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16 Tips for Better Sleep

By: Krista Sutton RHN, RMT, n.d.

We are a sleep-deprived society. We work too much, are too stressed, and are overstimulated by light, technology, caffeine, and alcohol. Sleep should be a priority, but we often see other things as more important. Even when we allow ourselves enough time to sleep, our minds are so active that we don’t sleep well. We either have trouble going to sleep, or we wake up at 3:00 a.m. or 4:00 a.m. and can’t go back to sleep. As we age, we have more trouble falling into a deep sleep, and we also get less hours of sleep—even though we still need the same amount of sleep as we did when we were younger. Sleep is not just about the quantity—it’s about the quality of sleep. We must go through the three stages of sleep multiple times during the night.

Stages of Sleep

Sleep involves both non-REM (rapid eye movement) sleep and REM sleep, which we cycle between all night long. There are three stages for non-REM sleep, each lasting 5–15 minutes:

✓ Stage 1: Eyes are closed but it’s easy to wake up.

✓ Stage 2: Light sleep—heart rate slows, and body temperature drops to get the body ready for a deeper sleep.

✓ Stage 3: Deep sleep—hard to rouse and feel disoriented when awakened. This is the time the body repairs itself—the immune system is strengthened, bone and muscle tissues are replaced, etc.

REM sleep occurs 90 minutes after you fall asleep—the first time is for about 10 minutes, and then each subsequent time it’s longer, and the last one may be up to an hour. The brain is active and intense dreams occur—the heart rate speeds up and breathing quickens.

Babies spend 50% of their sleep time in REM sleep, adults only 20%.

We need 7–8 hours of sleep a night. Naps can be helpful when you’re not getting enough sleep. Either 20–30 minutes or 90–120 minutes. In other words, either just rest or go through a complete sleep cycle. Anything in between may leave you feeling drowsy.

The Role of Hormones and Sleep

There is a bidirectional relationship between hormones and sleep. Some hormones interfere with sleep, and lack of sleep plays a role in hormonal issues. This means your hormonal issues can be helped by getting a good quality sleep. And your sleep issues can be helped by balancing your hormones.

How to Know if you are Sleep Deprived?

Try this test to see if you’re sleep deprived. Lie down in the middle of the day. Use a stopwatch. Hold a spoon in your hand and let your hand hang over the edge of the bed. Close your eyes and fall asleep. When you fall asleep, your hand will automatically release the spoon. The spoon will hit the floor and wake you up. Stop the stopwatch. If you fall asleep in 15 minutes, you’re not sleep deprived. If you fall asleep in 10 minutes, you’re sleep deprived, and if you fall asleep in 5 minutes, then you’re really sleep deprived.

Hormones That Affect Sleep


The hormone cortisol, which is our “awake” hormone, increases the more anxious, busy and stressed we feel. Too much cortisol has been linked to many health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and high blood pressure. Anytime you hear researchers linking stress to health issues, too much cortisol is the key hormone involved.

We need to have low levels of cortisol in order to sleep. A racing mind, anxiety, or too many stimulants like coffee, alcohol, or exercise before bed can all keep cortisol levels too high to allow us to fall asleep. Normally, our cortisol levels stay low until we wake up in the morning. But between 3:00 a.m.–4:00 a.m. we secrete a hormone called ACTH from the pituitary. It is the precursor to cortisol and tells the adrenals to start production when we wake up.

Sometimes, when we’re stressed and tired and not supporting the adrenals, the message gets sent too soon, and we wake up in the middle of the night. Once cortisol is pumping, we can’t go back to sleep. If this happens to you, think about what’s on your mind at that time. What often happens is that you start to roll over or do some other activity that you may do while asleep, and a thought pops into your head.

And boom! You’re awake.

Your heart may even start pumping a bit too much if it’s an upsetting or worrisome thought. Too much cortisol can also affect estrogen, testosterone, and progesterone levels as well as thyroid hormones. Hormones such as insulin and glucagon are also influenced by cortisol. Actually, all functions in the body can be influenced by cortisol.

The Hormones That Cost You Sleep

Too Much Cortisol: Cortisol is our “awake” hormone, so if you are too stressed, working long hours, worried or anxious, you may not lower your cortisol sufficiently to be able to fall asleep. Cortisol is supposed to gradually decrease throughout the evening so it’s low at bedtime. It should stay low until you’re ready to get up in the morning. If you wake up in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep, the body has started to pump cortisol too soon.

High Thyroid Hormones: High thyroid function leads to hyperactivity and interferes with sleep.

Low Estrogen: Since estrogen helps promote sleep, a deficiency in it is going to lead to sleep issues.

Low Progesterone: Progesterone aids relaxation and promotes sleep. Often high cortisol and low progesterone levels go together.

Low Testosterone: This can also affect the ability to sleep.

Low Melatonin: Too little melatonin can affect reproductive hormones and brain neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, which allow you to relax. In turn, this can cost you sleep. You produce melatonin while you sleep, generally between midnight and 2:00 a.m.

Lack of sleep can also cause problems with various hormones, including our reproductive hormones, thyroid hormones, insulin, appetite (ghrelin) and satiety (leptin) hormones.

Menopausal women often have trouble with sleep because their progesterone and estrogen levels are low. The adrenal glands, which produce cortisol, also produce the estrogen and progesterone that women need when the ovaries stop producing hormones.

Gut Health and Sleep:

Our gut microbes sleep when we sleep, and this is essential to their survival. Just one night of no sleep can cause a decrease in the quality and quantity of our good gut bacteria. Feeding our body both good prebiotic and fermented foods makes our gut microbes happy.

Tips for Sleeping:

1. Turn off stimulating technology an hour before bedtime. Turn off the computer, lower the lights, and turn off the cell phone. Light of any kind suppresses the secretion of melatonin.

2. Sleep in a dark room. Light signals us that it’s time to get up. A sleep mask can be helpful for this.

3. Have a quiet environment. A noise machine can help block noise you can’t control. In my professional and personal experience, brown noise has been the most beneficial to those that struggle with PTSD, anxiety or depression although white noise and pink noise have their own benefits with sleep too. You can get sound machines that have a variety of different colour of sounds for you to explore which one is more beneficial to you!

4. Lower stress. This is the most difficult one. You have to understand why you’re stressed. Is it too much work? Do you have worries and fears? Or both? Figuring this out is the first step.

5. Learn relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, or mindfulness. Left nostril breathing and proper diaphragmatic breathing are just two breathing techniques that can be fantastic to help get us to sleep. (You can always book a breathwork session with me to learn breathing techniques that could benefit you!)

6. Support the gut with prebiotic fiber. Foods such as legumes, oatmeal, and asparagus are just a few foods that contain prebiotic fiber that feed gut bacteria. A study with rats found that prebiotic fiber aids sleep as there is a bidirectional relationship between gut bacteria and sleep. A couple other foods to help with sleep: goji berries contain natural melatonin and turkey contains L-tryptophan which helps our body secrete melatonin.

7. Reset your circadian rhythm, in particular the sleep-wake cycle. Go to bed and get up at the same time every day. Being exposed to morning light increases energy.

8. Don’t exercise in the evening. This can be too energizing, and you may not have enough time to calm down and be sleepy at bedtime.

9. Take a hot bath with Epsom salts and lavender just before bed.

10. Sprinkle lavender or other essential oils such as valerian, sandalwood, vanilla, and jasmine on your pillow just before going to bed.

11. Drink herbal tea such as passionflower, chamomile, or valerian an hour before bed. This can help with sleep. Cinnamon, turmeric and raw honey also lower anxiety and help with relaxation. There are herbal sleep formulas in tea or capsule form that can also be helpful. Ashawagandha is another great herb to help with sleep.

12. Take magnesium or a calcium:magnesium combination before bed. This can help the nervous system relax and aid sleep.

13. Support the adrenals with adaptogens, B vitamins, and vitamin C. These can help the body regulate cortisol better during the day.Take them earlier in the day. Adrenal adaptogens such as relora, ashwagandha, schisandra, ginseng and maca can all be helpful for managing cortisol levels.

14. Listen to calming music before bedtime. This can lower cortisol levels and prepare the brain for sleeping. Light reading with dim lighting can also be helpful.

15. Try a supplement such as GABA, 5HTP, magnesium, or relora to help with anxiety. (Book a session with me to discuss which herbs or supplements may be best for you. If you are taking any medications, please check with your pharmacist before taking any new supplements)

16. Try a weighted blanket. This provides DTP (deep touch pressure) which may lower cortisol, lower anxiety and increase serotonin.

It can take time to find the right plan for you to develop your best sleep strategy. But it’s the best thing you can do for your health and mental well-being!

Krista Sutton RHN, RMT, n.d.


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