Sleep has been SO remarkably underrated and undervalued these days. Does “sleep when you’re dead” or “sleep is for the weak” ring any bells? This narrative is what has contributed to our population’s general state of poor health. What if I told you that by making simple adjustments to your sleep habits, you could drastically improve your health? Well, it’s true!
Firstly, why is sleep so important?
As you already know, we are way more efficient when we are well rested. The Free Dictionary defines sleep as a “natural periodic state of rest for the mind and body”. We need to enter this state of rest for our bodies to go through important restoration processes. When we go to sleep, we enter into an anabolic state, which means a state of building up. This building up process includes repairing damage, building the immune system and balancing hormones. When we get good quality sleep our brain function improves, our metabolism is boosted and our overall sense of well-being is taken to new heights! Give me some of that am I right?
When we go to sleep, we enter into an anabolic state, which means a state of building up.
Now the problem comes in when we’re not getting enough quality sleep, in Shawn Stevenson’s Book Sleep Smarter (which I highly recommend reading), he touches on research that shows that just after 24 hours of sleep deprivation, there is an overall reduction of glucose to the brain by 6 percent. This essentially means that brain function decreases. This is also why we crave sugary things after a bad night’s sleep – our brain is literally looking for more glucose to function! Ongoing sleep deficiency is also linked to increased risk of heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity and stroke. And the truth is, if you don’t get the right amount and quality of sleep your body will never function optimally.
How much sleep should I be getting?
Everyone’s sleep needs are different, but on average an adult aged 18 years and older needs about 7-8 hours a day. Children and babies need a lot more. The problem is that we can be getting 7-8 hours of sleep everyday but that sleep might not be the best quality. So this brings me to what we’ve all been waiting for…
5 Simple ways to improve sleep quality
Our circadian rhythm or circadian timing system is impacted heavily by how much natural light we get in the day. The more sunlight we get in the day the better our sleep at night. Our body clock is most responsive to sunlight between 6:00am-8:30am, so put your walking shoes on and soak in some sun first thing in the morning. The reason for this is that sunlight signals to the hypothalamus (which is the master gland of your body’s hormonal system) to do it’s thing. And as the sun goes down, melatonin naturally gets secreted. Now the problem is, once the sun goes down, the inside lights come on and we continue looking at our devices. Artificial lighting and the blue light from our screens suppresses the secretion of melatonin which is necessary for quality sleep.
Artificial lighting and the blue light from our screens suppresses the secretion of melatonin which is necessary for quality sleep.
The key takeaway here is: rather use a couple hours before bed to do something other than be on your device so that your melatonin and cortisol levels can normalize – read a book, catch up with your partner, take a bath, do some stretches…the choice is yours.
We’ve all heard of the hormone cortisol right? This poor guy has been demonised a little as being one of the causes of belly fat and chronic illness but in actual fact, cortisol is a really important hormone. We need this to get up in the morning and to get out of hairy situations, to be alert and make fast decisions. It is crucial for your circadian timing for sleep as melatonin and cortisol have an inverse relationship.
Cortisol becomes problematic when it is over-produced. Chronic stress means we are over-producing this hormone. So it is really important to take steps to manage stress and keep cortisol at normal levels. Here are some great ways to manage stress:
- deep breathing (try using an app like Oak or Calm)
- stream of consciousness journaling (or you can use journal prompts)
- talking to a friend about what’s causing anxiety/stress
- setting boundaries at work
- eliminating stressful relationships
Caffeine is a powerful nervous system stimulant which provokes your adrenal glands to produce adrenaline and cortisol, which we know to be anti-sleep hormones. Caffeine has a half life of 5-8 hours meaning half of it stays in your system 5-8 hours later. So even having a cup 6 hours before bed can impact your sleep. You won’t always be aware of it though, some people can fall asleep easily even after having a cup just before bed. The problem is what it does to your sleep rhythms and the overall quality of your slumber.
Even having a cup 6 hours before bed can impact your sleep.
4. Light in your bedroom at night
Make sure there is no light whatsoever in your bedroom at night. Our skin has receptors on it that pick up light. So even if you wear an eye mask, your skin can still “see” the light. This then sends messages to the brain and organs that can interfere with your sleep. Another study cited in the book Sleep Smarter involved a fiber-optic cable being placed behind the knee of a sleeping participant. This projected light the size of a bottle cap which resulted in noticeable sleep disturbance. It was enough to change body temperature and melatonin secretion. So the bottom line is that we cannot produce sufficient melatonin or have the best quality sleep unless we are in complete darkness.
5. Create a sleep sanctuary
Our brain makes strong connections between places and activities. If we do enough of a certain activity in a certain place, it is etched into our brain and evokes certain feelings and processes to take place in the body. If we spend a lot of time working or watching tv in our bedroom, our brain is going to associate the bedroom with heightened awareness, stress or stimulation. This is not optimal for sleep. It is therefore a great idea to create a sleep sanctuary in your bedroom. Here are some great ways to do this:
- do not let any devices or work into this space
- keep lighting dim and temperature cool
- use soft colours like cream, beige, lavender, white etc.
- keep your room tidy
- light scented candles before bed
- play soothing music
How many of these steps can you start implementing right away?