How to Sleep More—and Make More Melatonin
Sleep. Like another bedroom activity that starts with “s,” when you get enough, you take it for granted. When you don’t, it’s all you think about. I fit the former category . . . until I didn’t. Earlier this year I started tossing and turning and waking at 5 a.m. every morning. Even the birds were still snoozing. Was I stressed? Only about this.
Consequently, sleep, and how to get more of it, became my all-the-time reading. I surfed the Web, scanned studies, took notes, tore articles from magazines, checked out books from the library, and started a “sleep” folder. (Huh, it didn’t seem that obsessive at the time . . . .) I already knew about research relating lack of sleep (less than six hours or so) to weight gain; sleeplessness suppresses leptin, the hormone that curbs hunger, and activates ghrelin, the hormone that revs appetite. It also doesn’t take a PhD to know that when we’re sleep deprived, we crave sugary carbs to boost energy and alertness and have less energy and desire to exercise. Plus, there’s simply more time to eat: breakfast at 5 a.m. meant I was starving by 9. (How do morning news anchors stay slim?) Then, while writing an article on snoring, I read studies that linked lack of sleep to premature death. Great, not only was I cranky and tired, I was going to get fat and die. Sweet dreams.
I tried meditation, magnesium, vitamin B6, valerian, yoga, hypnosis . . . fail. Then I read an O magazine story on melatonin, the sleep-inducing hormone produced by the body in darkness. (Even more enlightening, research suggests melatonin is a powerful cancer and disease fighter. A study found that women who lived in bright neighbourhoods and were exposed to late night electric lights were 73 per cent more likely to develop breast cancer; another found that night shift work raised heart disease risk.) Some people take synthetic melatonin as a sleeping aid, but it’s not always effective, and I discovered it can cause heart palpitations. (Fact: Thinking you’re having a heart attack does not promote sleep.) The Hormone Diet’s tips on sleeping habits and melatonin were also helpful, particularly on sleeping in total darkness—the littlest amount of light, such as a nightlight, blinking phone or LED clock, can enter the eyelids and disrupt melatonin synthesis, causing wakefulness or poor quality sleep. So before you check into a sleep clinic, try these first.
- Sleep in darkness—think pitch black. This has hugely improved my sleep. Between the city lights, smoke/CO detectors, and the fact that I’m too lazy to fix my broken blinds, my room is lit like a call centre, so I use an eye mask. I tried on several (to the joy of friends I was with) until I found one (Shoppers Drug Mart—$4!) that was comfortable, stayed on, blocked all light and didn’t strangle me. Black-out blinds would also work.
- More melatonin is produced as the body temperature drops, so keep your bedroom cool—about 20˚C is ideal. Ditching my heavy comforter made a big difference. Or try showering before bed; as your core temperature drops afterward, you’ll get sleepier. (If you sport footed flannel pj’s, consider new sleeping attire.)
- Dim the wattage in the evening, that is, use soft lamps, not fluorescents, and power down the laptop/TV/gadgets earlier than later. Keeping electronics out of the bedroom is best; studies indicate EMFs may inhibit melatonin production.
- Keep the lights off if you get up at night; a short burst of light can hinder melatonin output. Use a flashlight or nightlight to navigate to the washroom, and keep a glass of water bedside if you wake up parched.
- Have a small snack containing complex carbohydrates and protein about an hour before bed. (All-protein, all-carb and sugary snacks will hamper sleep.) Calcium-rich foods will further help the body convert the amino acid serotonin to melatonin. Try oatmeal, yogurt or rice cakes with tahini or almond butter. (And no, eating at night won’t make you gain weight provided you stick to your daily calorie quota.)
- Open the curtains or head outside first thing in the a.m.: exposure to natural light helps regulate the body’s sleep/wake cycle.
Other sleep-more strategies:
- Turn in and rise at the same time daily, including weekends.
- Limit caffeine. (Caffeine metabolism slows with age—another perk of aging.)
- Practise deep breathing before bed; this will help lower cortisol, that pesky stress hormone.
- Skip the nightly news. (Relax, you won’t miss anything: the economy will still be in the toilet tomorrow.)
- Avoid alcohol. It might make you sleepy, but it’ll likely result in subpar slumber—and a hangover.
“I love sleep. My life has the tendency to fall apart when I’m awake, you know?” – Ernest Hemingway