Sleep really is the foundation that everything else rests on. It’s when your brain and body perform some of their most important functions, and the health benefits are astounding.
Sleep has never come easily to me, though. These days, a bad night is being vaguely awake at 1am, but knowing that I must have been asleep at some point because my husband tells me I was snoring. But in the past, I’ve had entire nights where I couldn’t switch off.
Prickly eyes, greasy feeling washing over me. Not daring to look at the clock because I’m better off not knowing. The relief of the sun rising as it means this torture is over. And THAT is the moment you fall asleep, every bloody time!
Sleep is so intimately tied in with mental health that it’s almost impossible to disentangle cause and effect. Lack of sleep is implicated in several mental health conditions, as well as brain conditions such as Alzheimer’s. In turn, many of these conditions lead to poor sleep… a truly vicious cycle.
As someone who routinely doesn’t get enough sleep, I sometimes find it confronting to read about health risks of insufficient sleep.
If you’re a parent of a baby or toddler, perhaps skip this post. There may be little you can do other than ride it out, sleep when you can, and trust that surely evolution has factored this in…? But if you’re still with me, this post is to tell you that however important you think sleep is… it’s MORE important.
BENEFITS OF SLEEP
I would highly recommend two books that cover sleep. Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker, and The Four Pillar Plan: How to Relax, Eat, Move and Sleep Your Way to a Longer, Healthier Life by Dr Rangan Chatterjee. The benefits I list below are taken from these two fantastic books.
During sleep, the body actively recovers itself and leads to:
- Increased energy, concentration, memory, and capacity to learn
- Increased ability to make healthy food choices
- Improved immune system function
- Increased autophagy (mopping up waste that accumulates in our cells in the day)
- Decreased risk of chronic disease, being overweight, developing Alzheimer’s
- Decreased stress levels
- Increased life expectancy
If you routinely don’t get enough sleep (usually around 8hrs a night), some of the biggest impacts are on your immune system, blood sugar, stress, mental health, and weight gain.
Routinely sleeping less than 7hrs a night demolishes your immune system, more than doubling your risk of cancer.
Going short on sleep for just a week disrupts blood sugar so profoundly you would be considered pre-diabetic.
Increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol raises blood pressure and activates the sympathetic nervous system – leaving you jumpy and stressed.
Lack of sleep contributes to all major psychiatric conditions – including depression, anxiety and suicidality.
Your body produces more ghrelin, which stimulates hunger, AND less leptin which signals food satisfaction. So you can be full but STILL hungry, a recipe for weight gain.
SLEEP TIPS FOR INSOMNIACS
If I’m going through a period of insomnia, anything that is supposed to make me sleep… just makes things ten times worse.
Bedtime routines, a consistent bedtime, rituals that relax you – are all great ideas. Winding down and relaxing are important for sleep. But on their own, these things may not be enough, and at least for me, they seem to pile on the pressure.
I want to cover things you can do throughout the DAY that will work on a physiological level to set your body up for sleep, rather than leave you fidgeting in bed agonising about why you’re not relaxed yet. These tips will focus on light, caffeine, timing of food and exercise, and body temperature.
LIGHT is a powerful cue to tell our bodies that it’s daytime or night-time. Our bodies run on circadian rhythms but not to a precise 24-hour cycle, so we need daylight and darkness to keep us on track. We need bright light exposure to tell our bodies it’s daytime. We also need to avoid bright lights in the evening – particularly the blue frequencies associated with sunrise, which halt the production of melatonin.
MAXIMISING LIGHT IN THE MORNING
Get some light as soon as possible after you wake up. Daylight is the best source – even on a foggy day it’s better than any artificial light. Full sunlight gives about 30,000 LUX, a foggy day is 10,000 LUX and a brightly lit room is only about 500.
If you can, get outside first thing in the morning. In winter, if this doesn’t feel achievable – a compromise would be to eat breakfast by a window and walk the kids to school, walk to work, get off the bus early, or park a bit further from work and walk. Anything to get some daylight exposure as early as possible in the morning.
You could also consider a light box. Look for a medically certified SAD Lamp which is at least 10,000 LUX, like this one.
MINIMISING LIGHT AT NIGHT
Set your phone to night-time mode to reduce the amount of blue light it emits. If your phone is fairly new, whether Android or iOS, it should have this functionality. It’s not 100% but it helps.
Buy some blue-blocking glasses. I have a pair similar to this which you can get for £20, or you can find some for as little as £10 if you don’t mind them looking like safety goggles. I wear them if I need to work late on my computer, or check my phone late at night – and I think they do make a difference.
Set a phone curfew and don’t check your phone (or tablet, or laptop) after a certain time – 8.30pm would be ideal. This is hard, and I’m working on it…
Stop watching TV at a certain time and switch to reading.
Leave your phone to charge downstairs. Buy an old-school alarm clock (make sure it’s silent and any lights can be turned off).
Make your bedroom as dark as possible. If you can, buy some blackout-lined curtains or roller blinds. Dark is a signal to your body that it’s time to rest, and triggers the production of melatonin.
CAFFEINE blocks your adenosine receptors meaning you don’t feel tiredness. If you struggle with sleep, don’t drink caffeine for AT LEAST 6 hours before bed. I have mostly switched to decaf tea, as it just seemed more straightforward. If I do drink non-decaf tea it’s before 2pm. I avoid coffee altogether as it makes me jittery.
EXERCISE, TIMING OF FOOD AND BODY TEMPERATURE are also cues for your body.
Getting your body moving during the day is helpful for sleep later, but avoid exercising hard in the evening as the cortisol released will be counterproductive for sleep. Ideally, don’t eat after your evening meal, so you finish digesting your food before you go to sleep. There are other benefits to restricting the window of time you eat in, so it’s worth doing on many levels.
A hot bath before bed will actually bring your temperature down, which will help you to sleep. After a hot bath your body has to dump the excess heat. This lowers your temperature, which is necessary for you to fall asleep.
Addressing anxiety will also help. Mindfulness meditation would be a good place to start. Anything you can do to address anxiety will help with sleep too.
CBD oil can be incredibly helpful, both for anxiety and sleep.
Images by Matias Alonso – shared with permission