Are you someone who falls asleep as soon as your head hits the pillow or do you lie there for ages? Do you wake at the slightest noise or are you dead to the world? Sleep looks different to us all, but there’s no denying that it’s important. But why is it recommended we have 7-8 hours sleep a night*?
Well, sleep is vitally important to our health and wellbeing.
What happens when we’re asleep?
During our sleep loads of things are going on to help maintain and repair, allowing us to function efficiently upon waking.
Your brain gets the clarity it needs to help it function and prepare for another day – it’s works on helping with your memory and learning abilities and also with your decision-making and attention span.
As well as helping with our mental functionality it helps with our physical side too. It helps here by maintaining heart function, by regulating and balancing hormone levels and controlling blood sugar levels.
With children, lots of our growing and developing happens too, which is why they need more sleep than we do.
What happens when we don’t get enough, or what we get isn’t good quality?
From a mental health perspective, a sleep deprived brain results in difficulties making decisions or solving problems and with being able to manage emotions and behaviours. You may lack focus and be less productive than if you were well rested.
From a physical wellness perspective, there’s an increased risk of heart related illness, obesity and diabetes. It also raises the level of ghrelin (the hungry hormone) which leads you to be hungrier upon waking, which can then lead to the aforementioned obesity.
I’ve also just been reading about microsleep**, which again can happen if you haven’t had enough sleep. It gave the example question: have you ever driven somewhere and not remembered part of the journey? Or have you been in a meeting and realised you missed some of the information and suddenly don’t have a clue what’s going on? This is where you may have had brief a moment of sleep while actually awake. I don’t know about you but I’ve definitely had this in the past!
And you don’t have to have missed loads of sleep in one go, it can affect you just the same if you have a few nights in a row where you get 1-2 hours less than needed. And annoyingly you can’t just make-up for that lost sleep by having a monster lie in on a weekend. This apparently just messes with our sleep pattern and doesn’t actually help us function any better.
How to improve your sleep
Get into a pattern so that you’re going to bed at a similar time each night and rising at the same time. Having different times for work and rest days can mess with your body clock.
Make sure you limit blue screen time within the last hour or so of bedtime – try reading a book to relax before bed rather than scrolling through Instagram or watching tv.
Have a bedtime ritual like a relaxing yoga routine, a face massage, a bath or just a good book, to help calm your mind ready for sleep to take hold.
Don’t eat too late (certainly not a big meal) as this sits in your stomach and can affect your body’s ability to relax. It also doesn’t give you the time to burn off the calories so isn’t great for fat-loss! This combined with what I said earlier about how there’s a rise in the hungry hormone when you don’t sleep enough, is really a recipe for disaster when it comes to fat loss.
Avoid caffeine and alcohol close to bed time as this affects your brain’s ability to relax. Generally they say to avoid caffeine after mid afternoon, but everyone reacts differently to it. I’ve stopped having any caffeine at all, but I used to have 3pm as my cut off or I’d really struggled to switch off and would end up with my mind whirring for ages before I could eventually settle.
Have your bedroom as a sanctuary – keep it dark and at an ambient temperature.
If like me you sometimes lie awake for ages with your mind thinking about things to do etc, get a pad and make a list of those things. This brain dump can help, as it then partitions it off so that it can be dealt with at another time. They also say that if sleep is being elusive, get out of bed and go do something else – read a book or have a drink – then come back a bit later. Lying there will just get you frustrated and that makes it even harder to sleep!
Drink some water before bed. Our brain is still working while we’re asleep and we actually end up dehydrated when we wake, so having a glass of water before bed will help hydrate and maintain that brain function. It’s also advisable to have a glass as the first thing you have when you wake.
I’d recommend doing a sleep journal (or using a Fitbit type of tracker) to monitor when you go to sleep and when you wake, over a period of a time. Then see where the issues are – are the times significantly different from day to day? Are there any correlations with your daytime / evening actions? Try taking on board some of the suggestions above for improved sleep and see if they help get those extra minutes or hours.
I hope these tips have been useful. I certainly know it’s not easy to get your allotted 7-8 hours sleep every night, particularly if you’re a parent of a young child or you work shifts. During the first 6 months of my daughters life I think I was lucky to get more than about 4 hours every night (and that wasn’t consecutive) so I can relate to all the issues of impaired mental and physical function.
There are of course issues of insomnia and this may need additional help so do see your doctor if you’ve tried all you can to create a restful bedtime and sleep is still an issue.
Sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite! 😉
* for an adult
** www.nhlbi.nih.gov website source
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