The importance of sleep and how to sleep better
It’s 6 am. The alarm goes off. Snooze gets hit. Suddenly the clock shows 7 am, and a mad rush to shower, brush teeth, grab a coffee and get to work ensues. Eyes barely open, sleep was hard to come by at night.
Sounds like you? You are not alone.
Insomnia, or not being able to sleep, is a common issue amongst adults. We sleep about a third of our life, yet do not usually know much about why we need to sleep, how best to sleep or what to do when we cannot sleep.
So why is sleep so important for us?
To put it simply, sleep is like the Ctr+Alt+Del of human beings. It resets and reboots us. If you are sleep deprived, you will not only feel fatigued and slow during the day, but are also at an increased risk for a wide range of health problems.
During the day, our brain takes on a lot of information and autosaves it without us even noticing. Unfortunately, we do not have unlimited data storage. While asleep we have no additional external input to process, so during this time our memory consolidates, files the stored information, and deletes the unimportant stuff.
Not enough, or irregular sleep, can cause a loss of concentration and mental performance, as well as impact the ability to learn new skills and focus. Moodiness, grumpiness, hallucinations, personality disorders and depression can be a result of not enough sleep. Coping with life can be hard if you do not sleep enough and even increase the risk of suicide!
Sleep can also help with keeping your weight balanced. At night, the appetite reducing hormone leptin kicks in. Leptin is the counterpart to the hormone ghrelin. Ghrelin is the hormone that causes us to be hungry during the day. If we do not get enough (or too much) sleep, these hormones are imbalanced and can cause us to feel excessively hungry and overeat to the point of becoming obese! And when you get those late-night cravings and eat shortly before going to bed, this can in turn cause you to lose out on sleep! It’s a cycle that can be hard to break once you’re in it.
Being fatigued can cause your reaction time to slow down, which makes it a dangerous companion on the road or when you are doing physical work that requires concentration and coordination. People who do not sleep enough are at a higher risk of accidents.
Bodily functions that we usually take for granted, such as breathing, blood pressure, body temperature, heartbeat, hormones, and metabolism can all get messed up if the natural sleep rhythm is out of whack. Our temperature usually decreases in the evening so we can sleep better, and also around 3pm, which is why you may feel colder in the arvo or feel like a nap. When you are out of rhythm, this can happen anytime during the day! Blood pressure decreases at night, however, constantly waking up at night keeps increasing it which can lead to lasting high blood pressure. High blood pressure in turn can lead to an increased risk for heart disease and stroke. (Not so) fun fact: Sleep deficiency has also been associated with reduced sexual desire, arousal and erectile dysfunction.
Sleep deprivation can cause the stress hormone, cortisol, to increase, which in turn can increase glucose levels. Insulin sensitivity also decreases, and you now have an increased risk for Type II diabetes. Likewise, studies have found those who have Type II diabetes experience poorer sleep than those with normal glucose levels.
People suffering from chronic pain often have trouble falling asleep due to the pain, but emerging evidence suggests that the effect of sleep on pain may be even stronger than the effect of pain on sleep. Research found that poor sleep quality causes increased sensitivity to pain the next day, but regular good quality sleep can improve it.
Most importantly though, sleep is important for our immune system to fight viruses and bacteria and keep inflammation levels balanced. If we do not sleep enough, it can increase the risk of infection by over 3 times for someone sleeping less than 7 hours compared to someone who sleeps a solid 8 hours every night! There is a lot of research going on to understand how this works, but generally, the more you sleep, the easier your immune system deals with any challenges thrown its way. If you do not sleep enough, your inflammatory response that normally heals what needs to be healed during the night, does not recede. Persistent inflammation has been linked to illnesses such as depression, IBS and even cancer, and despite what many of us believe, the immune system does not get used to insufficient sleep! Chronic inflammation can cause many more issues, which in turn can make it harder to sleep again.
The relationship between sleep and overall health has been thoroughly researched and is well documented. A good night’s rest ensures you are awake and refreshed in the morning.
What is considered good sleep you may ask?
The general scientific consensus is that 8 hours of sleep every night is ideal, however some people naturally only sleep 5 to 6 hours, which takes out some of the lighter sleeping phases. Any less than that and it can seriously impact your health. It is even said that people who sleep an average of 8 hours a night have an added 5 years of life expectancy! In saying that, the amount of sleep you need changes with age – to simplify, the older you get, the less sleep you usually need!
Sleep quality is also vital. A typical night’s sleep is made up of several sleep cycles, each of which is composed of individual sleep stages. Continuous sleep without interruption allows these stages to unfold properly, enabling truly restorative sleep.
As we sleep, we cycle through light sleep, slow-wave sleep, and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. To feel well-rested, we need a balance of all these sleep stages. Without going through all the stages, neither brain nor body will be able to reset and develop, subsequently impacting mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual health. The Sleep Foundation has a great article that goes into a bit more detail about the stages of sleep for those who are interested!
What stops us from getting good sleep?
Common causes of sleep deprivation most are aware of are: anxiety, restless legs syndrome, sleep-apnoea and other breathing related illnesses, chronic pain and medications for various conditions.
What is less known is that your lifestyle can also heavily impact your sleeping patterns.
Stimulants such as caffeine, alcohol and nicotine can influence our sleep rhythm. Caffeine takes a few hours to process. If you are like me and think you can drink an espresso or a coke at night and still get 8 hours of sleep, you’re right, yet wrong, as it’s likely you won’t go into the deep restorative sleep phases. While alcohol can lull you into a feeling of relaxation and sleepiness, it also dehydrates your body and will cause your sleep quality to deteriorate.
Physical activity can help you with your sleep when it’s done right. However, endurance or strength training should happen in the morning or afternoon. If you do these activities too close to bed, your body does not settle. While you’re thinking you are being healthy doing your after-work fitness routine, depending on the activity you do, it may be detrimental to your sleep.
Stress, as most people are aware of, is a big challenge to overcome for good sleep. If you are under stress at home or at work, have financial pressures or other causes that lead you to be stressed, your cortisol levels will spike and stay at a long term high. However, they should ideally spike in the morning to energise you and then drop as the day goes on. Meanwhile melatonin increases when it gets dark, leading to being tired just before going to bed. If cortisol stays elevated throughout the day and into the night, your melatonin cannot kick in, and sleep is hard to come by. If your mind races and you cannot stop thinking, learning stress management and relaxation techniques is the way to go.
Noise is another factor stopping us from good sleep. Even if you have no trouble falling asleep with noise, or even feel like you need white noise to start your slumber, your brain continues to process the noise at night, your cortisol and adrenaline stay high, and your quality of sleep is not as good.
People who suffer from chronic pain know firsthand how difficult it can be to get a good night’s sleep. In addition to overall shorter sleep, pain can also cause people to frequently wake throughout the night. As mentioned before, sleep and pain appear to have a bidirectional relationship. For instance, many people report their painful symptoms are somewhat alleviated after a better night’s sleep.
What can help with good sleep?
If pain is stopping you from sleeping, your type of pain may dictate sleeping positions. Have a look here for various sleeping positions and shapes of pillows and mattresses that may help you to minimize pain or flare ups while in bed. There are also plenty of resources on that page going into further detail about sleep and pain.
The best thing you can do to be rested and ready for bed at night is to live and breathe healthy habits during the day. A healthy exercise and eating regime throughout the day can improve your overall sleep quality and quantity. Eat dinner at least 2 to 3 hours before your bedtime to give it time to digest, drink enough water to stay hydrated, and avoid late night snacking.
The second-best thing you can do for a good night’s sleep is to get into some sort of bedtime routine. Call it a ritual, sleep hygiene or routine – it does not matter. We are creatures of habit, and routines help us to keep a healthy rhythm. In the medical world, good sleep habits are called sleep hygiene. Good sleep hygiene starts in the morning, but we will cover the morning part in another blog – for now we focus on what you can do in the evening to get a better night’s sleep…
When pain or stress are stopping you from sleeping, try deep breathing or mindfulness techniques. I teach progressive Muscle Relaxation Exercises as well as Breathing Exercises as part of my “Face your Fears” Workshop and found they are not just helpful when it comes to anxiety but also when it comes to relaxing before heading to bed.
For everyone in general, try and have a consistent sleep schedule. Aim to go to bed at the same time every night and get up at the same time each morning – even on weekends and when you are travelling (goodbye jetlag). Any routine becomes habit over time, and automated habits make your life so much easier! If you can sync your waketime, and start winding down when the sun sets, even better.
If you feel fatigued – prioritise your sleep. You may have FOMO if you have to forgo fun with your friends, social engagements or the movie you wanted to watch, but your body will thank you for it long term. There is nothing wrong with a good nap either – just try and keep it to 20 minutes and ideally nap around 3pm. This has been proven to be the best time for a power nap if you’re in sync with the naturel circadian rhythm.
Make sure your bedroom is set up in the most relaxing way for you. Think of it as your personal retreat, your sanctuary. Use blackout curtains or blinds at night, warm bedside table lights, keep it as quiet as possible and at a good ambient temperature of around 15 to 20 degrees Celsius (which has been shown to be the ideal temperature range for most people to sleep comfortably). As with any retreat, leave trouble, noise, and modern technology outside the door. Really, your bedroom should only be for sleep, sex and if need be, for listening to music and reading a good book.
This can be part of your wind down routine. A wind down routine should start a few hours before you go to bed. In general, this means turning on your blue light filter on digital devices when the sun is about to set, avoiding bright screens and lights (at least 2 hours before bed) and starting to slow down.
If you are an evening work-out person, it is especially important to reduce your cortisol levels again before bed, so try relaxing activities such as meditation, stretching, reading, journaling or anything else that feels relaxing to you. Ideally, stay away from any screens, but if playing online games or watching music videos is what you do to wind down, use a blue light filter. About one hour before you go to bed, try and put your phone away, turn off notifications and focus on yourself. It can be beneficial to give yourself some TLC during that hour, whether that is a hot bath or shower, a foot soak, enjoying a room with dimmed lighting such as salt or crystal lamps, trying aromatherapy, getting a massage from a partner or reflecting on the day by writing in a journal. And in case you were wondering… yes, sexual activity can reduce cortisol levels and increase other hormones that contribute to better sleep. This effect can occur with masturbation as well as sex. Fun fact – while masturbation can cause you to relax and fall asleep, it is also great to get your body ready and awake in the morning!
Last but not least – make sure you have a comfy mattress and pillow, as well as a blanket that suits the temperature you sleep. Get an alarm clock, so you don’t have to take your phone to the bedroom. If your alarm clock wakes you with your favourite music – even better.
For more practical tips on how to get better sleep, head on to my guest blog post on Kiddipedia. However, if you want to learn how to set a good consistent, personalised sleep routine that works for you
I will guide you on a 5-day experiment full of tips and tricks on how to sleep better and help you personalise these for your specific, individual circumstances.