7 Unique Tips to Getting More "Fertility-Boosting" Sleep
Are you getting enough sleep at night? If you’re reading this, we’re going to guess probably not! After all, our modern lives are incredibly busy and sometimes it’s just too easy to give up an hour or two of sleep for some extra time to get things done.
Although you might think that being a little tired during the day isn’t that big of a deal, we’re here to tell you that getting enough sleep is actually an extremely important part of supporting your overall health and enhancing your fertility. In this article, we’re going to walk you through exactly why that is and share our top strategies for increasing your sleep time and improving your sleep quality.
Why Do We Sleep and How Does It Work?
Scientists used to think of sleep as a dormant time where our brains and tissues were mostly inactive. However, we now know that’s not the case! Sleep is the time our bodies use to restore and rebuild tissues, remove waste products from the brain, process toxins in the liver, build up our immune systems, and convert short-term memories into long-term memories.
Sleep occurs in 90-120-minute cycles and each cycle consists of 5 stages:
Stages 1-2 – light sleep
Stages 3-4 – deep sleep
Stage 5 – REM (rapid eye movement) sleep
During the first two stages of light sleep, your body is beginning to relax and prepare for deep sleep. In stages 3 and 4, you enter deep sleep, which is when most of your detoxification and restoration work happens. You enter REM sleep about 90 minutes after you fall asleep and this is when the majority of dreams occur. Your brain is much more active during REM sleep, which allows you to process and consolidate information from your day into new knowledge. If you’re getting enough good-quality sleep, you should be able to make it through 5-6 full sleep cycles each night.
Research has shown that adults need a minimum of 7 hours of sleep each night to function optimally. Some people require 8-9 hours to be at their best and those who are going through significant lifestyle stress or suffering from chronic illness may need even more than this.
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The Importance of Circadian Rhythms
Your natural sleep/wake cycle is known as your circadian rhythm and it is essentially a balancing act between two hormones in the body: cortisol and melatonin. Cortisol is your primary “stress” hormone and it allows you to feel awake and alert during the day. Melatonin is your “sleep” hormone and allows you to relax and sink down into rest at night.
Cortisol is supposed to slowly rise a few hours before you wake up, peak around 8am, and then slowly decrease throughout the day until it reaches a low point around 3am. As a result, you should feel ready to wake up and take on the day in the morning, have steady energy throughout the morning and early afternoon, and then feel relaxed and tired after dark. Melatonin, on the other hand, should start to decrease a few hours before you wake up, remain low throughout the day, and start to increase as it gets darker to prepare you for sleep.
Balance between these two hormones at the right times of day is essential to maintaining a normal, healthy circadian rhythm and feeling awake and tired at the right times of day. Unfortunately, there are quite a few things that can cause imbalances between these hormones and totally throw off our sleep. We’ll get to those in a minute!
How Does Lack of Sleep Affect Health and Fertility?
Stress and Hormone Balance
Lack of sleep can increase stress levels by stimulating the communication pathway between the brain and the adrenal glands (the HPA-axis). Activation of the HPA-axis increases our cortisol levels, which disrupts circadian rhythms and can lead to changes in our sex hormone production and fertility issues.
Elevated cortisol can also disrupt the synthesis of melatonin. In addition to its role in sleep, melatonin has been shown to be an important antioxidant and regulatory nutrient for the female menstrual cycle. Reduced production of melatonin can negatively affect egg quality and lead to cycle irregularities that may reduce female fertility. In men, studies have linked lack of sleep to reduced sperm counts, lower morphology, decreased testis size, and reduced fertility.
Poor sleep and elevated cortisol levels can also affect our metabolism by causing or worsening blood sugar problems and insulin resistance. For an in-depth explanation of why these issues are damaging to hormone balance, egg/sperm health, and overall fertility, check out this post. Lack of sleep has been shown to decrease glucose tolerance during pregnancy, which may lead to increased risk of gestational diabetes.
In addition to blood sugar issues, studies have demonstrated that lack of sleep increases appetite by stimulating our hunger hormone (ghrelin) and suppressing our satiety hormone (leptin). Taken together, these metabolic consequences can easily set the stage for chronic health conditions like obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, all of which have been shown in research to correlate with poor sleep.
Not sleeping enough has also been shown to cause immune system problems and inflammation in the body, which can further drive up the risk of chronic health problems and contribute to fertility issues. During pregnancy, inflammation can increase the risk of conditions like as preeclampsia, fetal growth restriction, and preterm birth. Sleeping less than 6 hours per night in late pregnancy has also been shown to increase the risk of having a long labor and a c-section birth!
How to Get More (and Better) Sleep
The best strategies for getting more sleep and improving your sleep quality are to remove any obstacles that may be interfering with your natural circadian rhythms and add in some supportive practices and/or supplements to help you get your sleep cycle back on track.
Keep a consistent sleep schedule
One of the best ways to regulate your circadian rhythms is to train your body to go to sleep and wake up at the same times each day. Ideally, you should plan to be asleep every night no later than 10-11pm. If you work nights or have a non-standard work schedule, do your best to keep your sleep and wake times as consistent as possible.
Create a comfortable and distraction-free sleep environment
Make sure your pillows/bedding are clean and comfortable and keep your bedroom cool, quiet, and completely dark at night. We need darkness to stimulate melatonin production so consider blackout shades for your windows and remove or cover up all sources of light, such as alarm clock displays. This is especially important if your schedule requires you to sleep during the day. If temperature or neighborhood noise is an issue, consider using a fan or white noise machine while you sleep.
You should also remove all technology from the bedroom, including cell phones, laptops, and TV. Not only is using these devices in bed disruptive to sleep, but many people are also sensitive to the electromagnetic fields (EMFs) emitted by them and find they sleep better without them in the room. Do not watch TV in bed and charge your cell phone, tablet, or laptop in a different room. If you normally use your phone as an alarm clock, place it in airplane mode and do not keep it right next to the bed.
Keep your blood sugar stable throughout the day
Avoid caffeine, alcohol, sugar, and refined carbohydrates, especially in the late afternoon and evening. Consuming these things can contribute to imbalances in blood sugar and insulin levels, which affect sleep. In particular, consuming these foods or beverages at night can cause a spike in blood sugar and insulin, followed by a middle-of-the-night blood sugar crash. Low blood sugar stimulates cortisol production and this can wake you up in the middle of the night and make it hard to get back to sleep.
Avoid things that stimulate cortisol production at night
Minimize exposure to blue light from backlit screens (TV, phone, computer, etc.) after dark. If you must use screens in the evening, purchase blue-blocking glasses or install software on your devices that dims blue light. Blue light stimulates cortisol production and prevents the natural increase in melatonin that helps induce sleep.
You should also avoid things like work, intense exercise, stressful situations, or suspenseful TV in the few hours before bed. If stress is an issue for you, work on implementing effective stress management/reduction techniques throughout the day that will help you manage your cortisol levels better.
Support your morning cortisol levels
If you tend to be sluggish in the morning, you may need to work on increasing your cortisol earlier in the day. If you regularly get up after 8am, it might be a good idea to start waking up earlier to support your normal morning cortisol surge. Try getting outside and exposing yourself to bright natural light first thing in the morning (without sunglasses). You can also adjust your exercise routine to occur in the morning, instead of the afternoon or evening.
Consider sleep-supportive supplements
There are several supplements that can either directly support production of melatonin in the body or that can simply help promote evening relaxation. As always with supplements, it’s a good idea to be working with a qualified practitioner who can help you determine which products might work best for you and also recognize when a supplement may be causing an issue. This is especially important if you plan to take a hormonal supplement like melatonin to help with sleep or egg quality. That said, here are some of the nutrients and herbs that have been shown to support sleep:
Lavender essential oil
If none of these strategies are working for you, see your doctor
There are certain medical conditions that can contribute either to lack of sleep (chronic pain, anxiety, etc.) or oversleeping (depression, hypothyroidism, etc.) and there are also several prescription medications that can interfere with sleep. Work with your doctor to get proper testing and treatment for any medical conditions and also to investigate possible alternatives to current medications that may be impacting your sleep.