How to Understand and Optimize Your Sleep for Better Health

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As a Precision Medicine Physician, I’ve witnessed time and again how often the importance of sleep is underestimated. Sleep plays a critical role in our overall health and wellbeing, affecting literally every aspect of our lives. But currently, according to the National Sleep Foundation, 35% of adults in the US report an average of less than seven hours of sleep per night. That contradicts the findings of a study published in the National Library of Medicine that concluded adults between the ages 18 to 64 need seven or more hours of sleep per night.

It’s been long misconceived that sleep is unproductive, but we know that in reality our bodies are constantly at work, undergoing several crucial processes while we’re asleep:

  1. Restoration: Sleep allows our bodies to repair tissues, synthesize proteins, and grow new muscles.
  2. Memory Consolidation: During sleep, the brain processes and stores information from the day, strengthening neural connections and improving memory retention.
  3. Hormone Regulation: Sleep regulates the release of various hormones that control growth, metabolism, and our stress response.
  4. Immune Support: Adequate sleep enhances our immune function, in turn helping to prevent illness and infection.
  5. Emotional Wellness: Sleep is essential for maintaining emotional stability, reducing stress, and improving our mood.

Understanding Your Sleep Chronotype

You’ve heard of a circadian rhythm, or circadian cycle, which is the internal process that regulates your sleep–wake cycle. The circadian rhythm includes the physical, mental, and behavioral changes over a 24-hour period in response to light and darkness. Your sleep chronotype refers to your natural sleep-wake pattern, which influences your energy levels, productivity, and mood throughout the day. There are four main chronotypes, which may go by arbitrary names of certain animals – or not:

  1. Morning-oriented individuals wake early and are most productive during the morning hours.
  2. The majority of the population have a natural preference for sleep and wake times that align with the sun's rising and setting.
  3. Evening-oriented individuals feel most alert and productive during the evening and night hours.
  4. Light sleepers are those who often struggle with insomnia and have no strong preference for morning or evening activities.

Chronotypes vary from person to person depending on a number of factors, including: age, location, and genetics. Understanding your genetic makeup can help you identify potential sleep patterns or issues and develop strategies to address them. That’s why, particular genes are a part of our custom genetic analysis at Wild Health – and also explains why sleep is a pillar of focus within each of our Personal Health Reports. Among other genetic implications, having a longer allele on the PER3 circadian clock gene has been tied to morningness, which some researchers believe may have been a survival technique that evolved in hunter-gatherers. The theory is that by taking turns sleeping, there would always be someone awake to keep watch. Other genes we look at which impact the sleep-wake cycle are: BMAL1 (or ARNTL), PERIOD (PER1, PER2, and PER3), and cryptochrome 1 and 2 (CRY1 and CRY2).

So, whether or not you refer to yourself as Lion, Bear, Dolphin, Wolf, or otherwise, understanding your sleep chronotype will help you work with your body – rather than against it – in the quest for quality sleep. Not to mention, there’s a strong correlation between your sleep chronotype and your personality, health (ie. disease risk, cognitive function), and overall quality of life.

Nutrition and Supplementation for Improved Sleep Quality

It’s no surprise that a balanced diet is crucial for optimal sleep, as certain nutrients play essential roles in sleep regulation. Some key dietary components to consider include:

  1. Tryptophan: This amino acid is a precursor to serotonin, which is later converted to melatonin – the hormone responsible for regulating sleep. Foods rich in tryptophan include turkey, chicken, fish, nuts, and seeds.

  1. Magnesium: This mineral is involved in various processes that promote relaxation and sleep. Sources of magnesium include leafy greens, legumes, and whole grains. High quality magnesium supplements from companies like Thorne are best taken right after your last meal, or a few hours before bedtime.

  1. Calcium: Calcium helps the brain use tryptophan to produce melatonin. Dairy products, leafy greens, and fortified foods are good sources of calcium. A high-quality calcium supplement might be recommended for some patients, as well.

  1. Vitamin D: Low levels of Vitamin D have been linked to poor sleep quality. Sources of Vitamin D include good old natural sunlight, as well as fatty fish and fortified foods. High-quality supplements may be recommended for some patients, as well.

Particularly for those who have nutrient deficiencies or specific sleep issues, supplementation can prove incredibly beneficial for improving sleep quality, along with cleaning up your evening routine. It must be said that a healthcare professional should always be consulted before starting any new supplement regimen.

Lifestyle Habits for Optimal Sleep

There are many habits and lifestyle factors that affect our sleep duration and quality, as well. Consistency is key with any healthy behaviors, so incorporate the below to the best of your ability:

  1. Establish a consistent sleep schedule: Aim to go to bed and wake up around the same time every day, including weekends. This helps to regulate your internal clock and improves sleep quality. The consistency reinforces your body's sleep-wake cycle, making it easier to fall asleep and wake up feeling refreshed.

  1. Create a bedtime routine: Whatever your preference, engage in calming activities before bedtime, like reading, meditating, or taking a warm bath. These actions can signal to your brain that it's time to relax and rest.

  1. Regulate your light exposure: Try to get outside in the first hour after awakening to expose your eyes (without sunglasses) to daylight. It doesn’t matter if it’s cloudy – and please don’t stare directly at the sun. Getting 20-40 minutes of natural light in the mornings starts the clock on melatonin release and sets the proper foundation for that evening’s sleep. Once the day starts to wind down, however, exposure to blue light from electronic devices like cellphones, tablets, and TVs can interfere with melatonin production, making it difficult to fall asleep. Try to avoid any screens at least an hour before bedtime. Even harsh lighting from bright bulbs can confuse the brain – try to dim your lights in the evening.

  1. Optimize your sleep environment: A cool, dark, and quiet bedroom is best. Use blackout curtains, white noise machines, or earplugs to block out light and noise. Invest in a comfortable mattress and pillows suited to your preferences. And, if possible, try to regulate your room temperature to around 66-68°F.

  1. Mind your diet: Beyond nutrition and supplementation, avoiding large meals or any food for 2-3 hours before bedtime is key for most. Caffeine and alcohol too close to bedtime is also a consideration, especially if you’re a slow caffeine metabolizer, which your genetics would reveal.

  1. Incorporate regular movement: Daily physical activity has benefits beyond your energy, mobility, and fitness. It’s been shown to improve sleep quality by reducing stress, anxiety, and symptoms of insomnia. Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise most days of the week, but avoid rigorous workouts too close to bedtime.

  1. Manage stress and anxiety: Whichever method works best, manage your stress and anxiety with a consistent mindfulness practice: journaling, breathwork, meditation, gentle yoga, progressive muscle relaxation, a warm bath… whatever you prefer.

Only recently is sleep beginning to get the respect it deserves. With the help of high-tech trackers, like Ōura, and modernized mattresses, like Sleep Number, we’re shining a light on the importance of getting a good night’s rest. So, whether you go at it alone or with the help and guidance of a healthcare practitioner, make sleep a critical point of focus if you’re looking to improve your overall health and wellbeing.