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6 Easy Steps for Better Brain Power, Digestion & Increased Energy

By Lauryn Lax

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May 18, 2015

I wish sleep were optional—not a requirement.

My ideal amount of sleep is seven hours per night, but this past week, it’s been more like five or six. I’ve been burning the midnight oil, and while I have still been able to function, I definitely notice a difference.

There’s no getting around it. Getting adequate sleep is crucial to our health and performance. When we don’t get enough of it, several things can happen:

Brain function is reduced.

The immune system is depressed.

Cortisol levels (the stress hormone) are raised.

Athletic performance suffers.

Weight management is negatively impacted.

In fact, did you know that a person running on 4-hours of sleep functions at the same level as a person with a 0.08% blood alcohol level?

Crazy!

Normal sleep-wake cycles, known as circadian rhythms, follow the same cycle as the sun: Rising in the morning, and dipping in the evening.

The term circadian rhythm refers to the cycle of biological processes that occur in the human body (and indeed all forms of life on Earth) on a 24-hour clock.

Circadian rhythms are how your body intuitively knows what time it is (i.e.,when it’s time to get up in the morning or go to bed at night). Ultimately, your circadian rhythm gives your body a ‘routine’ and in turn, assigns the various functions necessary for maintaining optimal health, based on the time of day. For instance, the body prioritizes tissue (or muscle) repair while you are sleeping, and prioritizes the need for food, metabolic functions and movement during your waking hours. Your body also secretes various chemicals throughout the day [such as melatonin in the evenings and higher cortisol in the mornings], fluctuates body temperature, undergoes vascular changes, bowel changes and a host of other changes in order to keep you in a regulated, homeostatic, optimal functioning state.

Or…at least it should.

Unfortunately, thanks to our constantly stimulated brain and visual systems—from staring at computer screens, smart phones and the T.V.—not to mention poor sleep and exercise patterns, our circadian rhythms have gotten a bit out of whack. Simply put: they don’t know what time of day it is!

The statistics on the number of prescription sleeping meds used in the U.S. alone shows how sleep deprived we are. Nearly nine million Americans take prescription sleep aids on a regular basis, and only one third of Americans get the recommended 7-9 hours per night.

With that being said, what can YOU do to regulate your circadian rhythm and get it back to a balanced level?

Go to bed on time!
No duh, Sherlock. I find when I do make a firm bedtime for myself (say 11 p.m. to 6 a.m.), I never regret it the next day. There will always be stuff that needs to get done, but remind yourself that in order to function at the best of your abilities, you have to be well-rested. Some people claim that they can operate properly with only four to five hours of sleep. Sure, you’re ‘operating’ but not at the levels you should be. If you added in a few more hours sleep to your regular schedule, you’d be amazed at the difference. You’ll have more energy, vibrancy, improved digestion, decreased illness and more. Sleep does a body good.

Sleep in darkness.
Sleeping in a completely dark room is crucial to protecting circadian rhythms.  Cover up any phone or computer lights, baby monitors, night lights, or whatever other gadgets you have in your room. Blackout curtains are great if you have sheerer curtains or lots of windows. As for rising, if you are adamant in restoring your circadian rhythm, ditch the alarm clock in lieu of a sun lamp (‘natural’ sun light to wake you—how nature intended).

Lower the temperature.
A cool temperature is a positive trigger to your circadian rhythm. At nighttime, a cool room of around 65 degrees or less is ideal, whereas during the day the adverse is true (being warmer during the day–around 75 degrees–supports circadian rhythms).

Soak up the sun.
Soak up the rays during the day and be in the dark at night. This helps your body’s circadian rhythm know ‘what’s up.’ Sunlight (also known as ‘Blue light’) lets your circadian clock know that it’s daytime. The photoreceptors in your eyes and your skin are sensitive to this blue light, and, in turn, send this signal to the brain. As little as 15 minutes of natural sunlight exposure or 30 minutes on a cloudy day (sans sunglasses) can be beneficial.

Be active.
The human body is designed to MOVE! Global studies reveal that most people sit an average of 8 to upwards of 15 hours per day, and more than 85% of Americans sit all day at work. In clinical trials, getting some sort of activity during the day has been shown to support melatonin production (a hormone that helps you sleep). Aim to move at least 30-60 minutes every day of the week. There are a couple of exceptions: intense activity later in the day has been shown to impede your melatonin production, as well as working out in a really bright environment in the evenings. If these are your times to train, know that it may take your body a little longer to calm down at night.

 Change with the seasons.
By design, the human body was wired to sleep more in the winter months, and less in the summer months. Unfortunately, indoor lighting has robbed us of the seasonal variations in not only the amount of sleep we get, but also our activity levels, our appetites, and our daily schedules. While we are not cave people, it’s kind of cool to think about caring for your body in relation to the season. Think how different it may feel to eat fruits and veggies that are in season during certain months; adjusting your indoor temperature to reflect the outdoors a bit more—not super hot in the winter, or extremely cold in the summer—getting outdoors for activities in the summer; and tucking in a bit earlier in the winter months as the sun sets earlier.

Photo by Greg Westfall/CC by 2.0

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