In the Paleolithic or ‘hunter gatherer’ era 10,000 years ago, our ancient ancestors woke up with the rising sun in the morning and rested for a good nights sleep not long after sundown. Scientists estimate that our Paleolithic ancestors averaged about 10 hours of sleep per night. Of course the absence of an external light source, television sets, and laptops made it a little easier to get to bed so early, but the benefits are deeply engrained in our DNA. Our circadian rhythms are based on the light and dark cycles of the day and have a profound effect on our bodyweight, cardiovascular health, fertility, and well-being.
Melatonin is our body’s sleep hormone and is secreted in the evening about 3 hours after our last meal. It makes us feel tired, winds us down, and prepares us for sleep. This hormone initiates a cascade of reactions that allow the body to rejuvenate and repair during the night’s rest. In the summer months, as the days grow longer and lighter melatonin production is suppressed until later in the night, resulting in an increase in sex hormone production and fertility. Thinking back to our hunter-gatherer ancestor this made sense. The long days of summer stimulated fertility and procreation occurred naturally. This meant that children would be born in the spring, when food was abundant and sunlight began to return to full strength. In winter, Paleolithic people slept longer hours – approximately 10-12hrs per night – as the days got shorter and darker. Our immune and hormonal functions are linked to these evolutionary circadian rhythms of light and dark, and understanding how this effects you will help you build muscle, burn fat, and feel healthier than ever.
For example, daylight increases dopamine output and cortisol production, getting you up and out of bed, alert and ready for the day ahead. When was the last time you felt energized in the morning? How many cups of coffee do you go through to get yourself going in the morning? Do you need your alarm clock to wake up or do you wake up naturally? Our natural hormonal patterns shift throughout the day and by nightfall our cortisol and dopamine levels should be decreasing to their lowest levels, allowing melatonin production to kick in, and which will then stimulate our repair and rejuvenate hormone – growth hormone. Growth hormone is essential for recharging and rebuilding the body while we sleep, helping to build lean muscle, burn fat and keep our immune system strong. Your body is hard at work while you rest! So what’s the problem?
Unfortunately, the modern comforts have robbed us of our precious sleep as we stay up later into the night finishing work, meeting deadlines, watching reality TV or navigating through our favourite websites. Two generations ago, our grandparents average about 9-10 hours sleep per night, not very far off our Paleolithic ancestors. Today, the average North American gets between 6-7.5 hours of sleep, about an hour or two less than the recommended 8 to 8.5 hours sleep per night. Over the course of a year, this would amount to approximately a 500-hour ‘sleep debt’ that needs to be made up. Of course, where are you going to find time to fit sleeping into your busy schedule? Over a ten-year period, you will lose 5,000 hours of sleep! And you wonder why you are so tired, stressed, carrying extra pounds and feeling unhealthy.
Adding to his hormonal havoc are the stimulants we add to our diets to help us get out of bed and to make it through the day. Coffee is the number one stimulant of choice, and although coffee in the morning is not always a bad decision, chronically high coffee intake will start to zap your adrenal glands – or energy reserves – leaving you feeling even more fatigued. You’ll know if you have been abusing your coffee intake based on the size of the ‘kick’ you get from your morning cup of java? If you don’t feel any extra ‘boost’, or if you stop drinking coffee and get headaches, then your body has definitely become sensitized to the stimulus. Coffee triggers the production of adrenaline from the adrenal glands and stimulates our sympathetic – ‘fight or flight’ – nervous system. While this is okay in moderation, chronically relying on this form of energy is like revving the RPM’s on your car constantly into the red zone. After awhile this will burn out your engine, or in this case your adrenal glands!
So what can you do to start turning back the clock? Let’s start in the bedroom. The key to sleep is ensuring you have total darkness in your bedroom. Studies have shown that even a penlight under the sheets can inhibit melatonin production. Make sure to remove all light sources (think red lights from the alarm clocks), cell phones on the bedside table, and nearby laptops from the vicinity of your head. All of these stimulate the nervous system and prevent deep sleep. Also, try to eliminate any added nervous system stimulants before bed. This means turning off the television or shutting off your laptop at least an hour before bed to allow your body to unwind. All of these stimulants activate the nervous system and prevent deep sleep. Remember, our body’s hormonal patterns have evolved over millions of years and aren’t built to handle Wi-Fi and cell phone signals at all hours of the day!
Adding in a short nap or ‘siesta’ during the day is another tip that can help recharge your nervous system by activating its counterpart, the parasympathetic nervous system or ‘rest and digest’ system. The key is to make sure naps last no longer than 45 minutes, as going into a deep-phase of sleep will knock you ‘out of whack’ for the rest of the day. Realistically, it is difficult for most people to find 45 minutes to nap in the day, so I suggest a quick 10-20 minute ‘power nap’. Even if you don’t fall asleep, keep your eyes closed and this is enough to allow your natural deep breathing patterns to re-establish and parasympathetic system to turn on. Remember, we only get this rejuvenating parasympathetic benefit when we are sleeping, napping, or meditating.
Herbal medicine is another powerful tool that can be used to support your nervous system and help improve sleep. Herbs classified as ‘nervines’ – a group of herbs which nutrify the nervous system – allow the body to unwind naturally and improve sleep. Herbs should always be taken under the supervision of a qualified professional as they can interact with other medications or may not be suitable for people with certain diseases. Other nutrients such as 5-HTP, a precursor to tryptophan, phosphotidylcholine, and melatonin can also be used to help regulate sleep patterns. All of these herbs and nutrients work on different biochemical pathway of the body, to find out which solution would fit your sleep pattern disharmonies and learn more about restoring your deep sleep and balancing hormones contact NSM today to book an appointment.
Dr Marc Bubbs ND, BSc, CSCS, ART
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