May 24, 2010

Sleep Yourself to Better Health

This article was originally posted on

For thousands of years humans have been synchronized with the cycle of the sun—the circadian cycle. It has only been in the past 100 years that this cycle has really changed. With the invention of electricity, the typical hours people are awake and asleep has shifted.

When sunlight hits the body it tells us that it is daytime. As fluorescent lights, televisions and computer screens flicker on and off between 60 and 120 beats per second, our bodies interpret these lights as morning sunlight, keeping us awake. No matter what type of light it is, the stress hormone cortisol is released. This hormone wakes us up and helps prepare our bodies for the day, so cortisol drastically increases in the morning and then slowly decreases throughout the day until sundown. This gradual reduction of cortisol throughout the day is what prepares our bodies for sleep. To help reduce the amount of cortisol, it is important to prepare your body by lowering the lights and winding down before bed.

In order to allow your body full recovery time during the sleep cycle, reduction of cortisol is essential. Stimulants such as caffeine, sugar and tobacco all increase cortisol. It has been shown that caffeine has a half life of six hours. So, if you drink a cup of coffee at 4 p.m. with 400 mg of caffeine you will still have 200 mg of caffeine in your system six hours later at 10 p.m. Due to caffeine’s long lasting effects, try to avoid it after lunch and in the evenings.

Here are other tips to lower cortisol and sleep better:

  • Shut down your computer or T.V. an hour before bedtime 
  • Turn off main lights in your house an hour before bed and use only dim lamps or candles
  • Remove night lights from your room and use dark curtains or blinds to block any outdoor light 
  • Don't work from your bed, keep it for sleeping as your body will associate work with bed and increase your stress level.
  • It is important to take care of your body as any form of physical stress will lead to an increase in cortisol 
  • Sleep in temperatures of 70 degrees or cooler
  • Wake up naturally. I personally use the Soleil SunAlarm clock, which is an alarm clock that simulates the sunrise in the morning (also available at Kehres Health).
  • Ideally, aim to be in bed by 10 p.m. and to sleep by 10:30 p.m.
Following the proper sleep cycle, our bodies should be ready for sleep around 10 p.m. Throughout the day our bodies go through a variety of physical and mental stressors, and sleep is the time to rebuild and repair our muscles and brain. Between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. our bodies do most of the muscle repair, and after 2 a.m. mental repair takes place. If you go to bed at midnight, you will miss two hours of physical repair potentially causing you to wake up feeling tired and even sore, as your body didn’t get to finish repairs from the night before.

The more you can do to get back in sync with the sun’s cycle, the better sleep you will have and the more energized and restored you will feel the next day.

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