Sleep! Why is it so important, why are so many of us not getting enough and, what can we do to improve the quality of our sleep?
We all know that sleep is vital to our heath and wellbeing, but 2 in 5 Australians aren’t getting enough. Not so long ago, most people believed sleep was a passive activity during which the body and brain were dormant. However, studies have proven that sleep is a period during which the brain is engaged in a number of activities which are closely linked to “quality of life”.
The benefits of sleep
Although there is a common belief that everyone should be getting 8 hours sleep per night, more recent studies have shown that the amount of sleep required is unique to each individual. There are two factors that determine the amount of sleep we need as individuals; genetics and age. On average though, adults should be getting 7-9 hours per night and those over 65 years should be getting 7-8 hours per night.
When you sleep, your brain processes your emotions. Our mind needs sleeping time in order to calibrate the days activities. In other words, to sort, file and and organise our thoughts to enable us to react in the right way. When we cut that short, we tend to have more negative emotional reactions and fewer positive ones.
Chronic lack of sleep can also raise the chance of having a mood disorder. People with insomnia, for example, may have a tenfold higher risk of developing depression than people who get a good night’s sleep, and your odds of anxiety or panic disorders are even greater.
Refreshing slumber helps you hit the reset button on a bad day, improve your outlook on life, and be better prepared to meet challenges.
Sleep appears to play a big role in what’s called “memory consolidation”. During sleep, our brain makes connections. It links events, feelings, and sensory input to form memories.
Therefore, when we’re running low on sleep, we’ll probably have trouble holding onto and recalling details. That’s because sleep plays a big part in both learning and memory. Without enough sleep, it’s tough to focus and take in new information. Our brain also hasn’t had enough time to properly store memories so that we can call on them later.
Sleep lets your brain catch up so you’re ready for what’s next.
While we sleep, your blood pressure goes down, giving your heart and blood vessels a bit of a rest. The less sleep you get, the longer your blood pressure stays up during a 24-hour cycle. Studies show short sleep duration or poor sleep quality, is associated with high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol and atherosclerosis. And habitual short sleep increases the chance of cardiovascular events.
Short-term down time can have long-term payoffs.
Besides robbing you of energy and time for muscle repair, lack of sleep saps your motivation, which is what gets you through your daily tasks, both the ones you have to do and the ones you enjoy.
We know the importance of remaining active, but if we’re tired, we’re less likely to extend ourselves and engage in as much exercise. It’s when we’re feeling well slept that we feel more inclined to be more outgoing which has significant health benefits. Additionally, not having enough sleep affects balance, stability, strength and resilience which can lead to injuries and strains.
To help you ward off illnesses, our immune system identifies harmful bacteria and viruses in our bodies and destroys them. Ongoing lack of sleep changes the way our immune cells work. They may not attack as quickly, resulting in getting sick more often.
Good nightly rest now can help avoid that tired, worn-out feeling, as well as spending days in bed as your body tries to recover.
Sugar levels and weight control
Two hormones that regulate your appetite are leptin and ghrelin.
The fat cells in our body release leptin, telling our brain when we have enough energy. When released, it suppresses our appetite, making us feel satisfied. If leptin levels are low, our appetite increases.
Several studies have found that short sleep duration reduces leptin levels, leading to overeating and weight gain. In turn, the craving to eat more results in an increased intake of carbohydrates which raises glucose levels.
Ghrelin has the opposite function of leptin, increasing our appetite by telling our brain that our body needs more food. This is one of the reasons why certain fad diets often fail. When we don’t eat enough, ghrelin levels increase, making it harder to stick to a healthy diet.
Another thing that increases ghrelin levels is lack of sleep. The surge in ghrelin prompts us to feel hungry, leading us to eat more carbohydrates, which raises our glucose levels.
With those out of balance, our resistance to the temptation of unhealthy foods goes way down. And when we’re tired, we’re less likely to want to move our bodies. An overall recipe for weight gain and potential Type-2 Diabetes.
Improving your quality of sleep
Clear your head
Have a bath or shower before bed and take the time to think through the day rather than doing it once you climb into bed. And, write a list of things you need to do so that you don’t keep yourself awake trying to remember them!
Play soft music or an audio book so that you leave your own thoughts behind.
Do some breathing, yoga or meditation exercises before bed time. We’re so big on the benefits of breathing in fact we’ve put together an ebook on breathing exercises that will help you find balance, purpose and peace. Download your copy for free now:
Get into a pattern
Try to go to sleep and get up at the same time every day:
Your body will naturally fall into a pattern if you can do this. Our subconscious generally likes routine and so the more we can provide this, the easier it will be to fall and stay asleep. Choose a bed time when you normally feel tired, so that you don’t toss and turn.
Avoid sleeping in:
Sleeping in throws our sleep pattern. Try to make a commitment to something every morning so that you have a reason to get up even if you still feel a little tired.
Avoid napping during the day:
While napping is a good way to make up for lost sleep, if you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep at night, napping can make things worse. If you have to, limit naps to 15 to 20 minutes in the early afternoon.
Start the day with a healthy breakfast:
Among lots of other health benefits, eating a balanced breakfast can help sync up your biological clock by letting your body know that it’s time to wake up and get going. Skipping breakfast on the other hand, can delay your blood sugar rhythms, lower your energy, and increase your stress, factors that may disrupt sleep.
Healthy breakfast ideas:
The more vigorously you exercise, the more powerful the sleep benefits. But even light exercise—such as walking for just 10 minutes a day—improves sleep quality.
It can take several months of regular activity before you experience the full sleep-promoting effects. So be patient and focus on building an exercise habit that you can stick to.
Set up your sleeping environment
Give thought to the things in your bedroom that may have an external impact on your sleep quality such as:
- Minimise potential disruptions from light and sound. Use an eye-mask and/or ear-plugs if necessary.
- Make sure the room is at the optimal temperature – most people sleep best in a slightly cool room (around 65° F or 18° C) and with adequate ventilation. A bedroom that is too hot or too cold can interfere with quality sleep.
- Invest in a good mattress, linen and pillows. Sometimes these affect our sleep even without causing discomfort.
- Minimise electronic devices in the bedroom. There are a few of reasons for this. Firstly, checking your phone or iPad stimulates the brain so we are more active and awake. Secondly, studies have shown that the blue light that your device emits is not only bad for your vision, but it’s bad for your brain too as there is a correlation between suppressed levels of melatonin and exposure to blue light and Melatonin is a hormone responsible for controlling your sleep-wake cycle. Finally, your brain should correlate the bedroom with sleep not work or socialising or being entertained by your television.
Be smart about what you eat and drink
Alcohol and caffeine:
Sure, that nightcap, last glass of wine or beer before bed may help you feel sleepy. However, if you have alcohol in your system when you hit the hay, you may not sleep very deeply, or for very long, on and off throughout the night. That’s because as alcohol starts to metabolize, the sedative effect wears off.
Additionally, since alcohol’s sedative effect extends to your entire body, including your muscles, it may allow your airway to close more easily while you’re asleep. This can greatly increase the risk of sleep apnea and snoring, especially if you drink within the last couple of hours before bedtime.
Caffeine is a stimulant. It works on receptors in the brain to increase alertness and prevent sleepiness.
One of the things we know about caffeine is that it is rapidly absorbed by the body. Studies show that levels peak within 30 minutes of consuming it. However, the half-life of caffeine – that is, the time it takes the body to eliminate 50% of what was consumed – can be very different for different people. Research shows that the half-life of caffeine can last between 2 and 10 hours and varies by individual.
You may be surprised to learn that even green tea contains caffeine; around 30-50mg per cup. It is, however, typically less than black tea and much less than coffee.
Sugary foods and refined carbs:
Eating lots of sugar and refined carbs such as white bread, white rice, and pasta during the day can trigger wakefulness at night and pull you out of the deep, restorative stages of sleep.
Liquids in the evening:
Drinking lots of fluids may result in frequent bathroom trips throughout the night.
Big meals at night:
Try to make dinnertime earlier in the evening, and avoid heavy, rich foods and large portions within two hours of bed. Spicy or acidic foods can cause stomach trouble and heartburn.
Melatonin is a hormone that your brain produces in response to darkness. It helps with the timing of your circadian rhythms (24-hour internal clock) and with sleep. Our body produces Melatonin naturally, however, as we age, this natural production slows down, so a supplement may help our sleep pattern.
Sleeping tablets are a last resort as they come with their own risks, but can be a good short term solution to get back into a sleep rhythm.
The risks of not sleeping enough, in summary
When we don’t get enough sleep, there are many risks to our general health, including; depression, seizures, high blood pressure and migraines. Immunity is also compromised, increasing the likelihood of illness and infection. Studies have shown that poor sleep habits can increase the risk of dementia by 33%.
Our bodies crave sleep, much like we hunger for food. Throughout the day, our desire for sleep builds, and when it reaches a certain point, we need to sleep. A major difference between sleep and hunger is that our body can’t force us to eat when we’re hungry, but when we’re tired, it can put us to sleep, even if we’re operating machinery, in a meeting or behind the wheel of a car. When we’re exhausted, our body is even able to engage in micro-sleep episodes of one or two seconds while our eyes are open which can be extremely anti-social at best and dangerous at worst.
Sleep also plays a role in metabolism: Even one night of missed sleep can create a pre-diabetic state in an otherwise healthy person.
When we don’t get enough sleep, we become irritable, short tempered, lethargic, un-motivated, unable to perform expected tasks and abrupt and disinterested in those around us. Therefore, a lack of sleep can have an effect of our relationships and general performance.
Know when to contact a professional
A snoring partner
Frequently Asked Questions
My partner tells me I snore. How do I stop?
Snoring becomes more common in women after menopause. Try sleeping on your side or stomach instead of your back. To keep from rolling onto your back, sew a pocket into the back of your nightie or pyjamas and put a tennis ball in it. If your snoring is loud and persistent, interrupted by pauses in breathing, and you feel excessively sleepy during the day, you may have a more serious disorder called sleep apnea. Talk to your doctor, who can recommend lifestyle changes and other treatments that can get you (and your partner) back to sleep.
What can I do about night sweats?
Night sweats are very common especially in women during and post menopause. Night sweats refer to any excess sweating occurring during the night. If you keep your bedroom temperature unusually hot or you are sleeping in too many clothes, you may sweat during your sleep, which is normal. In order to distinguish night sweats that arise from medical causes from those that occur because one’s surroundings are too warm, doctors generally refer to true night sweats as severe hot flashes occurring at night that can drench sleepwear and sheets, which are not related to an overheated environment.
Why do we dream?
Dreams are present in all cycles of sleep but more in “deep” sleep. Dream Sleep is most commonly associated with Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep. Dream Sleep is felt to reinforce memories, brain activity, and “thinking” cycles-involved in working out problems. Dreams are not always related to the conscious world. Dream Sleep is affected by medications, medical disorders, and sleep disorders, fever, illness and sleep deprivation. Repetitive dreams do not mean “ insecurity”, but may point out an issue or fear.
How Long Should It Take to Fall Asleep?
It should take about 20 minutes to fall asleep, on average.
You may have your own questions. If you do, do not hesitate to join others like you in our Private Facebook Community.