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Sleep, Sunlight, and Serotonin

Was it just me, or did daylight savings do a number on us this year? As a naturally early riser, waking up recently has been harder than usual and I've been skipping my circadian morning more than usual over the last few months.

What’s a circadian morning walk, you ask? According to experts who know a lot more about sleep cycles than I do, Circadian rhythms refer to the natural fluctuations of bodily processes along a 24-hour cycle. They are coordinated by your body’s master clock called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN for us mere mortals) which sends out commands directing the body to activate certain pathways based on the time of day.

Okay, science is cool, but what about this walk? Well, one of the most important functions of your circadian rhythm is to regulate when you sleep and when you wake up. The SCN relies on light to direct the sleep-wake cycle, so light exposure on a morning walk can help reset circadian rhythms and increase levels of alertness and energy.

I know what you’re thinking. For years you’ve been told to just focus on getting 7-9 hours a night and now there’s a schedule to consider, too? Sounds, well, exhausting.

Yes, but hear me out. The benefits are 10 fold. If adequate sleep can increase energy, performance, cognition, mood and wellbeing, not to mention physical health and recovery, think of a circadian morning walk as a supercharger to all of these.

There are also several foods that can benefit your sleep, too. Walnuts and almonds - in fact, most nuts - are high in a neurotransmitter called serotonin as well as magnesium. Serotonin converts to the hormone melatonin, which helps send sleep signals to your internal clock whereas magnesium has been hypothesized to improve sleep disturbances. If a handful of nuts isn’t your ideal snack, don’t worry. Kiwis are high in serotonin, too so consider making that your bedtime go-to. Fish, especially fatty fish like salmon are also on the list. Their omega 3s combined with their high vitamin D content have been shown to increase the production of serotonin.

Sleep is a lot more than just the number of hours you’re in bed. High quality sleep that you get on a consistent schedule, some sunlight support and of course, the all important serotonin, all play a role. The good news is that you don’t have to do all these things to reap the health benefits. Healthy habits begin with one thing, so if you’re looking to elevate your sleep quality this year, choose the one that’s right for you and stick with it.

While I will continue to strive for as many early morning circadian walks this winter as possible, I don’t sweat it if I miss it too much and instead, end my day with an easy healthy sleep inducing snack.

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