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Sleep (Part 1)







Summer is a glorious season, but I think many of us would agree that one of its downsides is the danger of getting much less sleep!

Just as well that we take holidays this time of year…

Extra heat, and early morning light, can leave us more wakeful than in winter. And lack of sleep can build up.

So let’s see how sleep works in the first place.


How sleep works

Hormone rhythms

Melatonin is the hormone which makes us sleepy and helps us to rest deeply. Melatonin levels rise in the late evening, and peak in the very early hours of the morning.

Cortisol, the hormone which wakes us up and gets us going, has an opposite pattern in the body to melatonin.

You may have heard of the dangers of cortisol, but this is more to do with chronically high, stress-produced cortisol. Ideally, cortisol works in concert with melatonin, in a gentle rhythm of ups and downs.

Cortisol slowly rises in the morning hours, helping us wake up. It peaks shortly before noon, when it gradually declines again, allowing us to rest better in the evening and prepare for sleep.

The rhythms of sleep are called the circadian rhythms, and you can find out more about the different phases of sleep at the Harvard guide to sleep cycles.

Neurotransmitter rhythms

A neurotransmitter in the brain called adenosine provides us with the urge to sleep. It gradually builds up, creating a kind of ‘pressure to sleep’. This is why, if you offset this pressure by napping during the day, it can be more difficult to drop off at night. Since caffeine blocks adenosine receptors, leading to wakefulness, it’s wise to avoid it altogether if possible. Or, since the average half life of caffeine is 5-7 hours, avoid caffeine in the afternoon.


The obvious enemies of sleep

The obvious enemies of sleep are things one can work on right away.

Too much light at night, too high a temperature, noise, stress, anxiety, too much alcohol, or an uncomfortable bed can easily inhibit rest. Obvious antidotes to these problems include black-out blinds, sleep masks (here is a mask that one of my clients tried and liked), open windows, electric fans, playing white noise, investing in a good mattress, diaphragmatic breathing exercises, and bathing before bed.

One excellent nightly routine, is to take an Epsom Salt (Magnesium Sulphate) bath. Add 2 handfuls of Epsom Salts to an evening bath three times a week and you may find your muscles relaxing more overnight. Paradoxically, warm baths can help your body cool down better before bed.


Some less obvious enemies of sleep

Some less obvious enemies of sleep may surprise you. They include too little light in the morning, oral contraceptives, low to moderate alcohol consumption, lack of progesterone, poor digestion, medications, and not eating enough carbohydrates!

Certain medications, particularly those for hypothyroidism, can interfere with sleep; it is always worth checking with your GP if you suspect this.

Oral contraceptives have been shown to inhibit the metabolism of melatonin in women with certain common genetic polymorphisms, and may cause interruption in the circadian rhythms of healthy women generally. Again, talk to your GP if this is a concern for you.

Even just one small glass of wine at night has been shown to alter circadian rhythms, potentially increasing the risk of accident; if sleep is a problem for you, it may be worth cutting out alcohol completely until you are really happy with your sleep again.

Check for food intolerances (for example, the classic culprits of gluten and lactose) which may be disturbing your digestive system and in turn preventing peaceful rest.

In the evening, avoiding large amounts of protein, and chewing your food very carefully, can also save your digestive system from doing too much work at night, thereby promoting rest.

I hope that you will have a very restful last few weeks of summer, with deep, refreshing sleep to boot.

With best wishes, Emma

Emma Maitland-Carew, Nutritional Therapist in Oxford and Bloxham, Oxfordshire

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