If there’s been a tip for better sleep published, I’ve seen it! Keep your room cool, have a warm bath, relax, clear out electronics, etc. As many times as I’ve tried these tips, they just don’t seem to work that well. And I’m not alone. Too many women have insomnia, whether it’s trouble falling asleep or staying asleep. Or worse, both.
There is a missing link in most of these sleep tips, though. Diet and hormones affect every single process in your body so it’s not surprising that they can impact how well we sleep. You could be the Type A personality who follows ALL the tips perfectly and still has poor sleep.
My own sleep has been, to put it bluntly, terrible for years. I actually can’t remember having a period in my life when my sleep was good.
So, let’s talk about hormones and how they affect sleep. And, 5 secrets to a better sleep using natural foods, supplements and self-care techniques. (And, yes, these really do help – I’ve tried them all!)
Tip #1: Do a Brain Dump
Cortisol is your stress hormone and when it’s high, you can’t sleep. Cortisol plays an important role in life – if your adrenals are happy, cortisol will naturally start to rise in the early morning hours to help wake you up. Then, over the day, it will slowly lower to help you prepare for the next night’s sleep.
But, with all the stressors we’re exposed to, most of us, especially women, have cortisol swings all over the place. Ever get that mid-afternoon slump where you’re reaching for sugar or caffeine? That’s cortisol taking a nosedive (when it shouldn’t).
Another problem with chronic stress is cortisol spikes right before bedtime – you know, when you feel a ‘second wind’ hit late at night or you go to bed feeling ‘wired and tired’. How frustrating is this, especially when you have an early workout or a big presentation the next day?
And, if you periodically or frequently wake at 3am, that’s cortisol thinking your body is starving. The adrenals release a spike of cortisol to get glucose into your blood for energy.
Most of these issues can be alleviated with proper and regular relaxation before bedtime.
My two favorites relaxation techniques are the brain dump and child’s pose.
A brain dump of EVERYTHING that’s bothering you or worrying you or coming up that you have to think about – this is a great way to clear your mind to help avoid those nights where you lay in bed and think… For women who feel ‘wired and tired’ at bedtime, this technique can be very effective.
Child’s pose (you know, that easy restorative pose from yoga) is a wonderful activity before bed. This pose is a reminder that it’s okay to relax. It helps tune your body into the idea that you don’t have to be go-go-go 100% of the time. Try child’s pose for 5-10 minutes before bed and incorporate deep, mindful breathing. Do this AFTER the brain dump so you’re ready to sleep!
Tip #2: Reduce Inflammation
A lack of sleep increases biological markers for inflammation in the body. Inflammation due to lack of sleep is related to heightened risk of cardiovascular disease.
However, inflammation can also cause poor sleep.
Chronic inflammation keeps your immune system ‘on’, and within the brain, there are certain cells called microglia that actually have their own immune system. Stress, disease, vitamin deficiencies, lack of exercise and the wrong diet can trigger these cells.
A couple of years ago, I made an exciting discovery between food and sleep. Whenever I eat something with wheat in it, I can’t sleep that night. It never fails! This is exciting because it was finally a piece of the puzzle falling into place.
A diet high in refined carbs, sugar and gluten can trigger those microglia cells to turn ‘on’ in the brain. This is because these types of food are considered ‘pro-inflammatory’ in most people. Chronic low-grade inflammation then affects how neurotransmitters communicate. This impacts sleep.
Reduce inflammation in the brain by eating more brain-healthy fats. One of the best healthy fats for the brain is organic virgin coconut oil, or its liquid cousin MCT oil. Other excellent foods are salmon, mackerel, grass-fed beef, organic chicken and pasture raised eggs. These foods all contain healthy levels of anti-inflammatory omega-3 essential fats.
Eliminate refined sugar and wheat from your diet too.
And, of course, remember to manage stress.
Tip #3: Exercise
Since we’re talking about stress, let’s dive into exercise now.
Exercise is a great way to reduce stress because you have to focus on your workout and you’re allowed to totally zone out! Just be cautious that exercising, especially at higher intensities, raises cortisol, so try to work out within your comfort zone.
And, try not to exercise too close to bedtime. You can quickly use up your glucose stores (especially if you don’t have a snack with complex carbs in it after the gym) and cause those 3 am blood sugar / cortisol spikes.
Tip #4: Boost Your Serotonin & Melatonin
Melatonin is the hormone that helps to regulate your circadian rhythm. This promotes sleep and waking schedules – melatonin should naturally be higher at night and lower in the morning (opposite to your natural cortisol cycle, see chart above).
Melatonin helps to protect the brain from inflammation as well as provides antioxidant properties.
[Really, who sleeps better than a cat?!? J ]
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, of which 90% is made in the gut, that helps manufacture melatonin. Many women are deficient in serotonin, from poor diets, stress, or hormone replacement therapies (like The Pill). Serotonin is also responsible for influencing our moods, so low serotonin has been linked to depression.
Our stressful lives lead to an overproduction of serotonin. For most of us, our diets can keep up with the right levels of nutrients needed to keep the resources (i.e. vitamins, minerals) up to sustain serotonin production to healthy levels. But, when we’re chronically stressed, coupled with a diet lacking certain nutrients, we can quickly become low in serotonin.
So, to boost melatonin production, you need to boost serotonin too.
Like I mentioned above, serotonin is produced in the gut. That means keeping your gut flora balanced. Eat fermented foods daily, include a probiotic and optimize digestion by chewing, eating mindfully, and stopping when you’re 80% full.
Foods rich in tryptophan are also very beneficial because serotonin is made from this amino acid. Eggs, fish, turkey, chicken, beans, tofu and raw oats are high in tryptophan.
One indication that you’re low in serotonin is if sugar gives you a high. This is because tryptophan is best absorbed from carbohydrate sources rather than protein. Eating carbohydrates causes a release of insulin and insulin helps carry tryptophan to the brain.
Tip #5: The Perfect Supplement Balance
Supplements for sleep is one area I’ve been experimenting with for years. About 2 months ago, I think I discovered the perfect balance for me. I’ve gone from 5-8 full nights of sleep each month to 20-25, which is impressive (for me, anyway)! My mood is so much better and I can finally focus again on work.
Many people supplement with only melatonin to improve sleep. While this does work well for a few people, it’s actually not resolving the underlying issue. Remember that you need adequate serotonin production to make melatonin. AND you need stress management to keep your melatonin and cortisol rhythms in opposition.
5-HTP is the precursor to serotonin production. This is what tryptophan breaks down into in our bodies. Taking 5-HTP as directed might just be the ticket you need to better sleep.
Another great supplement is a combination of GABA, 5-HTP, valerian root extract, melatonin, L-theanine, and passionflower extract. These nutrients and herbs are all known to help improve sleep.
If you find you’re ‘wired and tired’ at bedtime, you could try a powdered magnesium supplement, such as CALM. Magnesium is a relaxation mineral and can help you unwind before bed.
Chronic stress, imbalanced hormones, a pro-inflammatory diet, and poor gut health can be the biggest physiological contributors to poor sleep.
It’s important to schedule daily self-care and exercise to not only improve sleep but to improve your overall health. Natural foods that help build up strong gut bacteria and provide the right nutrients for all your important hormones and neurotransmitters are crucial.
And, finally, remember that inflammation can be an unseen health issue affecting not only your sleep but your weight, hormonal balance, cardiovascular system and blood sugar.
NOTE: If you are restricting calories or not eating enough healthy fats, you could be causing those 3 am wake-up calls. A nutritious, balanced evening meal should be enough to sustain your energy needs throughout the night. But, sometimes we eat too little or not the right foods and blood sugar drops too fast, causing cortisol to spike to take over. So eat right and eat enough! Don’t fear the bedtime snack if your body is hungry!