Sleep…one of the most relished and essential activities in life. There’s nothing like tucking in to bed after a long day and waking feeling refreshed, bright-eyed and ready to face the world. And that weekend sleep in—that’s just priceless! We all know it’s good for us and without it we’re likely to be sluggish for most of the day, be a little foggy in the head, be a bit cranky…and don’t forget those dark circles under our eyes. But a good night’s sleep goes way beyond that.
Sleep is essential to restore our body and support healthy brain function. Despite the recommendation that we get 7-8 hours nightly, recent surveys show that many people get 6 hours or less most days and that as many as 75% of people get poor quality sleep at least 3 nights a week. I see many clients in clinic with chronic sleep deprivation and in all honesty, I’ve had periods of disruption myself. While a short bout of sleep disruption isn’t likely to be serious, chronic sleep loss can have serious consequences. In the last decade, research has linked chronic sleep problems to weight gain, development of insulin resistance and Type 2 diabetes, lowered immune function, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and depression.
SO WHAT CONTROLS HOW WE SLEEP?
Our body’s internal clock—the circadian rhythm—governs all our biological processes, including our sleep. While rhythms can vary in individuals, it’s believed the average rhythm for the sleep cycle runs in 90 minute blocks (take note of that number—you’ll see why that’s important shortly). Certain health conditions, medications and menopause can disrupt the circadian rhythm, as can shift work and air travel. For most of us though, the disruption comes from our everyday activities:
- Exposure to blue light which comes from iPhones, television, iPads and computer screens suppresses the release of melatonin—the hormone that signals us to sleep.
- Exercising late in the day elevates adrenaline and cortisol which can continue for hours afterwards disrupting natural rhythms.
- Eating late is a common culprit. At the time your body should be resting and restoring, you’re forcing it to work hard to digest a bunch of food.
- Caffeine, alcohol and nicotine are all stimulants on the system. The liver works hard to detoxify them and is one of the reasons for a 2-4am wake time.
HOW CAN I IMPROVE MY SLEEP?
A few of the clients I see with sleep issues have often tried medications as a first line of defense. While it may help initially, they often find their poor sleep cycle returns after a couple of weeks. Before reaching for that sleeping pill, here are some key strategies that might help improve your sleep habits:
- Turn off TVs, tablets, and other screens an hour before bedtime. Put that mobile phone in a drawer or in an adjacent room. Bedtime reader? Opt for paper books instead.
- Remember that 90 minute cycle I mentioned? If you find yourself doing tasks when your body is telling you it’s ready for bed, it might be well over an hour before it’s ready again! Researchers call it “bedtime procrastination,” and it’s really about willpower. If you want the benefit of extra sleep, you have to decide on the trade-off: one less link, one less episode, one less page. Determine to go to bed at a set time and then do it.
- Avoid exercise before bed. It’s important that you have time for the adrenal release of adrenaline and cortisol to wind down.
- Don’t eat within 2-3 hours of bedtime.
- For those who feel the night-time heat, skip the hot shower or bath too close to bedtime. You can also by toppers for mattresses designed for thermoregulation. These can be really helpful if hot flushes are a problem.
- If you struggle to sleep, skip that afternoon cuppa. Remember, a slow metaboliser can take up to 8 hours to move it out of the system.
- Cut down the alcohol—it produces a stimulant that wakes you in the wee hours.
- Try a cup of chamomile tea 2 hours before bedtime.
If you’re still struggling after making some changes, get in touch with for a thorough assessment and a tailored strategy to get your sleep back on track!