Six Reasons to Prioritize Sleep

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Most people are equally familiar with the incredible energy and clarity following a good night’s sleep, as well as the dazed grogginess following a restless night’s sleep.

Alongside nutrition and exercise, sleep is arguably the third, and most commonly disregarded, pillar of good health. The quality and length of our sleep, as well as our sleep patterns and sleep hygiene, have a profound effect on our overall health and well being.

Many people believe western society is currently in a sleep epidemic, with more and more people sleeping less and less each night. Some argue that this is primarily a consequence of bringing artificial light into our homes. Our bodies’ internal clocks are sensitively in-tune with the earth’s natural cycle of day and night. However - whether it be in the form of lamps, TVs, computers, or smartphones - artificial light tricks our brain into surges of wakefulness long after the sun has set. Although there are endless benefits to artificial light, the body’s response to it has disrupted our natural sleep schedules, thus altering the synchronicity of our natural circadian clocks in ways that are affecting our mental and physical health. This, along with people’s busy, packed schedules, has led to fewer and fewer people prioritizing sleep within their routines.

 Here are six health-based reasons why you should prioritize a good night’s sleep:

1. Memory

It is well known that sleep plays a critical role in memory consolidation. During the rapid eye movement (REM) phase of sleep, brain activity levels are similar to those when awake. This allows the brain to effectively process and integrate new learning with prior knowledge, thus helping us recall information the following day. REM sleep occurs at multiple intervals throughout the night, and therefore time spent in REM can be optimized when length and quality of sleep are prioritized.

2. Weight

Poor sleep habits have been shown to unfavourably disrupt the body’s metabolic systems. Sleep deprivation is linked to increased concentrations of the hormone ghrelin and decreased concentrations of the hormone leptin. Ghrelin, also known as the “hunger hormone”, is responsible for stimulating appetite and promoting the storage of food in the form of fat. Leptin, on the other hand, is responsible for suppressing appetite and increasing the rate that food is broken down. Poor sleep, therefore, may lead to weight gain, or make it more challenging to lose weight.

 It has also been shown that if someone is simultaneously restricting calories (ie. within a diet) and getting inadequate sleep, the body will break down lean body mass as opposed to fat. Lean body mass includes everything in your body minus fat tissue. This is believed to be because at some point during evolution, the brain learned to associate sleep deprivation and low energy availability with a life threatening situation. Therefore, the body’s response is to go into survival mode, trying to retain and store as much energy as possible.

3. Insulin

Insulin, the hormone responsible for regulating blood glucose, is believed to be produced and released according to our circadian rhythm. If this clock is out of sync due to disrupted sleep patterns, the body may not respond to insulin as effectively, and over time, become insulin resistant. It has been shown that even a single night of sleep deprivation can significantly reduce insulin’s effectiveness.

4. Stress

Stress and sleep interact in an endless circle. Stress can negatively affect the length and quality of sleep, and length and quality of sleep can equally affect how we interpret and internalize stress. Fewer stress hormones, including cortisol, are produced when asleep than when awake, so a good night’s sleep can help reduce vulnerability to feeling stressed. Moreover, the better you sleep, the more you are likely going to be able to focus at school, work, and home, which may further help reduce stress.

5. Mood

A number of studies have linked even a single sleepless night with increased irritability, short temper, anger, sadness, and mental fatigue. The good news is, most people report improvements in mood after a good night’s sleep. Moreover, chronic insomnia has been associated with depression and anxiety.  

6. Immunity, Growth, and Repair

When we sleep, the body’s immune system releases immune-enhancing proteins called cytokines. Cytokines are responsible for helping to fight infections and inflammation. It has been observed that even acute sleep deprivation can decrease the number of cytokines and infection-fighting antibodies circulating in the body.  

Sleep is also a critical time for the body to release insulin-like growth factor (or growth hormone), which plays a key role in muscle and tissue repair and growth. Therefore, high quality, sufficient sleep is critical in promoting healthy growth in children and youth, as well as helping the body recover from exercise or strenuous physical work.

In addition, there is increasing evidence that sleep deprivation increases inflammation in the body. This can negatively impact people who already have inflammatory conditions.

Achieving a good night’s sleep involves planning throughout the day with routines built in that support heavy Zzzz’s

5 Sleep Hygiene tips

  1. Avoid caffeine after 12pm, and if you are sensitive to the effects of caffeine, this can include green tea and your favourite 70%  plus chocolate.

  2. For at least two hours before bed, avoid blue light from screens. Artificial light, especially blue light  affects our circadian rhythms, reducing our melatonin levels while darkness stimulates melatonin production.  Melatonin is a key hormonal influencer that supports a peaceful night’s sleep. Aim for 7-9 hours of shut eye each night in a darkened room…

  3. Avoid daytime naps of longer than a  ½ hour.

  4. Have a regular bedtime routine. Our bodies thrive on predictability, so aiming for bed at the same time each night and rising at the same time each morning can assist sleep regulation and sleeping patterns.

  5. Have you thought of having a plant in your bedroom. Plants naturally recycle your air, absorbing your carbon dioxide and replenishing the oxygen and thus improving air quality.  What a perfect relationship. Spider plants, aloe vera and peace lilies are particularly effective according to NASA. What about a french lavender plant that you can run your hand over and smell the aroma?

 Nutrition and Exercise

1.     Magnesium is known as nature’s relaxant. Including plenty of magnesium rich foods regularly can ensure optimal magnesium intake. Although magnesium is widely available in foods, it is a nutrient that is often found to be low in North American diets. Consider whole grains, nuts, nut and seed butters, beans, peas, lentils, fish, and green leafy vegetables.

2.     Include foods rich in ‘B’ vitamins. ‘B’ vitamins support the function of our nerves and the brain. ‘B’ vitamins are water soluble and we do not store them se we have to  rely on a steady intake of foods rich in ‘B’ vitamins. They are found in fish, lean meats and poultry, dark green leafy vegetables, beans, lentils, whole grains, eggs, nuts, citrus fruits.

3.     A short, after dinner walk and regular outdoor activity can prove beneficial for improving sleep quality.  

Herbs

Herbal medicines are non addictive and are gentle mediators of sleep. Combined with other lifestyle and nutritional changes, they can form part of a nightly routine. The aroma of the tea, the effectiveness of the plants and the action of taking time to care for yourself with a hot beverage can all contribute to a good night’s sleep. In addition, a pot of a night-time blend can be shared with other family members. I have many couples who share a nightly relaxing herbal blend.

A herbalist will always customise a formula for you. The herbal combination formulated  by a herbalist will depend on many factors so that the most effective combination is chosen. Poor sleep takes different forms and the goal may be….

  • to promote sleep onset

  • for sleep maintenance

  • to provide a restorative sleep  

Five Herbs that can aid Insomnia

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Chamomile

(Matricaria recutita)

Don’t underestimate the power of chamomile, it is more commonly used for a reason. Unless you have a reaction to this family of plants or dislike the taste, it is a great starting point. Teabags are not the best though as the doses are small.  Loose, whole dried flowers have a stronger effect and a noticeable difference in the taste.  An infusion  can be sipped throughout the evening.  


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Lavender

(Lavandula angustifolia)

Whether using the dried flower as a part of a tea blend or as lavender essential oil in a hot bath, lavender has been shown to promote relaxation. If you have a plant in the garden, bring a sprig inside and lay it by your bed, releasing the aroma by gently agitating the leaves.


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Passionflower

(Passeflora incarnata)

Passionflower is a stronger herb and can impact the quality of sleep. I like to use this for people who do not feel rested in the morning despite sleeping through the night.  


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Green milky oat tops

(Avena sativa)

It takes energy to fall asleep and when the body is emotionally exhausted, sleep can be elusive. Milky green oat tops, taken on a daily basis have a tonic effect and can provide the bridge to sleep in an emotionally exhausted state. I often use this with people who work shifts, or are up at night with infants  and have lost the natural synchronicity of their circadian rhythms.


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Skullcap

(Scutellaria lateriflora)

I will include skullcap most especially where insomnia is long standing. It is traditionally considered a nourishing tonic for the nervous system and I will usually use it as part of a formula, seldom alone.



There are many other herbs used for managing insomnia, such as hops (Humulus lupulus), valerian (Valeriana officinalis), linden (Tilia europaea), lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), hawthorn (Crataegus oxycanthoides), California poppy (Eschscholtzia californica), ashwaganda (Withania somnifera).  Herbal tonics may be used for their restorative properties and include herbs such as vervain (Verbena officinalis), St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum), or damiana (Turnera diffusa).

Sleep well!


All content provided on this website is for general information purposes only and is not intended to replace medical or specialist advice.

A qualified Medical Herbalist is always your best resource for information related to herbal medicines.

Registered Dietitians are a reliable and trusted resource for nutrition related information, always up to date and always ready to work with you to realise your goals.

Jill Burns