We often think of sleep as downtime – our muscles relax and eyes close, but within our brain there is so much more going on. Sleep helps the brain ‘spring-clean’ each night, clearing away toxic molecules that could eventually lead to Alzheimers and reorganising our memories to etch important learnings and erasing those not worth considering. Sleep also helps to recalibrate our emotions and manage stress better.
We cycle through different stages of sleep each night: drowsiness, light sleep, two stages of deep sleep (collectively known as non-REM sleep), and REM sleep (known as the dreaming phase of sleep). Each cycle lasts about 90 minutes with brief periods of waking in between. During the first half of the night we spend more of the time in non-REM sleep (good for body maintenance and repair), whereas in the second half of the night we spend more time in REM sleep (good for physical and emotional wellbeing).
To optimise the health benefits of sleep, the National Sleep Foundation recommend adults get 7-9 hours of sleep a night – some people need slightly more, some slightly less.
Are you getting a normal sleep?
Healthy sleepers will be able to answer ‘yes’ to the following questions:
Suffering from a lack of sleep
There are a number of things that can prevent a good night’s rest:
Living with young children, Inconsiderate flat mates, Your pet or neighbour’s dog, nearby construction, shift-work, stress, the list goes on, but many of these feel out of our control.
Sleep loss can make us moody and unable to concentrate the next day. Lack of sleep has been linked to reduced job performance, more car accidents, and reduced quality of life. Some of us find we eat more when we are tired, which is likely to be due to sleep deprivation reducing leptin (our appetite control hormone) and increasing ghrelin (our hunger hormone).
Researchers have discovered far more about the way we sleep and how it is essential for our overall health. Lack of sleep increases cortisol (our stress hormone), dampens the immune system and enhances the inflammatory response (promoting cell damage). Sleep loss has been linked to a myriad of health problems, including Alzheimers, increased risk of cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and psychiatric disorders, as well as making us look older.
It is clear, healthy sleep is necessary for health and wellbeing. So here are some things you can try, to increase the quality of your slumber.
The top 5 ways to improve your sleep
TO DO: Wake up at the same time every day, even at weekends, and avoid the snooze button. Go to bed at a similar time each night, if you feel sleepy, start to get ready for bed.
TO DO: Get natural sunlight in the morning and avoid bright lights and screens in the hours leading up to bedtime. If you have to use devices at night, adjust the light settings to reduce the blue light they emit. Try and maintain darkness in the bedroom (e.g. blackout curtains).
TO DO: Regular exercise is important, but avoid exercise several hours before bedtime. Have a shower or bath before bed as this not only helps you to relax, but also radiates heat to lower your core temperature.
TO DO: If you are having trouble with sleeping, try removing caffeine for a few weeks. If you enjoy your morning coffee, keep your caffeine intake to the first half of the day to allow enough time for your body to clear it before bed. Avoid exceeding 300mg of caffeine per day (1 cup of tea has up to 110mg, a cup of espresso up to 254mg, and instant coffee up to 120mg per cup).
TO DO: Avoid alcohol in the evening most nights. If you are struggling with sleep, consider cutting back altogether. When you do drink, avoid drinking in excess.
If you are looking for personalised advice to help improve your health – book in to see me today.
For more information on sleep check out these links:
For a more in-depth review of the research surrounding sleep touched on in this post, check out the new book by neuroscientist Matthew Walker – Why We Sleep.