Sleep is the most important cornerstone for optimal health. Without the foundation of a healthy night of sleep, all other health interventions, such as nutrition and exercise, will fall short. Our memory, cognition, and ability to learn new tasks all depend on healthy sleep. ‘Sleep hygiene’ refers to the quality and quantity of sleep you are getting each night. I recommend my patients get 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night, depending on activity level, as well as season. During the winter months, you should opt for close to 9 hours of sleep. During the summer months, 7 hours of sleep may be adequate since days are longer and the nights are shorter. Additionally, more sleep is needed the more active you are as it is important to allow your body adequate time to recover after difficult workouts. When helping patients improve their sleep hygiene, there are three interventions I use most frequently, outlined below.
First morning sunshine
Going outside first thing in the morning with as much skin exposed as possible stimulates the body’s release of the hormone cortisol. Cortisol is known as our ‘awake hormone’ and gives us the energy to start our day. Cortisol naturally starts to decline around lunch time, and by the evening levels should be low as it starts to get dark and we prepare for sleep. Cortisol becomes problematic when levels remain high in the afternoon. When cortisol levels remain elevated, it becomes a stress hormone and causes us to crave sugary and fatty foods. Additionally, high levels of our ‘awake hormone’ in the evening work against us falling and staying asleep. The best way to ensure cortisol levels are low in the evening is to secrete as much as possible in the morning. Sunshine stimulates cortisol secretion, meaning it is optimal to get plenty of sunshine in the first half of the day.
Turn off electronics at least 90 minutes before bed
Blue light exposure tricks your brain into thinking it is still light outside, decreasing the release of your sleep hormone, melatonin. I recommend turning off all electronics 90 minutes before bedtime. Not only does blue light manipulate our brain into thinking it’s light outside, but often the things we are looking at on our screens, such as social media feeds or work emails, stimulate our brain in a way making sleep difficult. Scrolling through your social media feed causes a release of the neurotransmitter, dopamine, which plays a role in the brain’s reward system. When dopamine is released, the brain is stimulated and there are feelings of pleasure. While satisfying at the moment, excessive release of dopamine prior to sleeping will make it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep. Therefore, put those phones away before bed time!
Read fiction before bed
Reading before bed is one of the best ways to prepare our brains for sleep. Giving the brain a singular point of focus, such as a captivating fictional story, will allow you to stop thinking about the stresses of work and life and prepare your brain for sleep. With this in mind, reading materials related to work or checking emails will continue to stimulate our minds and keep us thinking about the day. Consequently, I recommend reading fiction. It is a better way to take your mind away from the pressures of the day. If you are a fan of historical fiction like myself, check out Ken Follet’s new novel, Pillars of the Earth.
Post written by Dr. Riley Kulm, DC. Check out his bio here.