Top 5 Tips For Improving Your Sleep Naturally

Sleep. We all do it, some of us better than others, but despite spending about a third of our lives doing it, we spend a lot of time and energy trying to avoid sleep. 

Without scaring you too much, I’ll start by going over some baffling things I’ve learned in my conquest to improve my sleep: 

Sleep has an effect on how our reproductive systems function. Testosterone levels are found to be lower in men who sleep less than 6 hours a night. Testosterone levels decrease to the level of a man 10 years your senior. This means that if you are 25 years old and regularly sleep 6 hours or less a night, your testosterone levels would be equivalent to that of a 35 year old, healthy man.

Women are not immune to the negative side effects of sleep. Follicular-releasing hormone, an essential hormone released prior to ovulation and is necessary for conception, drops in women who sleep less than six hours. Women who work regular shift work are more likely to have irregular menstrual cycles.

Sleep will affect how much and what foods we eat. The less sleep we get, the more food (and unhealthy food) we tend to eat. Sleep deprivation messes with our hunger hormones: Leptin and ghrelin. Ghrelin tells us we are hungry, while leptin tells us we are full. When we are sleep deprived, ghrelin works on overdrive and leptin takes a vacation, making us feel more hungry than we normally would and takes longer for it to tell us that we’re full. 

In our brains there is a structure called the amygdala, and we want to think of it as the emotional gas pedal. Our prefrontal cortex, which is where we have rational thoughts, is our brakes. When we are sleep deprived, the gas pedal is floored and our brakes stop working, leading us to have intense emotional reactions to things that usually wouldn’t cause us to react that way. Kind of like how toddlers react to even the slightest provocation.

The American Cancer Society now considers shift work that disrupts natural circadian rhythms to be a “probable carcinogen”, which means “cancer-causing”. Check it out for yourself! 

Lastly, it’s hard to talk about sleep today without a discussion about Alzeimer’s disease. Sleep research has recently discovered a link between lack of sleep and the development of Alzeimers disease. Alzeimer’s disease is associated with a protein buildup in the brain called beta- Amyloid. Beta-Amyloid is poison to our neurons. When we sleep, our brain does amazing things that we are not even conscious of. Our brain cells literally shrink in size allowing CSF or “cerebrospinal fluid” to flush through the spaces in between the cells removing beta-amyloid, making sleep an important area of research in both the treatment and prevention of Alzheimer's disease.

I can go on and on about the benefits of good sleep and the consequences of poor sleep, but I want to get to the good stuff. 

We’ll talk about some common obstacles to sleep and some things that you can do to overcome these obstacles. 

Problem #1 

We do not give ourselves a proper sleep opportunity and our sleep patterns are often so irregular that we don’t give our bodies enough time to dial into a natural rhythm. A sleep opportunity is the amount of time we spend in bed with the lights out trying to sleep. 

How do we fix this? Be in bed with the lights out for 8 hours every night. If you know what time you have to wake up, be in bed about 8 hours before that. Add an extra hour to get ready for bed and down-regulating. And BE CONSISTENT. Go to bed at the same time every night to get you into that natural rhythm. 

Problem #2

Screens. We spend too much time looking at screens before bed and it messes with our melatonin production. Darkness signals that the sun is setting and it’s time to go to bed, but staring at a screen will delay this signal, suppressing our body’s urge to sleep. 

The solution: Give yourself a screen curfew. Ideally this should be 2 hours before bed. This will be difficult for many of us, so you can start with something more tangible, like 30 minutes. 

Problem #3 

Drugs. We’ll talk about a few: 

Let’s start by talking about caffeine. Caffeine keeps us awake by artificially muting the adenosine signal that is responsible for our sleep pressure. Caffeine has a half-life of 7 hours, meaning that it takes 7 hours for half of the amount of caffeine to be cleared from our bodies. For example, if I drink a cup of coffee at noon, by 7pm, it would be like drinking half a cup of coffee. 

Alcohol, which is often used as a “sleep-aid” is actually classified as a sedative and sleep is not the same as sedation. Alcohol suppressed REM sleep which is why you might feel “hungover” and tired the day after drinking. 

Since marijuana has only recently been legalized, our research on marijuana and sleep is lagging. Early research shows that it may affect our REM sleep like alcohol does, but through a different mechanism. 

Solution? Implement a caffeine curfew and make sure you’re not using caffeine to cover up the effects of sleep deprivation. For example, only having caffeine before 10am would be a good caffeine curfew. In terms of alcohol and marijuana, we want to try to limit our consumption of it before bed and work to optimize sleep behaviours instead of looking to sleep drugs as a solution. 

Do note that if you’re on any prescribed sleep medication, that you should ask your doctor before stopping it. 

Problem #4 

A busy mind. We may go to bed early, with good intentions, but the moment we lay down to sleep, our minds just seem to run wild. This can be a major barrier to falling asleep as well as having an impact on your mental health and life in general. 

Solution: Implement a mental training practice to develop strategies to calm your mind before bed. This is perhaps going to be the most difficult of the problems to face as it requires us to be persistent and self-observing. 

For me, I like to work on breathwork and meditation before bed. Sometimes I’ll do some gentle yoga or stretching. I know many people enjoy journaling or reading light-hearted books. Whatever it may be, practice it, refine it, involve your partner in it, and eventually you’ll find something that works for you. It won’t be easy though, but that’s OK because it’s important and anything in life that is important is worth working for :) 

Problem #5 

Lack of movement during the day. When you don’t move much during the day, you’ll go to bed with a fully charged battery which can make it hard to fall asleep. 

Solution: move more during the day. I don’t mean that you have to join a gym or implement a hardcore exercise regimen. Moving more during the day can accumulate to drain your battery and leave you much more tired when you go to bed at night. 

What to do if you can’t sleep 

We want our beds to be for sleeping only, so if you’re lying awake in bed, you’ll start making an association between “the bed” and “being awake”. So, if you can’t sleep, get out of bed, change your environment, and try again when you’re tired

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