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Sleep: Potentially THE Greatest Impact on Our Health

Updated: Oct 13, 2020

As a midwife, missing an entire night's rest was common. Sometimes this happened several times each week and opportunity to "catch up" was not always available. A very demanding schedule also meant that when I wasn't called to births or up with a sick child, night time was often the quiet periods when I would catch up with work from a busy clinic. However, I still had to be up again in the morning for client appointments. Although I have birthed six babies, it was after my fifth child that I realized an expanding waist line that I knew I couldn't blame on being a momma.

My husband and I signed up for personal training at the gym, twice each week for 45 minutes. He worked us hard and my nutritionist had me on a strict regimen that left me starving most every day. Six months of this routine, faithfully committed, and I gained nearly fifteen pounds. Recognizing my weight was about more than calories and movement, I started to dig in a little bit. I began using a sleep tracker and while I was falling asleep quickly after laying down and getting into deep #sleep, I was averaging three hours of sleep each night. This was as much of a shock to me as it is you, and I thought it to be a real possibility, but staying up late and getting up early with at least a night or two a week not sleeping at all, will result in very minimal sleeping hours.

My cortisol levels were completely flat lined. In more than a decade of functional medicine practice, I have yet to see results as bad as my own all those many years ago. I knew my training at the gym was stressing my adrenals further and what I needed was a lifestyle intervention, but how does a #midwife improve her sleeping routine?

"When you live on four hours of sleep a night, you forget what it's really like to be awake." Robert Stickgold, Harvard psychiatrist and sleep researcher

Certainly you have felt the effects of having missed a full night's sleep. The #fatigue can be over-whelming. You are groggy and slow and even cranky. If you miss a second night, it may prove very difficult to function what-so-ever. The effects of not sleeping are not just limited to your brain and energy however; a good night's sleep is potentially the most critical aspect to optimal health. Sleep deprivation is implicated in a host of health issues - from low immunity, food cravings, fat storage, and sluggish detoxification processes to even heart disease and obesity. It can also lead to psychosis. Consider that sleep deprivation is used as a method of torture in the military.

Loss of sleep is really never recovered either. If you miss one night of sleep, and get not only the necessary sleep you typically require the next three nights plus some, you can recover most of what you've lost; however, those who have restricted sleep over many weeks will have a "cumulative sleep debt." It may take them up to three weeks of extra sleep every day to make up for the sleep debt. Makes you wonder if sometimes those with depression, who need to sleep all the time are those who are chronic sleep deprived and the body is forcing them to rest.

Repair and Restore

There is a bit of a misconception that sleep is little more than a time to shut down, when the mind turns off and the body rests. It would probably be more accurate if you thought of your awake hours as those that wear down the body, the hours that create our inflammation, and the time when we add toxins and carcinogens to our body. Sleep is then the time our body cleanses and restores itself. Our body heals itself when we sleep.

Sleep studies have demonstrated that our bodies are very active during sleep. We are utilizing glucose and releasing human growth hormone, which is important for growth, cell reproduction, and regeneration. When we sleep, our brain is actively repairing the parts of us which have been most active during the day and in need of the most repair. Brain repair occurs most abundantly at about six hours into our sleep cycle, when we are in our deepest state of sleep.

Learning Your Rhythm

Our sleep cycle is regulated by hormones, and is dependent upon the availability of glucose. Our cortisol plays a big role in this cycle and is regulated by light through our pineal gland. Often I am telling my clients, particularly those with fatigue and insomnia, to get sun on their face within the first thirty minutes of waking up. This helps increase cortisol levels, invoking a more natural rhythm. These levels drop then in the evening as we prepare for sleep and our melatonin rises to support our sleep. These work together, balancing one another, as the moon balances the sun.

There are a number of activities that can disrupt this cycle, beyond the demands of midwifery. Stress increases our cortisol levels which can make falling asleep challenging. In fact, when we have stress and our cortisol levels are elevated at night, this is often why we feel so productive at this time of day, and think more clearly. Unfortunately, this is why those who are stressed continue to abuse their bodies and ride this high, rather than work to get themselves back into a more healthy rhythm.

Melatonin, our sleeping hormone, can be disrupted by excessive light, particularly those from the computer screen. Our screens should be tucked away a few hours prior to bedtime. Creating a regular bedtime routine can really help establish a healthy sleep cycle. Consider after dinner, using this time to clean, bathe, or read. Take an evening stroll, but don't partake in high intensity workouts which increases your cortisol. Listen to music. Do something that puts you at peace, such as watercoloring or yin yoga. Activities which increase stress will raise your cortisol levels, and activities such as watching television, gaming, or squatting in front of the computer are a response to being overly exhausted, either physically, emotionally, or mentally.

Eliminate the television from your bedroom. Move the computer out and leave your phone outside your bedroom, which will also reduce your WIFI exposure. Turn into yourself and self-evaluate in the hours leading to bedtime. Disengage. We need this balance so in the morning, we have sufficient energy to truly awake ourselves and fully embrace our day.

If you aren't sleeping well, let me challenge you to consider where you might lack healthy boundaries. How are you abusing yourself? What might you change to help support your body's need to heal and recover? If you have any health condition what-so-ever, any discomfort, there is little ability to really rid yourself of this issue if you aren't prioritizing sleep. This is your top priority.

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1 Comment

I'll go through periods time where I barely sleep. They can be my "manic" days. I'm not able to catch up on sleep but riding that "high" of not sleeping can be fun for me. It stretches out my body and I've learned how far I can go. I function better at night, I always have.

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