Good health is achieved from the optimisation of the elements in the ‘health triangle’; a trinity of nutrition, training and sleep. While all of these elements work together, even the best training routine and nutrition programme cannot compensate for insufficient rest from good quality sleep.
Sleep duration and quality can affect many things, including muscle recovery and building, weight loss and maintenance, hormone levels that influence your overall health, athletic performance, and cognition.
So, here's what you need to know about sleep, as well as a definitive list of all the ways (according to both sceience and my own experience) that you can induce and improve your sleep.
What controls sleep?
Our sleep cycles are affected by certain hormones, whose production are mainly dictated by our brain’s perception of light. It is our pineal gland at the base of the brain that is responsible for sensing these changes in light and secreting hormones in response. Two of the most crucial hormones here are serotonin and melatonin.
Serotonin is often known as the happiness hormone, due to its mood-enhancing properties. The vast majority of serotonin is produced in your gut, which explains why research is increasingly verifying the link between gut health and your mood.
Melatonin is a neurotransmitter that is essential for sleep, but it’s also worth knowing that melatonin acts as a potent antioxidant, a neuro-protectant and even prevent the proliferation of cancer cells.
Both of these hormones are derived from the amino acid tryptophan. In your body, tryptophan goes through several stages before becoming 5-HTP, making it available for conversion into serotonin and eventually melatonin.
Serotonin is mainly secreted during the day with levels dropping in the evening causing melatonin levels to rise and prepare the body for sleep. On the flip side, a normal drop of melatonin in the morning leads to serotonin rising again.
Even slight variations in the complex synthesis and regulation of these two hormones can have huge implications for your sleep, as well as your energy levels and mood.
Low + declining melatonin production
As serotonin is a precursor to melatonin (meaning that melatonin production is dependent on adequate levels of serotonin), serotonin deficiencies can lead to sleep disorders (as well as poor mood and food cravings, due to serotonin’s other roles in your body).
However, melatonin levels are also hugely affected by age. Melatonin production peaks during early childhood, and then starts to decline most rapidly after puberty. Older people produce negligible amounts of melatonin, explaining why they often have shorter and less restful periods of sleep.
The decline in sleep duration and quality that comes with growing older can lead to significant deterioration in health because less time and fewer resources are available for your body to maintain and repair itself.
There appears to be a link between a decline in melatonin and the dramatic increase in degenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer's as you age.
Hormones affected by sleep
As well as the hormones discussed above that directly influence your ability to sleep, there are a number of other hormones in your body that are affected by sleep.
A lack of sleep can cause an increase in cortisol (stress hormone) secretion, a reduction in testosterone (which affects women as much as men) and insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF1). 
IGF1 is a hormone necessary for growth and development. It regulates the release of Human Growth Hormone (HGH), which plays a crucial role in your rapid growth during childhood and continues to have an anabolic effect (promoting the building of biomolecules) on you as an adult.
HGH is especially important in the growth and repair of muscle tissue, explaining why sleep and recovery is so vital if you train hard and are looking to improve your physical fitness and physique.
The balance of hormone secretions during sleep also play a role in insulin function, affecting how efficiently your body can process carbohydrates.
How to optimise sleep
I’ve spent a long time trying to optimise my sleep for better health and recovery and have seen massive benefits through implementing some simple things.
My general sense of wellbeing on a daily basis is hugely affected by my quality and duration of sleep, so much so that sleep is no longer something that I am willing to sacrifice to any degree.
Here are some incredibly effective ways to improve your sleep. Most (if not all) of these have scientific backing, as well as my own seal of approval from years of trial and error.
Some foods are hailed for their sleep-enhancing properties due to their naturally-occurring melatonin content. One example is montmorency cherries, which have been well-researched. Concentrated cherry juice can now be purchased as a sport recovery aid.
If I need a little help drifting off (and boosting my nutrient intake too!), I drink Love Life Supplements Primal Reds powder in the evening which contains a healthy dose of montmorency cherry.
Carbohydrates can also aid sleep (another reason to put the ‘no carbs after [insert random time here]’ BS to bed!) by shortening sleep onset. This works by increasing the blood plasma level of tryptophan.
I always have carbohydrates with my evening meal, and if I have an evening snack, I like to opt for something like rice cakes (usually with nut butter) and a banana (bananas also contain some melatonin and some tryptophan).
There are a lot of teas that are said to help with sleep too. My favourite is Pukka Night Time tea. However, I believe that the positive effect of having a night time tea is largely down to the calming ritual of making and drinking it.
Caffeine and alcohol both affect sleep quality in a negative way. If you’re having any sleep problems at all, it’s best to try and cut these both out, at least until you have got your body back on track. I never consume caffeine, and only occasionally drink alcohol, and I feel that this really benefits my sleep.
There are a number of natural supplements that can have a really beneficial affect on sleep and I would recommend trying any of these before exploring prescription drug options - which often have addictive properties.
5-Hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP), a metabolite of tryptophan, is a direct precursor to serotonin and, ultimately, aids the synthesis of melatonin. When I need help sleeping, I take 5-HTP from Love Life Supplements. My boyfriend and friends that I have recommended it to have also had huge success in improving their sleep quality - it’s a pretty fail proof supplement option for this. It won't knock you out or make you feel drowsy like a sleeping pill, but helps get you into a deeper sleep.
Another supplement for aiding sleep, which I discovered much earlier in my health and fitness journey, is ZMA. I’ve written a comprehensive guide to ZMA including what is in it and how to take it, which I hope you’ll find useful! I tend to stock up on ZMA from MyProtein.
Zinc, magnesium and B6 can also be taken in isolation.
A really unique supplement, specially blended for recovery, is R5 Aminos from AminoMan. The blend of amino acids have been selected to support HGH release, while selected minerals assist in serotonin production, optimize testosterone release and support other antioxidant enzyme systems in the body during sleep. It tastes a bit like you’re drinking pureed Christmas tree decorations (that’ll be the clove…) but it’s really effective for sleep and recovery.
As well as ensuring that your room temperature is optimal (around 18°C or 68°F), bedding can play a big part in night time comfort.
I recently switched to wool bedding from The Wool Room* after learning that it’s a natural thermoregulator, meaning that it will help to regulate your body temperature. This is especially useful if you share a bed!
This kind of wool bedding is also great because it’s natural and renewable, hypoallergenic, antibacterial and dust mite free. Plus, it’s naturally moisture-wicking, which keeps you feeling fresh as you sleep, and resists mould and mildew (this is especially important to me, given that I have a lung condition).
Possibly my favourite thing about this bedding though is how high-quality it feels. Several months after first using it, I still get exciting about climbing into bed; the duvet feels 5-star hotel luxurious!
Another big contributor to my night time comfort is my mattress. When I moved to London last year, I got a memory foam mattress for the first time in my life - one of the best decisions that I have ever made!
Remember, you spend a third of your life in your bed, so make sure that every element of it contributes to your wellbeing; it's worth the investment!
Since we know that light is a cue for your sleep hormones, having a properly darkened room at night time will inevitably help you to sleep better.
Blackout blinds are highly recommended and I’ve found a massive benefit from them. As I live in a rented flat without blackout blinds, we used blackout blinds from Blinds in a Box as a really inexpensive and quick fix.
In the early stages of my quest for better sleep, I found the sunset-simulation function of my Lumie Bodyclock light really helpful. The sunrise function is also very useful to avoid hormonal disruptions caused by lack of light in the morning and I still use this regularly.
It’s well known that the light emitted from electrical devices can affect sleep. This is because this kind of light is ‘short-wavelength-enriched,’ meaning it has a higher concentration of blue light, which affects levels of melatonin more than any other kind of light.
To overcome the issue of blue light, try to avoid using devices like your smartphone, tablet or laptop in the run up to bedtime. I’ve now stopped using my phone in bed all together.
I’ve heard that there are some apps that can be used to reduce the brightness of your screen, but I now use Night Shift mode on my iPhone, which became available with a recent iOS update.
Night Time Noise
While it may seem counterintuitive to add more noise to your environment, white noise is effective for enhancing sleep as other noises (such a traffic, doors opening and closing, toilets flushing, etc.) are obscured so that your brain pays less attention to them.
There are devices designed specifically to emit white noise, but a fan running in the room can work too.
I use the White Noise app by TMSoft without fail every night and my ability to drift off to sleep and stay asleep, undisturbed, has really improved. My most used sound on the app is ‘Heavy Rain Pouring’.
There are many psychological roots of sleep conditions, of which stress is frequently cited, so implementing relaxation techniques is really worthwhile.
Not that long ago (now more than two years ago) I used to get anxiety about going to bed and would put bed time off for hours, worried that I would be lying awake for hours on end.
Eventually what changed this for me was using relaxation and mindfulness techniques to help me drift off, though I didn’t realise that was what they were at the time!
At first, I would repeat in my head things that I was grateful for in an ‘I packed my bag and in it I put…’ style (remember that game from childhood?!). Or, sometimes, I would count my breaths, or the number of seconds that it took me complete a breath. Eventually, I graduated to using the Headspace app to better guide my relaxation.
Now, I rarely have trouble dozing off, but if I do, I will take deep breaths, focusing on them completely and counting them until I reach ten, and then repeating. I rarely count past 7 anymore...
While exercise is obviously beneficial to our health, there is also plentiful research that demonstrates that exercise, especially weight training and other high intensity training, positively affects many aspects of sleep quality.
Since I started weight training, my sleep has massively improved, although I’ve noticed the greatest improvement since I have had a morning training routine.
Cultivating a night time routine can really assist you in your quest for restful sleep. Relaxing rituals like making a hot drink, reading in bed, stretching or writing in a gratitude journal are great examples of calming elements to add to your evening routine.
You might also like to keep a notepad and pen by your bed to write down anything that is on your mind at the end of the day. It could be things that are worrying you, the next day’s to do list, or even things that you need to remember to pick up at the shops. I find that putting down on paper can really help to put your mind at ease and make way for slumber.
I've created a simple Night Time Note Sheet that you can download and use to get you in the habit of doing this. It has space for you to note down how you're feeling, what you're grateful and thing that you need to remember to go the next day, all so that you can go to sleep peacefully.
Sleep is incredibly powerful. If I’m tired, I sleep. If I’m upset, I sleep. If I feel under the weather, I sleep. Sleep is a cure for a whole host of maladies. It rests your body - physical and mental - and contributes heavily to your recovery.
I remember there was a time of my life when I constantly felt sluggish. In fact, feeling exhausted is so common in our society in general that GPs have even given the ‘condition’ its own acronym; TATT, meaning tired all the time.
Many things can influence this feeling, from stress to nutrition (in fact food intolerance plays a large part for me) but obviously a large factor is sleep.
Yet, I feel that so many people are reluctant to make the changes necessary to see improvement. Perhaps they don’t understand the crucial role of sleep, or perhaps they are just lazy and hoping for a quick fix.
You’re now armed with lots of knowledge about the things that affect your sleep, both positively and negatively, as well as a number of proven tips for optimising sleep, so that you can feel empowered when it comes to sleep, and make the changes needed to optimise your wellbeing.
_If you have any tried and tested tips for improving sleep, share them in a comment below, or tweet me @nataliejohanna.