Sleep is equal to nutrition and exercise when it comes to our health. Many of us, however, don’t place enough importance on sleep or realize how critical it is to every system in our body. Perhaps you have your nutrition on point and your exercise too, but you aren’t getting the results you desire. This may be chalked up to poor sleep. Sleep is not lazy – it is your superpower ladies!
Let’s take a step back for a moment to understand how our body and brain gets rid of waste products. We know that we have a ‘garbage disposal’ or ‘waste management system’ called the lymphatic system. This flows through the body’s tissues to pick up waste and carry it away. All lymphatic vessels run to the liver, the body’s recycling plant for used proteins, however, the lymphatic system doesn’t reach the brain. So, how does our brain remove its soluble waste proteins, metabolic products, and cellular garbage? Enter, the “glymphatic system.”
Our brain cells when we are in deep sleep shrink by a whopping 60% so that our incredibly effective brain cleaners “the glymphatic system,” can come in and flush out the mess. They even have their preferred cleaning agent called the ‘cerebrospinal fluid.’ This is used to help remove the waste products from the corridors, or space in-between the temporarily shrunk brain cells. This process also helps to flush out the toxin beta-amyloid, which is a plaque that builds up and leads to the death of neurons in patients with neurodegenerative diseases, in particular, Alzheimer’s.
At night our body powers down in our natural circadian rhythm whilst our glymphatic system ramps up. It becomes 10 x more active than when the brain is awake, which leads us back to the important science on sleep. Professor Matthew Walker is a leading neuroscientist, Director of the University of California Berkeley’s Sleep Centre and Author of ‘Why We Sleep.’ He has led numerous sleep studies with his research team. The researchers discovered that a single night of only four or five hours of sleep decreases our natural killer cell count by a massive 70%. These ‘assassin’ cells fight everything from the common cold to cancer.
The scientific literature links poor sleep to breast, bowel, prostate cancers, metabolic syndrome, obesity, stroke, and diabetes. In a subsequent study, just one week of poor sleep (5 – 6 hours) in otherwise healthy individuals, were shown to be pre-diabetic. This means they are on track for developing type 2 diabetes. This is a result of impaired insulin, our master fat storage hormone due to inadequate sleep. Likewise, leptin is impaired too, a hormone which tells our brain we are satiated and to stop eating. To add insult to injury, long-term damage to our heart, blood vessels, and kidneys over time are also affected. The best natural form of lowering blood pressure, which supersedes all medication is sleep.
Circadian rhythm has an integral role to play here too. This is evidenced by the World Health Organisation (WHO) classing any form of night-time shift work as a probable carcinogen. Our bodies are naturally regulated in response to the light and dark cycle which directly affects our endocrine system (hormones), brain and cellular functioning in the body. In the evening as dark falls our body produces melatonin (production decreases as we age) and when it is light this production drops off. In the early morning, we get a surge of cortisol awakening response (CAR). This helps us to wake up and we want this to be strong so we are ready to start our day. Likewise, it drops off as the day progresses giving rise to melatonin and the cycle continues. This is your natural rhythm and why shift workers may find it harder to lose weight.
Based on the research I have read, which is always ongoing here’s my top 10 sleep tips that have helped me to improve my shut-eye:
- Go to bed at the same time each night and wake up at the same time each morning. I give myself one day a week I don’t set my alarm.
- When it gets dark try using anti-blue light glasses if you are watching screens. Turn off all social media at least one hour before bed.
- Create a restful space in your bedroom. Try reading a book with a soft reading lamp and diffuse some essential oils in your room.
- Turn down (if you have dimmers or use lamps) all overhead lighting in your home one hour before you go to bed.
- Have a cozy hot shower or bath before bed to signal to your body it’s sleep time.
- Keep the temperature of your room cool. 18-19C/ 65-68F is optimal.
- No caffeine from 1 pm onwards, as this can interfere with sleep.
- Reduce the number of starchy carbohydrates at dinner and make sure you get enough protein during your day, which contains the amino acid tryptophan to help aid in sleep.
- If you can’t get to sleep keep the lights low (no screens). Do something calm and relaxing until you feel sleepy again. Sleep in darkness.
- Try and get 8 hours of sleep each night, if you can.
Your intestinal tract houses the largest bacterial community associated with the human body, with the ratio of bacteria cells to human cells being 10:1 respectively. It is estimated that 90% of the cells in the human body are of microbial origin (yes, we are only 10% human!), and the vast majority of these microbiotas are comprised of 15,000–36,000 species of commensal and symbiotic bacteria that reside within the lumen of your gut! You want your good gut buddies (bacteria) to work for you, and when you feed it the right nutrients the relationship becomes reciprocal – they fight the harmful/ pathogenic bacteria keeping you (their host) healthy.
Question: What do your good gut buddies need to THRIVE?
Answer: Fibre, dark leafy greens (sulfoquinovose) and lacto-fermented/ probiotic-rich fermented vegetables (sauerkraut and kimchi, which also contain fibre and the recipes you can find HERE), the 5 that make you thrive and my THRIVE smoothie, recipe HERE! Prebiotic foods to include: Onion, garlic, jicama, dandelion greens, inulin, Jerusalem artichokes and taking a daily probiotic supplement.
Your intestinal bacteria, also referred to as your intestinal flora, microbiota and microbiome interchangeably is considered to be largely symbiotic in nature and involved in various processes in the body, including the breakdown and absorption of nutrients, the production of vitamins and hormones, and the prevention of colonisation by pathogens. The gut barrier plays a key role in the avoidance of inflammatory responses to the microbiota and is regulated by a finely tuned network of immune mechanisms for microbial recognition and tolerance to the microbiota. Failure to achieve or maintain this equilibrium between the host (that’s you) and its microbiota (your resident good gut buddies) has negative consequences for both intestinal and systemic health. This is why a diverse microbial community is crucial for our vitality, health and disease prevention based on clinical scientific trials in microbiome studies.
Several diseases have been linked to the reduction of a persons microbiota’s diversity, which includes: Atopic diseases, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), diabetes, obesity, cancer and very recently, even neuropathologies (nervous system). Your microbiota is implicated by physiological changes for example via butyrate production, which a lack of contributes to inflammatory diseases. Butyrate is a short-chain fatty acid (SCFA) produced by bacterial fermentation of fibre in the colon and studies now show this can improve your brain health by protecting it with enhanced neuroplasticity! For years, scientists believed the brain was like a computer and was fixed, now we know that the brains structure can be changed by thought – this is known as brain plasticity.
Recent science has shown that our gut buddies have the capacity to enter the circulation and can cross the blood-brain barrier. Research shows that these microbes produce neurotransmitters, such as GABA and serotonin, modulate our immune system, alter epigenetic markers and produce bioactive food components and energy metabolites. This underpins my approach with the 5 that make you thrive, as dietary intervention can improve the health of the microbiota, our brain and our gut-brain axis. This is the role of gut flora in the biochemical signalling events that take place between our gastrointestinal tract and our central nervous system – an incredibly exciting new field of science that we do not yet know all of the health implications and that scientists are continuously investigating. In addition, researchers at the University of Cambridge found that our resident microbial bacteria are actually able to express control over our health. Their findings include being able to identify patterns between various types of bacteria that correlate with for example obesity, metabolic syndrome, depression and those that identify with optimal health. In other words, a healthy microbiota and happy resident gut buddies mean a happy healthier you!
In a randomised control trial (the gold seal of scientific studies) published in the New England Journal of Medicine, Dr Max Nieuwdorp and his team of researchers at The University of Amsterdam recruited 38 obese men with metabolic syndrome, a condition that includes high blood pressure, high blood sugar, insulin resistance and obesity. They also recruited 11 lean donors with a healthy microbiota. A faecal transplant was deposited into the obese men from the lean healthy-microbiota of the donor men. 50% of the obese men saw a large improvement in insulin sensitivity, which they were not expecting. They discovered that the other 50% of men who did not respond had commenced the trial with less bacterial diversity.
Vital Sleep & Microbiota key takeaway
Consistency is paramount when it comes to sleep, which means going to bed at the same time each night and waking up at the same time. It’s not simply about quantity, but even more-so quality of uninterrupted non-fragmented sleep in both deep sleep and REM stages.
The field of our gut microbiota is one of my most favourite fields as a nutritional scientist to research because it is just so exciting. We are only beginning to touch the tip of the iceberg with understanding their vital role in our lives and how they affect everything from our physical body to our thoughts. Co-existing together we have a reciprocal relationship whereby if we take care of them by feeding them the right kinds of food mentioned above so that they can thrive they, in turn, give us health and vitality. On my program, you will be eating for optimal nutrition and so too will your resident gut buddies. If they THRIVE, so do we!