For the last few months I have been doing A LOT of reading and research on sleep. Given that it is a big topic on any of the wellbeing sessions I run I wanted to know more about why sleep is such a big deal.
Now I have to make a confession….. before I did all this research I used to be in the camp of ‘we are all different and some people thrive on 8 or 9 hours sleep a night and others thrive on 4 or 5 hours.’ Whilst I suspected that 8 or 9 hours was better for us than 4 or 5 I also knew that there are seemingly successful people that say they only get 4 or 5 and seem to be ok….
How wrong could I have been?!
A few months down the line, 3 books later, research papers, and hours and hours of watching YouTube interviews later….I have now radically updated my views on sleep.
In case you are wondering how much sleep is enough then research strongly points to between 7 and 9 hours as optimum. A decline in brain function and impairments of the body starts to kick in after being awake for 16 hours, meaning that we need 8 hours of sleep to reboot and repair the damage of being awake. After 19 hours your mental functioning is so impaired you are functioning at the same level as someone that is drunk and would not pass a drink drive test.
Fall short of the optimal amount and here are some bullet point consequences of sleep deprivation:
- Risk of mortality raised by up to 13%
- Poor memory and reduced cognitive performance.
- Cognitive and response function effects largely similar to that of being drunk.
- Reduced social competence.
- Inability to manage emotions, becoming over reactive.
- Increased anxiety and higher levels of cortisol the day after reduced sleep.
- Increase in blood pressure leading to higher risk of heart attack and stroke; habitually getting less than 6 hours sleep a night can increase your risk of having a fatal heart attack or stroke by 200%.
- Increased risk of developing diabetes and weight gain.
- Increased risk of developing cancer.
- Impaired immune system.
- If you sleep less than 7 hours a night you are 3 x more likely to catch a cold than someone who sleeps 8 hours.
- Decreased effectiveness of other treatments when ill.
- Linked to infertility by disrupting the circadian rhythm which affects hormone production and sperm count.
- Beauty sleep – 5 nights of reduced sleep from 8hrs to 6hrs showed a 45% increase of fine lines and wrinkles, a 13% increase of blemishes, and 8% increase of redness.
If like me you are sold on the importance of getting a good night’s sleep then here are some tips as to how you can do that:
- Keep a regular sleep routine – going to bed and getting up at the same time, or within 30 minutes of.
- Avoid trying to catch up on sleep at the weekend – sleep deficits can not be made up in this way and it will only disrupt your sleep routine further.
- Darkness – as creatures whose circadian rhythm follows daylight hours, start to dim lighting a few hours before you go to bed to stimulate the production of melatonin. Keep your bedroom as dark as possible.
- Avoid screen time in the evenings, especially in the bedroom. The blue light given off of screens suppresses the release of melatonin and triggers cortisol – both of which will keep you awake. Try reading a book instead, just not on your iPad.
- Cool room – keep your room temperature at an optimal 18 degrees Celsius to promote the 1 degree Celsius drop in our core temperature that follows the circadian rhythm and helps us to sleep.
- Having a warm bath or shower before bed can assist by causing the required drop in core temperature.
- Ditch the caffeine – even for those that don’t have trouble getting to sleep having had caffeine, caffeine disrupts the quality of sleep as well as playing havoc with our nervous system. If you like a coffee have it first thing in the morning when it can help promote the natural spike in cortisol that happens at this time.
- Ditch the nicotine – like caffeine, nicotine is a stimulant that interferes with both sleep duration and quality.
- Ditch the alcohol – although alcohol makes us feel sleepy and get to sleep quicker it is a sedative which knocks the brain out rather than inducing natural sleep. Alcohol disrupts the sleep cycle and specifically interferes with REM sleep which is responsible for some of our memory assimilation and the processing of emotions.
- Avoid eating a heavy meal after 2 -3 hours before bedtime as digestion interferes with the sleep cycle.
- Bedroom sanctuary – create a calm space and keep your bedroom clear from clutter.
- If you can’t sleep – try breathing practices or meditation. If you still can’t sleep get up and go to another room until you are really sleepy again and then re try to go back to bed.
- Daylight – get a minimum of 30 minutes of outside daylight every morning to help keep our bodies in synch with the circadian rhythm.
- Exercise – get moving, ideally in the morning. Exercise is proven to help us sleep better as well as boosting mental health.
- One of the biggest causes of a lack of sleep is stress so try to address whatever is causing your mental or emotional stress.
- Avoid taking sleeping pills – there are so many negative side effects they really are best avoided at all costs.
If you want more info then I highly recommend reading ‘Why We Sleep’ by Prof Matthew Walker, one of the world’s leading sleep researchers and professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. Here is an interview with him on all things sleep…