Updated: May 18, 2020
Have you ever felt like you have spent days not getting any sleep? Or that you're waking up every hour on the hour? Or that you've spent ten hours in bed and still wake feeling exhausted?
Is "overtired" a thing?
I have some good news... you ARE sleeping. You ARE capable of sleeping and you do not need to LEARN how to sleep again. Sleeping is, of course, an innate ability of our bodies. If you are functioning on a daily basis and not finding yourself face down on your keyboard at work while your boss is tapping their foot angrily behind you, then you are sleeping. What can change, is the quality of that sleep, or how your brain is perceiving that sleep.
Fatigue is not sleepiness
We tend to mix up these two. If you are truly sleepy, you should be able to fall asleep promptly when your head hits the pillow. We tend to go to bed 'feeling sleepy' and then become aggravated that we can't seem to fall asleep. Ever spend the night having an angry conversation with the numbers on your alarm clock as they continue to tick the night away? Are you becoming a mathematical expert calculating the numbers of hours and minutes you'd get to sleep if you could only fall asleep right NOW?
Yeah, I've been there too. Understand, fatigue, that mental and physical exhaustion that you're feeling, doesn't necessarily translate to sleepiness. Fatigue means you need REST, but not necessarily sleep.
Understanding the chemical side of sleepiness
Throughout the day, a chemical called adenosine builds up in our brains, when there is sufficient adenosine we WILL fall asleep. Adenosine is the chemical that regulates the circadian rhythm along with two other chemicals you will probably be familiar with: melatonin and cortisol.
Guess what blocks the affects of adenosine? If you guessed caffeine, you get a gold star! Caffeine (very effectively) blocks the affects of adenosine, that is why many of us desperately reach for that cup of coffee before "functioning" in the morning. So we all know that caffeine helps increase focus and banish those "tired" feelings, did you also know, that recent studies have shown that caffeine may actually alter the brain's perceptions of TIME? Now that, is interesting. If true, this means caffeine may alter the brain's ability to decern how late it actually is, making it much more difficult to fall asleep (not even taking into account, the fact that caffeine blocks the affects of adenosine in the first place).
In 2013, Tom Roth performed a study showing that consuming caffeine as early as six hours before bed could reduce sleep up to a full hour! So when you hear people say "don't drink caffeinated beverages passed 2pm," they're actually spot on!
All things melatonin
Who here has tried melatonin supplements before bed? Did you find they worked? Not at all? Melatonin supplements are a total toss up, because supplementing melatonin only works IF low levels of melatonin are the root cause of your problem, and often, that isn't the case.
Our brains naturally produce melatonin in the evening, stimulated by darkness and red/orange light, think: sunset. Brain, (in true simplistic fashion), goes "oh the sun is going down, time for bed! Pump out that melatonin!" Melatonin is then produced steadily until it peaks around midnight, before declining through the rest of the night. Cortisol then begins to rise, getting us up in the morning. Or at least, that's how it should work.
Because melatonin naturally peaks around midnight, you can imagine why, going to bed closer to midnight may cause problems in your circadian rhythm, and why, melatonin might not be the root cause of the problem. Side note: Melatonin supplementation usually IS helpful for jetlag.
Annnnd, that black sheep, cortisol
I'm not going to spend a lot of time here, because we hammered this one out a lot in Part 1 of this series. But, as a quick recap, cortisol is our long-term stress hormone as well as the waking half of the circadian duo. If your stress levels are sky high: "I can't fall asleep because my thoughts are going a mile a minute," then dysregulated cortisol levels are likely wreaking havoc on that delicate balance, and once again, melatonin is not to blame.
Let's talk about those often misunderstood sleep cycles.
Light sleep. The black sheep of sleep, the one we blame for not feeling well rested. Okay, so light sleep is partly to blame, as it is the least restorative sleep cycle, however, it is also a critical transition point into both deep and REM sleep. We should spend about 1/2 of our total sleep time in light sleep and it actually provides some big benefits, promoting mental and physical restoration. The reason light sleep isn't as restorative is because there is a higher level of awareness, it is the mental state of being asleep but feeling like you still know everything that is going on around you.
REM sleep. Or dream sleep. REM sleep is the most critical stage for memory processing and mood regulation. Studies done depriving participants of this stage of sleep (by waking them mid REM), showed deficits in memory, attention, concentration and disruptions in mood. We spend about 1/4 of our sleep in REM and it generally occurs later in the night, which is why we tend to wake in the middle of a dream feeling groggy.
Deep sleep. Our perceived gold standard, most of us have been led to believe that if we could spend our whole night in deep sleep we would be well rested, well adjusted, optimally functioning human beings. Right? Right. Well, kind of... Deep sleep IS our most restorative state, and is definitely critical to our health, but no more so than the other two stages. So do yourself a favour and stop stressing about your fitbit's analysis of your sleep patterns. Deep sleep IS responisble for regulating hormone levels, specifically, human growth hormone, which is critical to recovery, tissue repair, and even bolstering your immune system. We spend about 1/4 of our total sleep, in deep sleep, and most of it is in the first half of the night, so it is pretty important to be getting to bed before midnight (before melatonin peaks).
Poor sleep quality and weight management
Many hormone balances shift overnight, the two I want to talk about here, are Leptin (satiety) and Ghrelin (hunger), throughout the sleep cycle, leptin should rise naturally, telling the body "hey it's okay! You've got your caloric needs covered, you just rest up!" So you can sleep soundly through the night. Ghrelin then rises closer to the morning as energy demands increase and glucose availability decreases. IF you're suffering from broken sleep, or decreased deep sleep, your leptin levels may not rise sufficiently, increasing your hunger. Studies have shown that individuals getting less than 7 hours of sleep had higher levels of ghrelin, and significantly lower levels of leptin. In turn, they tended to eat more than their body required, and were less sensitive to leptin telling them "that's enough."
Seriously, get some sleep...
Poor sleep quality and sport performance
As mentioned above, the main hormone regulated during deep sleep is growth hormone, the same hormone responsible for repairing the micro tears in muscle from a tough workout. If you are finding yourself sore for days after a workout, there is likely one of two things happening: you are not getting quality deep sleep OR you are not fueling your body properly with quality protein and the carbs it needs to do the repair work.
Consider as well, that training IS physical damage to the body, beneficial damage, but damage nonetheless. When there is damage, such as micro tears to muscles, the immune system kicks in, we get an inflammatory response, increase in white blood cells to address the damage and general fatigue. This is where DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) comes from, it's your body telling you (through pain), that this muscle is damaged and needs a break. Growth hormone also supports your immune system, so if you're not keeping your GH high through deep sleep, you will be hitting your recovery process with a double whammy. Seriously, get some sleep...
What can you do to IMPROVE your sleep?
FIRST, like anything else, don't try to overhaul your sleep schedule in a day, it usually won't be sustainable. Always start with easy achievable goals.
SECOND, know that there isn't any one way that will work for every person, you have to be willing to experiment, to find what works best for you and allow yourself to have set backs.
Create a sleep routine.
Shut off electronics at least one hour before bed time, or at the very least, add blue blocking filters to your devices. This tints the screen orange, which, as you may remember is a natural stimulant for melatonin production.
Try activities that help you wind down, like reading a book (preferably on paper), having a mug of tea, journaling, meditating or having a warm bath.
Dim or turn off the lights close to bedtime, again to support melatonin.
Make sure your space is clean, the mind will be busier and more anxious if you're sleeping in a messy environment. Basically, you're trying to fall asleep while consciously, or subconsciously, being aware of all the "stuff" that needs to be done. A clear space helps a clear mind.
Take a few minutes at the end of the day to write down a to-do list for tomorrow, this way you spend less time running through all the "stuff" that needs to be done. It'll all be there tomorrow, now it is time to sleep.
The key is consistency. If you wind down with the same activities every night, regardless of what they are, your brain will associate them with "time to get ready for bed."
The Natural Foundation of Sleep believes it is best not to eat 2-3 hours before bed, though currently, no definitive research supports this.
Avoid carb-dense foods before bed. A spike in blood sugar and insulin will make you feel sleepy initially, but high levels of glucose and insulin in your blood will in turn spike your cortisol, or the waking half of your circadian rhythm. So, eating a carb dense meal before bed is not going to be helpful for long restorative sleep.
If you must eat before bed, try simple sugars that are easy on your digestive system with a little bit of fat to balance blood sugar through the night. Cherries with walnuts for example, as an added bonus, these foods are both naturally high in melatonin.
Foods high in magnesium, think: plants. Magnesium naturally promotes relaxation in the body.
Chamomile tea may help, but if you need something a little more, try a sleepy time tea with valerian root. Valerian root has been used since ancient times to support sleep, this herb acts as natural anxiolytic and sleep aid. Valeric acid, an active compound in valerian root, inhibits the break down of GABA in the brain which promotes a feeling of calm.
More rigorous exercise in the morning and midday can help boost mood and regulate cortisol levels. Gentle movement in the evenings help reduce stress and aid relaxation. Exercise tires the body and will increase the body's need for sleep. Be aware intense exercise before bed may disrupt sleep, as it will stimulate the release adrenaline in the body and may be too stimulating to relax.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation, you can listen to many different body scans and PMR practices on apps like Insight Timer. These exercises should be done in bed before sleep, to promote muscle relaxation and increase body awareness. Body awareness exercises like yoga practices are grounding and help "drop you back into your body" and away from over analysing.
Thanks for buckling in for a long one there everyone! Sleep is a fascinating biological process, if you're more interested in sleep then the basic information I have provided here, check out the book "the Sleep Solution" by W. Chris Winter, he is delightfully sarcastic, so it isn't a dry read.
Of course, as ususal don't hesitate to reach out to me with any questions you have, I love to nerd out about this stuff and I am happy to talk about it anutime.
You can reach me here, or find me on instagram @sloch_holistic. Until next time, take care and sleep well!