by Dr. David Minkoff October 28, 2021 6 min read
When our sleep suffers it’s more than just feeling tired.
Sleep is when our body regenerates and rebalances. And without it, or without good, refreshing, restorative sleep, all sorts of problems, both short and long term, can crop up.
It affects our mood, our ability to think, our energy levels, our hormones, our ability to heal, burn fat, and much more.
So let’s go over how lack of good sleep affects us, what may be causing this, and what we can do about it!
There is something called the Autonomic Nervous system, a part of your nervous system that extends from your brain throughout your body.
It’s called Autonomic because it’s automatic — not controlled by you but running on it’s own.
This part of the nervous system affects your internal organs (lungs, stomach, kidneys, etc), your glands (the organs that release hormones that tell your cells what to do), and your heart.
You could decide to lift your hand or put it down, but you don’t decide to make your heart start or stop beating. You could decide not to breathe, “stopping” your lungs, but if you did then you would pass out and they would start working again on their own.
But there are a lot of hormones and they do all sorts of different things, some quite contradictory to one another. Which is why this system is divided into two parts:
The Sympathetic Nervous System — which gets the body ready for action.
And the Parasympathetic Nervous System — which calms the body down.
Before we wake up, our sympathetic nervous system goes into action: It releases the hormone Cortisol to wake us, it raises our heart rate, and gets our other hormones rolling.
The hormone Glucagon is released to break down stored sugars, and Insulin is released to shuttle those sugars into our cells.
The increased heart rate from Cortisol speeds our breathing, getting more oxygen into our blood stream and to our cells to be mixed with the sugar to make energy.
At the same time, the Neurotransmitters GABA and Serotonin, which were raised during sleep to keep us relaxed, lower some. Not completely, but enough so we can fully wake up.
All this and a host of other bio-chemical actions occur before we even put the coffee on in the morning.
This system then helps us through our day, allowing us to act fast when needed, think, and move about.
Then, when it gets late, and near time to go to bed, the parasympathetic nervous system rises and the sympathetic nervous system lowers.
The neurotransmitters GABA and Serotonin rise to start relaxing us, the hormone Melatonin is released to make us feel sleepy, Cortisol levels lower so it won’t keep us awake, Glucagon and Insulin levels lower, thus lowering our energy production level so it doesn’t keep us up, and heart rate and breathing slows.
Then we drift off to sleep.
During sleep we have many more hormones being released:
Growth Hormones are released to bring amino acids, vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients into the cells throughout the body so they can repair themselves and recover from injuries, big or small.
Insulin-Like Growth Factor, or IGF, is released to stimulate the burning of fat and the storing of the energy released so it can be used the next day.
A hormone called ADH is released which switches off the need to pee while you’re sleeping.
As your body is resting this gives your sympathetic nervous system, lungs, and heart a chance to relax after the work of the day, and to heal as well so they’re not “always on”.
Toxic waste produced by body and nerve cells is released to be cleared out of the system so it doesn’t build up.
This is also when the body’s immune system releases cells to fight infection and inflammation, and why it’s good to get more sleep when ill or injured or recovering from a workout.
Now, all of the above is how it’s supposed to go.
But unfortunately for many it doesn’t work this way. Some people have trouble falling asleep, or wake up throughout the night, or sleep lightly, never really getting the restorative effects they need.
Why is this?
The biggest thing is Cortisol.
Cortisol levels are raised during the day for general energy and activity and then lower before bed.
But when our Cortisol levels are raised before bed we don’t get near the release of GABA, serotonin, or melatonin — the neurotransmitters and hormones that calm us and make us feel sleepy.
High Cortisol actually burns them up. And this starts a pretty wicked downward spiral.
See, without them we don’t get that calming effect or feel sleepy. We’re awake, thinking about things, restless with energy. So it takes longer for us to go to sleep.
And when we get less sleep, our body releases more cortisol the next day, which burns more GABA and serotonin so we feel less relaxed during the day as well as before bed the next night.
Over time this takes a toll on our internal organs which themselves are now not getting the rest they need nightly.
So they’re more inflamed — which the body releases cortisol for.
The cells build up toxic waste that couldn’t be offloaded during the night— which the body releases more cortisol for.
The muscles and cells aren’t getting repaired so the damage builds up — which the body releases more cortisol for…
You see how it works?
The first thing we need to do is cut out any processed sugars before bed. These raise Cortisol levels like nothing else as covered here.
Next is watching TV or looking at our phone before bed.
It’s not just the daily dose of bad news that keeps us awake here — it’s also the type of light.
There are two main types of light that affect our bodies in opposite ways: Yellow light and blue light.
Yellow light operates on the parasympathetic nervous system, lowering cortisol and releasing GABA and Serotonin. It calms us down.
And blue light works on the sympathetic nervous system, releasing cortisol and waking us up.
Yellow light comes from things like the sun or a fire or incandescent light bulbs. This is why it feels so nice to fall asleep under a tree on a sunny day, or how calming it is to sit around a camp fire.
Blue light comes from LED bulbs, computer screens, phones and fluorescent lights.
These trigger cortisol release that wakes us instead of calming us.
So if we’re watching a lot of videos or reading on our phone before bed we can have a harder time going to sleep. Even having LED lights in our bedroom can do this.
Instead, get incandescent bulbs for your bedroom and read a book, a real book, for half an hour or an hour before bed.
Done over several nights you’ll start getting to sleep earlier and sleeping better. You’ll feel more rested in the morning and less stressed out during the day.
Another thing that can help is magnesium. It’s a mineral that works with the nerves to calm them and perfect to take a half hour or hour before bed.
Also vitamin B1. When our B1 is lower our mind is more active at night, keeping us up and thinking.
Make sure you exercise during the day so you don’t have a lot of built up energy at night. Your body needs exercise even if you’re not trying to lose fat or build muscle — it needs to be worked during the day.
Last is protein.
Your GABA and Serotonin are made in your lower intestine with the help of bacteria living there. And these bacteria feed on the essential amino acids in protein.
When our protein levels are low these bacteria don’t have enough food, they starve, and they don’t help make the GABA and serotonin we need in quantity for a good night’s sleep.
Try the above out. I think you’ll find it helps quite a lot.
by Dr. David Minkoff
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