Sleep is defined as ‘the natural periodic suspension of consciousnesses’ or ‘a condition of body and mind such as that which typically recurs for several hours every night, in which the nervous system is relatively inactive, the eyes closed, the postural muscles relaxed, and consciousness practically suspended’. Crikey…
It is a part of your daily routine but why we actually sleep is still largely a mystery. It is generally thought to be the time when the body repairs, rejuvenates and rebuilds all its major systems and, it is obvious to anyone who loses a nights sleep that we wont last long without it! We are said to be the only mammals that purposely delay sleeping! People claim to need more or less than others but the necessary cycles are the key factor rather than specific time by-the-hour calculations. Sleep is divided into two main groups. REM and NREM. (Rapid Eye Movement and Non Rapid Eye Movement). The NREM stages (light, true and deep sleep) proceed the REM stage (also when you dream) and the whole cycle takes about 90 minutes. The scientists say that the amount of sleep you need is just whatever it takes to mean you can function through the day…! Hell’s teeth don’t tell my teenage godson – I’ll never get the beggar out of bed!
I’m writing about sleep because I have been reading recently how it can affect your health and bodily functions. So from a nutrition and anti-ageing perspective this is key. Sleep is known to be as important as diet and exercise. Studies are showing that people are sleeping increasingly either less, more erratically or, usually, both. Sleep loss in this way is linked to evident things that we’ve all experienced like mood, brain function (learning and memory) and even our safety during the day as we attempt things like driving (as the motorway signs say, ‘tiredness kills’). However, linked also linked to three key health elements:
- Metabolism. Lack of sleep is being linked to fluctuations in the hormones that control appetite (or rather fail to therefore) and effects the way the body processes carbs which may lead to weight gain.
- Hypertension. Sleep loss has be shown to increase blood pressure and activate stress hormones. When denied the sleep cycles it needs, the body goes into alert mode which begins a cycle of stress and tension which in turn make it harder to sleep. As the stress hormones in your body also cause inflammation they need to be regulated by activities such as sleep. Inflammation is a major contributor to the deterioration of our bodies, so sleep is a vital part of our healthy ageing process.
- Immune system. During sleep it is thought that the body regulates and mends any problems, focusing energy on this task while the body rests. Disrupting this has obvious consequences.
- The ‘experts’ agree that a regular sleeping pattern is key. Going to bed at similar times and getting up at a set time, regardless of the day of the week or holidays, sets your body clock to a healthy sleeping attitude. However, if you’re not asleep in say 15 minutes then the advice is to get up and do something else and return only when you’re tired and feel like sleeping.
- Smoking and caffeinated products before sleep can disrupt a true nights sleep as their effects don’t leave your system for a considerable time. Alcohol may make you feel like sleeping but it too can prevent good sleep and, of course, like any liquids before bedtime, may mean an unscheduled trip to the toilet, again breaking your sleep cycles.
- Lulling your mind and body and preparing them for rest is a stage before sleep that most people skip, but it is very important. Winding down and relaxing before bed is a great way to tell you body to get ready for sleep. Relaxing things are more of the reading, having a bath kind of ilk rather than the watching TV kind. The bright screen (and this includes reading from a kindle/iPad) is not soothing to the eyes and brain at this time of the day and won’t necessarily have the desired effect.
- Bear in mind that melatonin likes darkness so, as sleep whisperers will tell you, your bedroom should be cool and dark and as quiet as possible.
- The actual bed you lie on and the pillows are important factors too. You will have a preference to the firmness of your mattress but buy the best you can afford and don’t be shy about throwing yourself down on the beds in the shops to try them out…after all you will be spending a third of your life on it! Osteopaths will tell you that supporting the neck with good pillows is vital. As one of the most vulnerable parts of the body our necks need good loving and attention! I was told recently by the physio that a good gauge for the ‘amount’ of pillow you need is to stand with your shoulder against a wall and your head held straight. The distance between the wall and the side of your head is the pillow(s) you need.
- I know it’s nice to snuggle up with a loved one but ask any long time partnered people and they’ll agree that space in a bed is bliss…it is also better for you, so make sure there’s enough room for you both and if you have pets or kids that muscle in on the bed space then, I’m afraid its better to limit their access. I know a few dogs that certainly won’t agree!! Also, consider that we often have learnt terrible sleeping habits so some of these elements might not feel comfortable or be harder to implement at first.
- Stress and anxiety are major reasons why many people sleep badly. The mind whirring and worrying. Please consider tackling this. There are millions of books and websites etc. to guide and suggest ways to get down to the basics and begin to sort out the issues. Try some of them and give yourself a break! Taking time for yourself to explore and solve these things is the greatest gift you can give yourself. Exercise will help with stress too and generally is a brilliant way to ensure a good nights sleep, although beware of this too close to bed time because you might be too energised to sleep.