Why is Sleep Important?
Getting enough sleep, and enough quality sleep, is important as it allows our brains to consolidate our memories and process everything we have learnt that day. However, with increasingly busy lives, most people are functioning on less sleep than they should, and the vast majority of people are chronically sleep-deprived. In fact, according to mentalhealth.org.uk, we are now getting about 90-minutes less sleep per night than we did in the 1920's.
We all know that if we get very little sleep, the next day we can be moody and irritable. However, chronic insomnia can increase the risk of developing a clinical mood disorder such as depression or anxiety. According to New Scientist, people who get less than 7 hours of sleep a night are at an increased risk of developing a mood disorder or other mental health problems.
After getting 7 hours, our sleep starts to restore our hormones, skin cells, liver function, and heart health. This just shows us the importance of sleep. Sleep is not wasted time, it is not time when you could be doing something more productive. our sleep is so beneficial to our bodies and our minds. It is potentially the ultimate form of self-care.
Different Stages of Sleep
There are five stages of sleep; 1, 2, 3, 4, and R.E.M (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep. These stages are cyclical in that we start at 1 and pass through to R.E.M, and then go back to 1 again, through the night. Each stage lasts about 10-15 minutes, and a full cycle lasts between 90 and 110 minutes. Stages 1 & 2 are light sleep and 3 & 4 are deep sleep (it is relatively difficult to wake people who are in deep sleep). Deep sleep provides the most restorative sleep of all the sleep stages.
When we first fall asleep, our R.E.M sleep is relatively short, however as the night progresses, we spend more and more time in R.E.M and deep sleep. During R.E.M sleep, the edges move rapidly from side to side (although the eyelid remain shut), reflecting the intense dreaming and brain activity that is occurring during this stage. R.E.M sleep is when the most vivid and memorable dreams occur.
Struggling to Sleep
Okay, so now we know how important sleep is, but what if we struggle to get to sleep? Don't fear, there is help out there!
Our sleep very often depends on how we behave during our waking hours, meaning that there are loads of things that you can do to improve your sleep!
Tips to Improve Sleep
Below are some tips that I have gathered together in the hopes of spreading a little bit of slumber! Remember, that each person is different, and if some of these tips don't work for you, then try something else. Deep sleep, like many other things, is the result of trial and error and seeing what works for you.
1. Keep in Sync!
Our body has a natural 24-hour cycle called a circadian rhythm. This rhythm fluctuates our body temperatures, hormone release, and sleep-waking activities.
Sticking to a pretty consistent 24-hour pattern will mean that our body becomes used to going to sleep at a certain time and will eventually wind itself down when that time is approaching.
Try to go to sleep and wake up at roughly the same time (even on weekends).
Be smart about napping. I am a huge proponent of napping, I love a good nap in the afternoon, but just be smart about when you take a nap. Too close to bedtime and you will struggle to fall asleep. Try to limit naps to about 15-20 minutes in the early afternoon, this way we do remain only in light sleep. If we nap for longer than 15-20 minutes, we fall into stages 3 or 4 (deep sleep), reducing our need for deep sleep when we come to bed time.
We should also try to use our beds only for sleep (or sex), rather than using it as a desk, sofa, somewhere to eat our dinner, and so on.By limiting the uses for our beds, they remain relaxing places; not places to stress over exams or deadlines.
Melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone in our bodies that is controlled by light exposure. Melatonin helps to regulate your circadian rhythm.
Our brains secrete more melatonin when it is dark out, which makes us sleepy.
Therefore, if we expose ourselves to bright natural light in the mornings, we will be able to wake up quicker.
We should also try to avoid bright or blue lights (I.e. from smart phones or tablets) for 1-2 hours before we go to sleep. Avoiding late night TV watching can also boost the production of melatonin before bedtime. We can further boost our melatonin production by making the bedroom as dark as possible. Invest in some black out blinds if necessary, and even cover up the little blinking lights on our TV or laptop chargers to eliminate as much light as possible.
Keeping the lights as low as possible if we have to get up during the night (I.e. to pop to the loo) will mean that it is easier to fall back to sleep after.
Melatonin can be taken as a supplement if we really struggle to sleep (please ask your doctor), or if we are struggling with jet lag.
Exercise has been shown to alleviate the symptoms of insomnia and sleep apnea
It also increases the amount of time that we spend in deep REM sleep (the really restorative time!)
Although regular exercise can help with sleep, it can take a few months to fully take effect, so be patient, and don't give up!
We should avoid exercising too close to bed time as the increased adrenaline in our bodies can cause restlessness!
If you want to do squeeze some movement in before bed time, try yoga or stretching!
4. Food and Drink
It may seem obvious, but limiting caffeine in the afternoon can help to improve sleep. Everyone is different and has different levels of tolerance for caffeine. I know of some people that can drink coffee up until the go to bed and it has no effect on their sleep (however these people are rare freaks of nature!) and others who cannot drink a green tea before bed due to the levels of caffeine. Experiment and find out what works for you.
Avoiding nicotine and alcohol in the afternoons and evenings can also improve your sleep!
Avoid drinking too many liquids close to bed time, purely for the fact that you may be up and down going to the bathroom through the night.
Cutting back on sugary foods and drinks in general can stabilise the blood sugar levels and mean that you no longer suffer from sugar highs and crashes. This levelling out of our blood sugar level can I prove our ability to fall asleep and stay asleep.
5. Wind down and clear your head
It is important to clear your head before attempting to get some sleep. If we have a log to-do list flying through our minds, we are to going to be able to relax. If needs be, keep a notepad and pen by your bed to write down any ties that are still on your to-do list. By writing them down, our brains don't feel the need to keep reminding you every two minutes to phone grandma or post that cheque to the DVLA! Hopefully our brains will be a little quieter!
If you have trouble winding down after work or after a social event, there are meditation apps available that have guided meditations tailored to helping you calm you mind before sleep. (See the Calm app or the Simple Habit app).
Sometimes having a nighttime routine can help your body and mind to wind down. Some people will do yoga or meditation before going to bed. Others will read or write in their journal. Some will make a plan for their day tomorrow or put on a face mask or have a bath. Whatever works for you! And again, experiment!
If you try all of these tips and still struggle to fall asleep or stay asleep for most of the night, it may be time to visit your doctor. Your doctor may be able to suggest other home remedies or lifestyle changes, or may describe medication that can help to regulate your circadian rhythm or melatonin production.
The take home from this is that sleep is very important, not only for our moods but also for our bodies. And it isn't always enough to have a long lie in on the week end and get by with 5 hours a night during the week. Good quality sleep and its effect on our health is a long term process and relies on consistency.
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