In recent years, a lot of emphasises has been placed on nutrition and exercise as being the pillars for good health. More recently sleep has begun to gain recognition and rightly so as sleep is the foundation of both of these pillars and actually massively impacts our health and well-being. During times of stress in life it is really common for people to experience sleep difficulties. Lack of sleep and anxiety fuel one and other and are interconnected. During difficult periods in life, night time can be the hardest time of day for people. Any of life’s worries can feel exaggerated at night and loneliness and fears are often exasperated. Similarly sleepless nights can trigger anxiety about the day ahead. My intention is that the below information may provide some further understanding of the importance of sleep for our health and mental well-being. There is so much to learn about this topic and I have found it intriguing researching for this post. France and Finland are the leading experts in sleep analysis and any of the data mentioned in this comes from studies carried out in these countries.
Thankfully, my own personal experience with sleep has been mainly positive. I strive to obtain approximately eight hours a night. Some people can manage on little sleep however I find it incredibly difficult to cope if I haven’t had a peaceful night’s rest. If sleep deprived, I find that I am much more emotional, cranky and hungry. As spoken about on here before I have always attempted to control aspects of my life which are controllable, in an attempt to reduce anxiety and limit my exposure to stress. Paradoxically, the contrary happened and the obsession to control further inhibited my ability to live with minimal stress. The area of sleep served to be another aspect of my well-being that I attempted to control. This started from a young age. Being an only child I never had to share my room and was used to snuggling down to go to sleep in a pitch dark space with no disturbance of anyone else’s presence or movement. When I reached the age of sleepovers with friends, sharing rooms with another person caused immense apprehension. I found it difficult to fall asleep to the sound of someone else’s breathing or preference for brightness in the room. I recall lying awake focusing on nothing other than the repeated sound of their breath and it frustrating me no end. Further on down my life path, I moved to Dublin to attend university. The city noises at night were something else I was unfamiliar with which impacted my ability to fall asleep. The purchase of ear plugs was the method I used to attempt to control this outside noise. While they worked magnificently at the time they became something I could not manage without, so much so that I always had to have a spare pair with me. During my time in India, this was something I managed to let go of. I purposefully left my ear plugs on the plane when I landed at home and haven’t used them since. Once I realised that they were just another crutch I was using to enable this controlling mentality, I quickly understood that they were no longer serving me and were unnecessary. Despite my relatively positive experience of sleep it has always been a very important aspect of my well-being and the whole science of it has always intrigued me.
Sleep and Health: Why is it so important?
The study of sleep is a contemporary phenomenon. Our understanding of the correlation between sleep and health is beginning to be understood at a more quantifiable level as sleep can now be studied by measurable outcomes. The old saying ‘sure you can sleep when you are dead’ is in fact counterproductive advice as studies show that the shorter you sleep the shorter your life. Unfortunately sleep is not like a bank account. You can’t neglect it during the week in the hope that you can catch up on it at the weekend. Shockingly one out of two people aren’t getting the recommend seven to nine hours of sleep. A mere six hours and thirty one minutes is the average amount of sleep we are obtaining on a nightly basis. This has many negative impacts on our overall health as; lack of sleep is one of the primary contributors to diseases such as heart attacks and Alzheimers. As mentioned by Mathew Walker’s in his book ‘why we sleep’, scientists have noted a 24 % increase in the amount of heart attacks that occur when the cocks change as people lose out on one hours sleep. While a one hour reduction in our night’s sleep hopefully won’t result in something as detrimental as a heart attack, insufficient sleep across the lifespan is one of the highest determining factors in the development of Alzheimer’s disease.
Wakefulness actually causes low level brain damage and it is sleep that provides reparatory function to counteract this which is why it is so important. In France, a considerable amount of effort is currently underway in attempting to lobby doctors to prescribe natural sleep to their patients. Currently during medical training only two hours of sleep education is provided. I find this shocking considering that sleep consumes a third of a patient’s life. Similarly, in hospital settings where sleep is a necessity for recovery it is one of the least likely places a good night’s sleep will be obtained as a result of the bright lights and noise levels on units. It is being suggested that all admission forms to hospitals should include a question about sleeping patterns so that attempts can be made to provide medical treatment around patient’s natural sleeping patterns.
- Sleep Disorders
There are many types of sleep disorders however the two that are most commonly referred to are insomnia and sleep apnea.
Insomnia is defined as ‘difficulty in initiating and maintaining sleep that has become persistent’. To be categorised into this group a person must struggle with this six to seven nights a week and it must be persistent over a four to six month period. Twenty percent of the population will suffer with insomnia at some point in their life. Particular causes are periods of life in which worry and anxiety are dominant. The bereavement of loved ones can also be a common trigger. This disorder often persists even when the issue that caused it may have been resolved as maladaptive habits have been formed. Frequently people misinterpret how much sleep they are actually getting and while they may feel that they are experiencing insomnia they are in fact falling asleep but are unaware of how long they have maintained sleep.
Sleep apnea is the second most common sleeping disorder. It generally effects the male population as they are more likely to collect body fat around their tummy area and neck which impacts their respiration capacity. Other risk factors in developing sleep apnea are being over the age of 40 and individuals who snore. Sleep apnea affects breathing capacities while sleeping as airways are closed off. For mild cases the usual recommended treatment is lifestyle changes relating to nutrition and weight management. Medical procedures such as throat surgery can be required in the more moderate and severe cases.
Should you suffer from either of the above or experience any difficulty in obtaining sleep, I can’t resist recommending some yoga poses. Yes I know, it is my answer for everything. The practice of yoga itself can enhance sleep massively as it calms the mind, central nervous system and body. Here are three poses which only take 8 minutes to do. This yoga sequence is ideal for preparing your body for sleep.
Begin yogic breathing and maintain throughout the exercise. Inhale through your nose and exhale through your nose with a slight restriction in the back of your throat.
- Legs up the wall
Lay on your back on the ground. Put the back of your legs up against a wall keeping your legs straight so that your body is in an L shape pose. Hold this pose for two to three minutes. This pose gives your heart a break and slows it down assisting your transition into a relaxed state.
- Lying butterfly
Lay on the ground on your back. Press the soles of your feet against each other and let your knees fall out to the side. Place pillows under your knees for increased relaxation. Hold for two minutes.
- Corpse Pose:
Lay on the ground on your back with legs straight, arms by sides, and palms facing up. Breathe slowly, focusing on your inhales and exhales. Hold for three minutes.
Stages of sleep
The two stages of sleep are Non Rapid Eye Movement and Rapid Eye Movement. REM sleep is a deep state of sleep which enables body replenishment. During this period of sleep, immune system repair is initiated and the stabilisation of our individual metabolism occurs. Contrastingly, evident from brain scans during REM sleep, thirty percent of the brain becomes more active than when we are awake. We often think of sleep as static state where everything drops down in terms of activity when in actual fact some things become more alert. Visual and motor parts of brain function increase and memory sensors intensify which is why sleep is so important for the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease. However, the pre frontal cortex which is the CEO component of the brain responsible for rational thinking, goes in the opposite direction. This part shuts off in REM sleep which is why everything feels so emotional and utterly illogical in dream states.
Another valuable aspect of sleep is the quality of sleep people are obtaining. Despite getting enough hours of sleep sometimes we aren’t getting good quality sleep and can still wake up feeling drained and lethargic. The quality of sleep is frequently impacted by strange or new places. REM is the deep stage of sleep that our brains will resist going into when in a foreign environment. Similarly to animals such as dolphins whose brains remain half alert and awake to protect them from attack, humans also prefer to remain in a lighter stage of sleep as a defense detect system in unknown environments. Hence, why many people find sleep difficult in hotel rooms or on the first night of holidays.
Sleep, Nutrition and Exercise
The timing in which we eat is also really important and is linked to our circadian rhythm which is the internal clock in our body. Anyone who has experienced jet lag will be familiar with this. We have means of synchronising these rhythms to our environment. In order for us to tie what is going on in our bodies to what time of the day it is we need external ques such as light to communicate with the rest of the body how well to digest food. The waking phase is recognised in the body as being when it is bright outside and this is when our digestive processes are at their best. Nowadays the increase in artificial light has created a different environment as people are staying up late and eating late. Eating later on in the day when your body is getting into rest mode between eight PM and midnight makes it harder for your body to digest. The bulk of our food should be eaten earlier in the day however our lifestyle can make this a difficult task. Dinner should be consumed as early as possible and attempts should be made to maintain a regular meal patterns to assist your body in achieving its circadian rhythm.
We are all familiar with the three o clock slump. I always associated this with food and feeling sluggish after lunch however surprisingly it is not solely dependent on diet. Mathew Walker (Sleep Neurologist) suggests that we are genetically hard wired to feel this lull in energy to remind us that we should be sleeping bilaterally. The lull exists organically and is why so many countries have siesta time in the middle of the day. So, now with this information we no longer have an excuse to snack at three Pm 🙂
If you do find yourself feeling hungry in the middle of the day despite having a substantial lunch it may be beneficial to look at the amount of sleep you are obtaining as lack of sleep greatly impacts our appetite. If we are sleep deprived Leptin the hormone responsible for feeling satiated is reduced and Ghrelin the hormone which controls feeling hungry is increased. This impact on hunger hormones can cause an increase of calorie consumption from anything between two hundred to three hundred calories a day, which over the course of a year can equate to the mass of ten to fifteen pounds. Along with this, if you are dieting and not losing weight, lack of sleep may be the cause of this. As a defense mechanism our body becomes stingy in giving up its fat when it has under slept and seventy percent of weight loss will instead be extracted from muscle and not fat.
If you want to improve your sleep it is important to understand that there are certain foods that hinder and assist sleep. As spoken about in the anxiety post there are foods that put us into states of mild fight or flight such as highly processed foods and ones high in additives. Polyalcohols found in protein bars and chewing gum mimic the production of insulin to the brain and cause cravings. If these substances are consumed late in the evening it can be difficult for the body to wind down to obtain a good night’s sleep. It is beneficial to stick with foods that your body understands and avoid foods that do not react well with you before bed time. For me, these include sugar and dairy. Similarly your intake of caffeine also influences sleep and it is important to remember that it has a seven to ten hour shelf life depending on your metabolism. As we know Caffeine is not just in coffee and therefore we should limit our intake of tea and chocolate in the hours leading up to sleep also. Beneficial foods to consume before bed are slow complex carbohydrates. Oats for example can enhance a night’s sleep as it causes the slow release of glucose into the brain. This is turn, causes little releases of dopamine in the brain which causes sleepiness. Along with the types of foods we consume, it is advisable not to go to bed on a full stomach as your body undergoes a considerable amount of work while digesting which impacts its ability to initiate sleep. The recommend time to eat prior to bed is at least sixty to ninety minutes before resting our heads on the pillow. Despite this widespread knowledge regarding the benefits of sleep on our overall health, there is little public health campaigns based on the importance of sleep yet there are many diet related promotions which, I find surprising given its monumental impact on many aspects of our overall well-being.
Along with nutrition, exercise has many positive influences on quality of sleep and in very basic terms, energy expenditure causes tiredness. However, if you are struggling with sleep, the time of day you choose to train has an impact. If you go to the gym after work it may easily be eight PM before you are getting home to eat and unwind which does not leave much time for digestion or mental relaxation to occur. Along with this, after any tough training session cortisol is released, your body’s response to this can give you the feeling of having a second wind of energy which subsequently can impact the onset of sleep as the body is in an elevated state. If you feel this is impacting your ability to sleep you may want to try switching to morning or lunchtime training.
Sleep and Alcohol
Alcohol and sleep also have a relationship which is not always conducive to one and other. Alcohol blocks deep REM sleep and the brain’s appetite for dream sleep increases as result of not getting this during the hours in which our kidneys and liver are excreting the alcohol. Within a typical eight hour sleeping cycle our brains have been deprived of dream sleep for the six hours it takes to excrete alcohol so it increases in the last couple of hours which is what causes the vivid dreams following alcohol intake.
Top Tips for a Good Night’s Sleep
- Regularity is key. Try to go to bed at the same time every night and wake up at the same time irrespective of whether or not it is the weekend.
- Try to stay away from light an hour before bed. This includes screen time with phones and gadgets. Have a technology curfew. It is also important to start to switch of the lights around the house. Melatonin starts being produced earlier it if is not exposed to false light.
- Keep sleeping areas cool. Your core body temperature is also linked with your circadian rhythm so when it is higher your body’s internal working mechanism signals that it is day time. The brain needs to drop its temperature by two degrees to fall asleep. The paradox is however that your feet and hands need to be warm to radiate the heat out of your core.
- Also let’s remind ourselves about the true meaning of the phrase midnight – middle of the night. In modernity we have become dislocated from natural rhythms and often we are only beginning to get ready for bed at this time. Try to go to bed earlier to allow yourself time to unwind and fall asleep.
I hope you have found this interesting and helpful. If you would like to gain more information on this topic I highly recommend reading Matthew Walker’s Book ‘why we sleep’ which describes the science of sleep and dreams. Feel free to add any of your own tips for sleeping to share the sleep love.