It’s the worst, isn’t it? Waking up in the middle of the night, heart pounding, mind racing, eyes wide open? Feeling like there is no possibility of falling back to sleep. Counting how many hours a until the alarm is set to go off. Noticing how many minutes you’ve been tossing and turning. Getting aggravated, then desperate, and than maybe accepting the situation and getting up to wonder around the house. It totally sucks because sleep is such a critical component to our overall wellbeing.
Whenever I’ve had something very sweet after dinner I often find myself staring at the ceiling a few hours after falling asleep. And it used to happen to me when I drank. What happens in these two circumstances is all tied to swings in blood sugar.
(Additional contributors to poor sleep not discussed in this post include: improper sleeping arrangements (not dark enough, not quiet enough), circadian rhythm dysfunction, medication, stress, jet lag, coffee/caffeine consumption, medical conditions.)
Here’s what happens…
When we have dessert or a cocktail or two in the evening, we go to bed with pretty high blood sugar levels. As a result the pancreas secretes insulin to get the sugar into our cells (typically secreting more than what’s needed, because the pancreas is an overachiever). The overabundance of insulin leads to a significant drop in blood sugar levels. And that drop triggers the release of cortisol and adrenaline to bring the blood sugar levels back to an optimal state. Key word, adrenaline. So, when we’re waking up in the middle of the night amped up, it makes perfect sense, adrenaline is pumping through our veins!
Why is sleep so important? Here are just a few reasons…
- Sleep gives our brains a chance go to work and clean house! Memories are set in stone, so, important things are set to memory and non-important things are thrown away. Did you know our brains are almost as active whlie we’re sleeping as they are when we’re awake?
- (Side note: I was thinking about this concept yesterday during my 5 hour drive home from New Jersey. Apparently my brain thinks that knowing all the words to Gangsta’s Paradise is important , because I can STILL, 23 years later (!?) bust out that song word for word.)
- While we’re sleeping our bodies get a chance to rest, recover and restore. Digestion gets a break, heart rate slows, blood pressure goes down, our temperatures drop and the liver (with over 400 different functions) gets to focus on it’s detoxification duties.
- Research has shown a good nights sleep (over 6 hours) lowers the amount of inflammatory proteins in the body.
- Sleeping well affects athletic performance for the better
- The same sections of the brain handle sleep and metabolism. When we don’t get enough sleep it’s been shown in studies to affect appetite.
What can we do to fall back to sleep?
A great place to start is to avoid the sweet treats or excessive alcohol consumption at night in the first place. But if you aren’t having dessert or too much to drink and you still are waking up in the middle of the night, try this simple breathing exercise that I first learned about through Andrew Weil’s book “8 Weeks to Optimum Health.”
The exercise is an inhale/hold/exhale for a ratio of 1:5:2. For instance, inhale for a count of 5, hold for a count of 20 and exhale for a count of 10. Or inhale for a count of 4 hold for 16 and exhale for 8, got it? No need to use a timer, just count it out in your mind, as quickly or slowly as feels right.
This is an instant relaxer. and it’s been said that this type of breath work helps cleanse our cells. So if you feel a cold coming on, or if you’re just feeling run down, try adding a little 1:5:2 breathing throughout your day.