“Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise!” Or so the saying goes. And what a saying it is, considering that so many of us take it for granted and cannot imagine what it would be like to go to bed as early as 9pm, for example, and get up – as my mother did – at 5am. And many farmers know the benefits of being out on the farm earlier in the day, although the tools and technologies available these days have made life somewhat easier (but not necessarily better) for those who no longer have to worry about the manual labor of removing weeds, as roundup will do the job. But that is another topic altogether! What is becoming clearer to me – based on many articles and books on the topic of sleep – is that this old saying that was part of practice when most people distinguished night and day by sunset and sunrise and therefore planned their day accordingly, is still valid today. For those who followed this rhythm, their body responded to an internal clock that aligned with what is known as circadian rhythms.
These rhythms operate on a 24-hour cycle for everyone, regardless of occupation, gender, age, or any other markers of identity. They operate the same way everyday regardless of whether or not you travel frequently across time zones for work or leisure, like to watch a midnight show on television before hitting the hay, or have nothing to do the following morning and can therefore stay up as late as you want because you can sleep till the afternoon the following day, as many teenagers do during school breaks! Those teen years and the seasonal school breaks evolve however – as we do – moving us from the flexibility of our younger years into full-time occupations that, at times, do not leave us the freedom to go to bed early so as to meet a deadline, but at other times force us to give up our vacation days as we keep our laptops nearby just in case an urgent email comes in that we think we must respond to or else… Whatever the reason for keeping an inconsistent sleep schedule may be, the circadian rhythms do not change based on our unique situations, and the longer we ignore them, the greater harm we cause to our numerous bodily functions.
Alissa Vitti, author of Woman Code, explains how the circadian rhythms interact with your body when she writes: “every gland in your body maintains its own circadian rhythm throughout the day…. While most of these rhythms are barely noticeable, it’s impossible to ignore when your adrenals are off … your adrenal glands are in sync with the sun so that you have the most energy during daylight and wind down when the sun sets”. Shawn Stevenson, author of Sleep Smarter elaborates as he provides a good picture of what these rhythms look like on a real clock. Accordingly, we have our lowest body temperature at around 4:30 am and our highest at 7pm. Secretion of the wake and sleep hormone melatonin, by the pineal gland in the brain, stops at around 7am and starts again at 9pm. Our highest alertness is at 10am and our best coordination at 2:30pm. The bowel movement is also be suppressed by 10:30pm. Based on this general principle, the body naturally knows what to do when and there is less confusion as to when we should be busy at work or engaged in different chores and when we should slow down to get ready for sleep.
Not so, however, as our busy lifestyles have caused a re-wiring of our bodies in ways that have made the internal clock unpredictable and inconsistent with the natural rhythms we were meant to follow. There are many lifestyle factors that impact our sleep including diet, lack of exposure to sunlight, chronic stress, noise pollution, information overload, and a sedentary lifestyle. The ones I explore further below are diet, lack of exposure to sunlight, chronic stress, and noise pollution.
Let’s look at diet first. The various indicators of bodily homeostasis, such as blood sugar, blood pressure, levels of oxygen, carbon dioxide in the blood and others can be impacted by the food choices we make. Acid-forming foods such as highly processed flour foods, salty foods, fried foods, sugary foods and drinks, caffeine, alcohol, and refined vinegars, disrupt bodily homeostasis and sleep. These foods are taxing to the adrenals and cause nutrient deficiencies to the body. Donna Gates, author of Body Ecology Diet writes that when you eat an acid-forming diet, “your body is constantly trying to return to a more balanced state by calling on your stored reserves of alkaline minerals: sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium…” which can become severe over time. Shawn Stevenson refers to a number of studies that suggest this correlation between nutrient deficiencies and poor quality sleep. Potassium and calcium are among them but there are others such as selenium that can be found in Brazil nuts and for which a deficiency is linked to sleep abnormalities; and vitamin C that can be found in dark leafy green vegetables, bell peppers, strawberries, papaya and kiwi. Deficiency in vitamin C is associated with waking up during the night and not being able to fall asleep quickly again. Finally, melatonin deficiency impacts sleep as well and foods that can boost melatonin levels such as include pineapples, tomatoes, bananas and oranges can improve sleep.
The second factor I explore is related to limited exposure to sunlight. Many of us spend entire days indoors behind computers without access to sunlight. Then we are exposed to artificial light at night. The neurotransmitter serotonin is one of the powerful compounds that is affected by the body’s exposure to light. Did you know that “our eyes have special light receptors that send information to the center of the brain [hypothalamus] to trigger the production of more serotonin?” This will not happen when we are “light deprived” even if we work in well-lit buildings. Our sleep patterns will also be disrupted. Even working near a window can make a difference, according to a study that compared those who had and those without direct access to windows at work. Those who did not have access to windows “got 173 percent less exposure to natural light and, as a result, slept an average of 46 minutes less each night,” says Stevenson. The irony is that it there are many hard-working development professionals, based in tropical environments, that are still not taking advantage of this precious gift of nature, sunlight. It would be an interesting exercise to assess how many of them are Vitamin D deficient and know it. Equally interesting would be a similar exercise to assess the prevalence of this deficiency among market women who sell their produce or other products in enclosed buildings or under a tent and by the time they go home, the sun is setting or it’s already dark outside.
Third, chronic stress is another disrupter of quality sleep. Stress forces the adrenals to work overtime. What are the adrenals and how do the adrenal glands work? Located on top of each of your kidneys, the adrenals release four particular hormones – cortisol, aldosterone, adrenaline, and noradrenaline. These hormones control many functions in the body. According to The National Institutes of Health website, their functions include “maintaining metabolic processes, such as managing blood sugar levels and regulating inflammation; regulating the balance of salt and water; controlling the ‘fight or flight’ response to stress; maintaining pregnancy; initiating and controlling sexual maturation during childhood and puberty. The adrenal glands are also an important source of sex steroids, such as estrogen and testosterone.” Cortisol in the bloodstream is not all bad. Your body can manage a reasonable amount “to maintain your circadian rhythms” writes Vitti. It is when cortisol is out of control that your adrenals wake up just when you’re getting ready for bed.
When this happens, “your body adapts, and over time, your cortisol surges come later and later” as Vitti notes, and before you know it, you have high cortisol levels when they should be lowest. Perhaps you are one of those who used to fall asleep easily, but somehow things changed, and you became a night owl. You may also know people who feel tired during the day, walking around like zombies but then when others are ready for bed, they become so alert that they have made this their most productive time of the day (or night I should say). Well, this habit of working through the late hours of the night may seem harmless, but it comes at a cost: adrenal fatigue! This condition – triggered by chronic stress – may actually be more common than has been diagnosed! That many of us have embraced a lifestyle of staying on top of things and choosing to remain connected to and engaged with the outside world even while in bed should be taken a little more seriously than it now is. It will support efforts to maintain hormonal balance and quality sleep is a vital part of this equation! On the other hand, high cortisol levels in the bloodstream and chronic stress in particular, work against you.
Finally, noise pollution is a factor that impacts the quality of sleep for many in poor communities and urban slum dwellers in particular. I am thinking of those who live near bars and little dukas or shops where music blasts through the late hours of the night. Could this prevent nearby residents from keeping a normal sleep schedule, as I experienced while spending an extended period of time in a neighborhood in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania with a bar down the street from us? This actually brings to mind a song called “Give me green Chimwene”, by a band that was very popular in Malawi about ten years ago and that was on a cassette a friend of my son’s gave him on his 10th or 11th birthday. The refrain, “Give me green Chimwene (x3), until the morning comes!” is a perfect reference for a practice that many men in particular consider normal routine. In Malawi, one of the most popular beers can be found in green bottles, hence the term “green” for a bottle of beer. When a bar is located inside a neighborhood and stays open until late at night, the quality of sleep for nearby residents will be affected by the noise around drinkers who lose control of themselves when they consume beyond what their body is capable of handling safely and wisely. Bars are common in slums and ordinances are often not in place or they are not reinforced the same way across neighborhoods.
Ultimately, protecting residents from noise pollution and the stress it causes when it affects sleep quality would make a difference for millions of urban slum dwellers where alcohol drinking tends to also be out of control. Drinking “until the morning comes” may work for the drinker while still under the influence of alcohol, but its costs go beyond the next morning’s hangover. Alcohol causes stress to the liver and it impacts the quality of sleep, especially when it is overdone. Many frequent bar drinkers have families and they put a charge on the family budget with every drink they take on any given night (or day). If there is one major stressor for women whose husbands spend evenings at bars regularly and come home late at night, this is it! The longer this stress is kept unmanaged, the worse the damage it will cause. This is definitely a gendered issue that I consider worth our attention in community health programming. Could adrenal fatigue be a silent killer, an undiagnosed public health issue that is affecting women in urban slums? The fear, resentment and anger that such women experience are negative emotions that Donna Gates include on a list of factors that cause body acidity, which as we learned above affects their quality of sleep as well. These are also women who suffer from excessive domestic abuse and violence, which in turn reinforce these negative emotions.
Regardless of which of these factors affect your sleep, there is still wisdom in the circadian rhythms. If by respecting these rhythms as you go about your daily activities you are also able to protect the integrity of your health, it will put you in a better position to pursue your dreams that may include wealth and the wisdom to manage it well. May we all give sleep its true place in the rhythm of our day. And may you all learn to sleep as if your life depended on it, because it ultimately does!
To your health, wealth, and wisdom!
Rose Kadende-Kaiser, Ph.D.
Integrative Nutrition Coach
- Gates, Donna with Linda Schatz. Body Ecology Diet. Pp. 35, 38 and 39.
- Stevenson, Shawn. Sleep Smarter. P. 10, 11, 55-57.
- Vitti, Alisa. Woman Code. Pp. 66; 101; 104