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May 2012
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Energy for Mom (and all of us)

Refueling: Keys to Getting a Good Night’s Sleep

The following is taken from the book Mom Energy: A Simple Plan to Live Fully Charged by Ashley Koff, RD, and Kathy Kaehler. It is published by Hay House and available at all bookstores or online at:

Life as a mom is a shapeless blob of happy chaos.

— Julia Roberts

What your body does from the time it slips into bed to the time it wakes you up might have more to do with your energy metabolism than you realize. New findings in sleep medicine are currently revolutionizing how we think about the value sleep brings to our lives.

For so many moms we interviewed for this book, sleep ranked high on the list of priorities. Chaka Khan calls sleep “the key to a great energy balance”; Julia Roberts admits that any extra sleep she can get helps counterbalance the “mom struggle” that naturally accompanies having time thieves running around her house. Most of us just don’t get the sleep we need. Sleep deprivation is epidemic. And let’s face it: When we’re sleep-deprived, moody, and things don’t go our way, we can begin to go down that dreaded path that ends in depressive thoughts or a full-blown depression.

Ashley Koff, M.D.

Moms in particular are starved for sleep, evidenced by the National Sleep Foundation’s annual poll. The average woman aged 30 to 60 sleeps only six hours and forty-one minutes per night during the workweek (less than the optimal eight to nine hours for health and wellness). On average, we get an hour less sleep per day than we did 40 years ago, and roughly two-thirds of us complain that sleep deprivation cuts into our life and well-being. In fact, sleep may have a greater influence on your ability to enjoy your day than household income and even marital status. One study found that an extra hour of sleep had more of an impact on how a group of women felt throughout the day than earning more money per year.

Without adequate sleep, not only does your entire body reel from its repercussions, but one system in particular—the endocrine, the center of gravity for a woman’s energy levels—starts to malfunction. This can lead to everything from appetite and fat-storing hormones running amok to bona fide infertility.

Cutting-edge science now shows how critical sleep is to our ability to stay focused, able to learn new things and remember old things, lose fat and keep excess weight off, and generally lower the risks for a slew of health problems such as heart disease, obesity, and cerebrovascular disease. It also recharges us (duh!). But moms everywhere are burning the candle at both ends and leaving sleep last on their list. What’s more, millions of moms struggle with chronic pain, high anxiety, or full-blown depression, and many become addicted to pain-soothers such as alcohol or prescription pills, all of which further drain energy—including the energy required to get well.

Get Your Energy Sleep

Today sleep medicine is a highly respected field of study that continues to provide alarming insights into the power of sleep in the support of health and energy. Sleep can dictate whether you can fight off infections, and how well you can cope with stress. We’ve already covered how sleep deprivation creates an imbalance of hormones that control your appetite and how your body burns energy. That’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to associations between sleep and well-being.

Sleep is not a state of inactivity. It’s not as if our bodies press pause for a few hours during the dark. Much to the contrary, a lot goes on during sleep at the cellular level to ensure that we can live another day. Clearly, a night of poor sleep or no sleep at all won’t kill you, but prolonged sleep deprivation can have unintended consequences, not to mention putting you at high risk for an accident.

There’s something to be said for looking refreshed and feeling smarter upon waking from a good night’s sleep or a nap. Seemingly magical events happen when you’re sleeping that just cannot happen during wakeful hours, and which help keep you stay energized and quick-witted. Proof of sleep’s profound role in our lives also has been demonstrated over and over again in laboratory and clinical studies. It keeps you sharp, creative, and able to process information in an instant. Losing as few as one and a half hours for just one night reduces daytime alertness by about a third. And among the many side effects of poor sleep habits are hypertension, confusion, memory loss, the inability to learn new things, weight gain, obesity, cardiovascular disease, and depression.

One underappreciated aspect to sleep that is especially influential to our sense of well-being is its control of our hormonal cycles. Everyone has a biological, internal clock called a circadian rhythm (yes, even men can say they have a biological clock). It’s the pattern of repeated activity associated with the environmental cycles of day and night—rhythms that repeat roughly every 24 hours. Examples include the sleep-wake cycle, the ebb and flow of hormones, the rise and fall of body temperature, and other subtle rhythms that mesh with the 24-hour solar day. When your rhythm is not in synch with the 24-hour solar day, you will feel (and probably look) it. Anyone who has traveled across time zones and felt off-kilter for a few days can understand this.

So much of our circadian rhythm revolves around our sleep habits. A healthy day-night cycle is tied into our normal hormonal secretion patterns, from those associated with our eating patterns to those that relate to stress and cellular recovery. Cortisol, for example, should be highest in the morning and progressively decrease throughout the day, with the lowest levels occurring after 11pm. Ideally, with low evening cortisol levels, melatonin levels rise. This is the hormone that tells you it’s time to sleep; it helps regulate your 24-hour circadian rhythm, alerting your brain that it’s dark outside. Once released, it slows body function, lowers blood pressure and, in turn, core body temperature so you’re prepared to sleep. Higher melatonin levels will allow for more deep sleep, which helps maintain healthy levels of growth hormone, thyroid hormone, and sex hormones. All good things for keeping up appearances and energy levels.

If you’ve ever had a tough time winding down at night due to stress, you may be secreting too much cortisol, which competes with the sleep-enhancing melatonin.

Why You Need to Go Deep

Lots of hormones are associated with sleep, some of which rely on sleep to get released. As soon as you hit deep sleep, about 20 to 30 minutes after you first close your eyes, and then a couple more times throughout the night in your sleep cycle, your pituitary gland at the base of your brain releases high levels of growth hormone (GH)—the most it’s going to secrete in 24 hours.

Growth hormone does more than just stimulate growth and cell reproduction; it also refreshes cells, restores skin’s elasticity, and enhances the movement of amino acids through cell membranes. Growth hormone aids in your ability to maintain an ideal weight, too, effectively telling your cells to back off on using carbs for energy and use fat instead. Without adequate sleep, GH stays locked up in the pituitary, which negatively affects your proportions of fat to muscle. Over time, low GH levels are associated with high fat and low lean muscle.

Growth hormone affects almost every cell in the body, renewing the skin and bones, regenerating the heart, liver, lungs, and kidneys, and bringing back organ and tissue function to more youthful levels. Growth hormone also revitalizes the immune system, lowers the risk factors of heart attack and stroke, improves oxygen uptake, and even helps prevent osteoporosis.

Sleep on this: The trouble with running up sleep shortages day after day is that it’s very hard to make up the loss unless you’re going on vacation. What’s more, when sleep is skimpy, your cortisol levels don’t drop as much as they’re supposed to at night, and growth hormone doesn’t rise as much as it should, which can undermine muscle strength. Remember, you need a daily dose of growth hormone, which gets secreted during deep sleep, to refresh your cells and prepare you for the next day. It not only stimulates cellular growth and reproduction, but it also has strong anti-inflammatory, antifat, and anticortisol effects—all good things for energy (not to mention weight maintenance!).

How Does Sleep Happen?

It’s one of those fundamental questions that have plagued scientists for a very long time. As we were writing this book yet another study emerged to help explain how the body knows to flip the switch and go from wakefulness to a sleep state. It turns out that those fundamental molecules of energy that literally charge our cells—ATP—take center stage. Washington State University researchers documented how active brain cells release ATP to start the events leading to sleep. The ATP then binds to a receptor responsible for cell processing and the release of cytokines, small signaling proteins involved in sleep regulation. By charting the link between ATP and the sleep regulatory substances, the researchers found the way in which the brain keeps track of activity and ultimately switches from a wakeful to sleeping state. For example, learning and memory depend on changing the connections between brain cells. The study shows that ATP is the signal behind those changes. Pretty cool stuff, and once again a reminder that energy has as much to do with how we feel during our waking minutes as it does with how well we sleep at night and prepare for another active day.

The Magic Number

It’s a myth that there’s a magic number of hours the body requires to sleep. Everyone has a different sleep need. The eight-hour rule is general, but not necessarily the ideal number for you. Most people need seven to nine hours, and chances are you know what your number is. If you feel like a drag after a six-hour night, then clearly you need to aim for more sleep. Think of the last time you went on vacation and slept like a baby for more hours a night than usual. That is probably your perfect number. Poor sleep catches up to most of us, and it’s practically impossible to make up a sleep loss because life keeps moving forward and demanding more of us. Despite what many people attempt to do, shifting your sleep habits on the weekends to catch up can sabotage a healthy circadian rhythm.

Not surprisingly, stress and staying up too late are the two big culprits to poor sleep, which is why it’s important to establish what’s called a healthy “sleep hygiene”—the habits that make for a restful night’s sleep regardless of factors such as age and underlying medical conditions that can disrupt sleep. The goal is to minimize those factors’ effects on us so we can welcome peaceful sleep.

12 Paths to Perfect Sleep

1. Get on a schedule.

Go to bed and wake up at the same time seven days a week, weekends included. Try not to fall into a cycle of burning the midnight oil on Sunday night in preparation for Monday, letting your sleep debt pile up for the week and then attempt to catch up on sleep over the weekend. It won’t work. Stick to the same schedule seven days a week. Your body and energy levels will love it.

2. Unplug to recharge. Set aside at least 30 minutes before bedtime to unwind and prepare for sleep. Avoid stimulating activities (e.g., work, cleaning, being on the computer, watching TV dramas that get your adrenaline running). Try soaking in a warm bath or engaging in some light stretching. Once you’re in bed, do some light reading and push any anxieties aside.

3. Don’t let your To Do list or worries take control. Early in the evening—say, right after dinner—write out tasks you have yet to complete that week (not tonight!) and prioritize them realistically. Add any particular worries you might have. If these notes begin to talk to you when you’re trying to go to sleep, tell yourself it’s time to focus on sleep. Everything will be okay. You’re tired and will have a productive day tomorrow. You’re relaxed and at peace. The body needs to sleep and is ready for it.

4. Create a restful refuge. Reserve the bedroom for sleep (and sex) only. Remove distracting electronics and gadgets and keep it clean, cool, and dark.

5. Nix the fix and cut the caffeine. Stop drinking caffeinated beverages about eight hours before bedtime. Due to caffeine’s half-life (how long it takes for caffeine to lose half of its punch in your body), you’ll need all that time to let your body process all the caffeine so it won’t infringe upon restful sleep. If you cannot go cold turkey on the caffeine in the afternoon, then switch to drinks with less caffeine, such as teas.

6. Don’t sweat it. Watch out if you exercise within three hours of bedtime. For some people, exercise can be stimulating to the point it affects getting to bed on time and falling asleep easily. This is when tracking your sleep experiences and what you do beforehand can help you to pinpoint your own unique culprits to restless sleep. If your body’s reaction to exercise is stealing your sleep, then shift your exercise to earlier in the day.

7. Limit your libations. Be cautious about alcohol intake in the evening hours. If you use a glass of wine as a way to unwind after the kids have gone to bed, which is how many moms decompress at the end of the day, be mindful of how that glass (or two) could be influencing the quality of your sleep. You might want to test out avoiding this routine and see if it changes how refreshed you feel the next day.

8. Ditch digestive distractions. Keep in mind that heavy foods too close to bedtime can upset your sleep as much as they upset your stomach. The best bedtime snack is nothing. Eating provides energy and that runs counter to prepping the body for rest. If you need to take a medication or if you are breastfeeding and up during the night, then maybe a liquid such as plain coconut water will satisfy you. This requires no extra digestive work; it’s a diluted amount of carbohydrates that also provides potassium for hydration, which will help the body with recovery. To balance it out, you could have 10 to 15 nuts with it.

9. Focus on relaxing. Try valerian herbal tea or a chamomile blend before bedtime. Take your magnesium supplement in the evening hours to help relax muscles for better sleep and regularity.

10. Practice aromatherapy. Keep a sachet of lavender by your bed and take a whiff before hitting the pillow. Lavender has known sleep-inducing effects. Other aromas widely considered to be relaxing are rose, vanilla, and lemongrass—but different ones work for different people. For you, maybe lavender is stimulating and rose is not. Scented lotions can also be effective.

11. Take a d-e-e-p breath, and release. On your back with your eyes closed and your body stretched out, hands by your side, palms facing up, begin to squeeze and release your muscles, starting with your head and face and working down to your toes. Breathe in deeply and slowly, telling yourself I will fall asleep. I am going to sleep.

12. Get out of the bedroom. We all think that if we lie in bed long enough, sleep will come. Instead, our minds tend to get busier and our muscles tenser as we stress over being awake. Give it a rest. If you can’t get to sleep within 20 minutes, slip out of bed and go to a safe haven—a place that’s comfy, has dim lighting, and no distractions. Just sit comfortably. Or do your breathing exercises. Or read. No e-mail, TV, or other electronics though. The point is to give your mind-body a respite from trying so hard to nod off. After 20 minutes or so, go back to bed and see what happens when you’re more relaxed. Repeat once or twice if necessary.

Do sleep aids aid?

There are plenty of pill pushers these days in the sleep department. From over-the-counter remedies to prescriptions marketed as nonaddictive and safe, sleep aids are a gigantic industry. Choosing to go that route is totally up to you, but be aware of the potential downsides, including those related to energy metabolism. Modern sleep medications are not all they are cracked up to be. They may not be as chemically addicting as earlier generations of sleep drugs, but they can be psychologically addicting. What’s more, they can prevent you from reaching the farthest reaches of deep sleep for long enough to reap all of its rewards. They may also make you groggy or feeling hung over the next day.

You’d be amazed by the power of sleep when it comes naturally just by regulating your sleep habits. You body will respond and adapt to the sleep cycle you put it on. If your body clock is truly off, try getting some natural morning sunlight on you, do some exercise during the day, don’t stay up until the wee hours of the morning cleaning house, and set aside time to wind down before bedtime. Yes, it’s as simple as that!

Negative Energy?

Sometimes our sleep troubles are hiding more profound problems that surface late at night, stirring insomnia. Let’s call it negative energy, and this can entail any number of loaded guns—body image issues, feeling inadequate as a mother or wife, health concerns, failures in your relationships, disappointments at work, worries about money and financial strife, struggles with juggling your parents’ health and raising your own children, etc. Go ahead and think of what keeps you up at night. We all have our lists. And they can be long.

Don’t think for a minute that these matters don’t play into our energy equation. They will pull down any bit of good energy and sabotage it into a very dark and negative place. That then can bleed into every part of your being—your relationships with your kids, spouse, friends, job, yourself. Letting these dilemmas simmer in our minds is so worthless, and it gets us nowhere. It also eventually leads us to degrade ourselves. And our bodies hear it, immediately downshifting to preserve precious energy.

Of all the ideas we’ve given to help you get a good night’s sleep, one of the most essential (and least followed) is the one about setting aside time to wind down before bedtime. Far too often, moms find themselves doing last-minute chores and tasks long after the day should have been declared over. Once the kids go to bed, don’t give yourself permission to use the rest of the night to catch up on everything else at the expense of a full night’s sleep. So if you want just one thing to do differently—for one week, ideally longer—allocate one hour before your bedtime during which you don’t engage in any stimulating activities such as e-mail, internet surfing, or even watching television. Instead, opt for a hot soak in your bathtub, reading, or spending time with your spouse. If one hour is unrealistic, then try it for a few days and then cut it back to 30 minutes. But no less! This is You Time, and you’ll notice a difference in the quality of your sleep.