A Good Night’s Sleep Is the Key to Health and Happiness
Do you want to lose weight, have more energy, focus better, decrease anxiety, improve your health, reduce stress, feel happier, or all of the above? It all starts with a simple act: a good night’s sleep.
Women significantly underestimate the importance of sleep. Priority is given to -well- everything except sleep; yet, adequate sleep is key to a happy and healthy life.
This blog will tell you everything you need to know about how sleep plays a role in your physical and mental health as well as the relationship between sleep and weight. More importantly, it will give you a complete guide to help you sleep well and feel refreshed every morning.
A good night’s sleep is not a luxury, it is a necessity.
The Science of Sleep
Sleep plays a vital role in each person’s overall health and well-being. It is critical for the body to balance and regulate vital systems.
The Stages of Sleep
There are four stages of sleep. The first three stages are considered non-REM (rapid eye movement) sleep; while the fourth stage falls into the category of REM sleep, also known as active sleep (1).
It is the transition period from being awake to falling asleep. This period lasts around five to ten minutes and it is considered relatively light sleep. During this short period your heartbeat, breathing, and eye movements slow; and your muscles relax with occasional twitches. Your brain waves begin to slow from their daytime wakefulness patterns.
This sleep stage lasts around 20 minutes. During this period the body temperature starts to drop and breathing and heartbeat slow down.
This is considered a deep sleep stage, or in other words, a transition stage from light sleep to very deep sleep. The heart rate and breathing slow down to their lowest during this period. The muscles are relaxed and it could be hard to wake up in this stage.
Also known as REM sleep, it happens 90 minutes after you fall asleep. The brain is more active during this period, hence you can have intense dreams. An interesting fact about this stage is that the muscles in your arms and legs are temporarily paralyzed, the reason why you cannot act out in your dreams. As you get older, you spend less time in REM sleep.
REM sleep is important for many reasons, including the stimulation of the areas of the brain that help with learning and the production of proteins.
In terms of mental health, it is important to spend more time in restorative deep sleep, during which the mind processes emotions and memories and relieves stress.
Have you Heard About Circadian Rhythms?
The circadian rhythms are 24-hour cycles that run our body’s internal clock and play an essential role in the sleep-wake cycle. Keeping it aligned leads to restful sleep, hormonal balance, and functional energy metabolism.
The body’s internal timekeeping device is logically synchronized to the rising and the setting of the Sun. Many of the body’s systems are calibrated to the appearance and disappearance of that natural light. Light lets the body know when it’s time to release the hormones that make you sleepy or alert.
While you could override the system, it works best when you follow the natural sleep pattern. A good night’s sleep starts with following the natural light cycle.
How Much Sleep Do You Need?
The National Sleep Foundation guideline guidelines recommend that adults between 26 and 64 years of age sleep between 7 and 9 hours (3).
However, the exact number of hours of sleep to rest and start a new day full of energy varies from one person to another. Moreover, sleep quality and timing also determine how rested you feel.
Sleep and Mental Well-Being
Sleep and Anxiety
On the one hand, a good night’s sleep can decrease anxiety while a poor night of sleep can increase it; lack of sleep can act as a chronic stressor that impairs brain functions and contributes to anxiety. In addition, lack of sleep can create an imbalance in hormone levels that drive anxiety levels higher (4).
On the other hand, anxiety is frequently related to sleeping difficulties. While anxiety is often linked to worries in life, during middle age it can also be related to hormonal imbalance. Morning anxiety is common in perimenopausal and menopausal women. Moreover, the same hormones that are responsible for anxiety are also responsible for poor sleep quality.
If this speaks to you, don’t be discouraged. There is hope!
Sleep and Depression
One of the common signs of depression is poor sleep quality and quantity. People who are depressed might find themselves having difficulties falling asleep, staying asleep, or waking up early.
Depression can also manifest with sleepiness throughout the day, resulting in longer naps which can lead to further sleeping difficulties at night.
Sleep and Stress
A good night’s sleep is essential to manage stress! It has been shown that stress increases when you are sleep-deprived. Adults who sleep fewer than eight hours a night are more likely to report symptoms of stress (7).
However, it is hard to get quality sleep when you are stress. This cycle can be broken by working on sleeping better and reducing the stressors in your life.
Sleep and Cognitive Performance
Can sleep actually affect you during the day and your cognitive performance?
Yes, it can. Sleep plays a key role in focus, decision-making ability, memory consolidation, problem-solving, creativity, emotional processing, and judgment.
Lack of sleep can be compared with drinking alcohol in terms of cognitive impairment. A study suggests that 17 to 19 hours of no sleep is equivalent to having an alcohol level of 0.05%. To compare, let’s look at Florida where it is illegal to drive with an alcohol level of 0.08%. The same study showed that sleep-deprived individuals performed at 50% slower response in some tests when compared with individuals with an alcohol level of 0.05% (8).
Sleep and Weight Loss
Are you eating balanced meals and still not losing weight?
Inadequate sleep not only makes you tired but can also have a significant impact on your weight.
Not sleeping enough can change the way that the reward system in your brain reacts in response to the sight of junk food. People who don’t sleep enough tend to eat more sugar-loaded foods and more processed carbohydrates such as chips, cookies, and bread (9). So those sugar cravings might be directly related to poor sleep!
Moreover, lack of sleep changes the normal function of the hormones that regulate your appetite and satiety (10). Imagine that! Lack of sleep can make you feel hungry often and the go food would be something sweet like a cookie. On top of that, as your satiety hormone is downregulated, you will not feel as full as you normally would.
The relationship between sleep and weight does not stop there! Lack of sleep can also tell your adrenal glands to secrete the stress hormone cortisol, which can cause you to gain weight.
Considering these changes in your hormone levels, paired with changes in the perception of the reward system, it is not surprising that many studies suggest that lack of sleep is a leading cause of weight gain.
Sleep and Insulin Resistance
The body naturally produces insulin to help use glucose (the end product the body produces after the breakdown of carbohydrates and sugars). Lack of sleep decreases the insulin response, and the same body responds by making more insulin (12).
This excess insulin makes most people feel hungrier and eat more. This change in the body, paired with changes in the hormones that regulate hunger and appetite, can easily result in weight gain.
Furthermore, changes in tolerance to glucose can lead to diabetes in the long run.
Sleep and Hormone Balance
As mentioned before, adequate sleep promotes healthy body processes, including hormone balance. While many hormones are involved or affected by the wake-sleep cycle, melatonin and cortisol play a significant role.
Melatonin, a natural hormone produced by the body, plays a key role in the sleep and wake cycle by helping you fall asleep and stay asleep. The production of this hormone increases when it is dark at night and decreases with the morning light (13).
This hormone is affected by circadian rhythms and its regulation works best when you maintain a sleep-wake cycle consistent with the natural day and night lights. This makes it important to keep lights low and stop using tablets, computers, or smartphones approximately an hour before bed.
Have you ever woken up fully alert in the middle of the night? This could be due to elevated cortisol levels.
Cortisol is strongly related to the circadian rhythm. After sleep, the production of cortisol declines until it reaches its lowest point around midnight. Then, cortisol increases its production to reach a peak between 7 to 9 am helping you wake up (14).
An excessive production of this hormone during sleep can wake you up in the middle of the night and make it difficult to fall back asleep.
Furthermore, high cortisol levels for a long period can cause chronic sleep disorders, particularly in the first time of the nighttime sleep period.
Perimenopause and Sleep Disturbances
Before perimenopause, progesterone helps to control the levels of cortisol. As your progesterone levels go down during this period in your life, there is more cortisol to overwhelm your body.
At the same time, estrogen levels also decline during this period of life. This hormone is involved in serotonin’s metabolism and other neurotransmitters that affect the sleep cycle.
Other potential causes of sleep disturbance during perimenopause and menopause include comorbidities, use of psychiatric medications or treatments, lifestyle, chronic life events, intimate partner violence, sociodemographic characteristics, or sleep assessment methods (15).
A Complete Guide for a Good Night’s Sleep
First things first. Start by establishing a bedtime ritual to signal your brain that it is time to wind down and setting your body into sleep mode. This nighttime routine can include a warm bath, washing your face, putting on your pajamas, turning on a diffuser with essential oils, or reading a book. Pick and choose what works best for you.
Also, following a regular bedtime schedule can help. Smartphones can now let you know when it is time to start getting ready to go to bed and turn off distracting messages and phone calls.
Budget Time to Sleep
It is often said that if you want something done, you have to schedule it. Thus, it is wise to budget enough time to sleep, including the time you need to unwinding and complete your nighttime routine.
Avoid Sleep Procrastination
It sure has happened to you: your eyes are closing and you are exhausted yet you are watching TV, looking at your phone, or doing something else instead of going to bed. We often go to bed late simply because we entertain ourselves by doing something else instead of going to bed. This is called sleep procrastination and something you can easily change.
Create an Environment Conducive a Good Night’s Sleep
Remove Electronics and Other Distractions
Cellphones, laptops, or tablet screens emit a blue light that suppresses melatonin production. Therefore, you should put your electronics away at least one hour before going to bed to avoid having a hard time falling asleep and waking up the next morning. Sometimes some downtime away from that stimulation is all you need.
The Perfect Bedroom to a Good Night’s Sleep
Create a sleep environment that is dark, quiet, comfortable, and cool. Wear an eye mask and use black-out curtains.
Many essential oils are used to improve the quality of sleep due to their calming effects. Aromatherapy with distinct scents may promote better sleep, help you wake up in the morning, or even influence dreams and memory formation during sleep (16).
Essential oils can be directly applied to the skin using a carrier oil or diffuse using an essential oil diffuser in your bedroom.
Calm Your Mind With Sleep Audio
Your mind is not always ready to sleep when your body is. That is when listening to sleep music, soundscapes for sleep casts come in, allowing you to disengage from your busy life and prepare you for a restful night’s sleep.
Listening to soundscapes such as white noise, crackling fireplaces, heavy rain, and ocean waves is calming to listen to when trying to fall asleep.
Sleep casts are audio content specifically designed to create the right conditions for a good night’s sleep by creating a mental sleepy environment for you.
Music can also help you relax and disconnect your mind. The sleep foundation states that listening to music before sleep can help you fall asleep faster and also improve the quality of your sleep. Moreover, listening to sleep music can have a cumulative effect. The more you listen to music, the better you will sleep (17).
Nowadays, it is so easy to find the perfect sounds to help you sleep as several apps have developed in the last few years. Here are some of the most popular:
Foods that Impact Sleep
The first step to getting an adequate amount of sleep is to break your love affair with caffeinated beverages. Caffeine is a stimulant that puts your body into fight or flight mode. After drinking a cup of coffee, your heart is racing, your blood pressure is rising, your muscles are tightening up, and you are alert.
Effects of caffeine are long-lasting in the body, a caffeinated beverage you drink in the afternoon could keep you up at night as it can stay in the body for up to 21 hours! However, the effects of caffeine are individualized and based on the tolerance levels that you have built over time.
If you have trouble sleeping, it is worth it to get off caffeine for two weeks (or limit it to 1-2 cups a day in the early hours of the morning) and see how you feel.
Many people believe that alcohol helps them to sleep but this is a myth. It is true that alcohol can help you fall into sleep but it prevents you from getting into that deep REM sleep, decreasing the quality of your sleep.
If you are someone that does not have dreams or remember having dreams and drink alcohol, that could be a sign that you are not getting that deep restoration of REM sleep (18).
Also, alcohol can worsen hot flashes and night sweats, a common cause of poor sleep during menopause.
Luckily, there are many tasty alternatives to alcohol now and lower alcoholic cocktails to choose from. Have you heard about the sober curious movement yet? It is a great trend that can help you lower your alcohol intake.
Several studies have found that people who follow diets high in sugar tend to experience restlessness at night. For example, a 2019 study shows an association between people who drink more sugar-sweetened beverages and poor sleep quality (19).
To sleep better, and to have better health, enjoy added sugars in moderation. Sugar from fruits can be part of daily meals. Sugars to avoid include those in sweetened beverages, especially those that include caffeine (i.e. sports drinks if you are not heavily exercising, sodas, and others).
Also limit pastries, candies, and all other foods with added sugars to once or twice a week or eat very small quantities if you eat them more frequently. Avoid sugary foods at night.
Foods to Promote a Good Night’s Sleep
There are specific foods that help you sleep by promoting the production of melatonin, the sleep hormone. Others contain specific antioxidants or vitamins that can also encourage sleep.
Dinner: How Much, What and When to Eat
Let’s start by talking about quantity. A small dinner (500-600 calorie) dinner is best as larger dinners can take longer to digest. Slow digestion can make it harder to fall asleep and to have a restful sleep.
To avoid being overly hungry at dinner, having a mid-afternoon snack is recommended. The best snacks for hunger control include those with fat or protein such as greek yogurt with natural fruits or almonds and berries.
Now, let’s talk about types of food. First, you need to remember that caffeine, alcohol, and sugar can negatively impact sleep. Thus these foods must be avoided at dinner.
Next, let’s focus on what to put on your plate. Lean protein (plant-based or animal), vegetables, healthy fats, and a moderate serving size of healthy carbohydrates. Harvard’s healthy eating plate provides an excellent and easy-to-understand guide of how a healthy plate should look like.
Last, have dinner at least two to three hours before dinner. It is fine to have a small snack before bedtime.
Low blood sugar can wake you up in the middle of the night.
There are many reasons for waking up throughout the night. When our blood sugar levels go too low during sleep, the brain alerts us to possible danger, and we wake up.
A nighttime snack with a small number of carbohydrates, such as half of an apple, and some natural beneficial fat such as peanut butter or almond butter helps you balance your blood sugar all through the night.
Hydration and Sleep
Do you find yourself waking up in the middle of the night thirsty? Stay hydrated throughout the day! Aim for 8-12 cups of water per day. This will help you minimize those unpleasant awakenings in the middle of the night.
However, limit the amount of water you drink in the last part of the day. You don’t want to wake up to use the bathroom either!
Exercise has been reported to reduce the amount of time that takes you to fall asleep and improves sleep quality.
In perimenopausal and menopausal women, it has been suggested that exercise reduces the symptoms that impair a good night’s sleep, such as hot flashes and night sweats (20).
Exercise does not have to be boring; it can be fun and social. If it is difficult for you to get in some physical activity on your own, pick an enjoyable activity that you can do with family or friends, like taking a dance class, hiking trails, or joining a soccer team.
It is best to spread your activities throughout the week and to avoid doing exercise late at night. Remember, if exercise is new to you, consult your doctor if you have any concerns.
Approximately 80% of menopausal women experience hot flashes (21). Due to those hot flashes and sweating, sleep time can be challenging.
The following tips will help you to stay cool during bedtime, in order to have a better sleep experience:
- Keep away spicy food before bed, it can cause sweating at night .
- Wear loose clothing, made from natural materials such as cotton.
- Maintain your bedroom well-ventilated.
- Avoid tight clothing. It decreases the amount of airflow your body receives throughout the night, increasing your body temperature and adding feelings of discomfort during sleep.
- Buying blackout shades could be your best option to always maintain your room at a cool temperature.
- Drink ice water. Keep a cup of ice water by your bed to sip in case you get hot or thirsty in the middle of the night.
While the desire to sleep is strongest from 2:00 AM to 4:00 AM, a close second is between 2:00 PM to 3:00 PM. This suggests that napping can be a natural part of our daily rhythms. Napping can be great to refresh yourself during the day! Instead of depending on energy drinks or coffee, a brief afternoon nap can be a great way to refresh for the rest of the day.
A brief -20 minutes- nap can help restore cognitive abilities without a significantly negative effect on nighttime sleep. A nap longer than that, especially longer than 30 minutes, is likely to leave you feeling sluggish and interfere with your nighttime sleep (22).
Supplements have been shown to be useful for many. This supplement can be taken within an hour of the desired sleep time or in the middle of the night to go back to sleep.
Consider starting your bedtime routine immediately after taking the supplement and disconnect from all electronics.
Melatonin supplements are widely available and are sold as pills, capsules, chewable, or liquid. Using sublingual melatonin allows it to be absorbed more quickly into the bloodstream; making it easier to fall back to sleep in just 10 to 15 minutes.
Similar to any other supplement, it is best to talk to your physician before starting taking melatonin.
This mineral can help you relax, giving you the peace of mind to help you fall asleep and stay asleep. It also helps regulate the sleep hormone melatonin (23).
Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to Treat Sleep Disorders
Sometimes it is time to call the experts. An interesting line of treatment is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) which focuses on helping you identify your thoughts, feels, and behaviors that are contributing to sleep problems (24).
CBT can also include therapeutic strategies to improve sleep education, sleep hygiene, stimulus control, sleep restriction, and relaxation training.
Sleep Disorder Specialists
Have you tried everything, and you can still not sleep well? Fortunately, some specialists are devoted to treating sleep problems with many different techniques.
Here is a list of resources for locating a certified behavioral sleep specialist:
- American Board of Sleep Medicine
- American Psychological Association
- Association of Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies
- Society of Behavioral Sleep Medicine
A good night’s sleep is necessary to maintain adequate body functions such as mental health, cognitive performance, metabolism, and hormonal balance. Therefore, sleep should be a priority!
Dr. Su-Nui Escobar is a Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist in Miami, FL. She is passionate about helping women over 40 live their best lives through healthy eating and a healthy lifestyle. Su-Nui is a doctor in clinical nutrition, able to translate complicated evidence-based science into practical advice. Su-Nui’s charisma and warmth have made her a frequent guest on Hispanic popular morning television shows.