Harnessing sleep so you can feel your best

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:


  • Are you satisfied with your sleep?
  • Do you feel alert most of the day?
  • Do you feel refreshed by your sleep?


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


  1. Time – if there is only one area you can focus on, this is it, according to the National Sleep Foundation. As our body is controlled by an internal clock (circadian rhythm), the best way to get the most out of each day, is to regulate your sleep and wake routines.

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.


  1. Light – we are surrounded by artificial light long after the sun has set which can trick our brain into thinking it is still time to be awake. Blue LED light (from devices such as laptops and smartphones) is the light that our brains are most sensitive to. It suppresses the rise in melatonin (our sleepy hormone) that usually occurs as it gets darker. Studies have shown that reading from an iPad even several hours before bed can suppress melatonin release by 50% and therefore delay sleep.

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).


  1. Temperature – to sleep, our core temperature needs to drop by about 1° If the bedroom is too warm, we have exercised too close to bed time, or we are wearing too many layers, it is likely to be harder to fall and stay asleep (particularly deep sleep).

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.


  1. Caffeine – many of us have felt firsthand the impact caffeine has when we need a lift. Caffeine is a stimulant found most commonly in coffee, tea, dark chocolate, cola and energy drinks, and peaks within 30 minutes of consumption. Caffeine battles with adenosine (a chemical that makes us feel sleepy) and blocks it from acting in the brain. Blocking this sleepiness signal tricks us into feeling more alert and awake. But caffeine breakdown takes a lot longer than people realise – 5-7 hours later there is still 50% of that caffeine circulating. Having too much caffeine present makes it harder to fall asleep but also disrupts the quality of sleep we get.

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).


  1. Alcohol – a common myth is that alcohol helps us to fall asleep and give us a sounder sleep at night. Alcohol is a sedative which can lead to us feeling sluggish, hence the perceived sleepiness associated with its consumption. Alcohol fragments our sleep meaning we wake more often, making it less restorative. It also suppresses REM sleep impacting on our memory and mood.

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:

Ministry of Health website

National Sleep Foundation

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.



Published By

Amy Judd



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