This week is International Sleep Awareness Week so let’s talk about why a good night’s sleep is SO important, not only for health generally but most fundamentally for Dynamic Ageing.
Sleep matters big time. Without enough sleep, you create an uphill battle in so many different ways – and lack of it will sabotage your health and any health goals you might have. Sleep is in fact one of the three crucial pillars of good health, along with a nourishing, wholesome diet and plenty of movement. Physical and emotional wellbeing truly depend on sufficient sleep and yet we’re living in sleep-deprived times. Some people are even boastful and competitive about how little sleep they’re getting, as though dragging yourself through the day on four hours’ rest is a badge of honour! Scientists even say we’re now getting an hour or two less sleep each night than we were 60 years ago. And the effect on our bodies is not good.
The amount of sleep each person needs varies. Waking up feeling refreshed in the morning is a good indicator, and so is not needing an alarm clock in order to wake up. If the alarm wakes you from a state of deep sleep, you are not getting enough sleep. And if you don’t get enough sleep, you may not be able to concentrate properly, and you may become irritable or agitated. You may also have blurred vision, be clumsy, become disorientated or slow to respond, and have decreased motivation. And when it comes to food, if you’re tired and cranky, you are significantly less likely to make the best dietary choices. Furthermore, you may be surprised to learn that, in a computer-simulated driving test, those who had had just a few hours' sleep were more dangerous on the (virtual) road than the people who had had a few drinks! In fact, the majority of road accidents are directly caused by tiredness.
The purpose of sleep is to rest and recover, and to allow the body to repair itself – and this is particularly true of the brain, which cleanses and detoxifies itself during sleep, along with carrying out countless other critical processes like consolidating memory and learning . These maintenance and repair processes take 7 to 9 hours which means that adults need between 7 and 9 hours per night – regardless of what you may think you have trained yourself to simply get by with.
Here are a few important areas of health which poor sleep can affect.
SLEEP AND WEIGHT
Sleep and weight are intimately related. If you are not getting enough sleep on a regular basis, you are setting yourself up to be hungrier, eat more, weigh more, and have a harder time losing weight. Scientific research has proved that, if you are consistently surviving on too little sleep (that’s less than seven and a half hours of good sleep every night), you’re not going to be functioning at your best, focusing properly or thinking creatively. The cherry on top is that you are also sabotaging any attempts to take control of healthy eating and your weight because sleep deprivation causes hormonal imbalance. I’m talking here about the hormones which directly affect your feelings of hunger. Ghrelin (the hunger hormone which makes you feel more hungry) and leptin (the satiety hormone which tells you when you’ve had enough to eat) are majorly disrupted when you are not sleeping enough. So, after a night of lousy sleep, if you feel like you need to eat like a horse, it’s not all in your head but rather in your hormones. The feast you desire is going to be filled with high-carbohydrate, starchy foods and not the vibrant healthy ones you might otherwise choose.
STRESS AND YOUR HORMONES
Lack of sleep also interferes with stress hormones, and stress messes with your sleep. It’s a vicious circle and one particularly good reason why it is so important to take the time to unwind before hitting the sack. Cortisol is one of the main stress hormones which should follow a specific pattern throughout the day, starting off low after a good night’s sleep, then rising to a peak in the morning to get you out of bed and gradually tailing off towards the evening. Prolonged periods of stress can create an imbalance in this daily rhythm which may result in high cortisol levels come night-time. Typically, this would leave you feeling tired but wired – absolutely exhausted, but with your head buzzing when you hit the pillow. Not exactly a recipe for success!
The stress placed on the body by lack of sleep also upsets your body’s sensitivity to insulin (the fat-storage hormone), which contributes to weight gain and this, in turn, exacerbates hormonal symptoms like hot flushes and night sweats.
BALANCED BLOOD SUGAR LEVELS = BETTER SLEEP
The more starchy carbohydrates you eat, the more glucose pours into your blood and the higher the amount of insulin that your body needs to restore blood sugar balance. If your diet is high in starches like bread, rice, pasta and sugars, you make more insulin, which creates blood sugar fluctuations at night, and these cause sleep disturbances. A sugar ‘crash’ at night triggers a release of cortisol to wake you up at the wrong time, and this can shift you out of deep sleep into a lighter sleep phase. Moving to a way of eating which balances your blood sugar helps significantly improve the quality of your sleep.
So, INVEST in sleep! It is one of the best things you can do in order to age dynamically and live your life more enjoyably. But just HOW do you get a good night’s sleep?
The most common cause of insomnia is a change in your daily routine. For example, travelling, change in work hours, disruption of other behaviours (eating, exercise, leisure, etc), and relationship conflicts can all cause sleep problems. Establishing good sleep hygiene is the most important thing you can do to maintain good sleep and you may also find it useful to keep a sleep diary to help pinpoint any particular problems.
TIPS FOR A GOOD NIGHT’S SLEEP
There are a number of things you can do (or not do) to improve your chances of sleeping well.
· Go to bed at the same time every night. Your body thrives on routine.
· Keep the temperature in your bedroom comfortable; not too hot, not too cold.
· Keep the bedroom completely dark, so you’re not disturbed by light, which your brain detects even when your eyes are closed. Eye masks can be useful.
· Spend time outdoors during the day to soak up the sun.
· Incorporate plenty of movement into your everyday life. There is evidence that regular exercise improves restful sleep. This includes stretching and aerobic exercise. A brisk walk ticks both boxes.
· Make an effort to relax for at least 30 minutes before going to bed - a warm bath, a massage, a few minutes of meditation.
· Consider getting a traditional alarm clock so that your smartphone is not on your bedside table (see below). Better still, work out how much sleep you need by going to bed 15 minutes earlier until you find that you wake up naturally before your alarm. That’s your personal sleep requirement.
· Engage in stimulating activities – like playing a competitive game, watching an edge-of-the-seat film, reading a challenging book or having an important conversation with a loved one. Even using smartphones and tablets can interfere with sleep, because they emit the same kind of light as the morning sun so ban them from your bedroom.
· Eat a heavy meal just before going to bed.
· Drink caffeine in the afternoon – including coffee, ‘normal’ and green tea, and colas.
· Use alcohol to help you sleep. Alcohol can help you to actually get to sleep but it will also lead to more disturbed sleep.
· Go to bed too hungry. Have a snack before bed – an oatcake with nut butter or a banana are ideal.
· Avoid daytime naps.
· Try not to get frustrated if you can’t sleep. Go to bed in a positive mood – “I WILL sleep tonight!”.