What is sleep? The dictionary definition is “a condition of body and mind such as that which typically recurs for several hours every night, in which the nervous system is relatively inactive, the eyes closed, the postural muscles relaxed, and consciousness practically suspended.”
But actually, sleep equals rest. And it’s an important part of your daily life — most of us spend approximately one third of our lifetime sleeping. Without sleep you can not survive, and it’s important for a number of brain functions, including how nerve cells (neurons) communicate with each other. In fact, your brain and body stay remarkably active while you sleep. And it also plays a housekeeping role that removes toxins in your brain that build up while you are awake.
Sleep affects almost every type of tissue and system in the body — from the brain, heart, and lungs to our metabolism, immune function, mood, and disease resistance. Many studies have shown that a chronic lack of sleep, or simply poor sleep quality, can increase the risk of disorders including high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, depression, and obesity.
There are four stages when we sleep. Stage 1 is the transition between being asleep and awake. Stage 2 is light sleep. Stage 3 is deep sleep, which is the most refreshing and the time for the body to repair its tissues. And stage 4 is REM sleep. This 4th phase is also known as paradoxical sleep, and it is the sleep state during which we have most of our dreams, and is also involved in the regulation of emotions and memory consolidation. REM sleep disturbances are common in mood disorders, such as depression.
Did you know, however, that our body actually does not really require sleep? It really only requires rest. That’s why the quality of our sleep, and getting enough of the deep sleep phase, is the most important. I’m sure you have experienced too that sometimes even if you sleep for 9 hours you really didn’t rest, and you will wake up feeling tired. Unfortunately, as we get older we get less deep sleep.
The circadian rhythm is our body’s biological clock that directs a wide variety of functions, from daily fluctuations in wakefulness to body temperature, metabolism, and the release of hormones. It works together with our body’s homeostasis to regulate when we are awake and when we sleep, causing us to be sleepy at night and a tendency to wake in the morning, without an alarm. Homeostasis is a state of equilibrium. Homeostatic sleep drive reminds the body to sleep after a certain time and regulates sleep intensity.
So how can we improve the quality of our sleep, and wake up refreshed, not tired? I’ll mention some natural supplementation in a moment, but before I do of course first I want to remind you again that what you eat, and how much exercise you do, especially outdoor exercise, will hugely affect your sleep quality.
Our nervous system relies on neurotransmitters to communicate. During nerve impulse transmission, the nerve cells release neurotransmitters to communicate with neighboring nerve cells, triggering more nerve transmissions.
This network of communication allows for a range of nervous system functions such as muscle control, memory, and regulating our heart rate and body temperature.
The foods we eat affect our brain’s ability to produce and metabolize neurotransmitters, and consuming enough nutrients such as protein, vitamin C, vitamin B (specially B2, B6 and B3) helps maintain neurotransmitter function.
Some of the following natural supplements may provide benefits too, however if you are using anti-depressant (SSRIs) or sleeping pills make sure to discuss this with your doctor before you try.
First, tryptophan is an essential amino acid, a precursor to melatonin and the neurotransmitter serotonin, and it is a safe and effective sleep remedy. It can positively affect various serotonin-dependent brain functions, such as sleepiness and mood swings, and is actually also a wonderful remedy for anxiety and depression.
Foods high in tryptophan include meat, fish, spirulina, seaweed, spinach, bananas, eggs, oats, dates, and pumpkin and sesame seeds. Tryptophan supplements are typically available in 500mg and 1000mg tablets and capsules. You can take it on an empty stomach, or two hours after eating to increase the absorption.
L-ornithine is a non-essential, non-protein amino acid. It plays a central role in the urea cycle which converts ammonia to urea in the liver, and has been known to enhance detoxification of ammonia. Recent studies are showing that it can improve our stress levels and sleep quality. It is contained in various foods, with small amounts in meat, dairy, fish and eggs.
Another potentially beneficial supplement is niacin (vitamin B3). The body uses this water-soluble vitamin in the process of releasing energy from carbohydrates. It is needed to form fat from carbohydrates and to process alcohol. It can also help cholesterol. However niacinamide (the flush-free form) does not.
Niacin can be very useful for adrenal support, working with the adrenal gland to make stress-reducing hormones, thereby helping the body relax by reducing anxiety and depression. It can be used as a natural sleeping aid.
Food sources for niacin include leafy greens, cashews, peanuts, fish, cremini mushrooms, tomatoes, asparagus, eggs, and meat (especially organ meats such as liver). Some niacin is also found in whole grains. If supplementing then you can take between 50 and 250 milligrams about 30 minutes before bedtime for best results. Start with a small dosage, and be prepared that you may feel a tingling, blushing sensation and a hot flush for a short time — this is the normal “niacin flush.”
In addition, you may also like to try valerian, passion flower, kava tea, and chamomile tea.
And finally, a few more tips to help improve your sleep:
w Try to sleep at the same time every day, and if you can, don’t use an alarm clock.
w Do enough activity during the day, and use every opportunity to go outside and get fresh air.
w Don’t exercise close to your bed time.
w Avoid caffeine and alcohol as you’re getting closer to bed time.
w Relax before bed — try a warm bath, reading, or listening to relaxing music. When I was in school I was always listening to Richard Clayderman music, I found listening to the piano always made me relax, and my mom had to come to my room and turn off the music every night!
w Most importantly, don’t leave any electronics in your bedroom — no TV, phone, clock with bright lights etc. Get them all out of your bedroom!
Lastly, and more importantly than any supplements, herbs or even medication, is to be good company with yourself. If you can not go to sleep, don’t be angry at yourself, use this opportunity to learn how to relax, and learn what you need to do to heal yourself. Just take a deep breath, focus only on your breath, and listen … You are alive!
Ayda Ersoy is a nutrition and fitness director at The Diet Doc Hawaii. She can be reached at DietDocHawaii.com, Ayda@DietDocHawaii.com or (808) 276-6892.