Sleep…the forgotten health elixir

The alarm rings…you reach out and hit snooze. It rings again…you reluctantly sit up on the bed and try to rub the sleep from your eyes. Only slept 6 hours last night, woke up once in the middle of the night and the morning has arrived far too quickly. For the next 10 or 15 minutes, you feel like the walking dead…a strong morning coffee is the common faithful remedy to help you move past yet another poor night of sleep that simply did not leave you feeling restored and energetic.

Does any of this sound at all familiar? More than 49% of adult males and 56% of adult females in the UK currently experience long term poor sleep. Out of a maximum sleep quality score of 10, adult males average 5.5 and adult females average 5.0. In a nutshell, virtually half of adults have problems sleeping and are only experiencing half the benefit that sleep should provide! It may also be of little surprise to learn that the quality of sleep declines every decade of adult life with people over 60 averaging a sleep score of only 4.4. As you can probably imagine many people who experience sleep problems are using sleeping pills. 42% of people taking sleeping pills have been doing so for more than a decade, a further 17% over 5 years and 22% over 3 years, suggesting that this mode of treatment is not effective at managing the problem at all, potentially even creating dependency. The number one reason to be kept awake at night has been described as ‘a racing mind’ and ‘persistent thoughts’ with the major concerns being:

  1. What happened today and what will happen tomorrow?
  2. How long have I been lying awake?
  3. Random trivial thoughts of no importance

Many people often justify to themselves that they can get by on 5 or 6 hours of sleep a night. But can they really? I’m afraid that science simply does not support that opinion. In February 2015, following a review of 312 scientific studies on sleep, the National Sleep Foundation stated that all adults aged 18 to 64 years old require between 7 – 9 hours of sleep per night! A 2012 survey of more than 20,000 adults in the UK found that poor sleep had a considerable impact upon how we felt the next day. Poor sleepers compared to good sleepers were:

  • 8 times more likely to feel helpless (56% poor vs. 7% good)
  • 5 times more likely to feel alone (53% poor vs. 10% good)
  • 3 times more likely to lack concentration (62% poor vs. 17% good)
  • 3 times as likely to suffer fatigue (88% poor vs. 29% good)
  • 3 times as likely to suffer low mood (77% poor vs. 27% good)
  • 3 times as likely to be less productive (77% poor vs. 27% good)
  • Twice as likely to have relationship problems (77% poor vs. 35% good)

There are the facts! Half of us don’t don’t sleep well and there is absolutely no doubt that it negatively affects numerous areas of our lives. If you do struggle with sleep, what is the solution?

sleep-cycles

Unfortunately, resolving sleep longer term may not to be straight forward and really depends on a myriad of different factors. There are so many elements of life that can affect your sleep. It is a matter of identifying the possible problems and addressing the one by one. Simple actions and habits from the moment you wake up in the morning and throughout the day can impact upon sleep the following night. Stress levels, dietary habits, circadian light exposure, alcohol consumption, caffeine, screen time habits, evening and night time habits, the immediate sleep environment, electromagnetic frequencies, mobile phones, Wi-Fi are amongst the most likely factors that can potentially affect sleep onset, sleep maintenance and sleep quality. A true investigation into each of these factors could easily fill a book, and indeed several popular books on sleep have been written. Let me summarise a couple of the simple lifestyle factors to give you some real, actionable steps to try and improve your sleep.

Light:

Humans are inextricably linked to the daily light dark cycle. The correct release and reduction of melatonin (primary sleep hormone) is influenced by daylight and night time. Ensure you get at least 20 minutes of outdoor light exposure early in your day, ideally within the first 2 hours of being awake. This will help drive down your melatonin early in the day, especially if you struggle to wake and get going in your day. Melatonin is usually decreased in response to rising morning cortisol, but those who struggle to wake and feel energetic early in the day often have a poor morning cortisol response and as such melatonin does not drop as readily as it should. Getting full spectrum sunlight (even on a cloudy day) will help to regulate and reduce morning melatonin, this is turn helps the correct rhythm of melatonin and can improve the 24-hour melatonin cycle. The presence of electric light at night has the opposite effect of dulling our melatonin from rising in the evening when it should be steadily increasing ready for sleep onset. 90 minutes prior to bed time reduce the level of light in your home to low levels to allow melatonin to rise. This includes bright electrical screen light from TV’s, laptops, tablets and mobile phones. They give off blue spectrum light which is many times brighter than regular lightbulbs and has the greatest influence on reducing night time melatonin. My advice would be to either completely avoid screen use 90 minutes before bed, or if you really need to use a screen install blue light blocking software onto your device. These are readily available online.

Sleep environment:

How is your sleep hygiene? I’m not talking about your personal cleanliness, but the overall environment that you sleep in, your actual bedroom. There are so many simple factors that can negatively influence sleep within a typical, modern bedroom. As stated above light is a problem for sleep. Trying to maximise darkness is vital for sleep. Blackout blinds or curtains can be a worthwhile investment. Ensuring that there are no devices that emit light in the bedroom is also a must, even the small red light diode’s that indicate a device is on standby can be disruptive of sleep maintenance and sleep quality. Being disciplined and ensuring that TV’s, laptops, tablets and mobile phones are not kept or utilised in the bedroom can be an important step. In fact, as all electrical devices give off a potentially sleep disrupting electromagnetic frequency it may be wise to ensure the bedroom is completely free of these, except maybe a battery powered alarm clock that does not emit light. The bedroom does not need to be spotless, but it is helpful for peace of mind to have a room that is tidy and well organised. Science has shown that the optimal room temperature for good sleep is slightly cooler at 15-17°C. Taking the necessary steps to maintain a cool, but not cold room temperature will help. Having comfortable, clean blankets (that don’t make you too hot), a supportive and effective mattress and appropriate pillows for the dominant sleeping position (back, side or on your front) is also worth investing in.

wrong-and-right-pillows1

These are just two elements that can help improve sleep. Dialling in your stress management, avoiding alcohol and caffeine, scheduling and sticking to a sleep routine, setting up a 60-minute pre-bedtime routine, cycling dietary carbohydrates and engaging in regular exercise can also help support better sleep cycles. Check out the sleep tips below and enjoy your Zzzzz’s.

sleep-tips-copy

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