The Pineal Gland; What is it & my 5 top tips for great sleep
The Pineal Gland is a small pea shaped part of the brain that produces and regulates hormones, in particular melatonin. Melatonin is often referred to as the “sleep hormone”, and plays a central role in our circadian rhythm or body clocks.
Over years of adaptation our pineal glands have learnt to increase and decrease melatonin levels depending on the time of day, and until modern times of shift patterns, humans have woken with the rise of the sun and slept with the setting of the sun. Our pineal glands have adapted to facilitate us with this, as the sunsets and the days darken into night, this stimulates our pineal glands and increases natural melatonin levels approximately 2 hours before sleep. This hormone level then peaks in the early hours of morning and begins to drop preparing our bodies for wake.
Those who work shift patterns, night shifts and/or travel to various time zones where sleeping times are either inconsistent or irregular compared with the traditional rise and fall of the sun, can struggle with either falling to sleep, or waking up and this is through no direct fault of their own, its due to the natural hormone balance of their bodies.
But there are strategies and tricks we can use to either optimise our already good circadian rhythm or improve our dysfunctional body clocks. First it's important to understand why we need sleep, we aren’t bears or hedgehogs that need to hibernate the winter to survive but sleep plays a crucial role in our overall health. To know how we look into sleep deprivation, which shows that short term sleep loss can affect decision making, problem solving, controlling our emotions and coping with change. But a lack of sleep has also been linked to long term factors like depression, risk-taking behaviour and suicide rates. Even if we were to focus on the short term effects it's easy to see how important sleep is to our performance as an employee, student, parent, husband, wife or friend, and that alone will have drastic effects on our lives long term.
Sleep plays a vital role in our overall health, poor sleep has been linked to heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, strokes, even back pain. Our immune and nervous systems rely on sleep as a time to heal, repair damaged tissues, and protect us against harmful bacteria and viruses.
As promised here are 5 tips for better sleep;
1. Set you sleep schedule; Have a fixed sleep and wake up time, this will help your Pineal Gland adapt and become more efficient at producing melatonin at the correct times and falling to sleep and waking up will become easier. This doesn't mean it needs to wake up at 8:32 every morning without fail, but having a 15 minute window will definitely help your body to adapt and adjust.
2. Dim your lights;
As mentioned earlier, we are adapted to sleep with the fall and wake with the rise of the sun. Having too much artificial light around evening time, especially in winter, will trick our brains into thinking it's daytime. This will stop the production of melatonin and make it more difficult.
3. Put down your phone, and turn off the TV
Blue wavelengths are produced by TV and phone screens and prevent the production of melatonin making it more difficult to fall asleep. If you love binging boxsets at night blue light blocking glasses are great, they can be brought cheap and worn 2 hours before bed. The same applies to phones, or you can activate night mode, a feature on smartphones which reduces the blue light they produce.
4. Stop pressing snooze, and get light exposure
Pressing snooze doesn't help you wake up, it gives you 30 minutes of poor quality, light sleep and could be making you feel worse. Whereas opening the blinds, exposing yourself to sunlight signifies the rising of the sun and the start of the day.
5. Prepare your sleeping environment
I'm sure we’ve all struggled on summer nights (referencing the occasional warm ones) where it's too hot to sleep, the fan is on, windows open but we are still too hot. The same applies all year round, prepare your room to sleep. Ensuring its cool, dark, quiet even smells nice all help us to sleep. Stack the odds in your favour to give you the best chance of a good sleep.