Guide To Why Sleep Matters, Affects On Hormones & Nutrition By Gabriella Peacock


We *all* know how much the experts bang on about the importance of sleep and why we should all be trying to get a full eight hours kip a night but the science behind it can sometimes feel a bit baffling. Because, seriously, is it THAT important? Expert nutritionist Gabriela Peacock is here to demystify why sleep does matter and how a lack of it can be affecting more than just your mood.

Here’s an extract from her new book, 2 Weeks to Feeling Great.

Why do we need sleep?

Do you often wake up feeling tired? Have sugar cravings throughout the day? Feel hungry before you go to bed?
Wake up in the night and find it hard to fall back to sleep again? Drink alcohol more than three times a week?

A good night’s sleep is a thing of beauty. The body does a lot when we’re asleep – everything from growing muscle, repairing damaged tissue and producing hormones to supporting the cardiovascular system and metabolism. The brain also regroups and resets in myriad ways. The better the body sleeps, the more efficiently all of this happens.

When we’re asleep, the brain gets to work flushing out waste products and redundant cells that accumulate during the course of the day. The brain’s prefrontal cortex, which is in charge of decision-making, is constantly active during waking hours. Thinking is what it does all day, every day, even during supposed periods of relaxation. That’s one of the many reasons why good sleep is so crucial, because it’s the only time the outrageously busy prefrontal cortex actually gets to rest.

One of sleep’s most important roles is allowing the brain to process and consolidate memories from the day’s experiences, wiring and firing the neural pathways it needs for thinking and learning. When sleep is disrupted, it can result in poor concentration, bad moods, a very sketchy memory and an inability to take in new information. Misery.

My latest evening snack discovery is tryptophan-rich roasted chickpeas instead of crisps or popcorn. In short: drain, rinse, cover in oil and salt, roast for 20–30 minutes on 200ºC (400ºF), gas mark 6, turning occasionally. Crunch down with Netflix

A closer look at the sleep cycle

Don’t be fooled into thinking that being asleep is just a state of unconsciousness. On the contrary. A healthy sleep cycle is made up of four stages, which last around 90 minutes and are repeated several times over the course of a night.

STAGE ONE:
As the body starts to fall asleep, the first stage of the cycle begins with what is known as ‘non-rapid eye movement’ (non-REM) sleep. The body is drifting off, but hasn’t completely relaxed during this light sleep phase, which usually lasts around 1 to 5 minutes.

STAGE TWO:
The body’s temperature now starts to drop, triggering blood pressure, heart rate and breathing to slow down and muscles to relax. Stage two lasts around 25 minutes and gets longer with every repetition of the cycle. It is still non-REM sleep, so no dreams about having to retake exams in a house of cheese – yet.

STAGE THREE:
It is now time to enter deep sleep, which is still non-REM, but the critical part of the cycle for rebuilding muscle and tissue, strengthening immunity, balancing energy and releasing hormones. While it’s true this phase gets shorter with age, being woken from it doesn’t get easier. Everybody knows that groggy feeling that comes with being woken in the night and that can take up to an hour to subside.

STAGE FOUR:
The famous ‘rapid eye movement’ (REM) part of the cycle, where the brain likes to get creative. Dream sleep is when the brain sorts through different experiences and emotions, storing memories, learning and regulating mood. This phase can last from anything between 20–60 minutes.

STAGES THREE and FOUR are the most important phases of the cycle, as they’re the ones where most of the physical and psychological work takes place. The amount of sleep a person needs tends to vary, as some are capable of functioning perfectly well on only a handful of hours. In an ideal world, getting seven to nine hours of proper sleep is enough time to complete a few rounds of the sleep cycle so that the body wakes feeling adequately rested.

Alas, the modern world with its noise, lights and screens has put a dent in that plan, with the average person only managing six and a half hours a night. Ongoing poor sleep will then increase the likelihood of turning to caffeine to feel awake in the day and then alcohol or sleep medication to unwind in the evening. All this does is disrupt what is actually a simple and very natural process for the body, run by the highly intelligent circadian rhythm.

Circadian rhythm
The circadian rhythm is an internal clock within the brain, which synchronises with the body’s environment to trigger when it’s time to sleep and when it’s time to wake up.

This biological system responds to changes in light because the body is pre-programmed to align its activity with that of the sun. Think back to a time when there was no artificial light – humans would wake at sunrise and retire when it got dark because they were no longer able to hunt, forage or perform any practical tasks.

Things have moved on since then, and while we can now go to a 24-hour shop instead of having to wrestle an antelope to the ground for dinner, daylight and darkness still play key roles in regulating the body’s temperature, metabolism and the release of hormones.

The circadian rhythm is run by the part of the brain known as the hypothalamus. This region is responsible for maintaining the body’s homeostasis, or internal balance.

In order to wake the body in the morning, the eye’s optic nerve sends a signal to the hypothalamus as soon as it senses light, kick-starting a TIME TO GET UP, IT’S MORNING sequence. The hypothalamus sends a message to raise the body’s temperature, make the heart rate and blood pressure get a bit of wind in their sails and to stop the brain producing the sleepy chemical, melatonin.

The body enters a more conscious state, with memory, concentration and alertness coming back to life. Sleep has now ended. Good morning.

Conversely, when it starts to get dark at night, the hypothalamus picks up on the decreasing natural light and sends out a different set of instructions. It tells the body it feels sleepy, signalling for its core temperature to drop and the release of melatonin. Drowsiness begins and… can’t quite remember where we… so tired… good ni… zzzzz.

It’s all a bit more complicated now. Many of us stay up late, surrounded by artificial lighting, smartphones, TVs and laptops, all beaming their stimulating glow in our faces.

Those biological systems that regulate sleep end up all over the shop, which has a knock-on effect, health-wise, as the body is unable to fulfil its night-time duties effectively. Constantly waking up feeling exhausted is hard enough, but these disruptions can go deeper.

Hormones love sleep

There are several hormones that rely on the circadian rhythm and the body sleeping to maintain their regulation and metabolism. When their work is thrown off by lack of sleep, the consequences are far more widespread than just feeling tired and needing to down gallons of coffee. Here are a handful of examples of how some of the body’s key hormones can be disrupted

GROWTH HORMONE
Essential for growth and tissue repair, levels increase during sleep. Disrupted sleep can suppress production and cell regeneration.

GHRELIN
Responsible for stimulating the appetite. Poor sleep can cause spikes, which leads to cravings.

LEPTIN
Responsible for controlling the appetite. Levels drop with poor sleep and the body feels less full, encouraging it to eat.

MELATONIN
Crucial to regulating sleep by telling the body when it’s time to go to bed. Its levels are increased at night, triggered to release by the reduction in daylight. Stress compromises production and stimulates wakefulness.

CORTISOL
Levels peak just before waking, making us feel hungry and alert. Bad sleep triggers more cortisol in the day, making the body overstimulated at night.

INSULIN
Balances blood sugar by managing glucose released through food. Bad sleep disrupts production and regulation, resulting in low energy and cravings.

Tired bodies make bad choices

Research from the National Sleep Foundation has shown that some people who sleep badly can consume up to 300 more calories and twice as much fat in a day as someone who averages a solid eight hours. It’s a nightmare, but it’s true – bad sleep can make you gain weight.

A sleep-deprived body is more likely to crave a hit of sugary food to give it that quick energy boost, especially during the afternoon. Unfortunately, the body releases less insulin after eating when it’s tired, leaving blood sugar spikes unmanaged.

Instead, it releases more cortisol and adrenaline, its stress hormones, in an effort to stay awake by trying to increase alertness. This further compromises insulin levels, leaving a whole load of glucose hanging around in the bloodstream, causing chaos with blood sugar balance, energy levels and, inevitably, appetite.

It’s also true that feeling hungry late at night may mean that the last meal consumed was not balanced with enough protein or that the gap between dinner and sleep was too long, causing blood sugar levels to drop. This can then disrupt the ease with which the body falls asleep, so eating regularly and eating well have an enormous positive impact.

Stress cycle and sleep

It is a natural part of the circadian rhythm to release cortisol in the morning, which alerts the body that it’s time to wake up. As the day progresses, cortisol levels gradually start to decline, reaching their lowest point in the evening, when the body begins to release melatonin, helping it prepare for sleep.

However, stress can turn all of this upside down by continually releasing cortisol, which can then in turn suppress the secretion of melatonin, especially if feelings of stress continue into the evening. Falling asleep becomes much more of a challenge with all these hormone levels out of whack – as does falling asleep again after waking in the night. Stress and sleep are a match made in hell.

Alcohol and sleep

Having a few drinks before bed can seem like a good idea, but the sedative effect of alcohol is deceptive. Sleep might come easily to begin with, but the sugar in the alcohol will then disrupt blood sugar balance, triggering the body to keep waking up. It also prevents REM sleep, the most important part of the sleep cycle for emotional, mental and physical health.

This is known as ‘REM sleep rebound’ and occurs after the liver and kidneys have worked to process all the alcohol, which is a job in itself. The brain then decides it can now catch up on the much-needed REM sleep, which typically involves weirdly vivid dreams towards the end of the sleep cycle over a shorter period of time. The body wakes up exhausted and regretting all that wine.

Alcohol is, of course, also a diuretic, increasing the body’s need to use the bathroom in the night and causing it to sweat. All this and there’s a thumping dehydration headache and groggy feeling waiting to join the party when morning comes. The disrupted sleep stages will of course only make it harder for the body to recover. Hangovers are not here to make friends.

Timing and composition are key. Eating regular, balanced meals throughout the day, ending with a light supper that has more protein and vegetables than refined carbs delivers constant and steady blood sugar levels. Your prize is a better night’s sleep.

On a boozy night, alternating glasses of water and alcohol is a better option than downing water before bed, reducing the need for a night-time pee. Plus you might not drink as much alcohol and come up (almost) smiling the next day.

So, what do we do?

There may be many reasons why sleep is a problem. The good news is, there are just as many helpful tips that can help to improve it.

THE THREE WONDER NUTRIENTS FOR SLEEP
Magnesium, tryptophan and L-theanine are my favourite nutrients when it comes to improving sleep. Magnesium is the most important, as it’s directly responsible for relaxing the body, but combining it with the other nutrients will increase the chances of a restful night’s sleep.

MAGNESIUM

Magnesium is known as nature’s relaxant. It reduces anxiety, muscle spasms, high blood pressure and has an amazing effect on sleep. Magnesium deficiency is incredibly common, with up to 80 per cent of the UK population not having enough in their diet.

Increasing magnesium improves sleep onset, length, quality and feeling refreshed in the morning. The issue is that aside from aiding sleep, the body uses a huge amount of magnesium for various other jobs.

If sleep deprivation is an ongoing issue, trying to source it through diet alone would require eating enormous quantities of dark leafy greens to even touch the sides of the amount needed to help.

There are other ways to increase levels of magnesium in the body in addition to food.

▶ Magnesium supplements – take them any time, but preferably mid-afternoon, as they will start to relax the body for the evening.

▶ Magnesium bath flakes – soak in them for at least 20 minutes.

▶ Magnesium-rich food – dark leafy greens (kale, cavolo nero, chard), seeds (pumpkin, flax, chia), nuts, beans, chickpeas, lentils, grains (quinoa, buckwheat), dark chocolate (65–70 per cent cocoa).

▶ Magnesium chloride flakes tend to be the most effective when it comes to sleep, plus they’re cleaner and superior in quality.

▶ Magnesium glycinate or malate are the best combinations to take, as they are easily absorbed by the body. Magnesium citrate has a mild laxative effect, so beneficial if constipation is an issue. Consider magnesium in powder form, as it may be easier to take a higher dose than capsules.

TRYPTOPHAN

Tryptophan is an amino acid found within protein. It is known for its ability to increase the production of serotonin (the happy and calming neurotransmitter in the brain) and assist in the body’s ability to not only fall asleep but stay asleep:

▶ Dairy products, peanuts, pumpkin and sesame seeds, poultry and eggs.

L-THEANINE

This amino acid encourages relaxation and the ability to sleep by boosting levels of GABA, serotonin and dopamine (neurotransmitters in the brain that have a soothing effect). It’s also known to reduce stress and anxiety:

▶ Tea leaves (which also contain caffeine, so unless the tea is decaffeinated, supplement form may prove to be a better option. Go for a dose that is 200mg, or more).

▶Eat a couple of spoonfuls of cottage cheese or live yogurt, or a few slices of turkey or chicken before going to bed. These super-quick and convenient protein snacks require no preparation and the tryptophan will help induce sleepiness.

Balance blood sugar levels

Making sure blood sugar levels are balanced throughout the day will help maintain a healthy pattern that allows the body to follow its natural course towards falling asleep at night. I recommend these three principles:

▶ Eating regularly – every 3–4 hours.

▶ Always eat when peckish, not starving.

▶ Include protein with every meal or snack.

Keep an eye on caffeine

The body’s ability to break down caffeine is largely genetic. Some people can process it through their livers much more quickly and efficiently than others. Everybody knows their own response to caffeine, so managing it is a personal thing. However, here are some ways to reduce caffeine intake:

▶ Herbal teas, specifically chamomile. Many brands also make sleep blends.

▶ Turmeric latte – add black pepper and a teaspoon of coconut oil.

▶ Chicory coffee – roasted and grounded, these beans are not dissimilar to coffee.

What about dinner?

It’s very important for the evening meal to be well composed, so not too high in carbs like rice, potatoes and pasta, and always including plenty of protein (lean meat, dairy, eggs, fish, nuts, lentils, beans) and non-starchy vegetables (broccoli, kale, asparagus, spinach).

Low-fibre carbohydrates will spike the blood sugar levels, disrupting sleep, so give those a swerve. And without sounding like the place where fun goes to die, I would advise keeping an eye on sugary puddings and one too many glasses of wine, both of which can throw a spanner in the blood sugar works.

▶ Switch to healthy puddings, such as fresh fruit or home-made ice cream made of yogurt and berries. A couple of squares of dark chocolate is not terrible either.

▶Almond butter is delicious with all kinds of fruit – apples, pears, kiwis – the world’s your oyster.

Break bad bedtime habits

Aside from the supplements and food recommendations, I usually make practical suggestions to clients around sleep hygiene that are simple to implement:

▶ Notebook: Busy minds keep exhausted bodies awake. Having a notebook by the bed can help calm racing thoughts. Jotting down ‘to-do’ lists at 3am is better than ruminating on them.

▶ Temperature: The body’s core temperature needs to drop before it can fall asleep and then stay asleep, so ensure that there is a window open with fresh air coming in and that the room is around 18°C (64°F).

▶ Regularity: Form a habit. Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day (including weekends – sorry) will really help create a rhythm for the body. Any kind of repeated night-time ritual, like having a bath, reading or listening to soothing music, reinforces this.

▶ Exercise: As little as 10 minutes of aerobic exercise a day (anything from walking to cycling to taking a HIIT class) can radically improve sleep quality. Some gentle forms of yoga or Pilates can actually encourage relaxation, but try to avoid anything too energetic just before bed.

▶ Screens: Avoid screen time at bedtime. The blue light that smartphones, computers and tablets emit can cause havoc with sleep, deceiving our brains into thinking it’s daytime. As a result, the melatonin we need doesn’t get released and the circadian rhythm gets knocked off track. Ideally, stop using devices at least one hour before bed, put them onto night mode or buy blue-light-blocking glasses.

▶A lovely, fragrant, decaffeinated alternative to teas like Earl Grey and English Breakfast is Red Bush (Roiboos). Not only can you add milk, but it tastes very similar to regular tea.

Superhero supplements:

  • 5-HTP
  • Magnesium
  • L-theanine
  • Omega-3
  • Rhodiola
  • L-glycine
  • Vitamin D



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