A CNN review article explained how regular exercise can help you to sleep better. In a study from the Sleep Foundation the sleep behavior of professional athletes was studied. The study found that athletes were twice as likely to get high quality sleep at nights compared to non-exercisers.
Following the pandemic many people feel the effects of stress, which leads to increased cortisol levels in the blood. However, cortisol and melatonin are in opposite relation: when cortisol is high, melatonin levels are low. Too much vigorous exercise or emotional stress can lead to sleep disturbances because of low melatonin.
Sympathetic versus parasympathetic nervous system activity
Active exercises are part of the sympathetic nerve activity. Exercising too late in the day, pushing weights and moving with maximal speed on the treadmill activates your sympathetic nerve. The adrenal glands also secrete cortisol. The end result is that high cortisol levels suppress melatonin production. The overstimulated sympathetic system suppresses the parasympathetic system. Both undermine the ability to fall asleep at night.
The logical consequence from this that we should do medium strength exercises during the course of the day, preferably in the morning. By the time the evening arrives we get naturally tired as melatonin is released. In the evening the effect of the sympathetic nervous system activation wears off and the parasympathetic system rules. It is the parasympathetic system that helps us to fall asleep.
Light stimulates, relaxation exercises help you fall asleep
Exposure to artificial light and LED screens (computers, smart phones and TV’s) suppress the release of melatonin. On the other hand, relaxation exercises like yoga, Tai Chi and self-hypnosis reduce cortisol levels and increase melatonin. In addition, relaxation exercises also stimulate the sleep inducing parasympathetic nervous system. I described a few factors that help you sleep better here.
Allowing down time after exercise and high quality sleep at nights
Many professional athletes exercise all the time, but do not allow enough time to recover. This leads to increased cortisol release and a lack of melatonin. But studies showed that a few stretches and breathing exercises following a work-out can very quickly help the athlete to sleep better. It is the parasympathetic nervous system that counters stimulation and helps the athlete to switch to a sleep mode. Only 90 seconds of deep breathing exercises will help the body to switch into a relaxation response. This helps anybody to fall asleep easier and to sleep deeper. Instead of counting sheep prior to falling asleep concentrate on counting deep breaths. And you may find yourself falling asleep while you count!
Sleep aids when you have problems falling asleep
Sometimes it is difficult to fall asleep because of stress or exercising too late in the day. The first thing that comes to mind is to take 3 mg of melatonin as a sleep aid. It is melatonin that is missing, so replace it before you go to sleep. If you wake up at 2 AM or 3 AM you can take another dose of melatonin. If you still have problems sleeping, it likely is due to overstimulation from stress. 500 mg of valerian root likely will help in this case. If this is still not enough to put you to sleep, you can resort to A. Vogel’s tincture of Passion Flower (20 to 25 drops diluted in water). This herbal remedy should not be a regular remedy, but rather an “emergency break”. All of these in sequence will eventually help you to put you to sleep.
Regular exercise once per day (20 to 30 minutes) is best when you do it in the morning. By the time the evening rolls by the stimulation from exercising has worn of and the fading day light gets your body into a parasympathetic relaxation mode. When the stress of the day wears off, your cortisol level lowers and the evening light triggers the release of melatonin. In addition, you can do deep breathing exercises, which will also help you to fall asleep easier. A good night sleep is important for your circadian hormone rhythm. One of the hormones that recovers in the early morning sleep hours is testosterone for muscle strength. You need testosterone for your regular daily exercises and endurance. When all else fails, there are natural sleep aids, which I reviewed.