This morning I shut off my alarm clock.

Hopefully for good.

It went off at 6am but I was still tired so I shut if off and slept until I woke up naturally at 7:30. It was risky because I had an exam this morning worth 70% of my mark, and my original plan was to get up early and review. I chose to sleep instead, and I was worried it would affect my test performance. But during my exam I felt more focused and my memory was better.

This weekend I took a long hard look at myself and my sleep cycles. Now that I have begun taking on clients, assessing them, and dispensing nutritional advice, I thought it was only fair to put myself through the same assessment process and evaluation that I have been doing with others.

My written assessment is about 20 pages long, extremely personal, incredibly detailed, and each question is attached to a follow up of approximately three more questions. It also includes a meal diary, which I am now also keeping on myself.

Putting myself through this assessment has been an interesting experience. One of the great things about holistic nutrition is that it embraces many other aspects of wellness besides simply food. It focuses strongly on the process of digestion, absorption of nutrients, and nutrient imbalances in the body as opposed to full blown diseases. So there is always something to improve.

For me, sleep is one of those things. I generally get about 6-7 hours each night, but I wake to an alarm not feeling particularly rested. Our body requires sleep for two major reasons:

1. To regenerate the nervous system

2. To detoxify the body

Whether we work day shifts or night shifts, our body follows the same hormonal schedule. This day-night 24 hour cycle is called the circadian rhythm. The more stable and consistent this rhythm is, the better we sleep. This includes going to bed at the same time every night, and maintaining a dark and quiet sleep environment. Every hour before midnight that we sleep is worth two as far as sleep quality. So for example, it is preferable to sleep from 11pm-6am instead of 12am-7am.

Ideally, we should be sleeping and waking with the sun. This is because melatonin, the hormone in our body that regulates our sleep and REM cycles, is most effectively produced in complete darkness. Melatonin is produced by the pineal gland, located in the brain. If the pineal gland cannot work in complete darkness, melatonin production is compromised, as well as our ability to rest, grow, and repair.

This is why it’s a bad idea to sleep with a nightlight, particularly for children who can develop a dependency (and as adults, may later feel unable to sleep without it). A sleep mask is designed to cover the pineal gland, thus increasing the quality of sleep.

Whenever we wake to an alarm (as opposed to naturally), it means that our body has not completed its process of detoxification. Our body is notoriously bad at multi-tasking major functions. Detoxification is a major function, and so is digestion. That’s why if we eat too close to bedtime, we won’t feel hungry in the morning as we should. Digestion will still occur but it will be compromised, as will detoxification.

Those who have problems with insomnia could consider boosting their intake of magnesium (a calming mineral) along with calcium, or eat foods containing tryptophan (sleep inducing) later in the day. Tryptophan can be found in foods like dairy products, nuts, seeds, bananas, soybeans and soy products, tuna, shellfish, and turkey. The age-old remedy of drinking a cup of warm milk before bed finds its scientific basis in the fact that it aids in increasing the blood levels of tryptophan. Magnesium also supports nerve functioning.

Exercise can go a long way to help insomnia (preferably earlier in the day, because right before bed it could function as a stimulant). Exercise increases the amount of time you spend in Stage Four sleep (the deepest cycle), allowing you to wake feeling more rested.

Shift workers face a special challenge. For them, I would recommend eating small meals every 3-5 hours while working late shifts, to keep metabolism and energy levels high. Avoid coffee. Stimulants like caffeine, nicotine, or alcohol can stay in our system for as long as 14 hours, and completely destroy our sleep cycles.

Consuming tyrosine during work hours will also help stimulate the brain naturally. Tyrosine aids in fatigue and plays a role in general metabolism. It can be found in foods like fish, chicken, oats, avocados, almonds, lima beans, sesame seeds, and pumpkin seeds.

Stress is extremely detrimental to sleep. You can read more about stress here, but allowing some time to unwind before bed with something relaxing (a bath, music, meditation, etc) will definitely help.

Personally, I am planning to head to bed earlier. In light of this, I will now start posting my blog one hour earlier (at 10pm EST, instead of 11pm). This will allow me an extra hour of rest, and hopefully encourage others to do the same.