Sleep and circadian rhythms

Good quality sleep is absolutely essential to good health and good mental health in particular. The right quantity of sleep is important as well, but this is something that can vary between different people depending on factors like age, mental stress, how much one exercises and how healthy one is.

Good quality sleep also seems to be one of the first things to go when one goes through a patch of bad anxiety or are having panic reactions. The increased levels of adrenaline prime one up for flight or fight, which makes it difficult to get into the nurturing state of sleep. We can all relate to that restless state the night before a exam, job interview or big life change.

When I first started experiencing panic attacks the quality of my sleep declined very rapidly. I didn’t sleep more than a few hours over a period of a week, after I experienced a panic attack for the first time. After that, things seemed to get better for a few days, but rapidly deteriorated again until I wasn’t able to sleep without the use of medication. I can honestly say that every time in my life that I’ve been the most anxious it went hand in hand with the poor quality sleep I was having at the time.

If I had known then what I know now I would have been able to rapidly get my physiology back into the calm state needed for a good night’s sleep. As I mentioned in my article on bone broth, the nutrients contained within this magical elixir are second to none when it comes to promoting a restful nights sleep. A standard pre-bedtime snack for me is some fruit along with a cup of bone broth with 1/4 teaspoon salt. People prone to anxiety and panic attacks are also prone to getting low blood sugar. The fructose in the fruit will help keep your blood sugar stable throughout the night, while the nutrients from the bone broth will calm your system down, allowing you to enter the deeper levels of sleep. The salt will reduce the adrenaline response, keeping your system in a calm state throughout the night. According to Ray Peat:

Salt, which helps to maintain blood sugar, also tends to lower adrenalin, and hypothyroid people often lose salt too easily in their urine and sweat.

The reason it’s important to have your blood sugar and adrenaline levels under control at night is because adrenaline is the hormone that will wake you up or keep you awake while you are sleeping peacefully. Remember, glucose is used as fuel in every cell in your body. If your blood sugar starts going low while you’re sleeping and your metabolism isn’t working properly, then your body will increase adrenaline. Adrenaline is one of the hormones in your body that raises blood sugar, unfortunately at the expense of making you feel wired and alert when you need to be feeling peaceful and calm.  If you do happen to wake up in the evening the combo of fruit, bone broth and salt will get you right back into the peaceful state within a matter of minutes. I’ve experienced this first hand with myself as well as loved ones who have trouble sleeping.

Another very important aspect of getting a good nights sleep is to get some sunlight exposure during the day, preferably without the use of contact lenses or glasses that block out UV light. First thing in the morning is the best. If you can get into the habit of waking up, having breakfast and then exercising outside you will be well onto your way to ensuring you get the best quality sleep possible.

Our bodies are programmed in such a way as to need to sleep when it’s dark and be awake when it’s light. Makes sense right? For millions of years that’s how humans lived. Sunlight and darkness have profound effects on our hormones. When it becomes night time our stress hormones increase and the best way for us to cope with this stress is by sleeping. Obviously with the invention of artificial light, televisions and computer screens we have gone against our natural state and often stay up when we should be sleeping and also sleep when we should be awake.

Exposure to natural UV light resets our internal clock, so that our body becomes in tune with the natural cycle of daytime and nighttime. If we don’t get exposed to UV light then our body gets confused and it isn’t sure when the proper time for being awake and being asleep is. Disrupting this cycle is partly what is responsible for the phenomenon of finding yourself wide awake at night when you need to be sleeping and consequently dead tired the following morning or afternoon.

I found this in a discovery health article:

Research has shown that people who are deprived of light for long periods of time (and so do not have their biological clocks reset) experience dramatic changes in their sleep, temperature and hormone cycles.

Personally, I find that if I wake with the sunrise and spend a large amount of time outdoors I get sleepy at the correct time and sleep like a log that evening!

As I mentioned earlier, it’s even better to do some exercise while getting your sunlight exposure. Check out the following article by Chris Kresser. Some of the benefits of exercising outdoors  vs. exercising indoors include things like greater feelings of revitalisation and increased energy and positive engagement. These positive effects are coupled with decreases in tension, confusion, anger and depression. Participants in the study linked above also reported greater enjoyment and satisfaction with outdoor activity and stated that they were more likely to repeat the activity at a later date.

I do a lot of walking and the rest of my strength training I do at the local park 1 minute away from my house. I’ve written about the health benefits of walking here and here. This gives me ample time to soak in lots of sunlight to help with my sleep. Another added benefit of exercising in the park is the social aspect. Often I’ll have kids wondering what I’m doing and before I know it they’re matching me rep for rep with push-ups,  squats or other exercise. Interacting with people is one of the greatest joys in life – and doing it in this way adds a real element of spontaneity to one’s day.

Exercise has also been shown to be very beneficial when it comes to improved sleep quality. Just don’t exercise right before bed or you might find yourself having a hard time getting to sleep. First thing in the morning is defnitely the best time (after breakfast).

There are a few other things one can do to improve one’s sleep quality, but the tips I’ve listed above will give you the biggest bang for your buck.

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2 responses

  1. Hi Andreas!
    Interesting blog you have,as I recognize a lot of your struggles. (I found your blog through 180Degree on which you left a comment.)
    Reading your name,I wondered if you happen to be Dutch/living in The Netherlands…..or are one of the many Americans with historical Dutch heritage?;) I’d love to get to know some (dietary) like-minded people. I can’t help to think and get the impression,from reading your posts,that you struggle with adrenal issues too amongst some other things probably? Do you also perhaps happen to be a sensitive/highly-sensitive person?

    Anyway,best of luck on your journey,bc you seem like a nice guy who deserves it:)…..well,I guess everyone deserves optimal health,especially mentally (I know what it feels like to go through the experiences of the various mental/mood hell,interfering life,while ‘other people’ seem to have none of these issues.

    • Hi Dutchie.

      Thanks for the comment.

      I’m an Afrikaans speaking South African, so my roots are in the Netherlands. Maybe my great-great grandparents? 🙂 Not sure.

      I’ve done the rounds with adrenal issues, had the saliva testing done back in 2009 and 2010. First my cortisol was too high and then it was far too low. Treatment with hydrocortisone and DHEA during 2010 did help a bit, but came with side effects unfortunately.

      My body has seemingly (I say seemingly because the mind and body are so intricately linked) been highly sensitive over the last few years, since my problems began. I am very careful with what I do and don’t consume, but feel very fortunate that as I’ve healed I’ve started becoming less and less sensitive. I’ve found that with being highly sensitive comes an increased body awareness, and once you’ve gained this awareness you become very in tune with just how damn good you feel while eating a good whole foods diet, so I don’t really ever crave “bad foods” and really love the way I feel eating this way.

      I hear you with the mental health! With a good attitude, inner sense of peace and joy everything in the world becomes tinted with pure beauty (and fortunately there are many ways to get our physiology and mind aligned with this state).

      Best of luck to you.

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