Better Rhythms for Better Sleep

For more ways to upgrade your sleep and get more of the wonderful rest your body craves, check out my newest book, Better Sleep, Better You Better Sleep, Better You: Your No-Stress Guide for Getting the Sleep You Need and the Life You Want.

It’s not unusual for over-whelmed, time-crunched patients to say cringe-worthy things like “who’s got time to sleep? “or “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” But we all know that not getting enough sleep or poor-quality sleep is anything but a joke – it’s a health disaster in the making. In fact, poor sleep habits can lead to the development of a number of chronic ills like diabetes, depression, obesity and cardiovascular disease — so cleaning up your sleep act is absolutely essential for good health.

Granted, it’s been a rough, sleep-disrupted 12 months, and perhaps you weren’t a great sleeper even before life got surreal. But as life seems to be heading in a more normal direction, now is a great time to focus on straightening out the sleep blues. In order to right your sleep ship, it’s essential to reconnect with your natural sleep rhythm. I like to say, get to know the rhythm makers and rhythm keepers – and learn how to sidestep the common disruptors that screw up your slumber. Start here:

Get into rhythm – with rest.

The biological laws that govern sleep are more potent than social obligations and work responsibilities, as well as the pharmaceuticals created to override them (we’re looking at you, Ambien). They were written back when our ancestors were living in caves and huts, waking with the sun, eating the plants provided by nature, and resting as darkness fell. Even if our lifestyles are quite different today, our DNA hasn’t changed all that much. So, when you freestyle with sleep, you’re putting your body out of sync with the natural world, which, hundreds of thousands of years later, still profoundly influences our health.

There’s a master clock inside you running the show.

The suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) – let’s call it the master clock for short -- lives at the base of your brain, in the hypothalamus. It acts as an internal gauge coordinating your body’s circadian rhythms, which include all the physical, mental, and behavioral changes that follow a daily cycle. They tell your body when to sleep, wake up, eat and get moving, by sending signals to the other ‘clocks’ in the body that regulate digestion, the immune system, the release of hormones and more. In effect, the master clock acts like a pacemaker for the body, making the trains run on time, and on a continuous 24-hour loop. It’s easy to see what a multi-system mess can occur when you knock your master clock out of its rhythm.

Meet the rhythm wreckers.

Combine demanding jobs, Zoom-call-filled days, home-based learning plus 24/7 artificial light and all-screens all-the-time lifestyles and small wonder your body’s not quite getting the message when it’s time to hit the hay. Other classic rhythm wreckers: too little natural daylight exposure; too much stress-triggered cortisol; inconsistent bedtimes and late-night eating, just to name a few.

Any of these things, alone or in combination, can fool the master clock into thinking that it’s not the right time to release melatonin, the sleep-promoting hormone, the result being, a body that doesn’t know what time it is. All that sleep disruption and missing melatonin can put you in a state of perpetual jet lag, at much higher risk for metabolic syndrome, skin cancer, breast cancer, depression and a host of other health problems. Being out of synch is a lot bigger than just feeling a little tired.

Meet your master clock’s rhythm maker.

So, how to keep the master clock running on schedule? Move away from rhythm wreckers as much as possible and pay a lot more attention to light – the real kind. The natural rhythm of light and dark ‘entrains’ our bodies to do what it should at the right time. The more tuned in you are, the better for your entire physiology.

How does that work? By using information from light-detecting cells in your eyes (be they open or closed), the master clock constantly monitors the duration and brightness of light, all day, all night. Using this feedback, it signals hormones and neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) to regulate the timing of physiological processes throughout the body. So, when you’re flooding yourself with light way into the wee hours – think screens, LCD bulbs and fluorescents – the sleep-now/wake-now signals are either happening at the wrong time or registering weakly. The result? You’re sleepy during the day and wired at night, totally out of synch. Remember, your body was originally programmed to sleep when it’s dark and to be awake when it’s light, so tuning in to the power and rhythm of natural light and dark cycles will make a huge difference in your sleep experience.

Get to know your natural rhythm keepers, too.

Two yin-and-yang hormones, melatonin and cortisol, choreograph the sleep-wake dance. As daylight starts to wane, your master clock detects the decrease in light and increases the production of melatonin, your body’s own sleep aid. In a perfect, well-rested world, as melatonin rises, cortisol, the energy hormone, begins to recede, and the body begins to wind down for the night.

Once it’s fully dark, your body rhythmically secretes more melatonin to keep you asleep so your body can refresh and repair, flush and detox the brain, consolidate memories and information, decrease blood pressure, and make more immune cells. Beyond just a sleep prompt, this hormone coordinates important metabolic functions and keeps your rhythm train running on time.

Come morning, light-sensor cells detect light from the sun and melatonin secretion tails off. Cortisol starts to rise, boosting alertness and energy; regulating blood pressure and blood sugar; aiding digestion. But cortisol is also your body’s main stress hormone so when you feel bombarded by threats, large or small, you’re pumping extra amounts of the hormone which interferes with your sleep, and over time, your health.

Sleep isn’t something you only deal with at night.

As the full 24-hour circadian cycle makes clear, sleep wellness isn’t just about what you do at night – it’s about what you do all day long too – the things you do to maintain or mess up that essential rhythm. So, when you’re awake, start tending to the small, everyday things that can bring you the sleep you’re after – and those wonderful ripple effects on metabolism, neurological function, mood and even your sex life!  Instead of fighting nature, re-train your body to work with it, and be more conscious of tuning into what your body needs to support health. The good news is that it’s relatively easy to re-synch your body’s master clock. Here are some rhythm-respecting habits you can start working on today for a healthier tomorrow:

  1. Commit to getting a few minutes of direct exposure to bright, natural light during the day – every day. A daily dose of sunshine, particularly morning sun, has a rhythm-regulating effect.
  2. Get most of your eating done earlier in the day and eat light at night so your body’s not working overtime trying to digest a heavy meal when it needs be winding down for the night.
  3. Ease into the evening with relaxing rituals, like meditation, restorative yoga, a hot bath before bed or any calming, soothing activity to help you unwind from the day.
  4. Avoid fluorescent light, especially at night—it disrupts your body’s biological clock.
  5. Go to sleep at the same time each night and wake up at the same time each morning.
  6. If you’re short on sleep one day, try to return to your normal bedtime and wake time as soon as possible, rather than sleeping late, or take a 20 – 30 minute nap; just do so before 4 pm so as not to disrupt your nighttime sleep.
  7. Observe an “electronic sundown” and power down devices and screens at least two hours before bedtime. If you wish to read in bed, go old school and read a (paper) book or magazine in lower light.
  8. Hold the sugar. Actually, you should avoid it all the time, but particularly before bed when sweet treats can have an energizing effect, revving you up when you should be powering down.
  9. Get hard workouts done earlier in the day. Sure, a walk after dinner is fine, but strenuous workouts in the evenings can boost energy levels too close to bedtime.
  10. Keep electronic devices out of the bedroom, including your phone (or put it on airplane mode while you sleep).
  11. Keep your bedroom as dark as possible, since any amount of light disrupts melatonin production.