Sleep – The chemical cascade

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Sleep is a complex issue. And so humbly I come to share some hard-earned wisdom. I will be breaking down the most recent research as well as sharing some real-life tested tips. Through getting to know how sleep works, my wish for you is that you fall in love with your bed and bedtime. Here is to a fresh start!

Sleep is affected by nearly every body system but most of all by the endocrine system. This is the system that is responsible for the regulation of your hormones.

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‘Hormone’ is a fancy term for a chemical that has a long lasting effect. Most of us are familiar with sex hormones such as progesterone, oestrogen and testosterone but actually every biological process from your body temperature to how your hair grows is governed by these guys. What you do and what you think affects how your hormones are secreted. Hormones work more like grenades than like guns. One hormone can have multiple effects on different organs. For example, testosterone explodes in the body causing the brain to make aggressive behaviour; the skin to thicken and produce hair, the muscles to enlarge and become stronger and the sex organs to develop.

With improved technology such as CT brain scans and MRIs we can watch the brain like never before. Blood tests are becoming remarkable and we are learning and re-learning with each discovery. So read on with care.... I hope by summarising the sleep hormones I am not over-simplifying the beautiful chemical cascade that is great sleep.

1. Melatonin – probably the most well known sleep hormone. Melatonin comes from the pineal gland (pea shaped gland in the midbrain) and is released once the sun sets. It lasts approximately 12 hours which is why it’s so hard getting up in the dark winter months. When melatonin levels peak at 9pm most people get the urge to settle down. Light from lamps, TVs, computers and streetlights can interrupt normal melatonin levels.

2. Thyroid hormone – Actually a team of hormones consisting of TSH from the hypothalamus and T3 and T4 which are made by the thyroid gland itself. It’s complicated, but the basics are that too much thyroid hormone equals increased metabolism including a higher heart rate, hunger and anxiety whilst too little does the opposite. If your thyroid levels are low you may feel sleepy all the time and if they are high you may feel that you need far less sleep than usual. There are long-term health consequences to both these scenarios so balanced levels is what we aim for.

3. Dopamine – this “feel good” hormone is known to come out to reward you for good behaviour. Low levels of dopamine has been linked to developing sleep disorders such as Restless Leg Syndrome and ADHD. You want enough dopamine to avoid depression (which itself can alter sleep patterns) but not too much that you feel anxious. Again, the aim is for the right amount of this hormone at the right time.

4. Seretonin – this hormone is the key ingredient in ‘happy pills’. It regulates mood, appetite and sleep. Ironically, serotonin is made whilst you sleep so poor sleep sets you up the next day for a bad mood, increased appetite and feeling sleepy. Seretonin also plays an important role in memory and learning.

Knowledge is power and sleep is powerful. So here is to getting enough of both.

Nighty night!
- The Sleep Expert

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