels and induces a state of relaxation.
Before considering a prescription sleep aid, try these tips below!
10 Tips for a better night’s sleep :
1. Getting regular exercise during the day helps your body rest at night. Try bedtime yoga to relax muscles and ease the mind before bed. Here are two of my favorite bedtime yoga routines from Laura Myren: Bedtime Yoga and Better Sleep Yoga.
2. Stick to a sleep schedule– give yourself a bedtime (try to adhere to this as much as possible even on the weekends)
3. Set the room: Sleep in a cool, quiet, dark room. Consider a noise machine. Lavender scent helps promote relaxation. A heating pad on your stomach can help relax muscles (just don’t forget to shut it off)
4. Sleepytime tea before bed helps warm the stomach and induce calmness throughout the mind & body
5. Prepare for tomorrow– while sipping your tea, make a list and layout clothes so you aren’t awake thinking about it all night long (calms the mind)
6. Melatonin Supplements – Remember less is more when it comes to dose
7. Magnesium Supplements can help promote restful sleep and improve restless leg syndrome by relaxing muscles
8. Avoid artificial light and noise stimuli– put the phone down, turn the TV off, meditate or read a book and allow your normal sleep cycle to start working. Don’t fight it. Bookmark lights are perfect for evening reading. However, during the day it’s important to have exposure to sunlight to help with your natural circadian rhythm.
9. Avoid stimulants before bed– no caffeine or nicotine, watch out for excess sugar from dinner/dessert
10. CBD– CBD can help with anxiety and pain. Therefore, CBD use can help calm the mind and body to promote restful sleep.
I hope these tips help you improve your quality & quantity of sleep. The best advice I can give you is to establish a bedtime routine and be consistent with it. Consistency is key when it comes to improving your sleep.
If you’re still struggling with your sleep, it’s important to seek professional help. Since lack of sleep can lead to chronic health problems, sometimes using a sleep aid is necessary for short-term use. More importantly, trouble sleeping could be a sign that something else is going on that warrants further investigation so it’s important to discuss this with your primary care provider.
Disclaimer: The information in this article is designed for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for informed medical advice or care. This information should not be used to diagnose or treat any health conditions without consulting your healthcare provider. Information used is based on experience and opinion, not 100% evidence. Always consult with a health care practitioner before relying on any information in this article or on this website. Some links in this article may contain affiliate links.