Your Sleep-Wake Cycle
“Each night, when I go to sleep, I die. And the next morning, when I wake up, I’m reborn.”
~Mahatma Gandhi, Indian Lawyer, Anti-Colonial Nationalist, and Political Enthusiast
Sleep Quantity / Sleep Quality = A Healthy Sleep Wake Cycle
Sleep issues are one of the most common symptoms reported in our modern times. There are a ton of pharmaceutical medications used for sleep disorders, including central nervous system depressants, melatonin receptor agonists, anxiolytics, hypnotics, antidepressants, and benzodiazepines.
If you aren’t on a medication to help you sleep, chances are you may be using other substances such as alcohol to help you calm down. Maybe you’ve gone the natural route and you use melatonin, a hormone that is better used for acute sleep disturbances versus on-going sleep challenges.
When looking at your overall sleep wellness score, there are two factors to take into account. First, you want to look at the QUANTITY of sleep you are getting each night. Next, you want to evaluate your sleep QUALITY.
To calculate the quantity of sleep you get is pretty straightforward: how much time is there between when you fall asleep (not when you go to bed) to when you wake up in the morning to start your day. Generally the average human benefits from 7.5 to 8.5 hours of uninterrupted sleep a night. Less is indicative of sleep issues, more can be indicative of other health challenges.
- If you wake at night though, you will want to subtract the amount of time you are awake from the total time, to get a true indicator of the actual quantity of sleep you are getting.
Sleep quality, on the other hand, is much more nuanced. This is all about deep sleep and whether you are achieving true restful sleep. During sleep, there are a number of reparative physiological processes taking place. Sleeping one third of your day is a functional part of being human! No one can get around it, and if you try to, eventually you will pay for it in terms of long-term health consequences.
What Your Daytime Fatigue Is Telling You
Did you know your daytime energy directly correlates with your nighttime sleep? Your say time energy levels are correlated with both the quantity and quality of sleep you get. So if you aren’t getting great sleep, you won’t have great energy…or really much energy at all.
This is why we focus on supporting a healthy sleep wake cycle.
The sleep wake cycle, referred to as the circadian rhythm, is a 24-hour cycle your body goes through, which includes both healthy energy levels during the day and deep restful sleep at night.
Here are some ways to understand the health of your circadian rhythm (sleep wake cycle):
- you wake up rested and feeling energized ready to go within an hour of being awake (without the use of stimulants),
- you can ride the wave of energy through early afternoon
- your energy gradually lowers as the day goes on (9am highest, 12pm high, 5pm low, 10pm lowest)
- eventual tiredness setting in after dinner (7-8pm)
- and last, but certainly not least, sleep a couple hours later
For the most part your rhythm should look something like this…where “Avg” is a normal healthy cortisol circadian rhythm.
There is a release of specific hormones over the course of 24-hours, which support the cycles rhythm. These hormones have specific tasks and are influenced by environmental factors including light and temperature. We’ll look at the two most important ones now.
The Two Main Hormones Influencing Daytime Energy & Nighttime Rest
These are the two MAIN hormones influencing the “wake” and “sleep” part of the cycle:
Cortisol, an energizing hormone, rises when you are just about to get up, and peaks around 11am-1pm. Cortisol has many jobs in the body. For simplicities sake we are going to look solely on its influence over the sleep-wake cycle.
- This hormone slowly declines over the course of the day, with the lowest amount being right before bedtime. MANY people have a cortisol rhythm that is not optimal. I’ve seen so many variations here. One person may have low morning cortisol and high cortisol at 7pm at night. Another person may have normal morning cortisol, very high afternoon cortisol, and overly low cortisol at night. Another still may have normal cortisol over the entire course of the day except right before bedtime when it spikes high.
- Looking at your salivary adrenal hormones can give you great insights into how your circadian rhythm is currently operating. It can also help show you where to focus to being the rhythm back into balance.
- But no matter what your labs say, if you have daytime fatigue and some sleep challenges, doing the things mentioned in this article will prove to be quite beneficial.
Melatonin on the other hand, really has the opposite effect of cortisol. It peaks right before bed and while you are sleeping. Again, for simplicites sake, we aren’t going to get into all of the things melatonin does…did you know melatonin helps your body detoxify? How cool!
- Natural light reduces the release of melatonin from the pineal gland. When it is bedtime, there should essentially be very little natural light impacting your pineal gland, and hence optimal melatonin is released. Unfortunately, with the invention of blue light and even just light emitting gadgets, light at night is an all too common thing which is likely negatively impacting your body’s own release of adequate melatonin.
Melatonin and cortisol are really antagonists to each other. So, when your cortisol is high, your melatonin may be low, naturally. And vice versa. Either way, optimizing your day time cortisol levels and your nighttime melatonin levels is going to go along way to help get you more daytime energy and nighttime rest.
Influencing the Sleep Wake Cycle: Your Key to Naturally Better Sleep
One of the main culprits of poor sleep is a poorly regulated sleep wake cycle.
We live in a pick me up world, constantly being stimulated, constantly looking for stimulation. This makes it extremely hard to get the body to naturally calm down at the end of the day, or even in the middle of the day depending on what you’ve got going on.
When your sleep wake cycle is off, even though you are exhausted at the end of the day, your body and mind can’t relax enough to fully sleep. This can cause both difficulty falling asleep as well as difficulty staying asleep.
It’s like a one two punch when you focus on supporting a healthy sleep wake cycle. Amazing daytime energy and enjoyable deep slumber…
5 Tips to Support a Healthy Sleep Wake Cycle
In order to truly heal your adrenal glands and get rid of fatigue, you must re-regulate your sleep wake cycle. Getting functional adrenal health lab work run can be really helpful in understanding what your circadian rhythm looks like.
What happens, is that many people end up having low cortisol during the day because of living a very busy lifestyle without making sure they have the right habits built into their day to replenish the adrenals and stress response.
This often results in an increase in cortisol at night. This may be an actual increase in cortisol overnight, or it may be a relative elevation of cortisol at night compared to daytime cortisol being so low. Whether you have sleep difficulties, because you are exhausted during the day or because your cortisol is elevated at night (or likely both), focusing on re-regulating the sleep-wake cycle will be one of the primary tasks in restoring health to both your sleep and your energy.
Alright, so first things first in creating a health sleep-wake cycle = set up your sleep routine for success:
- Go to bed roughly the same time every night – for best results try not to differ by more that 30 minutes each night. This sleep wake cycle is a routine, and your adrenal glands and stress response LOVE routine. So go ahead and give it to them!
- You need a “getting ready for bed routine” or “wind down routine” –
- Set your room for success: the temperature should be no higher than 64F, the room should be pitch black and there should be no electronics anywhere near your bed.
- Your body and mind want to wind down before you try to go to sleep so if you are someone who thinks a lot while trying to sleep, get yourself a notebook and as part of your wind down routine, write out all your thoughts- the thoughts from the day, the thoughts about tomorrow. Anything, and all of it. Get it out of your head and on paper. You don’t need to do anything with this notebook other than use it as a tool to sleep better.
- Shut off any electronics 60 minutes before bed. If you can wear blue light blocking glasses from the time it gets dark until bed time even better. These help reduce any internal lights from overly stimulating your pineal gland, preventing you from releasing melatonin. The goal is for you body to release as much melatonin as possible before bed, and that happens in a dark environment.
- You also want to wake up around the same time each day. It is ok to sleep in a little on the weekends, but waking up at 5am one morning and 9 am the next is just setting up your body for complete disaster. I mean it: blood sugar goes all over the place, cortisol and the stress response become heightened, weight loss become hard and anxiety and irritability can ensue.
Now let’s look at your wake routine, to ultimately support healthy sleep:
- You want to get natural light on you as soon as you wake up. This could be as easy as going over to a window or door with windows and basking in the light. This will immediately impact the pineal gland and tell it we no longer need melatonin.
- Ya know how on grey rainy days you feel more “sleepy” – well the sunlight has the power to reduce melatonin whereas the clouds don’t cut it. This is why those who are impacted by seasonal affective disorder benefit from full spectrum lights. It improves mood while also improving daytime wakefulness and energy.
- Exercise – in any form. I don’t really care what you do. There are so many options. If I had to tell you what to do, I would say make it short and effective. Personally, I like high intensity interval training because you get a lot of good brown fat activation and healthy hormone release. But I also love cardio and encourage walking as a daily activity as well. I just don’t want you to use time, money or anything else as an excuse to not exercise.
Now I want to hear from you.
What is one thing you will commit to in order to have a better balanced sleep-wake cycle? Imagine having 20% more energy during the day and 20% better sleep at night…how amazing would that feel!
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