moon

13 Apr 2017

71. THE IMPORTANCE OF SLEEP

Sleep is one of the most basic human functions and yet around a third of us struggle to get enough. Some simple changes can make a big difference.

Words: Dr Dorian Dugmore, Wellness Academy

Studies have shown that losing just one night’s sleep is likely to result in fatigue, irritability, an inability to concentrate and mood shifts the following day. The chance of having a serious accident increases and after a few days of sleep loss you become less alert and your thought processes slow down, with the ability to focus on long, repetitive tasks suffering more than shorter, more interesting jobs.

Regular sleep loss can also have physical effects, including fluctuations in blood pressure and heart rhythms and changes in our digestion, while long term sleep deprivation has been linked to more significant health problems, such as weight loss and cardiac problems, and even to reduced life expectancy.

According to the Mental Health Foundation, insomniacs are also four times more likely to be experiencing relationship problems than good sleepers.

The reticular activating system, a two-way pathway of nerve cells extending from the spinal cord via the lower and mid-brain to the cerebral cortex, is thought to play an important role in sleeplessness. It is stimulated by stress and poor sleep and when turned on too frequently it can stay on. This then switches the stress response on, resulting in a short-term increase in blood pressure and cholesterol and a reduction in the body’s immune response.

BE PREPARED

The impact of sleep on day-to-day performance shouldn’t be underestimated and however busy your schedule, it is essential to allow yourself enough time and create the right environment to get enough quality sleep.

If, however, you are finding falling or staying asleep a challenge, there may be external triggers that need to be addressed or simple changes that can be made to your routine. Creating a quiet, peaceful and dark environment is very important, which means removing all media devices and so also the temptation to use them. There is some evidence to suggest that the signals emitted from mobile phones and even televisions disturb sleep, in particular, delta sleep, which is essential as it is when recovery and rejuvenation of the body systems takes place.

Earplugs and white noise machines can help to block out unwanted sounds, while blackout curtains are effective at minimising the waking effect of the early morning sun. While researchers disagree on the ideal temperature for sleep, most recommend that the bedroom is slightly cool, as a high temperature can lead to lighter sleep and more wake time. That might mean turning the thermostat down at night or changing the weight of your bedclothes with the seasons.

There are other practical things we can do to help our bodies go to sleep naturally and get a good night’s rest. It is wise to eat a little food before bedtime to prevent hunger pangs from waking you up. Opt for something carbohydrate based such as a slice of toast, ideally with some protein, or oatmeal, which releases energy more slowly. Alcohol should be avoided, as this promotes a false initial sleep followed by a more shallow sleep phase, disrupting the much-needed delta sleep.

While it’s tempting to try to tire yourself out, don’t exercise within two hours of going to bed, as this raises the metabolism, making it harder to come down into a more relaxed state before bedtime.

ALL IN THE MIND?

In many cases, however, the cause of people’s sleep problems is primarily internal, with 90 per cent of insomnia thought to be triggered by stress and anxiety. With our fast-paced, complicated lives and the constant and all-pervading presence of technology, it’s unsurprising that many of us find it difficult to wind down come bedtime.

If you are conscious of being kept awake by worries and thoughts, keep a pen and notepad by your bedside. Before bedtime and if you wake in the night, brain-dump any concerns, ideas and to-do lists that might otherwise circle around your mind keeping you awake.

Because insomnia also causes the sufferer additional worry – about how many hours they’ll clock up the following night and how they will feel tomorrow – the problem can easily snowball, turning what might simply have been a bad week of sleep into something more serious and longer-term.

The solution can lie in taking the focus away from what sleep you have or haven’t had and accepting it rather than attempting to control it. Doing that becomes easier when you start to question and challenge some of your conceptions about sleep. For example, most insomniacs underestimate how much sleep they are getting and overestimate the impact it will have on them the next day. As a result, it is often the fear and anxiety of sleeplessness that affects them more than genuine sleepiness.

Try to trivialise a bad night’s sleep and keep the effects in perspective, telling yourself that you will function perfectly well and the insomnia will pass naturally. Remind yourself that you can and will fall asleep naturally, that you have been doing so since you were born.

If you have become overly focused on the night ahead, it may be best to avoid elaborate bedtime routines involving baths and relaxation CDs, as these could simply shine an even brighter light on the problem. However, because our minds and bodies are inexorably linked, it is important to ease stress and physical tensions if we are to drop off. Some simple exercises, practised during the day or in the evening, can therefore help, provided that they are framed around the goal of relaxation and not sleep.