by John Staunton DipNT mNTOI

A study from Carnegie Mellon University shows people who sleep seven hours per night, instead of eight, are three times more susceptible to a cold virus. Those who have difficulty getting to sleep or staying asleep had over five times as many colds. It’s time to reset the clock and go back in time, way way back.

Let’s recognise one fact: We are slaves to evolution-How we slept for millions of years cannot be changed in a century.

The last 100 or so years with the invention of electricity our exposure to light has changed dramatically and the impact on sleep has been immense.

The tale of two hormones

In the morning we wake up to sunlight streaming in through our window and lovely blue skies(sorry Ireland).The light signal tells Melatonin(sleep hormone) production to drop off and Cortisol(stress hormone) rises to help us get out of bed and face the day. Cortisol can dip at certain times of day, usually explain why some cultures enjoy the delight of an afternoon siesta.

As the evening draws in, Cortisol decreases, making way for our warm sleepy friend Melatonin. Think of these two hormones like Clark Kent and Superman…when you see one, you won’t see the other.

sleep melatonin cortisol

So raised Cortisol levels means lower melatonin levels which translate to poor sleep.

If you are still with me, here is how to fix it:

  1. Wake up at a similar time every morning. Give your body that clear light signal it craves. Outside light can be 20 times brighter than indoor light so sit outside for half an hour or eat your breakfast by a window that gets plenty of light.
  2. Limit evening exposure to bright light. Turn off the big lights in your house and use nice soft lighting to mimic an internal sunset.
  3. No Caffeine after midday – The effect of Caffeine can last up to ten hours. Drinking caffeine is effectively tapping your adrenals for more Cortisol output. The same stress hormone that wakes us up and helps keep up alert during the day. You may still sleep but have limited slow wave sleep. That is the most restorative restful kind and it may be affected for the first couple of sleep cycles.
  4. No blue skies at night. Try this experiment at night, turn the living room lights off, open your curtains and leave the telly on. From the outside, you will see the room is bathed in blue light. This is the same for tablets, phones and laptops. They all emit this lovely melatonin disrupting blue light, which not only delays sleep but lowers sleep quality. There are now free apps available to take out most of the blue light from phones, such as Twilight. For the hardcore among us, get yourself a set of blue blocking glasses and look like the coolest kid in town.
  5. The bed is for sleep. Building a routine of going to bed and leaving electronic devices downstairs. Make a cup of Lemon Balm tea, a sleep promoter that doesn’t leave you groggy in the morning. I find having a warm drink before bed is lovely by itself and helps build a habit or cue to the body that when I drink this, I’m looking for sleep.
  6. Tire your Optic Nerve. Read a boring book in bed. See if you can find an old schoolbook for accountancy, bathe in the double entry system, ponder all the appropriate ledgers and your brain will be a)distracted from its usual mental chatter.b) bewildered and begging for sleep.

There can be other underlying reasons for a poor nights sleep but let’s not overthink it, because honestly, it’s the overthinking at night that delays sleep onset for so so many. I can’t sing the benefits of Mindfulness enough for becoming aware of that constant mental chatter. I already discussed the benefits here.
Wishing you all a solid, deep and restful nights sleep.

P.S If you feel worse initially, take Harvard’s advice and pay off your sleep debt.

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