Good sleep matters as much as diet and exercise for good health and wellbeing. In this article we discuss why prioritising sleep is so important, how to notice those things that might be sabotaging yours, and our top tips for improving the quality of your sleep.
People who sleep well don’t think about it much at all - they just sleep. Changes often occur very gradually – a young person might not notice the ill effects of sleeplessness or be too much troubled when it happens at all - until they can no-longer sleep well and then its importance to wellbeing is very obvious. Poor sleep is an alarm bell and with knowledge and help you can take active steps towards helping yourself sleep better. Not everyone will respond to the same interventions. Try not to identify yourself with being a poor sleeper “I am taking steps towards better sleep” is a preferable way to look at the problem. There’s all sort of help available and some resources at the end of the article.
Long-standing poor sleep can be just one sign in a broader picture of the body failing to maintain optimal health. The first step towards recovery may depend on addressing the emotional side, which is compromising the body’s ability to heal itself and just a heads up - that sometimes requires seeking out a therapist and some work. Here we introduce some first steps and things you might like to consider trying for yourself.
Make sleep a priority
Sleep is not the boring part that occurs between the more interesting stuff in life, it’s the cement that makes all the other things possible. It may come as a great surprise, but we do not understand fully why we sleep. What we do know is that on average, we’ll spend approximately one third of our lives sleeping - that’s over 25 years. It’s time well spent and is crucial for maintaining good health. During sleep our body and minds regenerate from the stresses and strains of daily life. Contrary to popular belief, it’s a highly active time in terms of brain activity and physiological functioning.
What we do know, good sleep is important for:
- A healthy immune system.
- Good mental wellbeing - chronic sleep deprivation is linked to conditions such as depression and anxiety.
- Good memory - sleep is crucial for our learning, concentration and memory. Lack of sleep can affect our ability to respond to and store information.
- Protection against type 2 diabetes - lack of sleep can affect the way your body breaks down glucose, increasing your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
- A healthy interest in sex - research suggests that men and women with poor sleep quality have lower libidos and less interest in sex.
- Protection against heart disease - research suggests that sleep deprivation can increase blood pressure, inflammation, autonomic tone and hormones, which may put extra strain on your heart increasing the risk of heart disease.
What does sleep look like?
Normal human sleep cycles between two states; rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep and non-REM sleep. These cycles typically occur at intervals of 90 minutes with 4-5 cycles occurring in the time spent asleep. REM sleep, is characterised by rapid eye movements, dreaming, irregularities of respiration and heart rate, penile and clitoral erection, airway relaxation and decreased muscle tone. It’s a time of when memory and thoughts are laid down and when testosterone production is at its highest.
Non-REM sleep has 3 phases and includes deep sleep and light sleep. It’s accompanied by decreased body temperature, reduced heart rate, and fluctuations in muscle tone. Deep sleep occurs in the first part of the night and is a state close to a coma. It’s very hard to wake a person who’s in deep sleep. It’s also time when the brain rewires, and growth hormones are produced. In deep sleep, we literally grow. Deep sleep is considered to be the most restorative part of sleep.
How much sleep do we need?
There’s no exact formula for the ‘correct amount of sleep.’ According to the NHS, we should all be getting roughly 8 hours of sleep a night. But the type and amount of sleep is under genetic control and there are different chronotypes of sleeper. You might find identifying your chronotype interesting? According to Dr Breus, there are four types:
- Bears - sleep and rise with the sun. They are the most energetic during the day and have no problems falling asleep. They peak mid-morning and dip in the afternoons. Bears represent 50% of the population.
- Wolves (also known as owls) - fall asleep later and wake up later. They peak in the middle of the day and in the evening. They represent 15-20% of the population.
- Lions (also known as early-birds) - wake early and are on best form before noon. They tire and fall asleep early and make up 15-20% of the population.
- Dolphins - are light sleepers who have difficulty following a regular sleeping pattern. They wake more frequently during the night. They peak mid-morning and early afternoon. They represent 10% of the population.
Common sleep saboteurs
Here’s a brief introduction to some common sleep saboteurs for you to consider and take action if that’s right for you.
According to The Sleep Council’s 2017 report, more than a third of Brits (35%) have suffered from sleeping problems for more than 5 years and 33% only manage 3-6 hours of sleep a night.
So, what are the causes of poor sleep?
- Illness – colds, tonsillitis and flu can cause snoring, coughing and frequent waking.
- Lack of exposure to natural light.
- Chronic stress – The strains of daily life can be difficult to switch off from and rumination and worries keep us awake at night
- Sleep disorders – Sleep apnoea and snoring can disturb you and your partner
- Sleep environment – Room temperature, noise and light can disrupt sleep
- Lifestyle choices – coffee, alcohol and cigarettes stimulate the brain
- Technology - the light emitted by screens decreases the production of melatonin, which controls your circadian rhythm (sleep/wake cycle).
Not only are many of us not getting enough sleep, but 31% of the UK have previously taken medication in an attempt to relieve the problem. However, there may be a few things you can try at home to improve the quality of your sleep. Take a look at our top sleep hacks that could potentially help you get a better night’s sleep.
How to get better sleep: Top 5 hacks for better quality sleep
1. Stick to regular wake-up times and bedtimes
Erratic sleeping patterns can cause you to fall out of sync with the natural light dark cycles, called circadian rhythms. A regular bedtime and wake-up time will help you take control of your internal clock. No doubt, there will be times that life interferes with your sleep routine. But try and stick to similar bedtimes and wake-up times even at weekends. If you’re finding it difficult to go to bed earlier, try making small adjustments; for example, go to bed 15 minutes earlier every few days until you reach your ideal bedtime.
A new study has found that not sticking to regular bedtime and wake-up times and getting different amounts of sleep each night is linked to a greater risk of obesity, high cholesterol, hypertension, high blood glucose, and other metabolic disorders. In the study, researchers followed 2,003 men and women aged 45-84 for a total of 6 years.
⏰So, pick a bedtime that takes into account the need for 5 x 90-minute sleep cycles per night = 7.5 hours. Then subtract 7.5 hours from your planned wake-up time, e.g. If you have to wake up at 7.00am that means bedtime should be 11.30pm. Stick to this plan for at least 10 days and don’t sleep in.
2. Get outside in natural light in the mornings
Get outside for at least 15 minutes before 10am every morning to take advantage of natural sunlight. Going outside in natural sunlight for 15 minutes each morning helps to regulate the production of the sleep hormone melatonin. Our internal body clock (circadian rhythm) runs on a 24-hour cycle and works best when exposed to a regular pattern of light and darkness. Malfunctions in circadian rhythms occur when changes in light and dark exposure negatively affect the body’s ability to secrete melatonin and therefore our ability to get a good night’s sleep.
3. Avoid caffeinated drinks in the afternoon
If you are having trouble sleeping it’s a good idea to restrict caffeine to the mornings. Caffeine blocks a substance known as adenosine. Adenosine levels progressively rise during the day and as the levels rise prepares us for sleep. Drinking caffeinated drinks blocks adenosine and causes an arousal in brain activity, focus, and concentration which is great when we need it but not later in the day as we move towards sleep. As a rule of thumb cut caffeine after 2.00pm and substitute with decaffeinated coffee, herbal teas or water.
☕️Did you know? The way in which we handle caffeine is determined by our genetic make-up. It’s possible to find out how find out how easily your body eliminates caffeine by taking a DNA test.
4. Avoid drinking alcohol
Many people drink alcohol to help them get to sleep, but in fact alcohol is much more likely to disrupt good sleep than to improve it. The more you drink, and the closer to bedtime you drink, the worse the impact on sleep quality will be.
Yes, you might fall asleep more quickly. But later in the night, as the alcohol is metabolised and its sedative effects wear off, there’s often a rebound wakening. Alcohol interferes with the body’s master biological clock and has widespread disruptive effects on liver function and gut health. It’s linked with depression and chronically interrupted sleep. Even moderate amounts of alcohol consumed before bedtime can reduce melatonin secretion by up to 20%.
Alcohol is also a diuretic which acts on the kidneys causing you to pee out more than you take in. So, it's no surprise that after an evening of drinking you're up in the night going to the toilet, sweating and wanting to drink water due to dehydration. Women’s sleep is disrupted even more so than men’s. If you do drink alcohol, the traditional ‘happy hour’ might be the best time to drink when the body is able to eliminate the alcohol most efficiently.
5. Avoid Blue Light emitters - Wind down and ditch the tech
🌅Red light at night - bedtime delight! If you want a sleep well, orangey, red light is much more restful, because it mimics the sunset.
Biological night is defined as the period between the onset and cessation of melatonin secretion. During this time, melatonin is secreted which controls the sleep wake cycle. Then, cortisol levels rise, core body temperature falls and we become sleepy.
Melatonin is produced during darkness and is inhibited by exposure to bright light and particularly light in the blue portion of the spectrum. The white and blue light that your phone screen emits suppresses melatonin and therefore the signal to fall asleep.
It’s best to keep electronic screens out of the bedroom. If you can’t go cold turkey, try putting the phone into 'Night Shift' mode to establish a warmer light. For PCs, there’s a free programme called F.lux which works similarly. Avoid doing anything that involves a screen, as the blue light emitted by phones, computers, tablets and TV screens decreases the production of melatonin.
A very recent study showed that sleep in teenagers can be improved in just one week of limiting their evening exposure to light-emitting screens on phones, tablets and computers resulting in improved sleep quality and reduced symptoms of fatigue, lack of concentration and bad mood.
There are many ways of relaxing and winding down before going to sleep and everyone is different so it's important to find what works for you. Whether it’s having a bath, reading a book or meditating, try dimming the lights an hour before bedtime. This should naturally allow your mind and body to gradually slow down and relax.
And just before you nod off…
Hop, skip and jump to sleep
Exercise can improve sleep quality and duration by increasing the time spent in the restorative stage of deep sleep. Deep sleep can help support immune function, boost cardiac health and help control stress and anxiety.
🏃🏼♀️Not only is exercise good for your physical and mental health, but it can also help you get a better night's sleep.
Research suggests that while the rise in body temperature from physical activity can make you feel more awake, the gradual fall in body temperature will inevitably make you feel more tired, encouraging you to fall asleep. Exercise is also known to increase endorphins, which reduces the symptoms of stress and anxiety enabling you to fall asleep more quickly.
Going to sleep should be relaxing therefore the environment you sleep in should also be relaxing. If a messy bedroom makes you feel stressed, then tidy up before you go to bed to put your mind at ease. Most importantly the bed you are sleeping in should be comfortable, so it may be worth investing in a suitable mattress and bedding to help improve your sleep quality. There’s even something called a sleep induction mat. This is something near to a plastic bed of nails to lie on just before bedtime - these acupressure nodules boost the release of endorphins!
Take control of your sleep
Overall don’t identify yourself with being a poor sleeper. It’s much better to think about it in a positive way; for example, “I’m taking steps towards better sleep.”
Taking control of poor sleep isn’t always the easiest of tasks, but if sleep is becoming a concern for you or someone else, then visit the National Sleep Foundation or book an appointment with your GP using the Evergreen Life app.