By: Samantha Anderson, NBC-HWC, FMCHC
There's nothing like a great night's sleep. We wake feeling fresh and energetic. We wake up hungry and have a clear mind. We can exercise and function well during the day. And then at night, we're ready to go back to sleep without much effort.
But, for most of us, sleep is elusive. Roughly 1/3 of U.S. adults fail to obtain the recommended eight hours of sleep per night. Without sleep, we're prone to infections and disease, hormone imbalances, weight gain, insulin resistance, and many more health conditions.
In my coaching practice, I meet many women who struggle with sleep issues including frequent night waking and insomnia—struggles that often accompany peri-menopause and menopause. And while it’s true that as we age our sleep patterns change, there is plenty we can do to support our sleep as we enter mid-life.
sleep loss has become an epidemic throughout industrialized nations
–World Health Organization
Why Do We Need Sleep?
We know a lot about the importance of food, water, and reproduction as core functions of human existence, but given the value and importance of sleep—and its very basic health function—it’s surprising that scientists are only now discovering why we sleep.
There are a lot of reasons why we sleep—reasons that benefit both our brains and our bodies.
The Science of Sleep
In the brain, there is a gland that produces melatonin, a hormone that modulates sleep patterns. The shape of this gland resembles a pine cone, and that's why it is called "pineal." It was once called the "Third Eye" due to its location deep in the center of the brain. The pineal gland helps us distinguish between light and dark, day and night, sunlight and moonlight.
You can think of it as the Circadian Rhythm Gland.
I used the word Circadian—so let me define it. The term "circadian" comes from the Latin word "Circa" which means "approximately" and the word "Diem" means "day."
Circadian rhythms are the biological clocks that occur in every plant, animal, and human over the course of a day. Each one of our cells contains one of these clocks and each is programmed to turn on or off thousands of genes at different times of the day or night.
And these genes influence every aspect of our health.
If our daily clocks get out of balance for as little as a day or two, our clocks can't send the right messages to our genes, and our body and mind can't function as well as we need them to.
When this disruption continues, we may get infections or develop chronic diseases… ADHD, depression and insomnia, anxiety, obesity, dementia, and even cancer.
For example, female shift workers who work at night, such as nurses in hospitals, tend to have higher rates of breast cancer, and it may be because they are working at night or have interrupted sleep.
The night nurse is often in our minds when we think of "night shift worker," but
actually, the official European definition of shift worker is anyone who stays awake for more than 3 hours between 10:00 pm and 5:00 am for more than 50 days a year.
If you do the math, that's just one night a week!
Shift work can include students, musicians, performing artists, new parents, in-home caregivers, gig workers, weekend "social" short sleepers, digital short sleepers who work across time zones.
Just one night of abbreviated sleep can throw off your cognitive abilities for an entire week. Furthermore, the longer your circadian rhythm is out of sync, the greater the risk of developing a serious disease.
The shorter your sleep, the shorter your life span
–Dr Matthew Walker
Why Is Sleep More Difficult As We Age?
When my children were babies, I was fond of saying "Sleep begets sleep” because the more my children slept, the more they wanted more sleep. Of course we all know teenagers who can spend hours in bed sleeping!
But, as we age, sleep isn't as satisfying and nourishing as when we were younger. Why is that?
All of these factors contribute to our challenges about "why we can't sleep".
There Are Solutions!
Luckily, it's easy to get back in sync, and we can reverse and restore our bodily rhythms.
One way to do that is to use bright light. The sun is key to our health. In fact, you may have heard doctors prescribing Vitamin D—or, the "Sun Vitamin"—during COVID as a preventative measure. Vitamin D is found naturally in sunlight. We can also use light lamps to provide this light energy.
But it's important to appropriately time your exposure to light. If your pineal gland is exposed to white light at the wrong time of the day, it's prevented from producing sufficient melatonin and our sleep can be disrupted.
For example, as we get older, early-morning exposure in the first half of the day is actually not optimal, as it triggers the release of melatonin earlier in the day, and reinforces the early-to-rise, early-to-sleep cycle.
So, as you get older, if you go outdoors in the early morning, wear sunglasses. Then, later in the afternoon, you can go back outside, but leave your sunglasses at home so your eyes can soak up some of that late daylight. Lots of afternoon sunlight will help delay the production and release of melatonin which will push the timing of your sleep to later in the evening.
We also want to make sure to have enough indoor light to fully align our circadian rhythm. Poor daylight exposure indoors reduces alertness, promotes depression, and affects all aspects of brain health.
Get Into A Sleep Hygiene Routine
Have you heard the term "Sleep Hygiene"? It's similar to the kind of hygiene which you do before bed, like brushing your teeth, combing your hair, and washing your face. But this is hygiene that is focused on your sleep quality.
Good sleep takes practice. You have to make it a priority, not just at bedtime, but in the hours leading up to bed. It may take a month or so before you see consistent results, You can try any and all of these practices to create a quiet and calming sleep routine. The key is to find the things that work for you.
These can include:
Food Is Medicine For Sleep
In my coaching training at the Functional Medicine Coaching Academy, I learned that Food is Medicine, and that is definitely true when addressing sleep problems. A balanced diet can go a long way toward helping to promote good sleep patterns.
By the way, food is much healthier than sleep medications. Benzodiazepines, such as Xanax, Halcion, or ProSom, when taken for three to six months, raise the risk of developing Alzheimer's by 32%, and taking them for more than six months boosts the risk by 84%.
Some foods to try:
In addition to my training as a health coach, I'm studying to be a Certified Women's Herbal Educator with Dr. Aviva Romm.
It’s lovely to start a nighttime ritual relaxing with a steaming cup of tea. You can try:
While sleep can be challenging for many of us, we can empower ourselves and commit to simple practices that will help us rest and restore.
I am here to help you take the struggle and overwhelm out of being healthy. Book a free call to discuss how we can design your personal health goals and co-create a plan for sustainable success.
Follow me on Instagram @essential.wholeness for tips on great sleep and staying healthy and well!
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Samantha Anderson is a national board certified health & wellness coach in Brooklyn, NY. She works with women during their menopausal journey focusing on hormones, sleep, weight gain, and brain fog, to restore balance and help women live the lives they deserve in midlife and beyond.
Many coaches contribute to our blog. Views, opinions, and products mentioned are not necessarily representative of Virtual Health Coaches, LLC, as an organization. We appreciate variety and different viewpoints, as well as resources. For personal health advice, please contact your care provider.