Are you sleep-deprived? Probably. Most of us are tired all the time but don’t even notice any more since it became “normal” such a very long time ago. We try to fit in a life after work, or stare at a screen as a kind of life replacement option till all hours – then set the alarm for the mad dash to get ready for work and do it all over again.
Prior to the invention of electric light we powered down and rested during the hours of darkness, under a sky choked with stars. But if the stars all went out today most city-dwellers wouldn’t even notice. Which is a pity as they are the most potent reminder of our place in the universe – the very stuff that we are made of was forged in the heart of stars. We are ancient.
We’re also hardwired to respond to light. From the dawn of our evolution we’ve adapted to the cyclic changes in heat and light that are core to our survival – living in sync with the sun.
Bright sunlight and pitch dark are our frames of reference, lost now to sunglasses in the day and artificial light at night.
Our ability to come up with novel solutions to complex problems is badly blunted by lack of sleep. Poor judgement, poor creativity, increased impulsiveness, a greater chance of killing ourselves (and others) by falling asleep while driving, plus weight gain and any number of chronic diseases can be linked to poor sleep.
Exposure to bright sunlight signals our bodies to make melatonin, which is released when it gets dark and makes us sleepy. Melatonin is a powerful antioxidant hormone with effects that range from anti-ageing to cancer prevention.
Sleep deprivation has been determined to be a “likely human carcinogen”.
Using sleeping pills is not such a good idea, and the false sleep induced by drugs is potentially worse than sleep deprivation. Benzodiazepine hypnotics are a class of sleeping pills that can cause cardio-depressive effects and worsen sleep apnea. All sleeping pills can cause dependence and come with a raft of possible side-effects, some of which are potentially fatal (never take alcohol within 12 hours as the combination could slow your heart rate and respiration to a deadly level!)
Poor sleep is no fun but there’s a whole lot you can do before resorting to pharmaceuticals.
First off, you need to be tired in order to fall asleep. Physical activity (without sunglasses) in bright sunlight used to be the norm and works a treat if you can fit it into your day.
Second, your bedroom should be really dark, quiet, and cool with fresh air. You should be warm when you get into bed as a drop in body temperature triggers sleep – so if you’re too cold when you get into bed you have to lie there for ages till you warm up to a point where your body temperature can drop!
Third, switch off your electronic devices such as tablets and mobile phones well before bedtime as the exposure to their blue light disrupts the release of melatonin, delaying the onset of sleep.
Eating late at night, as well as caffeine and alcohol, can also disrupt sleep.
Or you may be experiencing sleep-disruption as a side-effect of medications such as antidepressants, statins, steroids such as prednisone, and (paradoxically) sleeping pills! There are about one thousand drugs that can interfere with sleep, so this is an incomplete list….
Or perhaps you have a nutrient deficiency such as vitamin B12 which is needed to make melatonin. Or a deficiency in calcium or magnesium which can cause restless legs syndrome. The pharmaceutical medications of the previous paragraph are one likely cause of nutrient deficiency . (The book “Drug Muggers” by Suzy Cohen, RPh is a great resource.)
Every nutrient has multiple functions in the body, so a sign of deficiency is a wake-up call that other body processes may be silently suffering too. Ensuring your body is getting the nutrients and rest that it needs to function well and repair itself is key to good health and ageing well.
Working out how to get a good night’s sleep every night could be the smartest thing you do!
Photo credit: Colleen Parker / Moscow Idaho
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