The Whys and Hows of Sleep
If you want to enjoy a long, healthy, energetic and productive life, it is pretty much agreed that you need to work on four basic areas: nutrition, exercise, stress and sleep. In this post, I’m going to focus on sleep as it is something that many people (and I include myself here) struggle with.
Why is Sleep so Important?
There is a very rare condition called Fatal Familial Insomnia (FFI) whereby sleep becomes impossible, it leads to panic attacks, hallucinations and eventually death, with no known cure. Thus this shows that sleep is essential to stay healthy. Recent research has found the existence of the glymphatic system which drains metabolic waste products from the brain via the cerebrospinal fluid (including those pesky amyloid plaques that build up during the progression of dementia). This system only works when we are in deep sleep, making regular good sleep essential for maintaining brain health, aside from other body maintenance and repair processes that occur mostly whilst we are asleep. It has also been shown that good sleep is essential for memory formation and that mood and willpower problems are exacerbated by a lack of sleep.
Why do we have so much trouble with sleep?
Until recently, our sleep cycles were driven by circadian rhythms with the rising and setting of the sun driving the release of hormones and brain wave patterns. Now the abundance of electric lights and digital stimulation after dark, as well as jet lag and shiftwork has disrupted this primal cycle. Most people find that when they go camping, with light being limited to torches and the campfire, they start to sleep much better, especially if they have a comfortable airbed
What can we do about this?
The key is to support your body’s production of melatonin, the sleep hormone which is triggered by darkness, and is suppressed by light – particularly bright white light at night – including these new energy efficient bright LED street lights that are replacing many of the old yellow ones. So here are a few tips which I try to implement most days to support melatonin production and sleep cycles:
- Try and maintain a consistent sleep and wake cycle, even at weekends, I know this is easier said than done, but if you are struggling with sleep it can be really helpful.
- Get out in the natural light as early as possible in the morning without sunglasses for at least 20 minutes, and finish any vigorous workout at least 4 hours before your bedtime
- Keep the lighting low at home in the evening using dimmers and softer lighting
- Use options like F.lux and Night Shift on your PC and devices to reduce your exposure to white light in the evening
- Avoid looking at annoying work emails, the news or social media late in the evening if you know it is going to prey on your mind
- Switch off electronics and TV about an hour before you intend to go to sleep. Use that time to wind down doing breathing exercises, gentle yoga, reading a book or taking a bath. Try and make some time just for you! If possible keep your phone out of the bedroom, or at least on airplane mode if you use it as an alarm.
- It has been shown that most people’s sleep cycles last 90 minutes, so you want to ensure that the time you allow for sleep is a multiple of this, ie for most people 7.5 hours is a good amount of time to aim for. If you wake at the end of a cycle, you will feel far more rested and ready to meet the day. Ideally, you want to be waking without an alarm, but this is often hard to achieve.
- Keep a pen and pad by the bed to write down anything that comes into your mind that you may need to remember, so you can let it go rather than worrying about it at night.
- Create a calming and dark sleeping environment with blackout blinds if possible. If not, try an eye mask and earplugs. I also use a small device that creates a gentle ‘whoosh’ white noise to block out any ambient noise coming from the street.
- Avoid too much alcohol, as it may help you fall asleep, but it suppresses melatonin and so will stop you getting into the deep levels of sleep that are needed for all the restorative functions of the sleep. The same goes for sleeping pills, which eliminate your awareness but do not allow for the natural sleep cycle that restores your mind and body.
- If you need a little extra help you could try magnesium supplements. About 70% of us are deficient in magnesium, which can result in disrupted sleep. Also, the essential oils lavender and bergamot do seem to help people get to sleep. Herbs that I find useful are valerian and passion flower.
There are plenty more resources online if you feel you want more information, including this informative TED Talk, but the list here is a good place to start to improve your sleep hygiene. If you want any more help or have any questions, I’m happy to talk about your specific issues at your next appointment.