In our 24-7 go-go culture, we undervalue sleep. Yet, getting enough quality sleep is critical for repairing your body, balancing your hormones and weight management, as well as for fat loss and building muscle.
Unfortunately, for many of us, simply going to bed early (or earlier) does not ensure that we will fall asleep easily, or sleep through the night.
So, how can we get enough quality sleep?
The following food and lifestyle habits interfere with your sleep architecture. These sleep robbers—and the solutions—include:
Do you snack on sugar and/or refined carbs, throughout the day (e.g., soda, juice, cereal, bread, pizza, crackers, cookies, etc.)? Do you “unwind” at night with a big bowl of ice cream while watching TV? Sugar is a stimulant that interferes with sleep by delivering quick hits of energy that can cause multiple awakenings throughout the night. When you have higher blood sugar levels, your body spends the night trying to burn that excess sugar instead of burning fat. Studies have shown that lack of sleep raises blood sugar levels (thereby increasing risk of diabetes). It’s a vicious cycle: unstable blood sugar means less sleep. Less sleep increases cravings for more sugar.
Rx: Choose whole, unprocessed foods.
Ideally, this is some combination of protein and magnesium-rich sources of fiber to help stabilize blood sugar and/or a modest amount (not too much!) of starch and fat. Some examples: a few slices of deli turkey or hummus with baby carrots; 2 tablespoons of almond butter and carrots/celery; a few bites of baked chicken with a couple tablespoons of guacamole. If you tend to wake up repeatedly during the night, try including just enough starchy complex carbohydrates at dinner—like a sweet potato (with the skin), butternut squash or black beans—to increase the level of serotonin in the brain, which helps promote sleep.
In its many tasty forms, caffeine—whether it’s coffee, tea, soda, energy drinks or chocolate—promotes alertness and wakefulness. Depending on when and how much caffeine you consume, and whether you are a slow or fast metabolizer, caffeine can disrupt the quality and duration of your sleep.
Did you know: caffeine can suppress melatonin, the hormone that helps control your sleep-wake cycles—even more than bright light?
Melatonin production is influenced by your circadian rhythm (body’s internal clock) and the amount of light to which you’re exposed. Typically, melatonin rises mid- to -late evening, after sunset, and remains high throughout the night. As the sun rises, melatonin drops—causing you to wake up. Your coffee habit could be inhibiting melatonin production (when you need it most), making it a challenge to fall asleep.
Caffeine has a “half-life” of 5 to 8 hours (1) and can range as high as 10 hours (2). This is how long it can take for half of the caffeine you consumed to be metabolized by your body—even longer if you’re a slow metabolizer. Let’s use 8 hours as the half-life of caffeine for the following example. It’s Monday morning, and you just drank 200 mg of caffeine (the equivalent of 1-2 cups of coffee) by 10AM. Eight hours later, at 6PM, you will have 100 mg of caffeine in your system. Eight hours later (2 AM), you have 50 mg of caffeine in your system. And eight hours later, at 10AM on Wednesday, you still have 25 mg of caffeine in your system (3). Even a small amount of caffeine can affect sleep quality if you are hypersensitive to caffeine.
Rx: Know your body on caffeine!
I’ve worked with many clients who are highly stressed and have hormone imbalances, or they are in hormonal transition (perimenopause, menopause, andropause), and are sensitive to caffeine. If this is you, reduce your intake or avoid caffeine altogether—until you stop feeling like you “need” caffeine to function.
If you are a fast metabolizer and able to tolerate caffeine well, have your last cup of coffee by 11AM. Even if you have a high tolerance for caffeine, try going 2 days on and 3 days off; caffeine typically clears out of your system after 3 days (4).
Although alcohol has a sedative effect that can make you drowsy and seemingly fall asleep faster, it disrupts your sleep architecture. This means you will spend less time in REM sleep (important for memory and emotional processing) the first half of the night. During the second half of the night, your body shifts from deep sleep, to lighter sleep with multiple awakenings (because of the alcohol), compromising the quality of your sleep. You are more likely to wake up very early in the morning—and unable to fall back asleep. The consequences of alcohol-induced sleep loss include fatigue, irritability, inability to focus/concentrate, mood and performance. Consuming two to three drinks a day is enough to affect sleep and performance; heavy drinking and / or drinking close to bedtime worsens sleep loss symptoms (5).
Rx: Drink less. Drink organic.
If improving sleep is a health goal, it is best to limit alcohol consumption to one drink 2 to 3 times a week and to have that drink between 5pm and 7pm, at least 4 hours before bedtime (6). The ideal scenario, especially if you are in perimenopause or menopause, is to abstain from alcohol altogether during the week and enjoy a glass of organic red wine with dinner over the weekend. Yes, organic, because conventionally grown wine grapes are heavily sprayed with pesticides. Alcohol also raises estrogen levels; three or more servings of alcohol a week is linked to a modestly increased risk (13% to 15%) of breast and other cancers (7).
4. Exercising too much or at the wrong time.
Over exercise, or, too much exercise for an already stressed-out-body—raises cortisol levels. Timing of exercise matters too. By engaging in long-duration cardio sessions (like running or spinning) at night, you are ramping up cortisol levels at a time when cortisol normally drops off. This goes against your natural body clock, affecting sleep. High cortisol levels at the wrong time (night) prevent the production of melatonin, which helps your body get the sleep, rest and recovery it needs (8).
Rx: Exercise early in the morning, late afternoon, or early evening.
Early morning aerobic exercisers tend to experience the best quality sleep—longer and deeper than those who exercise later in the day, according to a study published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning. That said, from a thermoregulation perspective (the process of lowering core temperature in preparation of sleep), exercising late afternoon or early evening can also be beneficial for sleep (9). The key is honor your internal body clock and not to engage in long-duration cardio or vigorous workouts (e.g., 1 hour of CrossFit) in the later evening. Researchers found that engaging in 30-minutes of resistance training (up until 7pm) was also found to help improve quality of sleep among college-aged subjects—with additional benefits for those with osteoporosis (bone loss), sarcopenia (muscle loss due to aging), anxiety and depression (10).
5. Light pollution.
In Paleolithic times, as soon as the sun set, it was “lights out!”, and the caveman hit the sack. He took his sleep-wake cues from the natural light that was available, awakening at sun rise and going to sleep at sunset.
In modern times, however, we are bombarded 24/7 by chronic light pollution. This includes short wavelength blue light from electronic screens (computers, tablets and phones). After 9pm, exposure to blue light damages sleep by shortening sleep time and preventing quality sleep (11). Energy-efficient lighting, like curlicue compact lightbulbs and LED lights, are also sources of blue light that interfere with sleep. Night exposure to blue light suppresses melatonin (you make less) and disrupts our circadian rhythm (12). A circadian rhythm that is continually “off schedule” (e.g., graveyard shift workers who sleep in the morning and work late evening through dawn) increase their risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, low immunity, low mood and poor cognitive function (13, 14, 15).
Using light-emitting electronic devices (LED), such as tablets, smart phones and e-readers before bedtime can negatively impact overall health, alertness and circadian rhythm (16). In a 2018 study published in Physiological Reports, all of the healthy young adult participants (average age was 26) who used LED in the hours before bedtime went to bed significantly later—about 31 minutes later—compared to when they read printed materials (17). Even a 30-minute later bedtime and/or shorter sleep duration in adolescents is associated with greater daytime sleepiness, caffeine use, depression and thoughts of suicide (18).
Rx: Start dimming at sunset + Darken your bedroom at bedtime.
- If you have to be on electronic devices after sunset, wear blue light-blocking amber glasses to enable your body to produce melatonin that will naturally make you feel sleepy.
- Keep all electronic devices OUT of the bedroom, including the television.
- Keep your bedroom dark, as in pitch-black, with these blackout curtains.
- Swap out scanning your phone or tablet before bed for reading printed material, like a book!
- Wear a sleep mask; I suggest this brand.
- If you have a digital clock, turn it away from you or cover it.
6. EMF Overwhelm.
From cell phones to WiFi, man-made EMFs (electromagnetic fields) are part of our modern everyday life. However, EMF exposure from these devices can significantly reduce melatonin, interfering with our sleep—and negatively affect our overall health. In fact, the International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies electromagnetic fields (EMFs) as “possibly carcinogenic” to humans, with the potential to transform normal cells into cancer cells (19).
The human body is actually a complex electromagnetic system. Our cells conduct electrical currents that our body uses; for example, the nervous system require electricity to send signals throughout the body and to the brain that enable us to move, think and feel. Magnetic fields have also been detected from the human heart and brain (20).
Here’s the problem. Because the electromagnetic signals of the human body are very weak, chronic exposure to man-made EMFs (like WiFi, Bluetooth and cell phones) can disrupt the intricate but delicate electromagnetic systems of the body, in particular, for the heart, brain and mitochondria (the “powerhouses of the cell”).
People who are very sensitive to EMF exposure may develop electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EMHS), a condition not yet recognized by the conventional medical community. Those who are electrosensitive may experience a constellation of physical, emotional and neurological symptoms, including sleep disturbance (insomnia or problems staying asleep) and fatigue, as well as chronic inflammatory disorders (21).
Rx. Use the following simple, cheap and practical tips for reducing your EMF exposure:
- Limit the time you spend gazing at your computer, tablet, or phone to protect yourself from the cumulative damage of invisible electrical currents.
- Do NOT sleep with your phone under your pillow! If you use your phone as an alarm, switch to “Airplane” mode and place phone in another room.
- Keep all of your wireless devices, including your phone, at least one foot away from your body.
- Completely turn off all electronic devices (e.g., phone, tablet or computer); or, at a minimum, switch to “Airplane” mode and turn off the Wi-Fi function before bed.
- Instead of a wireless and/or Bluetooth connection, opt for a hardwired ethernet cable connection to your computer, laptop and/or tablet.
- If you have a WiFi router in your home, turn it off at night.
- If you need to charge any wireless electronic devices during the night, make sure the device(s) are turned off or in “Airplane” mode—and keep as far away from the bedroom as possible.
- Trade your digital clock, which runs on electricity, for a battery-operated alarm clock.
- Say “NO!” to a smart meter at your home; or if you have one, talk to the utility company about replacing it with an analog meter.
7. Monkey mind.
Worry, anxiety and rumination can prevent us from getting the shut-eye that we need. A simple way to quiet the mind is to engage in mindfulness meditation. Researchers found that among middle-aged to older adults, who had problems sleeping, those who practiced mindfulness meditation experienced less insomnia, fatigue and depression by the end of just six sessions (22).
Rx: Practice mindful meditation.
So many of us tend to live in the past or in the future, which can drive persistent negative thoughts. Mindfulness meditation is about being present in the moment. Start with 3 to 5 minutes and, over time, work your way up to 20 minutes. Begin by simply focusing on your breath; a sound (“om”); a word (“peace”); or, a phrase “I am relaxed”. Release any self-judgement or self-criticism. The idea is to just “be”. If your mind wanders (and it will!), simply bring it back to the object of focus (sound, word or phrase) or to your breath.
Sleep can feel elusive—either because we are afraid to surrender to sleep, or because we feel afraid, stressed or anxious. While we cannot choose our external circumstances, we can choose to create a healthier body and brain—simply by choosing to sleep.
As Mahatma Gandhi famously said, “Each night, when I go to sleep, I die. And the next morning, when I wake up, I am reborn.”
Click Below to Continue Reading About Sleep and Health:
The Power of Sleep, Part 1
1, 3, 4 8 Sleep Smarter. Shawn Stevenson. March 15, 2016.
2 O’Callaghan F, Muurlink O, Reid N. Effects of caffeine on sleep quality and daytime functioning. Risk Manag Healthcare Policy. 2018 Dec 7;11:263-271.
5, 6 The Sleep Doctor. Michael J. Breus, Ph.D. Alcohol and Sleep. Sept. 8, 2022.
7 The Hormone Cure. Sara Gottfried. March 11, 2014.
9, 10 Alley, Jessica R.; Mazzochi, John W.; Smith, Caroline J.; Morris, David M.; Collier, Scott R.. Effects of Resistance Exercise Timing on Sleep Architecture and Nocturnal Blood Pressure. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: May 2015 – Volume 29 – Issue 5 – p 1378-1385.
11 A. Green, M. Cohen-Zion, A. Haim & Y. Dagan (2017) Evening light exposure to computer screens disrupts human sleep, biological rhythms, and attention abilities, Chronobiology International, 34:7, 855-865.
12, 17 Chinoy ED, Duffy JF, Czeisler CA. Unrestricted evening use of light-emitting tablet computers delays self-selected bedtime and disrupts circadian timing and alertness. Physiol Rep. 2018 May;6(10): e13692.
13 Nena E, Katsaouni M, Steiropoulos P, Theodorou E, Constantinidis TC, Tripsianis G. Effect of Shift Work on Sleep, Health, and Quality of Life of Health-care Workers. Indian J Occup Environ Med. 2018 Jan-Apr;22(1):29-34.
14 Almeida CM, Malheiro A. Sleep, immunity and shift workers: A review. Sleep Sci. 2016 Jul-Sep;9(3):164-168.
15, 16 Brigham Health Hub. Beware of Blue Light Before Sleep. Anne-Marie Chang, Ph.D and Charles A. Czeisler, MD, Ph.D.
18 Owens JA, Weiss MR. Insufficient sleep in adolescents: causes and consequences. Minerva Pediatr. 2017 Aug;69(4):326-336.
19 Halgamuge MN. Pineal melatonin level disruption in humans due to electromagnetic fields and ICNIRP limits. Radiat Prot Dosimetry. 2013 May;154(4):405-16.
20 Martinos Center. 45 Years of Biomagnetism and SQUID. Nov. 19, 2014.
21 De Luca C, Thai JC, Raskovic D, Cesareo E, Caccamo D, Trukhanov A, Korkina L. Metabolic and genetic screening of electromagnetic hypersensitive subjects as a feasible tool for diagnostics and intervention. Mediators Inflamm.2014;2014: 924184.
22 Black DS, O’Reilly GA, Olmstead R, Breen EC, Irwin MR. Mindfulness Meditation and Improvement in Sleep Quality and Daytime Impairment Among Older Adults With Sleep Disturbances: A Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA Intern Med. 2015;175(4):494–501.