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We spend all our lives worrying about what is going on while we are awake, yet most people do not realize the importance of what happens when we are not. Sleep is the time when our body repairs from the mental and physical stress of the day. Hormones are secreted, lipids are formed, and proteins are synthesized during the bedtime hours, yet an estimated 60 million Americans suffer from sleep disorders or sleep deprivation. For millions of years, humans went to sleep at sundown and woke at sunrise. There was no switch to turn on artificial lights. All animals need to sleep, and we would be wise to follow in the footsteps of our ancestors.
A 2013 study reported that there are over 2,000 genes that work differently whether we are awake or asleep. Areas of DNA code for muscle repair and memory are active at night while other segments of DNA, such as adrenal hormones, are at work in the daytime. Our body functions in a totally different manner during sleep and awake time. Cells divide, tissues repair, and growth hormones are released during sleep. Sadly, the average time most Americans go to sleep is near midnight.
According to recent studies, a good night’s sleep improves learning. Whether it’s a new language, how to play the guitar, or how to perfect your golf swing, sleep helps enhance your learning and problem-solving skills. Sleep also helps you pay attention, make decisions, and be creative. Get adequate sleep to become a better spouse, parent, grandparent, child, boss, or employee.
Poor Sleep is a Nightmare For Your Heart
An interesting study looked at sleep and cardiovascular events such as heart attack and stroke. During 10-15 years of follow-up, short sleepers (less than 6 hours) had a 23% higher risk of coronary artery disease compared to normal sleepers (more than 7 hours), even after adjustment for all other possible factors. Short sleepers with poor sleep quality had a 79% higher risk of heart disease when compared to normal sleepers with good sleep quality. On a side note, sleeping longer than 9 hours provided no benefit. Data from 1964 found those people who slept 7-8 hours had the lowest chance of dying over a 3-year follow-up.
Scientists have known for years that heart attacks are more frequent in the morning hours. The blaring alarm clock and stress of the day ahead tip some people over the edge into an unstable heart situation. But this next problem is very easy to change. The practice known as Daylight Savings Time is totally useless in this modern age and interferes with our circadian rhythm. It is not normal to change our sleep cycle by following this antiquated practice. A 2013 study identified men are at a 70% increased risk of having a heart attack on the day after the time change and 20% more likely in the first week. This is extraordinary. Considering the fact that recent presidents Bush, Clinton, Bush, LBJ, and Eisenhower all had cardiovascular disease, maybe the current president should look into abandoning Daylight Savings Time? It may just save his life.
Get Your Blood Pressure Under Control
Add hypertension to the list of bad outcomes from a lack of sleep. Yes, not getting your Zs can lead to high blood pressure. Practicing for years as a typical cardiologist, I was frustrated by seeing patients on five anti-hypertensive drugs, yet their blood pressure was not controlled. Not once did it ever cross my mind that poor sleep could be a factor. I certainly never counseled a patient regarding the need for sleep. I was only getting 5-6 hours per night and envied other doctors who could get away with less. Now I pity those doctors leading the sleep-deprived lifestyle. Anyway, back to hypertension.
A study in 2006 demonstrated that poor sleep doubles the risk of hypertension. This study even corrected for other factors such as the fact that poor sleepers may be more stressed, or are likely to be smokers. A similar article from 2013 found middle-age nurses had a higher risk of hypertension when they had poor sleep patterns. In early 2014, a story about how poor sleep increases the risk of stroke in women made front-page news. In fact, for young women, the risk of a stroke was 8x higher in those admitting to five hours of sleep or less. The study found 10% of women age 65 and older had a stroke within four years if they had poor sleep. Another study found women who frequently feel drowsy during the daytime are at 58 percent higher risk for heart disease compared to those who rarely or never experience this symptom.
Poor sleep is also associated with elevated markers of inflammation, such as CRP, TNF-alpha, fibrinogen, and interleukins. As we discussed, inflammation is caused by all the unhealthy things in our lives, from nutrition and chemicals to poor sleep. The more inflammation, the higher the risk of heart disease. This is major news, and is a call to action for women to get more sleep.
Sleep Your Way to Weight Loss
Struggling to lose a few pounds? Poor sleep could be your problem. Recent studies suggest an association between sleep duration and weight gain. Sleeping less than five hours, or more than nine hours per night, appears to increase the likelihood of weight gain. In one study, recurrent sleep deprivation in men increased their preferences for high-calorie foods and their overall calorie intake. In another study, women who slept less than six hours a night were more likely to gain 11 pounds (5 kg) compared with women who slept seven hours a night. One explanation may be sleep duration affects the hormones regulating hunger—ghrelin and leptin—and stimulates the appetite. Another contributing factor may be lack of sleep leads to fatigue and results in less physical activity. Obviously, the longer you are awake, the more time there is to eat.
Poor Sleep Is Also Associated With:
- Memory loss and Alzheimer’s.8
- Decreased immune system function.9
- Anxiety and irritability.
- Dying younger. One study found that women with short sleep duration and poor sleep quality had over 3x the risk of dying as those who slept over 7 hours.10
The cause(s) of sleep problems needs to be addressed. They might be physical, mental, or both. Even counting grass-fed sheep is not going to work if you are in a bad relationship or having issues at work. Foods not on the Paleo plan negatively affect sleep quality. It doesn’t matter what time you drank your coffee; the caffeine effect can last over 24 hours. If you wake up in the middle of the night, it may be because your blood sugar is dropping and your body is craving more food – usually junk food.
Action Plan: Twenty Ways To A Better Night Sleep
Go to sleep just after sundown and wake at sunrise. Edison invented electricity 125 years ago. Our bodies will never adapt to it.
- Get the electronics out of your bedroom. Cell phones, cordless phones, Wi-Fi, and computers produce electromagnetic fields. Pay attention to electronics on the other side of the headboard wall. Remove smart meters.
- Do not watch TV in bed at night. Read a book or magazine.
- Find your cave. Turn off all lights and invest in good window coverings.
- Keep it cool. Most people find it difficult to sleep at either temperature extreme.
- Go Paleo and lose weight. Obese people are more prone to sleep apnea, a condition associated with cardiovascular and mental problems.
- Get rid of the alarm clock. If you need to wake early, go to bed early.
- Get an organic mattress. A synthetic foam mattress is loaded with off-gassing petrochemicals, flame-retardants, and other POPs (persistent organic pollutants). These conventional mattresses harbor dust mites, a source of allergies and inflammation.
- Use a natural laundry detergent and give up the fabric softener and dryer sheets. Your body wants to breathe air, not chemicals. The nasal, sinus, and airway congestion caused by allergies of these items can inhibit your sleep. Instead buy Seventh Generation, Dr. Bronner’s Sal Suds, or other ecofriendly brands.
- Do not take pharmaceutical sleep aids. Studies show an increased risk of heart attacks, aortic dissection, and cancer.11
- Shower at night. This helps to relax your body and your mind. Showering or bathing also washes the chemicals you accumulated all day off the skin.
- Avoid caffeine. Caffeine can last in your system for up to 48 hours.
- Avoid sugar. This is a major stimulant, so get rid of the ice cream before bed.
- Breathing techniques. Check out the free app from Saagara. My patients love it.
- Many studies confirm exercise improves sleep. Just don’t do it too close to bedtime.12 Practice yoga and Pilates. The benefits of yoga just keep piling up, including better sleep.13
- Get the stress out. There is nothing you can do about life’s problems while in bed. You cannot cope with stress if you are sleep deprived.
- Get sunshine. This helps to set your internal sleep clock.
- Just say no to alcohol. It is a major inhibitor of quality sleep. Passing out drunk does not count.
- Sleep alone. If your partner snores or tosses and turns all night, something has to give, likely your health.
- Take natural supplements.
Natural Sleep Supplements:
Several studies show magnesium can improve sleep quality and reduce nocturnal awakenings. Along with contributing to a good night’s sleep, this nutrient helps to maintain normal muscle and nerve function, keeps heart rhythm steady, supports a healthy immune system, and keeps bones strong.
A hormone that regulates the normal sleep/wake cycle, melatonin is useful as an occasional sleep aid, and is especially effective against jet lag. According to research, the body naturally produces melatonin after the sun goes down, letting us know it’s time to fall asleep. Supplemental melatonin assists with this process. Cherries also appear to boost melatonin. Take 60-90 minutes before sleep.
An amino-acid derivative found in green tea, theanine is known to trigger release in the brain of GABA, a calming neurotransmitter, which promotes relaxation and reduces anxiety. Unfortunately, the body has difficulty absorbing GABA, which is the reason experts recommend theanine. This is easily absorbed and boosts levels of GABA. Avoid green tea after 3 pm.
Many experts recommended this herb to reduce the amount of time it takes to nod off. According to the NIH, valerian has sedative properties, and it may increase the amount of GABA.
A compound derived from the amino acid L-tryptophan, 5-HTP acts as a precursor to serotonin, which is a neurotransmitter essential for a good night’s sleep. A small 2009 study of eighteen people found those who took a product containing 5-HTP needed less time to fall asleep, slept longer, and reported improved sleep quality.
Aromatherapy with a couple sprays of lavender oil has many proponents. Several patients of mine are fans of this herb.
- Chamomile Tea
Most people find any herbal tea to be soothing at bedtime, but chamomile is known to work very well.
- Lemon Balm
In one study of people with minor sleep problems, 81% of those who took an herbal combination of valerian and lemon balm reported sleeping much better than those who took a placebo.
- Phenibut (β-Phenyl-γ-aminobutyric acid)
Phenibut is similar to GABA, but easily crosses the blood-brain barrier, allowing for better efficacy. This is a prescription drug in Russia. Phenibut should be used under the guidance of a physician, as it can be addictive.
- B vitamins
B12 as methylcobalamin and folate (B9) as methylfolate are critical for neurotransmitter formation (and many other functions). The vast majority of vitamins contain the cheap forms of B12 as cyanocobalamin and folate as folic acid. These synthetic variants do not work well in our bodies, given 50% of the population contain a genetic defect in methylation. Make sure you know your methylation genetics. Check with your natural doctor for dosing on B vitamins.
Your best bet is to speak with a natural doctor and see what supplements are right for you. If you are reading this article in the middle of the night, turn off your device and go to sleep.
YOU CAN LEARN MORE ABOUT THE AUTHOR, Dr. Jack Wolfson Here.
 BMC Genomics. 2013 May 30;14:362.
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