Have you ever noticed that if you don’t go to bed or wake up at a particular time, that your whole night’s sleep or whole day is ruined? Much of this is because of hormones, not the lovely lady hormones, but rather a different set that is involved in your body’s cycle of sleeping and waking.
The main hormones involved in sleep are known as melatonin and cortisol. Melatonin triggers feelings of being sleepy, and its release is stimulated by darkness but reduced by exposure to light. This is one reason why many people wake up when the sun rises. However, it also means that spending time on your computer or watching television right before bed is not a good idea! The bright lights that these screens give off can trick your body into thinking that it’s still the middle of the day.
As melatonin falls in the morning, cortisol rises sharply to help us wake up . Poor sleep can increase cortisol levels, and so can stress, meaning these are two more factors that can ruin what would be a good night’s sleep.
Cortisol levels are meant to drop at night, in order to allow sleep. If you have been under long term stress your cortisol levels start can become unbalanced and if you are not in bed by 10pm they can rise again, keeping you awake. This is just one reason why it is important to follow your body’s natural rhythms, which roughly means a bedtime of 9-10pm (when it is dark stimulating melatonin production) and waking up around 6am (when it becomes light). A routine out of sync with these rhythms can disrupt quality sleep leading to other issues such as hormonal and mental health issues. Napping during the day when we are meant to be awake is another disruption to our natural rhythms, particularly if it is for more than an hour. Being stressed just before going to sleep can also affect sleep quality, leaving you unrefreshed.
If you tend to worry when going to bed set aside a specific “worry time” and journal your worries to get them out of your head so that they don’t circulate round and round in your head.
Breathing exercises can be another way to reduce of stress. This is one way that you can relax the part of your nervous system that the body automatically controls. Simply breathe in for to the count of 5 hold for 3 second and breathe out to a count of 7 really letting everything go – emphasis is on the out breath.
Caffeine, vigorous exercise and other stimulating activities are also forbidden, as these can increase adrenaline, another hormone that keeps you awake like cortisol. The purpose of adrenaline is to get your body in “fight or flight” mode, at the expense of the “rest and digest” mode.
And perhaps most importantly if you are making changes to improve sleep, get your whole family involved! Healthy sleeping habits are most essential for children, and if everyone is getting a good night’s sleep then family life can run much more smoothly.