So many people I see in clinic struggle with the effects of poor sleep. So, in aid of World Sleep Day this week on the 15th March, I want to talk to you about why a good sleep is so important and how you can go about getting it!
A good night’s sleep is as important to health as eating the right things and exercise. Your physical and emotional wellbeing depend on getting enough. Yet we’re living in sleep-deprived times. Some people are even competitive about how little sleep they’re getting, like dragging yourself through the day on four hours’ rest is a badge of honour. You’d be surprised at how many business executives I see who tell me with pride that they only need 4 or 5 hours sleep a night. Well no, actually they need more than that. Scientists even say we’re now getting an hour or two less sleep each night than we were 60 years ago. And the effect on our bodies is not good.
For most of us now, the lure of the mobile ‘phone is a huge sleep disruptor. It’s so easy to be refreshing apps and checking emails late at night, or even in the middle of the night if we wake up.
The purpose of sleep is to rest and recover – and to allow the body to repair itself. These maintenance and repair processes take 7 to 9 hours. This is when the neurons that form our brain build pathways, make new connections and grow more cells, all to process the world we live in during waking hours. In her new book, The Source, Dr Tara Swart reports that neuroplasticity means these neuron patterns can be refined, disrupted and remade well into adulthood. But we need to sleep well for this to happen. And that means a good unbroken period of several hours sleep, preferably lying on your side. (New research indicates that the best position for optimal brain repair is sleeping on your side)
The amount of sleep each person needs doesn’t vary much. According to the National Sleep Foundation in America, and based on the advice of 18 leading sleep scientists, 98-99% of adults need between 7-8 hours a night. If you regularly miss out on getting that much, it can affect a wide range of brain functions. Over time, lack of sleep can elevate the risk of issues from Alzheimer’s, depression, obesity, diabetes and many others. The link between poor sleep and dementia is now well established. During the day, toxins can build up in the brain due to oxidative processes such as stress and alcohol. When we sleep, a cleansing routine, known as the glymphatic system, flushes these toxins out of the brain. And it needs a full 7-8 hours to work properly.
Sleep deprivation can also alter the area of the brain that responds to events. A well-slept brain uses the pre-frontal cortex to respond logically and quickly to stimuli and make better decisions. A tired brain is more likely to have worse memory recall and form decisions on instinct from the more primitive part of the brain.
You might be surprised to learn that, in a computer simulated driving test, those who had had just a few hours sleep were more dangerous on the (virtual) road than the people who had had a few drinks! In fact, the majority of road accidents are caused by tiredness.
Waking up feeling refreshed in the morning is a good indicator and so is being able to wake without an alarm. If you need an alarm to wake up, you are not getting enough sleep. If you don’t get enough sleep, you may not be able to concentrate properly, and become irritable or agitated. You may also have blurred vision, be clumsy, become disorientated or slow to respond, and have decreased motivation. And, on top of that, if you’re tired and cranky, you are significantly less likely to make the best food choices.
But just how do you get a good night’s sleep?
The most common cause of insomnia is a change in your daily routine. For example, travelling, change in work hours, disruption of other behaviours (eating, exercise, leisure, etc.), and relationship conflicts can all cause sleep problems. Establishing good sleep hygiene is the most important thing you can do to maintain good sleep. It might also be helpful to keep a sleep diary to help pinpoint any particular problems.
- Try to go to bed at the same time every day. Your body thrives on routine.
- Commit to getting a regular 7-9 hours sleep a night.
- Switch off all screens and ‘phones at least 1 hour before bed.
- Keep the temperature in your bedroom comfortable; not too hot, nor too cold.
- Use your bed only for sleep and sex. This may help you completely switch off.
- Keep the bedroom completely dark, so you’re not disturbed by light, which your brain detects even when your eyes are closed. Eye masks can be useful.
- Spend time outdoors to soak up the sun.
- Try to take some gentle exercise every day. There is evidence that regular exercise improves restful sleep. This includes stretching and aerobic exercise. A brisk walk ticks both boxes.
- Make an effort to relax for at least 5 minutes before going to bed – a warm bath, massage, meditation. Creating a soothing pre-sleep routine will help switch off.
- Keep your feet and hands warm. Wear warm socks and/or mittens or gloves to bed.
- Try a pre-sleep meditation. There are several on YouTube. In a UCal study they reported that 58% of insomniac patients showed significant improvements in sleep quality when they started meditating regularly. By the end of the study, 91% had been able to either reduce, or completely stop their medication.
- Consider getting a traditional alarm clock so your smartphone can stay out of the bedroom (see below). Better still, work out how much sleep you need by going to bed 15 minutes earlier until you find that you wake up naturally before your alarm. That’s your personal sleep requirement.
- Engage in stimulating activities – like playing a competitive game, watching an edge-of-the seat film, or having an important conversation with a loved one. Even using smartphones and tablets can interfere with sleep, because they emit the same kind of light as the morning sun.
- Eat a heavy meal within four hours of going to bed.
- Drink caffeine after lunch – like coffee, ‘normal’ and green tea, and colas.
- Use alcohol to help you sleep. Alcohol can make sleep more disturbed.
- Go to bed too hungry. Have a snack before bed – a glass of milk or banana are ideal.
- Try to avoid daytime naps.
- Try not to get frustrated if you can’t sleep. Go to bed in a positive mood – “I will sleep tonight”.