Sleep is a complex process, so to keep things simple, here are three things worth being aware of:
Sleep is like a computer running a maintenance programme in the night to help us function well during the day
It’s essential to the process of repairing our brains and bodies
It’s as important to our health as eating, drinking and breathing
What happens when we sleep?
The science is detailed and complex, but in a nutshell we go through various sleep stages, moving from light sleep to deep sleep to REM sleep. Brain wave activity slows down, we breathe more slowly and evenly, muscle activity and heart rate slow down. Then the magic happens! A process of recovery and repair starts with the brain processing information, reorganising memories, flushing out toxins and repairing damaged DNA. Proteins and hormones are released to fight inflammation and infection. It’s like having a team of doctors and pharmacists working on our behalf while we sleep.
The brain is too active to do this repair work while we’re awake. When we are asleep, our energy can be concentrated on the repair work – like road repairs taking place during the night, while there’s little traffic around.
What happens when we don’t sleep well?
Everyone experiences some degree of sleeplessness, for example the occasional bad night’s sleep, and we can all deal with that, but it becomes a problem when it happens frequently. The consequences of poor sleep over a sustained period can be quite severe, including a negative impact on:
Our brain function suffers because when sleep-deprived, parts of the brain become inactive while we’re still awake – it’s like the lights are on but no one’s home.
There is a direct link between insomnia and poor physical and mental health, stress, anxiety, even depression.
Every major disease in the developed world has very strong causal links to deficient sleep - cancer, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer's.
What stops us from sleeping well?
The main culprits are:
Stress is a vicious circle: when you can’t sleep you get stressed and when you’re stressed you can’t sleep – your mind starts to take over and get in the way. For some it can become an acute condition and they should seek help through their GP or a sleep clinic that might look at treatments such hypnotherapy, medication or CBT.
For better sleep: things to avoid
1. Caffeine, alcohol and nicotine
Caffeine stimulates the central nervous system, increasing your heart rate and adrenaline. It also supresses the production of melatonin, the hormone responsible for regulating the sleep cycle. It takes a long time for the body to break down caffeine, so even drinking coffee during the day can affect sleep at night. Remember that caffeine is in green tea and some carbonated drinks.
While alcohol can help people fall asleep quickly, it also impairs sleep quality during the second half of the night, and it is a diuretic which means that we may need to wake in the night to go to the toilet, disrupting the sleep pattern.
Smokers take longer to enter sleep and have less total sleep time, approximately 14 minutes less per night.
2. Eating and drinking
Eating a big meal shortly before bedtime should be avoided because the body will spend time digesting the food before it’s ready to sleep. Avoid spicy foods because they ask a lot of your digestive system. Avoid refined sugar. Just think of hyperactive children and sugary drinks!
Some foods have sleep inducing properties, such as rice and oats, which may contain small amounts of melatonin, which increases the desire to sleep. Dairy products contain the amino acid tryptophan which is useful in manufacturing melatonin.
Consider a ban on televisions, computers, ipads and phones in your bedroom. Even if they don’t beep, they are typically the source of stimulation rather than the calm needed for sleep.
Harvard Medical School found that those who read electronic books before they went to bed took longer to get to sleep, had reduced levels of melatonin and were less alert in the morning.
For better sleep: things to embrace
1. Physical exercise
During the day it’s fine to do strong or aerobic exercise which has been proven to reduce stress as well as improve mood and sleep. But just before bed, gentle yoga stretching and mindful movement relaxes both body and mind and doesn’t increase the adrenaline production that comes with more vigorous exercise.
2. Meditation and breathing exercises
These are scientifically proven to relax the mind and reduce stress, one of the main causes of disturbed sleep.
3. Conducive environment
Set up your bedroom so it’s well ventilated, dark, quiet and not too warm. Invest in a decent, firm mattress and pillow. Of course it’s not always possible, but ideally, make your room a place for sleep, not TV, eating or working as this sends clear and wrong messages to your brain.
How many hours should I sleep?
There is no universally correct answer to the question because some people need more sleep than others, just think about a baby vs an 80 year old or someone recovering from an illness. The widely believed view that we should aim for eight hours is actually not correct. Leading sleep researcher, Daniel Kripke, found in his studies that “people who sleep between 6.5 and 7.5 hours live the longest, are happier and most productive”.
Interestingly he also found that sleeping much longer (over eight hours) or much shorter can be damaging to health or a sign of ill health.
If you would like to find out more about how meditation, yoga, breathing exercises and mindfulness can help support good sleep, contact Nick on 0787 966 6921 or at firstname.lastname@example.org