Recently, I picked up Shawn Stevenson’s wonderful book Sleep Smarter in an attempt to figure out simple ways to nourish my body, something I tend to neglect as a sensitive person who is often stuck in her head. I had bought the book for my husband who has sleeping problems and had read some of it before. This time, when I returned to it, again, I felt deeply inspired. I have been following some of the strategies from the book and I am struck by how simple changes can help us. Also, as highly sensitive people who are prone to overwhelm, it’s a good idea to figure out the broad strokes, and what is really important, so we can make simple, lasting shifts.
Our Highly Sensitive Body Needs Us to Pay Attention to Its Circadian Timing System
All of us, HSP or not, are getting less sunlight and Vitamin D deficiencies are on the rise. In this book, Shawn makes a case for getting more sunlight in the day and talks about how our “your sleep cycle, or circadian timing system, is heavily impacted by the amount of sunlight you receive during the day.
“Your body’s circadian timing system is not just some airy-fairy thing. This is a real, built-in, 24-hour clock that’s not that much different from the clock on your cell phone or wristwatch. There are certain times of day that your body is designed to release specific hormones. This circadian timing system, along with the scheduled release of hormones, helps to control your digestion, immune system, blood pressure, fat utilization, appetite, and mental energy, among other things.”
This circadian timing system is regulated by a small group of nerve cells found in the hypothalamus in the brain. The hypothalamus is the master gland of the body’s hormonal system. This is what acts like a master clock.
How Does Getting Sunlight Improve Sleep?
“Light actually signals your hypothalamus and all corresponding organs and glands to be alert and “wake up.” That light exposure, specifically sunlight exposure, triggers your body to produce optimal levels of daytime hormones and neurotransmitters that regulate your biological clock. Too little light exposure during the day and too much artificial light exposure in the evening will negatively impact your ability to sleep well at night.”
One of the most vital compounds affected by light exposure, Shawn tells us, is the neurotransmitter serotonin, which is commonly known for bringing about feelings of well-being and happiness. Another important thing that serotonin plays an important role in is the regulation of our body’s internal clock. Serotonin is influenced by factors like diet and the amount of natural sunlight we get.
Serotonin is just one compound that plays a significant role in regulating our internal body clock. Shawn talks about the important roles played by melatonin and the much-maligned cortisol.
How Understanding the Role Played by Cortisol can Help us Honor Our Bodies as Highly Sensitive People.
Cortisol, commonly known as the “stress hormone” is actually something we need to feel awake and alert. Shawn says, “Your body produces it for a reason. The real goal isn’t to have as little cortisol as possible; it’s to have a healthy rhythm of cortisol production to get you the results you want, when you want them.’
Cortisol is needed. It’s essential. What’s problematic is when it is being over or under-produced.
“Yet another reason why daytime exposure to sunlight is so important is that it encourages the production of cortisol. Again, this is a normal function, based on evolutionary biology, to get us up and active to procure our food, build and support our habitat, and care for our loved ones during the day. Research published in the journal Innovations in Clinical Neuroscience found an additional bonus: Exposure to sunlight significantly decreased cortisol levels later in the day when compared to being exposed to dim light during the day. By getting more exposure to sunlight, you set the tempo for a normal cortisol rhythm, and a normal melatonin rhythm as well.”
So, what’s the best way to get sunlight for its sleep benefits?
“When it comes to sleep benefits, all sunlight is not created equal. The body clock is most responsive to sunlight in the early morning, between 6:00 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. Exposure to sunlight later is still beneficial but doesn’t provide the same benefits.”
Getting direct sunlight outdoors for at least half an hour has been shown to produce the most benefit, Shawn tells us. Prolonged sun exposure is not a good idea, but getting some sun has enormous sleep and health benefits.
Sleep Smarter is a great book not just for people who have problems sleeping but for all of us looking to get healthier and in tune with the rhythm of our bodies. If you are a sensitive person who has problems with fatigue, this book just might give you a missing piece of information.
What do you think? Does this make sense to you? Are you tuning in to the rhythm of your sensitive body and what it might need?
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