Why is sleep important?
Most of us understand and believe in the importance of a good night’s sleep. There is scientific proof that sleep is essential to well-being, healing, and repair, avoidance of chronic disease, healthy aging and more.
This research comes from studying night-shift workers, like nurses, firefighters, and factory workers (or from sleep-deprivation research, spanning only two weeks before causing the symptoms of fibromyalgia). The primary reason for the benefits of sleep has to do with growth hormones.
Of course, growth hormone helps us grow when we’re young but equally as important is that it helps us orchestrate healing and repair after we stop growing. It is crucial to accomplish this nightly, given the fast-paced, stressed-out, toxic world we live in.
If we don’t sleep, we quickly start to decline in function and health.
For you to heal, it is essential for you to sleep. Healthy sleep hygiene is a primary goal, especially early on in your treatment. It seems simple, but you know it’s not. The roadblock for most is that to fix the sleep problem, we have to fix the Adrenal Fatigue; that is the major underlying cause of the sleep issues.
What goes wrong if you’re not getting enough sleep?
Your sleep is defined by your cortisol levels produced by your adrenals. Cortisol creates your circadian rhythm by releasing high amounts into your body in the morning, which is designed to get you up and animated for the day. Then, gradually and into the evening, cortisol release slows, until it’s at its lowest levels right before bed, easing you to sleep.
Cortisol has many other jobs because it’s your primary stress hormone. With chronic stress over time, cortisol levels become erratic: high where they should be low and low where they should be high. Cortisol suppresses melatonin and growth hormone, and guess what that means? Too much or too little cortisol at the wrong time is going to mess with your sleep cycle.
Cortisol and adrenaline (the other adrenal stress hormone), if used occasionally, are life-saving when we need them. When used in excess, these hormones cause tremendous wear and tear on the entire body.
Some of this wear and tear occurs in the brain in a small organ called the hippocampus, which is the primary location of our sleep architecture. As you can imagine, too much wear and tear and not enough healing and repair is not a recipe for vibrant health and well being.
What needs to happen for good sleep hygiene to occur?
- Stop damaging the sleep centers in the brain with excess cortisol and adrenaline.
- Repair the damage in the brain/hippocampus from excess cortisol and adrenaline.
- Decrease any evening elevated cortisol and/or adrenaline.
- Restore the amounts of calming neurotransmitters and hormones, which were suppressed from high cortisol and adrenaline.
- Restore the buffering systems of the body that have been damaged by stress over time.
- Ensure the proper production of melatonin and growth hormone.
What to expect when you’re sleeping well
My patients tell me all the time, “If I could just sleep, my adrenals would heal.” My reply is always, “If you could just heal your adrenals, you would sleep.”
Your sleep dysfunction is complex and multifactorial, which is why there is no quick fix. Its complexity is also why sleep meds often don’t work. There is no quick fix for your sleep issues.
Hormone and neurotransmitter balancing takes time. Healing, repair, and rewiring of your brain take time. Changes in behavioral patterns that foster poor sleep hygiene habits take time.
You should notice gradual shifts over time. You may initially get to sleep a little sooner; you may notice you wake a bit less, or that when you do wake, you can get back to sleep more quickly.
Even after you notice these changes, you may not feel refreshed after waking for a while. There is a deficit of energy that was created with stress over time, a deficit that has to be “repaid.”
Once you begin to repay, your energy bank account starts to fill back up. Be patient with the process, and with yourself.
Routine and bedtime
The body likes routine. Most processes in the body are rhythmic and cyclical. Regular wake times, bedtimes, and mealtimes, although simple, help establish and reinforce these cycles.
Get to bed earlier (9 p.m. -10 p.m. ideally). It matters when you sleep. Growth Hormone levels (responsible for growth, maintenance, and repair) are highest between 9 p.m. and 2 a.m. We need to get to sleep early enough to catch this window of repair.
If you stay up beyond your energy window (i.e. push yourself through evening fatigue), your adrenal glands will kick in to release extra hormones to meet the energy demand.
Once those extra hormones are released, there is nothing you can do to stop it; you’ll be awake for hours. This is a “second wind” and should be prevented.
Environment and surroundings
Dark bedrooms help induce sleepiness. The body produces melatonin in response to the pineal gland’s perceived reduced light through the optic nerve. Melatonin helps to get us to sleep and stimulates the metabolic maintenance cycle.
Use the bedroom only for bedroom activities. Using the bedroom for sleep gives positive feedback to the body and provides a Pavlovian response to stimulate melatonin release. Reading stimulating books and playing video games will do the opposite, stimulating stress hormone release.
Keep the bedroom comfortable, warm but not hot. Cold stimulates the stress response. Keep it comfortable. Research suggests between 60-68 degrees.
Quieting the mind throughout the day with meditation gives the subconscious mind time to wind down, even before the daylight is due to end. This is especially important for those with obsessive thoughts.
Exercise regularly. Move as much as you can without overdoing it. Do not exercise too close to bedtime, as this can be stimulating. You must be cautious with exercise, as it is very easy to overdo. Engage in minimal exercise to move your body, not to lose weight, etc.
Diet and nutrition
Eat a protein/fat snack before bed. This helps to prevent a dip in blood sugar during the night, which can be a cause of waking.
Adrenal patients often find themselves up several times during the night for trips to the bathroom. Sea salt (not table salt) helps you hold onto water and decreases the frequency of urination.
Avoid eating sugar or grains before bed. The faster sugar goes up, the faster it goes down. When it goes down the blood sugar drops and this can cause waking.
And finally, the most important two
Identify and treat any nutrient deficiencies.
Balance your hormones.
How is that done? Through treatment of the underlying Adrenal Fatigue.
During our first appointment, I often ask my patients, “Are you uncomfortable enough to take the next step?” It’s important for them to understand that healing is a choice—their choice—and it takes time and commitment. The vast majority of patients can be helped with adequate, comprehensive treatment. If you’d like to speak to one of my patient coordinators about working one-on-one with me, please click here.