How do people who stay up so late all the time function during the day? If I’m not asleep by 10:30 at the latest, it affects me the following day. It used to fascinate me when I lived in the UAE. I would walk to work through the streets at 4:30am and men would be folding up their blankets and saying goodnight to each other, or flat mates and colleagues would arrive for their morning shifts after watching films until the early hours.
Some of it does come down to cultural environment. In the UAE, social events didn't typically begin until after 10pm. This meant that if I wanted a social life, I'd spend most of my time yawning during the day. I am not saying they’re doing it wrong... even President Trump say he only gets 4-5 hours sleep a night (fake news?).
But how bad is it for us to be sleep deprived?
What science says about sleep
Scientific studies have shown that getting less than 6 hours of sleep for 4 or more consecutive nights is detrimental to your health. It leads to impaired cognitive performance and mood, glucose metabolism, appetite regulation and immune function (1).
The idea of catching up on sleep at weekends may not be the saving grace either. One study (2) looking at sleep debt had participants keep a 7-day sleep diary, from which a week-day sleep debt was calculated. BMI, stomach fat and fasting blood samples were measured at baseline.
The study showed at baseline that those who had a weekday sleep debt were 72% more likely to be obese than those who had no weekday sleep debt. After 6 months, weekday sleep debt was significantly associated with obesity and insulin resistance. By 12 months, for every 30 minutes of weekday sleep debt at baseline, the risk of obesity increased to 17% and insulin resistance significantly increased by 39%.
This doesn’t tell us everything and having one week of poor sleep won't make you obese. It also doesn’t explain whether it is the lack of sleep causing obesity and insulin resistance. It may be that factors affecting poor sleep - poor diet, late night TV and computer viewing - also influence weight gain and insulin resistance.
In any case, here are a few tips for falling asleep and helping improve your sleep quality:
Eat a low-sugar, nutrient-rich diet
The evidence from studies around diet, including timing and sleep, isn’t clear and seems to vary according to the individual. This isn't one particular diet that will aid sleep. However, there are some rules of thumb to bear in mind.
A nutrient rich diet that is low in sugar and chemicals is generally beneficial for your health, and thus may also help you sleep. I would recommend reading up on the benefits of having ‘eating windows’, which Dr Rhonda Patrick has written about. It talks about the notion that humans are designed to search for and eat food when it is light outside, and to use the nutrients from the food to repair metabolic damage when resting or sleeping/fasting when it is dark (3).
Work with your circadian rhythm
The Power of Light and Dark
This cycle of light and dark dictates the body's circadian rhythm. This anticipates and adapts to daily environmental changes to optimise physiological processes in the body based on the time of day.
You can work with your body's circadian rhythm by starting to wind down when it gets dark, and by getting up as close to sunrise as possible. (Of course, this may be more difficult in parts of the world that have very long summer days and very short winter days).
Your body naturally detects when it is getting dark and getting light, and prepares your body to go to sleep or wake up based on the amount of daylight. You can avoid working against this natural rhythm by:
- not watching TV or using electronic devices within 2 hours before bedtime
- using soft lighting in your home in the evenings to help mimic twilight
- letting lots of sunlight in (or using bright artificial lighting in the mornings) to help your body wake up
- sleep in a dark room
- using a blackout blind or an eye-mask on those light, late summer nights, to help you get to sleep
The 'temperature circadian rhythm'
- Your body also reacts to temperature change, another factor that influences your circadian rhythm. In the days before central heating, the body's core temperature would naturally drop at night, as the temperature of the surrounding environment dropped after sunset. Work with your circadian rhythm by:
- not having the central heating too high in the winter - your body needs to cool down to aid the onset of sleep.
- not working out too late in the evening. Exercising during the day is important and beneficial in terms of sleep. However, working out increases your core body temperature, meaning that it takes longer for your temperature to drop to an optimal cooler temperature to help you sleep.
- having a warm bath or shower 1-2 hours before bed.
Have a warm bath before bed
One study concluded that the best time to take a warm shower or a bath, in terms of aiding sleep, is 1–2 hours before going to bed, as it improves the 'temperature circadian rhythm'.
Spending at least 10 minutes in a warm bath or shower actually cools the body down. This is because it improves the blood circulation from the body's core to the hands and feet, which will, in turn, help you fall asleep more quickly and improve your sleep quality.
The effects of Melatonin on sleep
Melatonin is a hormone released from the pineal gland in the brain, which transmits information regarding the light–dark cycle and has a sleep promoting effect.
Retinal light exposure results in a suppression of melatonin, which is fine in the morning when we're awake. But at night, the blue light emitted from TVs, computers, phones and most artificial lights can suppress melatonin production and influence the sleep–wake cycle.
This is why I recommended not using light-emitting devices in the hours before bedtime. You can buy blue light blocking glasses (go for 90% blue light blocking lenses or higher), red LED bulbs and utilise blue light reducing apps.
Some professionals whose jobs involve shift work, or people who travel between time-zones use melatonin supplements to help reset their body clocks. Always see your doctor before trying a melatonin supplement.
Take a 5-HTP supplement
Something else to try is a 5-HTP supplement, which is a precursor to serotonin. Serotonin controls most brain functions and can control sleep patterns because it is an intermediary product in the production of melatonin (4).
Take a magnesium bisglycinate supplement
Magnesium bisglycinate can also be a big hitter for individuals who struggle to stay asleep (5,6), especially if you exercise (6) or lack it in your diet. Any magnesium won’t do though and unfortunately there are a lot of inadequate products on the shelves.
Love Life Supplements' magnesium bisglycinate is a highly absorbable form of the mineral. The buffering effect of the glycine allows a greater uptake. There's a great blog on magnesium by my colleague Emma, which can be read here.
Getting into a sleep routine
Developing a sleep inducing routine is an excellent way of telling your body it’s time to sleep. From the information you have now gained it’s easy to do! It may need tweaking over a few days or so and you may not have to or be able to use it every night. However, if falling asleep and maintaining deep sleep is something you struggle with, it’s worth giving a try!
Top tips for improving your sleep quality:
- Keep your room temperature at 18-20C
- Use a drop of Lavender oil on your pillow.
- Use ear plugs if you're living in a noisy area to block out noise.
- Use blackout blinds or an eye-mask to block out street light or early morning light in the summer.
1. Halson S. Sleep in Elite Athletes and Nutritional Interventions to Enhance Sleep. Sports Medicine. 2014;44(S1):13-23.
2. Losing 30 minutes of sleep per day may promote weight gain and adversely affect blood sugar control [Internet]. ScienceDaily. 2017 [cited 8 March 2017]. Available from: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/03/150306082541.htm
3. Potter GDM, Cade JE, Grant PJ, Hardie LJ. Nutrition and the circadian system. British Journal of Nutrition. Cambridge University Press; 2016;116(3):434–42.
4. Peuhkuri K, Sihvola N, Korpela R. Diet promotes sleep duration and quality. Nutrition Research. 2012;32(5):309-319
5. Behnood Abbasi B. The effect of magnesium supplementation on primary insomnia in elderly: A double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trial [Internet]. PubMed Central (PMC). 2017 [cited 8 March 2017]. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3703169/#ref56
6. McDonald RKeen C. Iron, Zinc and Magnesium Nutrition and Athletic Performance. Sports Medicine. 1988;5(3):171-184.