This month’s feature is by sleep expert, Peter Smith, a colleague of mine at The Hale Clinic. A holistic medicine practitioner and therapist his book, Sleep Better with Natural Therapies, was published in 2014.
I am delighted that Peter’s managed to find time from his busy practice and promoting his new book to write this informative introduction to getting a good night’s sleep. It's long so bookmark it here to read later.
How to sleep better and feel better
You know how great you feel during the day when you’re completely refreshed from a good night’s sleep, how about having that great feeling every day. Your body and mind are designed to make you sleep well every night- the problem is we often get in the way of our natural sleep physiology.
You’ve no doubt already heard of melatonin, the hormone that’s released in the night that makes us sleep, but what you may not know is how bright light, including the light given off by tablets and smart phones influences the production of this hormone. Melatonin is made in the pineal gland located in the brain and in the early evening another part of our brain, the biological clock, tells the pineal gland that it’s time to make melatonin and fall asleep. However the presence of any bright light entering our eyes in the evening overrides the signal from the biological clock and continues to put melatonin production on hold.
It was only discovered in the last 10 years that there are specialist cells in our eyes solely responsible for telling our biological clock and pineal gland when it’s light or dark outside. Before the invention of electric light bulbs the only bright light source was daylight and our eyes would correctly tell our biological clock and pineal glands when the sun had gone down and that we should set in motion our sleep physiology.
Today however our biological clock and pineal gland may be fooled into thinking that the sun hasn’t set until we actually close our eyes in our bedroom. The problem is that it takes a few hours after darkness descends before melatonin production begins in earnest and studies have shown that even the brief exposure to bright light shortly before bedtime such as brushing your teeth in an up lit bathroom, using a brightly lit make-up mirror or checking for end of day emails on your iPad can delay and diminish your melatonin production for several hours.
Not only does diminished melatonin production decrease the quality and quantity of your sleep but melatonin is also one of the body’s most powerful natural antioxidants. While we sleep melatonin protects and repairs our intestines, fights cancer, reduces brain ageing and assists bone growth – in other words if you’re interested in good health melatonin production is not something you want to diminish.
Say no to blue light at night
It turns out that the specific cells in our eyes that tell the biological clock and pineal gland when it’s still light outside can only see blue-light so if we prevent blue light reaching our eyes by wearing amber-coloured glasses for a few hours before bedtime we are in total darkness as far as our biological clock and pineal gland are concerned. We call this virtual darkness and once you get into using amber glasses it just becomes a simple part of a healthy lifestyle.
You can’t just use any fashionable yellow sunglasses though; they have to be the amber coloured protective eyewear that laboratory workers used to protect our eyes from blue lasers. Search online and on Amazon for “low blue light glasses” and you’ll easily find different options. Most people will notice feeling distinctly sleepier than usual after wearing blue-light blocking glasses for about 2 ½ hours.
Lower your core temperature
Another aspect of our sleep physiology that is very easy to inadvertently disrupt is the natural fall in our core body temperature. We don’t feel it but a couple of hours before we fall asleep, our biological clock tells our body to transport heat out of our core and into our arms and legs what it has lost to the environment. Actually it’s believed that it’s this fall in our core temperature that is the primary physiological signal which tells us when it’s time to sleep so you really don’t want to stop this happening properly.
If you do vigorous exercise in the evening that is sufficient to raise your core temperature you can easily delay your body’s ability to lower your core temperature and prevent you from feeling sleepy. Generally all you have to do is bare your arms and feet and nature will take care of the rest for you, but if you’ve raised your core temperature with exercise you should be a bit more proactive.
The easiest thing to do is have a quick bath or shower 2 to 3 hours before going to bed and not properly dry yourself afterwards. Lounge in your bathrobe without blow-drying your hair so that you actually feel yourself cool down you can be sure you’ve eliminated the excess heat needed to properly fall into a deep sleep. Alternatively how about simply switching all your heating off in the early evening. Also sleep in a cool bedroom. It’s interesting how the natural cooling down of the body discovered by Western medicine correlates nicely with the Chinese medicine concept of the cool Yin in the body needing to become dominant in the night to sleep adequately.
Relax in the evenings
The third major physiological process central to allow deep restful sleep is that the level of the stress hormone cortisol has to fall. Once again our biological clock will instruct the adrenal glands to steadily decrease the production of cortisol throughout the day so that by the early evening it’s at its minimum. All too often however the problem is that we keep producing unnecessary stress responses throughout the evening that maintain elevated cortisol levels.
Cortisol is a stress hormone specifically designed to wake us up and prevent us from falling asleep in case there really is something dangerous in our surroundings and it wouldn’t be safe to sleep. In theory, meditation in the early evening should be able to take care of this but it’s not as effective a tool as dedicated “relaxation response training”. In as little as three months practise you can train your autonomic nervous system how to switch off unwanted stress responses and permanently hardwire your brain with the ability to lower evening cortisol levels that interfere with obtaining good sleep.
You only have to get one thing wrong, it could be diminishing your melatonin production with bright blue-light, preventing your core temperature from dropping, maintaining elevated cortisol levels or not being able to switch off psychologically to disrupt your natural sleep processes; eliminate each of these problems systematically and you’ll sleep better in the night and feel better and the day.
This is a shortened version of Peter’s article edited down for the newsletter, to read it in full please click here.
If you enjoyed this, then be sure to visit the blog The Happy Acupuncturist to read more articles, tips and health news.
I love beets even though prepping them make my hands a mess. Their versatility and earthy sweetness makes it a very unfussy accompaniment on your plate. Currently my favourite is to make a purple power salad of sliced beetroot with purple cabbage and red onions. However this beet and chia pancake sounds perfect, and you can eat it for breakfast, lunch or dinner.
Read past issues from the newsletter archive.
Other news: Acupuncture Awareness Week 2014; Marie Claire offer
The annual Acupuncture Awareness Week is back (how time flies!) and this year it’s 3-10 March. I know you all appreciate what acupuncture can do for you and it’s a perfect time to share with others about your experiences. It’s very encouraging to see acupuncture become more and more mainstream over the years and accepted as a viable alternative health therapy.
In the April issue of Marie Claire (out in March), there is a voucher for a 20% discount on all Neal’s Yard Remedies products AND you can use it for treatments with me at the King’s Road store. The offer is valid until 2 April 2014 - call Neal’s Yard Remedies on 020 7225 2050 | 124B King’s Road, London SW3 4TR.
Wise words from Henry Ward Beecher (1813 – 1887): "The body is like a piano, and happiness is like music. It is needful to have the instrument in good order."
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