Laura B. asks: “If one awakes in between 1 and 4 am every night for years, what can they do differently to stay asleep and sleep more deeply?”
If doctors and dietitians had a penny for every time they heard this complaint, they could comfortably retire on some exotic tropical island.
You know poor sleep makes you less productive and uncomfortably tired, but it can also wreak havoc on your hormones and health.
Studies shows that sleep, next to nutrition and exercise, becomes paramount to disease prevention and weight control. Why? A powerful hormone called cortisol controls how attuned your body is to normal rhythm. When cortisol becomes unbalanced, so does your health, and you feel it.
Your adrenal glands work hard to keep you balanced. They are responsible for maintaining your body weight, moderating your stress response, regulating your blood sugar, controlling inflammation, and – most importantly to many of us sleep-deprived Americans – regulating sleep and wake cycles.
When your body’s stress response and blood sugars stay balanced, your pineal gland produces melatonin that pulses strongly in the late afternoon and evening to help you sleep, simultaneously allowing for your cortisol levels to drop off so that you feel calm and sleepy at night.
A healthy, balanced system means you fall asleep and stay asleep. But what happens if your cortisol stays elevated in the afternoon and evening? You may feel tired yet wired, as though you want to sleep but you just can’t. Or, as you experienced, you may fall asleep and then wake up around 1 – 4 a.m. Yikes!
Stress can affect your sleep wake cycles in numerous ways. It could be stress from psychological sources like work, family, and finances. It could be stress from physical incidents such as lack of exercise, too much screen time, junky food intake, toxic lifestyle or living environment, and imbalanced hormones. It could be a combination of both types of stress.
The two MOST common culprits threatening your sleep wake cycles are unregulated blood sugar levels or poor nutrition status and chronic stress.
Employ these strategies to optimize your nutrition so you handle stress effectively and get high-quality sleep throughout the whole night:
- Eat on time. Cut out all munching no later than three hours before bed. Eating a heavy meal prior to bed practically guarantees a bad night’s sleep.
- Time Your Carbs. Eat most of your daily intake of smart carbohydrates in the evening. Remember to cut out the white breads, flours, rice, and potatoes.
- Ditch the diet. Eating too few calories or nutrients actually increases cortisol and wakes you up in the middle of the night. Follow a scientific program if you need to lose weight. Try Dr. Hyman’s The Blood Sugar Solution or 10–Day Detox Diet.
- Write your worries down. One hour before bed, write down the things that cause you anxiety. Make plans for what you might have to do the next day to reduce your worry. It will free up your mind and energy to move into deep and restful sleep.
- Magnificent Magnolia. Try Magnolia officinalis to help your body regulate stress hormones and deal with cortisol effectively. You can also take 200 – 400 mg of magnesium citrate or glycinate before bed, which helps relax the nervous system and muscles.
- Mellow out with melatonin. Try one to three mg of melatonin at night, which helps stabilize your sleep rhythms.
- Ask for Ashwagandha. This adaptogenic herb helps your body adapt to stress and lessens the destruction stress can cause on your system, especially your sleep.
- Befriend your circadian rhythm. Develop regular rhythms of sleep. Go to bed before 11p.m. and wake up at the same time each day.
- Let there be NO light. Create total darkness and quiet. Consider using eyeshades and earplugs.
- Avoid caffeine. A big cup of coffee or another caffeinated beverage may seem to help you stay awake, but actually makes your sleep worse.
- Avoid alcohol. It might help you get to sleep, but alcohol creates interruptions in your sleep patterns and overall poor-quality sleep.
- Love that sunshine. Maximize daylight exposure for at least 20 minutes daily. The light from the sun enters your eyes and triggers your brain to release specific chemicals and hormones like melatonin that are vital to healthy sleep, mood, and aging.
If you are still having trouble sleeping, get checked out for other problems that can interfere with sleep, including food sensitivities, thyroid problems, menopause, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, heavy metal toxicity, stress, and depression.
Wishing you health and happiness,
Mark Hyman, MD.