Sleep can often be overlooked as an essential part of a healthy lifestyle, but why does sleep matter so much?
Sleep is the body’s way of re-setting and recovering from the stresses and strains we put it through during the day. It helps with mood, memory, strengthens the immune system and can even help keep your heart in shape. During sleep the body has time to repair damaged tissue and synthesise essential hormones.
We all know how grumpy we can get if we've not had enough sleep (yes I definitely do!) and there are plenty of studies to show the link between sleep deprivation and things such as stress, irritability and mood disorders. Lack of sleep can leave you feeling like you're not performing at your best and it can also affect memory and learning. Overnight, information is transferred from more tentative, short-term memory to stronger, long-term memory - a process called consolidation. There is also evidence that important neural connections are strengthened during sleep while redundant ones are pruned, which supports learning. And a recent study has shown that the brain's waste disposal system, called the glymphatic system, is significantly more active during sleep.
Sleep is essential for the immune system. It's been shown that lack of sleep suppresses the immune system and leaves us susceptible to colds and flu. In addition, the more sleep loss, the higher your levels of C-reactive protein (CRP) will be. CRP is a marker of inflammation, and inflammation may play a role in heart disease. Sleep is also important for the heart because as you sleep your heart rate and blood pressure slow down and regulate. That means, for much of the night, your heart and vascular system are getting a much-needed rest, which might help to explain the many cardiovascular benefits of getting enough kip.
Sleep can also help maintain a healthy weight. Sleep deprivation reduces sensitivity to insulin which regulates blood sugar. This makes it harder to metabolise blood sugar properly. Sleep also helps regulate two important hormones: ghrelin, which makes you feel hungry, and leptin, which makes you feel full. People who are sleep deprived have lower levels of leptin and more ghrelin so are likely to eat more as a result.
There is also some truth to the old phrase 'beauty sleep'. There is increased blood flow to the skin whilst we sleep, and the skin makes new collagen which helps protect against wrinkles. If you don't get enough sleep you're likely to look more pallid and have dark circles under the eyes.
How much sleep should we get?
The amount of sleep we need varies throughout our lives, falling as we get older. It also varies from person to person, however there are general guides. Newborns need 14-15 hours sleep per day but by the time they have become teenagers this has fallen to 8-9 hours. For adults (up to age 65) the range is 7-9 hours and older adults (aged 65+) require 7-8 hours sleep.
My tips for getting a good night’s sleep
1. During the day be active and get as much natural light and fresh air as you can, particularly in the morning.
2. Limit your intake of caffeine, nicotine, alcohol and big meals in the evening.
3. Take time to wind down at the end of the day, and try and have a relaxing bed time routine.
4. Make sure you stop using computers, tablets and phones at least an hour before you want to go to sleep. If you read before bed ensure that it's either a book or a device that doesn't emit blue light, which can affect your circadian rhythms.
5. Make sure your room is quiet, cool and dark. A gradually lowering body temperature is one key element of the body’s progression into sleep so if the room is too warm it will affect this process.
6. Make sure your mattress is comfortable and supportive. Mattresses have a life expectancy of around 8 years so if yours is much older consider trading it in for a younger model!
7. Try to go bed at the same time every night and get up at the same time in the morning, even at weekends. This helps regulate your body clock.
8. If you're still struggling to sleep try a progressive muscle relaxation exercise, this is a form of mindfulness practice and I find it works wonders. You may find it helpful to listen to a guided exercise initially but once you get the hang of it you don't have to, you can just work through the process yourself. Here's a link to an example but there are many different ones out there, I prefer one that starts from your feet and works upwards but that's just what I'm used to!
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