Sleep + Metabolic Flexibility

By Dr. Will Cole
Excerpted from Intuitive Fasting. Copyright © 2021 by Will Cole. Published by goop press/Rodale Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

Many people think of eight hours of high-quality sleep as a luxury and that they will “sleep when they’re dead.” Sleep is not a luxury, it is a mandate on your health and metabolic flexibility. Why? Sleep is intricately connected to all the hormonal and metabolic processes in our bodies as well as to maintaining healthy inflammation levels, healthy blood sugar, and a healthy weight. 

Don’t believe me? Studies have shown that just one night - yes, one single night - of sleep deprivation changes the way our hunger and appetite hormones behave, which leads to increased hunger and cravings. One night of bad sleep can also affect the motivation centers in your brain and how they respond to the sight or thought of food. If you’ve ever pulled an all-nighter - only to be constantly hungry and cravings bagels and potato chips and cookies the next day - you’ve experienced this phenomenon in action.

Conversely, scientists have found that the more sleep you get, the less hungry you are and the less you crave sweet and salty foods. If you don’t get enough sleep, it’s almost impossible to overcome cravings and wonky hunger signals in order to reconnect with your intuition about food and what your body really needs. Studies have also shown that insulin sensitivity is negatively impacted by sleep deprivation. In fact, one study showed that six nights of just four hours of sleep resulted in a 40 percent reduction in glucose tolerance.

Sleep deprivation also stimulates your sympathetic nervous system, your fight-or-flight nervous system. This leads to increased stress hormones, and as we already know, inflammation levels. For example, studies experimenting with sleep deprivation have revealed that it can alter the immune system’s response and increase pro-inflammatory markers like IL-6, TNF-alpha, and C-reactive protein. In other words: sleep is pretty freaking important; in fact, I’d go as far as to say that if you’re not prioritizing sleep, it’s impossible to be truly healthy.

Prioritizing sleep is made even more complicated by the fact that getting great sleep is easier said than done. It’s not as easy as other lifestyle factors like exercise or nutrition, where you simply have to do and eat the right things. According to the National Sleep Foundation, 35 percent of Americans consider their sleep quality “poor” or “only fair,” and another survey showed that 68 percent of Americans struggle with sleep at least once a week.

So, how do we get great sleep? I work with my patients all the time to optimize their sleep, and I’ve found that the key is to establish a bedtime routine that sets you up to fall asleep quickly and easily—and then stay asleep all night long. Your routine can include anything that feels right to you: a bath, writing tomorrow’s to-do list, a short meditation, or even just sitting in bed and reading. That said, there are a few elements you’ll want to make sure you include:

  • Turn off all electronics an hour before bed: This means smartphones, computers, and tablets. These devices emit blue light, which actually makes you feel more awake and reduces melatonin production, which is supposed to surge before bed. If you can’t make it an entire 60 minutes before bed, aim for at least 30 minutes. Try reading, journaling, listening to an audiobook, or doing a few minutes of yoga instead.
  • No coffee after lunch: Too much coffee throughout the day can interfere with our sleep. That’s why I recommend avoiding coffee after lunch. This gives your system enough time to metabolize it fully before you hit the hay. Instead of coffee, try herbal tea, sparkling water, or a turmeric latte.
  • Go for a walk: I know I’ve told you to avoid over-exercising during the 4-Week Fasting Plan, but moving your body in some way each day, even if it’s just a 15-minute walk, can benefit your sleep massively. In fact, a study from the Sleep Health Journal showed that daily active minutes could be directly linked to sleep quality.

If you cut out electronic use before bed and caffeine in the afternoon and are still having trouble getting your daily dose of zzz’s, it’s time to lean on natural remedies like herbs and supplements. These are my go-to herbs and supplements for sleep:

  • Chamomile: Chamomile is one of the most famous herbs around. It’s been historically suggested for anything from sleeplessness and anxiety to gastroin- testinal conditions such as upset stom- ach, gas, and diarrhea. More recent studies have shown that it can improve sleep measures in adults with chronic insomnia.48 I recommend taking cham- omile in tea-form after dinner.
  • Magnesium: Magnesium is known as nature’s chill pill. Magnesium can be very effective as a sleep aid, thanks to its ability to encourage muscle relaxation and improve measures of insomnia, as listed in the ISI (insomnia severity index), including sleep efficiency; sleep time and sleep onset latency; early morning awakening; and the concentration of serum renin, melatonin, and serum cortisol.49 Studies have even shown that magnesium can regulate your sleep- wake cycle.50 There is no “right” time to take magnesium. However, due to its calming effects, taking it right before bed can be the best way to capitalize on its ability to boost GABA levels and relax muscles. Magnesium can be found in multiple different forms, and I recom- mend starting with 200 mg after dinner.
  • Valerian: Valerian is an herb that has been used to treat nervousness, trem- bling, headaches, insomnia, and heart palpitations since ancient Greece and Rome.51 I recommend taking valerian as a tea after dinner.
  • L-theanine: L-theanine is another go-to natural supplement for sleep. This com- pound is found naturally in green tea and, when taken as a supplement, can promote better sleep quality.52 In fact, one study found that when boys ages 8 through 12 took L-theanine (at a dose of 400 mg daily), it led to improved sleep quality without any safety con- cerns.53 I recommend that my patients start with 100 mg, but healthy adults can take up to 400 mg.
  • Melatonin: We’ve already learned about the importance of melatonin for healthy sleep. But did you know that you can take melatonin as a supplement? It’s true. If none of the strategies above are quite doing the trick—and you find yourself wide awake when you should be falling asleep—supplementing with melatonin can help. Melatonin has been widely studied for insomnia, especially insom- nia related to jet lag, and the science is promising. One review paper showed that, in nine out of the ten studies they evaluated, taking melatonin close to bedtime at the destination (between 10 p.m. and midnight) decreased jet lag from flights crossing time zones. If you’re having trouble sleeping during the 4-Week Flexible Fasting Plan, try taking 5 mg of melatonin about 30 minutes before you’re ready to go to sleep.

Dr Will Cole’s new book Intuitive Fasting is available everywhere books are sold February 23! Order your copy now.

Published with permission from Penguin Random House

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