Now that you know sleep is a critical piece of your metabolic health, let’s talk about some strategies to help optimize sleep and support all of the other important steps that you’ve been working on to optimize your glucose values.
One of the first things to understand is that sleep is a skill. Think of starting a new hobby like carpentry. You wouldn’t expect to immediately know how to craft custom furniture on your first day, right? We can think about sleep in the same way. It can take several days, weeks, or even months of consistent practice to really start to feel like you’re “getting good” at sleep.
Keep this idea in mind and don’t be frustrated if you start practicing the following sleep hygiene habits and don’t immediately see results!
If you know sleep is important and you also know that sleep is a skill, what actionable changes can you make to help boost sleep quality and quantity?
One of the most important first steps to sleeping better is to work on a consistent routine. This includes going to bed and waking up at consistent times each day (weekends and holidays included) and working on a wind-down routine in the evening. Do you know how it’s generally recommended that children have a bedtime routine? Adults are no different! A consistent evening routine can help signal to our bodies that it’s time to slow down, relax, and prepare for sleep.
Everyone’s bedtime routine may be a little bit different, but some things to consider are turning off screens at a certain time, journaling, reading with soft lighting, taking a shower or bath, or meditation. Find what works best for you and stick to it!
We can’t talk about ways to optimize sleep in today’s world without touching on screens. Screens are generally a part of everyday life for so many of us. While screens can offer many benefits (you’re most likely reading this on a screen right now!), there are some noticeable downsides, especially when it comes to disrupting our natural circadian rhythm and affecting sleep.
Screentime exposes us to blue light that can impact our body’s ability to produce melatonin and signal that it’s time for sleep. This includes our phones, TVs, computers, and tablets. The best option for managing this is to avoid screens in the evenings. Setting a specific time to stop using screens a couple of hours before you anticipate being in bed can be helpful (and can be part of your regular evening routine!).
However, if avoiding screens later in the evening isn’t possible, consider investing in some blue light glasses to help block that harmful blue light exposure. There are also some apps you can install on your devices that block this blue light for you, such as Twilight, and some blue light screen protectors you can put on your phone to serve as a physical barrier. If using an iPhone, scheduling Night Shift to turn on at a particular time may also help.
Morning screen time can also be a problem! Are you someone who reaches for your phone first thing in the morning? Did you know that this is training your brain to anticipate anxiety as soon as you wake up, which can lighten your sleep throughout the night? To counteract this, keep your phone out of your bedroom and avoid checking your phone within the first 30 to 60 minutes after waking up.
Our sleep environment can make a big difference in the quality of our sleep. Here are a few strategies that can help:
Maintain a dark bedroom and consider using blackout curtains to block outside light
Avoid artificial light in your sleeping space as much as possible by covering up clock faces or lights on your phone, alarm clocks, or other electronics
Keep technology out of the bedroom - this can not only contribute to more artificial light pollution but can also cause ‘sleep procrastination’ and increased anxiety
Keep your bedroom cooler
Consider a sound machine if noise pollution is an unavoidable distraction for you
Morning Light Exposure
When thinking about ways to enhance sleep, you may not automatically think that our morning routine would have anything to do with this, but it certainly does!
What you do in the morning can set the stage for the rest of the day and help to align your circadian rhythm for optimal sleep once bedtime rolls around.
What exactly does that mean? Light is an important regulator of our circadian rhythm. When we get bright, natural light exposure within 30-60 minutes of waking up, it triggers our body to produce cortisol and adrenaline, which gives us that awake and alert feeling we’re craving when we reach for that morning cup of Joe.
Cortisol? Wait, I thought cortisol was ‘bad’? That’s not necessarily the case. Too much, too little, or misaligned cortisol can be a bad thing, but some cortisol is essential to our natural daily rhythm. We want cortisol to peak shortly after waking up and then generally decrease over the day. Appropriate cortisol production in the morning can also help our body to signal melatonin’s release 12-14 hours later (helping us fall asleep more easily). So exposure to natural sunlight early in the morning helps to regulate our body’s natural hormones for better sleep.
If possible, get outside for even 30 seconds to up to 3 minutes within the first hour of waking up to help set your day up for success. The goal here is to get outside as even sunlight through a window can be around 15 times less effective than direct exposure. If natural sunlight isn’t an option based on the time you wake up, where you live, or the weather, a light therapy lamp is something to consider, such as the Happy Light by Verilux or a Hatch Restore Sunrise alarm clock.
Caffeine, Alcohol, Food
The food and beverages you eat and when you consume them can also affect your ability to get good quality and quantity of sleep.
Caffeine: When we aren’t getting adequate sleep, it’s so common to reach for caffeine to help us achieve that level of alertness that we’re missing out on when we’re tired. But too much caffeine or caffeine too late in the day can lead to worse sleep and force us to continue on this never-ending cycle of poor sleep, which creates the need for more caffeine that leads to poor sleep and so on. Learning how caffeine works can help us to understand this connection. Caffeine affects a compound in our body called adenosine - adenosine is an essential component to getting tired and it slowly builds up in the day until we feel tired enough to go to sleep. Caffeine ‘blocks’ adenosine, impacting its ability to accumulate to an amount that would allow us to easily fall asleep.
Setting some guidelines around caffeine can be helpful to minimize this. For most people, sticking to one to two servings of caffeine of choice per day and stopping all caffeine by about 2 pm can help to counteract these effects. Caffeine can stay in your system at 50% strength for up to five to six hours and at 25% strength for up to 10 to 12 hours which is why cutting it off in the early afternoon is a good idea for most of us.
Alcohol: For some people, reaching for a glass of wine or a beer in the evening is a way to relax, unwind, and prepare for sleep. As discussed above, though, we know that alcohol can contribute to nocturnal hypoglycemia and may lead to higher glucose values the next morning. Along with that, it can impair our sleep and lead to lower quality of sleep. The reason behind this is that alcohol acts more as a sedative and doesn’t offer the same restorative effects that natural sleep does. Those restorative effects of natural sleep are essential for balancing hormones and blood glucose (among many, many other overall health benefits), so when we rely on alcohol to help with sleep, we miss out on those benefits. Scaling back on alcohol intake overall may be helpful to promote quality sleep in the long run.
Food: If you’ve already completed Chapter 3 on healthy eating, you know that eating late at night or eating more carbs in the evenings can impact your overnight glucose values and glucose the following day. In addition to that, this can also affect sleep! When your body is focused on digesting a big meal, it is more difficult to focus on falling asleep. You can counteract this effect by avoiding large meals and a lot of carbs within the hours leading up to bedtime. Keep in mind, though, that this is a general recommendation, and your needs may be different. Work with your NutriSense nutritionist or healthcare team to fine-tune what works best for you!
Want to read more about sleep hygiene, circadian rhythm, or all things sleep? Check out Matthew Walker’s work! He has a book, website, and podcast that are worth checking out. NutriSense’s own Kara Collier was also featured on the podcast Sleep is a Skill and offers some more information on the relationship between sleep and glucose.
Next: Goal Setting