You spend a day at the office and arrive home shattered. It may have been 10 or 12 hours since you left home that morning. Not much time left in your day to unwind and relax. Maybe a glass of wine and a microwave dinner? Or maybe you have kids and they are on your case – “let’s play”! You finally get to relax. So why is sitting and thinking all day so damn exhausting? And why are you awake again at 3.00am? Answer these questions and you are destined for a good nights sleep.
First things first: why do we need sleep? Your body is actually pretty busy when you are sleeping. Sleep allows the body to recover, repair and heal. For example, during sleep growth hormones are released that enable tissue repair. Your body will also fully absorb (use or store) the food you ate during the day, and eliminate waste. Bottom line: sleep is very important for biological function, and therefore your health and wellbeing. Your body wants to sleep, and will sleep well unless there is something up.
The cells in your brain use considerably more energy than any other cell type in your body. Think of the brain as a muscle – when you are concentrating it works hard. However, if you are concentrating and also not moving (typical of working in an office environment) the muscles in your body are doing very little work. By the end of your working day this creates an imbalance – your brain is exhausted but your body is not, although it really can be difficult to tell the difference at that stage.
The result is that there is a good chance you will wake up during the night because your body has had enough sleep even though your exhausted, grumpy brain wants to sleep some more. You lie there awake, wanting your brain to go quiet long enough so that you can go back to sleep, but it just ain’t happening.
Sleeplessness is compounded because your brain has not achieved homeostasis – the equilibrium of hormones and neurotransmitters necessary for smooth, calm functioning. Your brain is constantly seeking this point of equilibrium BUT it is entirely dependent on healthy blood circulation. And blood circulation is dependent on movement (or call it exercise).
When you spend hours concentrating and not moving homeostasis is more difficult to achieve. If this happens day after day then your brain will get stuck in an imbalance that will negatively affect your mood and your sleep. Add stressors like deadlines into the equation and homeostasis becomes virtually impossible for anyone who is inactive.
There is a risk that a vicious cycle can develop: poor sleep leads to stress which contributes further to the chemical imbalance, and this negatively affects sleep even more. This hormone imbalance will also affect the effectiveness with which your body can recover, repair and heal during sleep. Fatigue becomes a normal state – as does the broken sleep. Then we pour coffee or sugar onto the problem trying to get through the day, only to make matters worse.
So what’s the solution? The first part is staring us right in the face – exercise. However, exercise does not mean that you have to get red faced and sweaty. It does mean that you need to do enough to stimulate the physiology of your body in order to achieve homeostasis.
Exercise works because it increases the flow of clean, oxygenated blood through your brain, displacing the blood that is still soggy with old hormones. Exercise refreshes the blood supply right through your body, displacing pooled glucose, helping your digestion, and helping your metabolism.
Walking or some simple body weight exercises will do the job. This is accessible to everyone, and will work for everyone. And it doesn’t need to be done all at once. There is no need to set time aside to exercise! You can successfully integrate exercise into your day so that it makes a huge difference without it being an inconvenience – just squeeze in 5 or 10 minutes from time to time during your day (like using the fire stairs instead of the elevator sometimes). Or when was the last time you took a walk after your evening meal? As tired as you might feel, try it and you will find it refreshing because it helps your brain achieve homeostasis, helps with digestion, reduces the glucose level in your blood – and improves your sleep.
If you want a good, solid nights sleep you need to make your body want to sleep. So the more exercise the better. However, ‘more’ is relative. If you are unfit then you don’t have to do much for it to make a difference. So this is not about your current level of fitness or how much you know about exercise – it is about doing enough relative to your current condition.
So if you are unfit then take that short evening walk, and then over time build on it. If it takes more to wear you out, then make it a run. Or jump on your bike, or do some exercise in your garage or lounge room. You can do bodyweight exercise, or buy some equipment. For example a TRX can hang off a door at home, or you can use it in a park, and has huge support online (the TRX website and YouTube). (Check this post on starting exercise.)
The second thing to consider is food. Digesting food is a huge task for your body. It stimulates hormones and enzymes and affects your circulation and flow of nervous energy. Your body has to prioritise digestion over all other tasks, including repair and recovery. In short, if you go to bed with food in your stomach it will affect your sleep and deny your body its best opportunity to recover and heal.
Food serves many purposes in your body. Fuel is one of them. The primary fuel used by your brain and body is glucose. However there is a limit to how much glucose your body can store (glucose is stored as glycogen but not fat) and any that is unused will be cycled out in your urine. So if you consume glucose in the evening it will probably cause your sleep to break for a bathroom visit, and then you may not get back to sleep. The main sources of glucose are refined grains (eg: bread) and sugar (eg: dessert). Yep, it’s the sweet stuff that is going to wake you up. (You can find out more about glucose HERE.)
Your body really needs a break from digestion. So you need to go to bed not full, and not hungry. This requires a plan. Eat as early in the evening as you can. Your evening meal should be plant based (easy to digest) and include only complex carbohydrates (fresh, non-starchy vegetables) and exclude refined carbohydrates like bread (virtually pure glucose) or meat (which can take up to eight hours to digest).
Which brings us to the last point: drink water, not caffeine or sugary drinks. Your kidneys, liver, brain and virtually all metabolic functions need water in order to work properly. Your blood is made of the stuff. You will feel much better drinking water than you will from drinking caffeine or sugar. Of course the effect of caffeine and sugar will also accumulate through the day to affect your sleep.
So the bottom line is: help your body achieve homeostasis. Exercise – walk, run, ride, row, dance in your lounge room with your partner, whatever it takes, just MOVE. Eat lightly in the evening, avoiding refined starch and meat. If you are thirsty drink water not caffeinated or sugary drinks.