Importance of sleep

One of the most important parts of living a healthy life is actually not eating all the right food and getting the right exercise, although those are a very close second. Experts are now calling sleep the number one most important factor in leading a healthy life. 

Dr. Mercola, in his recent article about the detriments of sleep deprivation on your health, lists the following health consequences of poor sleep:

  • Inhibits your body's ability to properly regulate hormones, specifically melatonin, which is responsible for stopping cancer cells proliferation. 

  • It decreases levels of your fat-regulating hormone leptin while increasing the hunger hormone ghrelin. 

  • Increases the activity in genes associated with inflammation, immune excitability, diabetes, cancer risk, and stress.

  • Found to be the strongest predictor for pain in adults over 50.

There are plenty of reasons to make sleep a priority because putting it bluntly, lack of proper sleep can increase your risk of dying from any cause! 

I believe that sleep is especially important for children. It is well documented how poor sleep patterns can harm the brain by halting new neuron production. Sleep deprivation can increase levels of corticosterone (a stress hormone), resulting in fewer new brain cells being created in the hippocampus. Animal studies show that younger animals are more sensitive to the effects of mild sleep deprivation than older ones. Between 2 and 5 years old, children are supposed to spend equal amounts awake as they do asleep! We need to give our children's brains the best chance at operating at it's highest potential from the start! 

We all know what sleep deprivation feels like and how poorly we feel following an interrupted night of sleep. Multiply that by a hundred and that is how our children must feel who have poor sleep habits. 

So what do we do about it? Good news. There are quite a few things we can do to encourage healthy sleep. 

Establish a night time routine and stick to it. 
This may look like a bath or shower each night. Reading a book for 15 minutes (not on an electronic device preferably). A quick body massage by a parent or spouse. Or all of these. Whatever it is, plan to do it every night. 

Go to bed at a decent hour. 
This applies to children and adults and seems like a no-brainer but I can't tell you how many parents I speak with who do not establish a reasonable bedtime for their children and wonder why their days are filled with tantrum city. My children (5 and 7yo) go to bed at 7pm during the school year. We do not participate in activities that will prolong their bedtime. I feel very strongly about their brain's need for sleep that this is a rule for them. 
Many adults are guilty of late nights too. Leave your work for tomorrow and know that you'll be operating on all cylinders because you went to bed on time.  

Everyone sleeps in their own bed. 
We do not co-sleep with our children. I know...and I call myself a natural mama! Gasp! This was a decision that I made very early in my parenting. I know my body and how I respond to interrupted sleep by having a child's body kicking me throughout the night or nursing all night long. This was a personal decision for both myself and for my marriage and for what I feel was best for my children.  I also have strong opinions about not feeding on demand during the night for very similar reasons but I'll open that can of worms later, or maybe I won't. 

Magnesium is crucial to healthy sleep. 
Dr. Mark Hyman calls magnesium the most powerful relaxation mineral available and I'd wholeheartedly agree. Anything that is tight, irritable, crampy, and stiff — whether it is a body part or even a mood — is a sign of magnesium deficiency. Everyone of us is deficient of this mineral as our soil is so depleted of minerals now. You can read all about how important and crucial this mineral is to your health on Dr. Hyman's blog here
If you or your children struggle with falling asleep or staying asleep, night terrors, leg cramps or restless legs, I recommend adding epsom salt to your bath, taking a chelated magnesium supplement and using a topical magnesium spray on your legs before bed. For children who can't swallow tablets, Natural Calm makes a magnesium citrate powder that can be added to water or coconut milk and taken before bedtime. 

Apply essential oils before bed. 
I make a sleep spray that I douse all the bed linens and pillows with right before we start our slumber. My children ask for it each night and my husband swears by it. You could also diffuse a number of oil blends next to your bed. RutaVala, Cedarwood and Gentle Baby by Young Living are my favorites. For more info on essential oils, go here

Get regular sunlight exposure. 
Your circadian system (the clock in your brain) needs bright light to reset itself each day. Ten to 15 minutes of morning sunlight will send a strong message to your internal clock that day has arrived, making it less likely to be confused by weaker light signals during the night. More sunlight exposure is required as you age.


Turn off artificial light. 

Numerous studies suggest that blue light in the evening disrupts the brain’s natural sleep-wake cycles, which are crucial for optimal function of the body. Artificial light from the use of artificial lighting and electronic devices, emit light of a blue wavelength, which tricks our brains into thinking that it is daytime. If you are not ready to turn off those electronics at a decent hour, I'd suggest getting some blue light blocking glasses to wear at night.


And finally, Just Eat Real Food. 
Otherwise known as "jerfing" (just eat real food-ing), this has been my mantra for some years now. You may wonder how food has anything to do with your sleep, well, let me explain. One of the most common causes of feeling tired or run down during the day is post-meal hypoglycemia, which is related to your inability to effectively burn fat.

By eating real food that is nutrient dense and you guessed it, mainly low-carb, you are switching your body over from primarily burning carbs to primarily burning fats for fuel or becoming “fat adapted." This will virtually eliminate such drops in energy levels. To switch to fat-burning mode, you’ll need to swap out unhealthy carbs (i.e. non-vegetable carbs such as grains) with healthy fats, which include the following: olives, olive oils, raw nuts and nut oils like almond and hazelnuts, coconut and coconut oil, grass-fed butter, pastured eggs, avocados, grass-fed and grass-finished red meats, and pastured white meats. 

This is especially crucial for children who tend to be picky eaters, sustaining themselves on crackers, chips and breads (white foods) all day long. If you have a child who seems always hungry and asks for a carbohydrate snack what seems like every second of the day, then your child is not getting enough fat in his/her diet. Cut back on the carbohydrates and increase the fats and proteins. A great way to do this is by replacing the typical Standard American breakfast food, cereal, with a fat and protein loaded smoothie or some nutrient dense eggs with the yolk.  Read my thoughts of cereal here

I hope this has given you some ideas to help with some sleep issues that you or your family may be facing. If so, please let me know by leaving a comment. For some light reading (sarcasm), you can find a clinical guide for practitioners here called A Clinical Guide to Pediatric Sleep Management by Jodi A. Mindell PhD and Judith A. Owens MD MPH.