We all know that quality sleep is essential for health. Sleep is the prime time for our bodies to clean house, repair, rejuvenate, and even burn fat. When was the last time you popped out of bed feeling rejuvenated? Whether it is getting to sleep or staying asleep, millions of Australians toss and turn at night. Here are some key steps to improve sleep quality.

Step 1 – Set a Consistent Bedtime

Adults on average need 7-8 hours of sleep each night. So, if you want to get up at 6:00AM, then you should be in bed with lights out by 10:00 to 10:30 PM. In healthy adults, it takes 5-15 minutes to fall asleep. If it takes you longer to fall asleep, then you need to work on your wind-down or relaxation routine and sleep hygiene. Take a look at some of these factors as discussed below.

A consistent bedtime is a fundamental concept. Parents set a consistent bedtime for their young children to establish a routine and external structure. This routine and consistent bedtime, however, changes with teenagers, college and older individuals with work demands, social schedules, and free will. A consistent bedtime schedule often gets bent out of shape with shorter sleep times during the work week and then catch-up sleep or late nights on the weekends. Think about your track record over the previous months and even years. An occasional departure from the consistent bedtime is not a major concern for most individuals. Rather, the concern is being consistently off schedule which wreaks havoc with our internal clocks.

Our bodies can certainly be flexible with sleep-wake schedules. There is no doubt about that, but in the last century with globalization and now 24/7 schedules, the consistent bedtime that parallels the natural day-night circadian rhythm is challenged in no small way. Ultimately, quality restorative sleep is challenged. Regular schedules and consistent bedtimes in conjunction with day-night/light-dark circadian rhythms are at the core of healthy physiology, body clocks, restorative sleep and waking refreshed.

Understanding Your Master Clock

Humans and other mammals have a master clock set deep within the brain’s hypothalamus called the suprachiasmatic Nucleus (SCN). The SCN, a control switch of 20,000 nerve cells, responds to light and dark signals in our environment through our eyes and retina. Its task is to coordinate body rhythms across the entire body and relies on the cues from day-night/light-dark signals. It sets a consistent rhythmic tone in the body.

The result of this rhythmic beat influences clocks in the rest of the body. Body rhythms and body clocks, also known as chronobiology, regulate numerous processes. Cortisol levels that wake us up in the morning, thyroid hormone rhythms, AMPK master enzyme switches that turn on metabolic fat burning, immune cells, gut motility and digestion, liver detoxification, and even the normal clean-up time in the brain known as glymphatics 1A all rely on the internal clocks and synchronization. Every single cell in the body has a clock. These body clocks rely on the SCN and the day-night cycle.

If we break this pattern, grogginess, fatigue, brain fog, changes in appetite and food cravings, changes in bowel habits, mental acuity, memory, physical stamina, thyroid hormone release, adrenal cortisol rhythms, neurotransmitter release, leptin, AMPK fat burning enzymes, detoxification, etc. become challenged and out of sync. The more that we can follow a consistent sleep-wake schedule that follows the natural day-night schedule, the more in sync our body clocks will be. This is fundamental for great sleep and all of our cellular function.

Step 2 – Limit Electronics and Blue Light 2-3 Hours Before Bedtime

Your master clock relies on light-dark signals in the environment. So, in addition to the consistent bedtime schedule, we must address light-dark signals. Today’s environment and technology provides more interruption and challenge to natural light-dark signals than any other time in the history of mankind. Temptation to stay up and do computer work, watch movies or TV may seem acceptable relaxing activities but the lights affect the nervous system.

Sleeping with a night light, street lights filtering in the bedroom, and bright alarm clocks are common intrusions in the bedroom that affect the master clock. Bright LED light and especially blue light tell your brain that it is daytime and interfere with the natural release of the sleep hormone melatonin. Light exposure also awakens sympathetic nervous system (fight/flight/excitatory) and causes a release of glutamate, a wakeful, stimulatory neurotransmitter.

This may be a tough one, but it’s important to avoid the use of electronics at least two hours before your bedtime. Many experts recommend stopping use of devices with LED lights like computers, smart phones, iPads, and TV even three hours before bed because of their light exposure intensity.

Step 3 – Limit Alcohol, Nicotine, and Caffeine

Alcohol consumption or a little “night cap” before bed adds another challenge for sleep quality. It may help some individuals initially fall asleep; however, it actually interferes with deeper stages of REM restorative sleep as well as staying asleep. Alcohol intake interferes with all the major neurotransmitters – serotonin, dopamine, acetylcholine, NMDA, but especially challenges the balance between glutamate (excitatory) and GABA (inhibitory/relaxation).

Alcohol initially binds onto the GABA receptor sites in the brain causing relaxation (and loss of inhibition) and mimics GABA. However, as the night wears on and alcohol effects wear off, then GABA is recycled into glutamate, a stimulatory neurotransmitter. The result is loss of GABA and more glutamate which leads to lighter, fitful, less REM/restorative sleep.

Avoid nicotine, caffeine, and exercise before bed as these are stimulants. Some individuals may be highly sensitive to caffeine and cannot have them after noon. Exercise stimulates the release of cortisol for several hours which may interfere with sleep if performed later in the day. Pay attention to how you respond to these factors in addition to the body clocks, blue light, EMF, and alcohol.

Step 4 – Exercise First Thing in the Morning

A minute of vigorous exercise first thing in the morning helps the body with sleep-wake rhythms. Exercise causes an increase in cortisol which is the wake-up hormone. Try doing a minute of jumping jacks or push-ups to get moving for the day. Some individuals may need to open the blinds/curtains or turn bright full-spectrum light to help wake them up and then do the exercise within 30 minutes of awakening.

If your energy crashes with this type of exercise first thing in the morning, then work on gentle stretching and taking a walk outside or turn on full-spectrum lighting. Even if it is cloudy, the daylight exposure will help turn off melatonin.

Others may prefer to use high intensity interval training (HIIT) to really turn on body clocks and metabolism. Exercise for one minute, rest for 30-60 seconds, and repeat for five repetitions.

Step 5 – Manage Stress & Promote Relaxation

Give yourself at least an hour before your bedtime to wind-down. Read a book (not in electronic form) in soft light. Relaxation and deep breathing exercises may be helpful. Have some snuggle time with your family. Gentle stretching helps relieve inner tension and tight muscles. Check your bedroom temperature. Sleep in bedroom with cooler temperatures as melatonin release depends on it.

Melatonin needs vary from person to person. If you have ambient light coming into the bedroom or use blue-light or LED light before bed, then melatonin levels will be altered. If you exercise before bed, this too will block melatonin and raise body temperature which interferes with sleep and sleep rhythms. The production of melatonin also declines with aging. Shift workers often struggle greatly with this concern.

If you are still having difficulties with sleep contact EAP Assist for further advice.