When it comes to taking care of your health and wellbeing, you already know that eating your five-a-day, avoiding processed foods, drinking water and exercising regularly go a long way to keeping you in good health. But, if you find yourself feeling run-down, struggling to focus, feeling irritable or binging on unhealthy food you may want to look at your sleep patterns.
In today’s fast-paced world, many of us forgo sleep and overextend ourselves to catch up with work and other responsibilities. Yet there is almost nothing more restorative than a good night’s sleep, and if you can achieve it regularly, you’ll find yourself waking up every morning feeling refreshed, focused and ready to take on the day.
Sleep is important because many processes occur during the night, including:
- Your internal organs rest and recover. Tissue repair, muscle growth and protein synthesis primarily occurs whilst you’re asleep.
- The hormones that help to regulate your appetite control, stress, growth, metabolism and other bodily functions are released.
- Our memories are consolidated during sleep. This allows for the formation and storage of new memories which is essential if we want to learn new information.
The direct connection between sleep and health inevitably helps to improve your quality of life. The benefits of quality sleep include:
- Increased energy to make beneficial lifestyle choices (cooking, self-care, exercise, meditation, etc).
- A strengthened immune system.
- Heightened alertness, focus and creativity.
- Improved mood due to the reduction in anxiety, irritability and mental exhaustion.
There are many factors involved in the relationship between sleep and health. While it may be more difficult to scientifically prove that quality sleep improves health, the negative effects of sleep deprivation are widely documented, and include:
- Weight gain - you’re more likely to gain weight over time. Contributing to this is an increased amount of calories consumed during the day, and high-fat foods consumed later in the evening.
- Increased risk of chronic disease - your body becomes more susceptible to stress, as the immune system doesn’t function optimally, and inflammatory proteins and blood sugar levels increase in response to lower levels of insulin being released throughout the night. Chronic short sleep is also associated with hypertension, obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
- Increased risk of accidents and injuries - when you’re exhausted, both physically and mentally, there is an increased risk of injuries, errors and accidents. This tired state of mind may lead to mishaps like stubbing your toe, cutting yourself in the kitchen, falling or getting into an accident.
- Decline in cognitive functions - there are measurable changes in brain activity that occur after a period of sleep deprivation. When you don’t get a sufficient amount of sleep, your mental performance suffers, impairing your ability to process new information and perform more complicated tasks. This can also impact your overall mood, focus and high-level cognitive function. Sleep loss has been shown to impair decision making, which may lead you to make choices that you wouldn’t make if rested, and this can become more pronounced as we get older.
- Increased anxiety - without sufficient rest, you may have trouble keeping your emotions in check. Increased feelings of irritability, anxiety, sadness and anger are common. You may even find that you’re more vulnerable to unprovoked bouts of laughter or tears!
So how much sleep do you actually need?
We all need quality sleep for optimal health and well-being, but the number of hours vary, depending on the individual and age. Try experimenting with your sleep patters to find out what works best for you and your specific needs. However, the general guide for adults is to aim for seven to nine hours every night.
Recreation isn’t rest
Sleep has lost its value into today’s hectic society. We feel compelled ‘to do’ but forget that we need to rest. Whilst many of us consider recreational activities such as sports or watching TV as rest, it’s important to understand that they aren’t; and we are literally becoming restless.
The constant bombardment of energy
As energy constantly bombards us in various forms: light, sound, movement and information; our bodies’ natural rhythms are disrupted. Our ability to achieve both the quantity and quality of sleep we need is compromised and we are left feeling totally exhausted. It’s easy to reach for stimulants during the day to keep us going, and then depend on relaxants to help us wind down at night. This creates a vicious cycle, and an unhealthy dependence, that can lead to weight gain, loss of mental clarity, feeling emotionally drained and eventually the diminishment of our general health.
Fortunately, there are steps we can take to improve the quality of our sleep and give ourselves the rest we need to function. Several factors contribute to how well we sleep, including what and when we eat and drink (nutrition), where we sleep (environment), and our energy output during the day (daily rhythms).
What and when you eat affects your body’s natural ability to both energise and rest. By eating a variety of foods, we help to ensure that we are getting the nutrients we need to maintain our energy levels throughout the day so that we’re not relying on stimulants to keep us active. It is better to consume your largest meal in the middle of the day and a lighter meal in the evening can help us take full advantage of our body’s natural nighttime repair process. Keep the following in mind when it comes to getting a good night’s sleep:
- Eat a variety of foods and limit sugar, alcohol and caffeine intake.
- Experiment with light evening meals and replace late-night snacking with gentle activities such as yoga, journaling, reading or even just talking to a loved one. Digestion requires energy - when a large meal is consumed at night, it interferes with the body’s ability to rest.
- Avoid late-night drinks. Ingesting liquids right before bed often leads to a mid-night run to the bathroom, which will disturb your sleep cycle and hinder quality sleep.
A good night’s sleep is helped if you have a peaceful bedroom. There are many ways to create a sleep-friendly environment. You could paint your walls a calming colour, use an aromatherapy diffuser, or even invest in a new mattress. There are also several easy and low-cost ways to ensure that your bedroom is conducive to deep sleep:
- Clean out the clutter - when you have lots of clutter in your bedroom, e.g. exercise equipment, work, laundry, etc; you often feel the energy of the clutter in the form of stress in your mind. Something as simple as making your bed can help you to feel mentally clearer. It is much easier to sleep when your mind is still.
- Remove electronics from your bedroom - including TVs, computers, laptops, mobile phones, video games, tablets, e-readers, etc. These devices emit artificial ‘blue light’ that can affect your body’s production of melatonin and, in turn, your quality and quantity of sleep. You could even put your alarm clock under your bed or nightstand so that the light of the clock isn’t distracting. If you use your mobile phone as your alarm clock, consider putting it onto airplane mode so that you’re not distracted by messages through the night.
- Reduce exposure to light and sound - consider investing in thick black-out curtains or a less expensive option such as an eye mask. To minimise distracting outside sounds, use a fan (for white noise), earplugs or noise-cancelling headphones. You could also roll up a towel to put at the base of your door to not only block out excess light but also reduce sounds outside of your bedroom.
Our bodies take cues from our actions. What we eat, when we eat, what we do and when we do it are all part of an intricate system of signals that our brain uses to regulate all it needs to do for us to thrive and survive. Honouring these rhythms is vital to our wellbeing. Here are a few more things to consider when it comes to feeling well rested:
- Create a bedtime routine - going to bed and waking up at a similar time each day can help the body get into a healthy rhythm.
- Experiment with restorative evening activities - such as meditation, yoga, or being intimate with your partner are all relaxing activities to help you prepare for bedtime.
Track your sleep habits. Sleep trackers are wearable devices that typically monitor heart rate, breathing patterns and movement while you sleep. Exploring your sleeping habits can help identify any adjustments that may be needed to your routine or environment.
- Reduce ‘busy brain’ at night. You may find it helpful to keep a journal and pen near you bed. If you think of something, jot it down, knowing that it’s safe to forget about it until morning.
Keep a sleep journal. Note what you eat and what you do from about 6pm until you go to bed and look for correlations with how you sleep and adjust your diet and/or routine accordingly.
Often, the missing link to a healthy lifestyle may just be a good night’s sleep. Taking steps towards improving your sleep is essential for optimal health.