10 Simple Steps to a Good Night's Sleep

Published on June 15, 2012 by Dr. Jonothon Mainland

Sleep issues seem to be quite common in Canadians.  A recent study conducted by Université Laval, found that 40% of Canadians experience at least one symptom of insomnia a week.  These symptoms was defined by taking more than 30 minutes to fall asleep, being awake for periods longer than 30 minutes during the night, or waking up at least 30 minutes before they had planned.  More interesting, 20% of the participants said they were unsatisfied with the quality of their sleep, and 13.4% of respondents displayed all the symptoms required to diagnose insomnia.

The study also found that only 13% of those experiencing symptoms had seen a health care provider.  At least 10% of those people had turned to prescription medication, while 9% had tried natural health products.

Sleep and sleep quality is quite important for our overall health.  It’s vital in supporting memory, learning, our overall mood, and even in reducing the risk of cancer!

When our body is sleep deprived, it goes into high alert resulting in an increase in stress hormones and also an increase in blood pressure.  High blood pressure can increase our risk of heart attack and stroke.  Cortisol, a stress hormone, can also be excessively produced, in sleep deprivation.  When cortisol is excessively high, this prevents the brain from creating new memory or accessing existing memory.  Thinking differently about pulling an all-nighter to study for tomorrow’s exam?  It is also thought, that excessive cortisol levels over long periods of time, may damage the hippocampus, a part of the brain responsible for memory and learning.

Getting an adequate, good quality sleep is important for reducing our risk of developing cancer.  Research shows that regular physical activity can reduce a woman’s overall risk of developing cancer, but only if a good night’s sleep is had.  Researcher’s followed almost 6,000 women and found that those who burned the most calories from exercise had the largest reduction in risk of developing all cancers, even breast cancer.  But, more importantly, they found that women who burned the most calories, but slept less than 7 hours per night, actually negated the protective effects of exercise.

Have you ever consistently had poor sleeps or been sleep deprived and found that, emotionally, you just weren’t as functional?  Researchers have shown that sleep is extremely important in mood.  Sleep deprivation significantly affects our attitude.  It’s been shown that sleep deprivation after only one week can make someone feel more stressed, angry, sad and mentally exhausted.  Studies have shown that 15-20% of people with insomnia will develop major depression compared to the 2% of the general population that typically suffers from major depression!

So, you students or busy individuals who choose studying or work or staying up late over sleep, I’m looking at you here.  Sleep is more than rest, more than something that takes up 1/3 of your day.   It’s a major component of overall health!

Sleep is more than just hopping into bed and turning off the lights.  We need to provide the proper environment to get that protective, wonderful, deep sleep.  Establish a routine, go to bed at the same time, and get up at the same time.  Turn off the television or computer 30 minutes before bed to relax and put yourself into a proper mind set to be able to sleep.  Take away those visual stimuli way before trying to go straight to sleep.

Make sure your room is as dark as possible and shaded from light.  Any light from streetlight to alarm clocks can disturb sleep patterns.  The production of melatonin by the pineal gland is stimulated by darkness and inhibited by light.  Photosensitive cells in the retina detect light and directly signal the SCN (suprachiasmatic nucleus).  Fibers project from the SCN to the paraventricular nuclei (PVN), which relay the circadian signals to the spinal cord and out via the sympathetic system to superior cervical ganglia (SCG), and from there, into the pineal gland.  Pretty complex right? Well, yes, it’s cause it’s because its that important.  Light detected by the retina inhibits the cascade, causing an inhibition of melatonin, which regulates the sleep-wake cycle by chemically causing drowsiness.  The eyelid is only a thin layer of skin, in which light can still pass through and stimulate the retina to inhibit melatonin production.  So close the blinds, close the drapes, turn off the light on that alarm clock and enjoy the darkness!

Interestingly, according to the survey mentioned above, almost as many respondents used natural health products for sleep, as prescription medication.  But, using the right natural health agent, and ensuring that multiple mechanisms and stages of the sleep are supported, are extremely important.

L-Theanine can be quite beneficial for inducing proper brain waves to help us get ready for sleep.  L-Theanine induces á-wave function in the brain, which is associated with ‘restful-wakefulness’.  This brain wave pattern is what precedes the first stage
of sleep.  Taking L-Theanine to properly ensure relaxation before trying to sleep can be quite beneficial in developing proper sleep habits.

GABA, a neurotransmitter found in high concentrations in the hypothalamus, which helps to the regulate sleep, is beneficial in reducing the time it takes to fall into stage 1 of non-REM sleep and increase time spent in deep sleep.

Melatonin is especially important for shift-workers or individuals suffering from jet-lag.  The International Agency for Research on Cancer has been pushing for shift-work to be listed as “probably or possibly carcinogenic,” due to body of evidence showing these workers have an increased risk of developing cancer.  Melatonin production is disrupted with shift-work, which is dangerous melatonin acts as an antioxidant protecting DNA from the type of damage that leads to cancer and heart disease.  It is useful for sleep, cause it helps reset circadian rhythms and reduce time to transition to Stage 1 of sleep and overall sleep time.

5-HTP, a precursor for serotonin, which is also a precursor for melatonin, is beneficial for the later stages of sleep.  It helps increase REM sleep and support the deeper phases of non-REM sleep.

More people are turning to alternative medicine for their sleep needs, partly due to users’ concerns around medications that leave them feeling cognitively slow or drowsy the next morning as well as to the medications affecting their stages of deep sleep and dream sleep.  Also, dependence and tolerance is sometimes experienced, causing more and more people to look toward natural health alternatives.  If you are looking toward natural health ingredients for aiding your sleep issues, look for combinations that support the varying stages of sleep.  Many people may be able to effectively fall asleep, but staying asleep and achieving a deep sleep is just as important.

So, case in point.  Don’t overlook sleep and why you need it.  It’s extremely important in achieving overall health and protecting your body from both physical and emotional stress.

Do you have any bedtime routines that help you fall asleep? Share them in the comments below so we can learn something new!

Image by © 2013 theartofthephoto via DollarPhotoClub

Image via John7950 at Flickr
Image via John7950 at Flickr
  • Tina Jones

    Great Information about Sleep! I didn't know it plays an important role in healthy weight management. Thanks Dr. Mainland for this article!

  • Mainland

    Thank you Tina! We're glad the blog is helping to provide useful information.