“A good laugh and a long sleep are the two best cures for anything” (Irish Proverb)
Recently we seem to have realised that sleep is a bit more important than we thought. But why do we need to sleep, and how do we get more of it?…….
We should all be getting 7-9 hours of sleep per night. Ideally this should be regular, meaning you go to bed and get out of bed at the same time every day. Consistently not getting enough sleep has been scientifically linked to an increase in health conditions such as Alzheimers, prostate, bowel and breast cancers and obesity. The weight of evidence for this is so strong that the World Health Organisation has classed any type of shift work as a possible carcinogen.
Being awake for more than 20 hours impairs your thinking as much as if you were drunk! Lack of sleep is a massive factor in many car accidents and potentially a much bigger problem than drink-driving!
So if you stay up late at night trying to be more productive and get things done, you’re probably going to make yourself less productive the next day due to your lack of sleep – so was it really worth it?!
But it’s not just about quantity it’s also about quality. Consuming alcohol, caffeine or high amounts of sugar can affect the quality of our sleep. There are two types of sleep REM (rapid-eye-movement) and non-REM.
- REM sleep is when we do our dreaming. Some parts of our brain actually become 30% more active during this time. Our heart rate and respiratory rate will also increase and you can see a person moving their eyes under their eye lids (hence the name!) No-one is 100% sure why we dream but it may be a way that we process things that have happened during the day. As you’ll probably know, anything can happen in a dream but fortunately our brain paralyses our body during this time so that we can’t act our dreams out. (This system doesn’t work so well in those that sleep walk!)
- Non-REM sleep is when our body does its regeneration. Heart rate and respiratory rate slow and we are much more still. Cells are repaired and brain pathways involved with memory and learning are boosted.
Both phases of sleep are equally important.
Why do we sleep?
Sleep scientist Dr Matthew Walker likens being awake to receiving very tiny levels of brain damage, and suggests that sleep is when our brain repairs this damage – so it is vital that we get enough!
“Sleep is the greatest legal performance enhancing drug, that most people are neglecting” (Dr Matthew Walker)
Benefits of sleeping well
- Enhances memory, so that new memories are absorbed better.
- Increases performance of the hippocampus, which is a part of the brain that receives and process new information.
- Enhances performance with skills such as sports, or musical instruments (if you have been practicing that tricky bit over and over and just can’t get it, then try again after a good night’s sleep and you might be pleasantly surprised!)
- Reduces your chance of heart attacks, cancer and Alzheimers
- Enhances tissue healing (that’s why we physio’s a really interested in it!)
- Can give you a new sense of clarity, the brain works away at problems and fill in gaps in knowledge with what it has experienced during the day so that in the morning what seemed insolvable, is now solvable. If you’re unsure of something “sleeping on it” is often very good advice!
- Improves your mood. Lack of sleep first affects the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that is responsible for mood and personality. That’s why you are grumpy if you have a bad night’s sleep!
Less than 6 hours sleep can affect physical performance, studies have shown people with less than 6 hours have:
- Reduced peak muscle strength and peak running speed
- Decreased endurance – you will reach exhaustion up to 30% quicker
- Reduced jump height
- A quicker build-up of lactic acid
- Increased likelihood of injury (some studies suggest up to 60%)
- Quicker failure of stability muscles.
- Increased levels of inflammation
Sleep had also been shown to affect hormones and reproductive issues. Males who are not getting enough sleep have lower levels of testosterone. And poor sleep is also linked to reproductive issues in women.
But How Do I Sleep Well?
- Regularity is key – having a set bed time and get-up time will improve quality and quantity of sleep
- Make sure your bed room is nice and cool, around 18°C is perfect.
- Avoid screen use for a least an hour before bed.
- Avoid bright lights for an hour before bed and make sure your bedroom is dark
- Take a warm bath before bed (as this moves the blood to the extremities and helps to keep the core cool)
- Going to be with socks or gloves on – for the same reasons as above.
- Avoid eating just before bed, but also avoid going to bed hungry.
- Avoid a high sugar diet as this reduces the quality of sleep.
- Don’t drink coffee if you can help it, but definitely don’t drink it after midday.
- Supplements can help to promote sleep such as magnesium. Melatonin can also help but this is better used short term for the likes of jet-lag.
- If you have something on your mind that’s bugging you and you’re thinking about it at night – address it! Take action, make a plan or talk to someone about it.
- Your bed should be a place for sleep (and maybe some other enjoyable activities!) but not for working, or watching TV etc. Making sure your brain associates your bed with rest can be really helpful.
- Doing some exercise during the day to try and make sure you are physically tired as well as mentally.
- Try some breathing exercises or meditations, there are lots of apps you can down load that have meditations you can listen to (try the Calm or Headspace apps)
Napping can be a contentious issue. If you are having real trouble sleeping at night, then it might be best to avoid napping during the day, hard as that may be! However, according to Dr Matthew Walker, all our body systems take a little dip in the afternoon, whether we have eaten or not. Suggesting that maybe the Mediterranean way of having an afternoon “siesta” may be genetically hard-wired and in-fact good for us. So if you enjoy an afternoon nap and sleep well at night, don’t punish yourself – nap away!