Let’s face it, there is nothing nicer than settling into a comfy bed and gently dozing off for a solid 8 hours’ shuteye. If only this was the case for most of us. Sleep interruption and insomnia has become a chronic issue for many of us in this electronic era, particularly as we live increasingly digital lives. If you’re in the minority for whom sleep isn’t an issue then read no further, but if you, like me, are constantly struggling with sleep then this article is for you.
My sleep issues started when I was about to leave university, to enter my NHS training for 8 years. Erratic working patterns consisting of 14-hour on-call shifts, nightshifts and changing ward and operating theatre shifts (with very little time to recuperate during random days off) wreaked havoc with my sleep patterns. Although I always tried to get to bed on time, work anxiety and the stresses of the day often mean that I wasn't able to really switch off and if I was able get to sleep on time - it would often be interrupted at some point. The stress of insomnia itself really got me down.
A change had to be made - after years of poor sleep, I got interested in the concept of ‘sleep hygiene’ - i.e. the practice of good habits to ensure you get your recommended quota so decided to research it further. In this article, I’m going to share with you some of my insights about why sleep is important - for your general health, and also for your skin - and some tips about getting your ideal nightly quota of high quality, regenerative rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.
Why is sleep important?
Sleep is important for every body system - it allows our bodies to recharge and regenerate, and getting the recommended 7-9 hours per night on a consistent basis will improve your health in many ways:
- Psychological health: several studies have shown that getting a good amount of sleep can improve your psychological health, reducing stress and anxiety levels and decreasing the incidence of depression. Indeed, conditions that result in poor sleep, such as obstructive sleep apnoea, have been strongly associated with risk of depression. There is also evidence that your ability to interact socially with others is improved with good sleep habits. Good sleep patterns also improve our concentration and cognition levels - with improved problem solving skills and memory in some studies.
- Immune health: there is increasing evidence that getting over 8 hour’s sleep can have beneficial effects on your immune system - meaning less risk of infections such as coughs and colds.
- Hormone health: sleep is a time when our hormone systems balance - indeed, lack of sleep can have a negative impact on hormones such as cortisol, thyroid hormones and the sex hormones testosterone, oestrogen and progesterone.
- Heart health: good sleep patterns have been associated with reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, stroke and cardiovascular disease. Indeed - many studies have consistently shown that poor sleep patterns can substantially increase your risk of heart attacks and strokes if you fall below the recommended 7-9 hours per night. Conversely, good sleep patterns can substantially increase your athletic performance and strength.
- Body composition and appetite: Poor sleep has been linked to increased risk of obesity and overeating, due to changes in regulation of the appetite hormone ghrelin and other hormones.
How can I improve my sleep hygiene?
- Have a regular sleep time - setting a time for sleep that you consistently stick to is a good first step in ensuring you get the recommended number of hour’s sleep.
- Take an hour to wind down before bed without electronic devices (and other sources of blue light, that can trick your pineal gland into thinking it’s daytime) - avoid social media during this time.
- Avoid alcohol pre-bed - alcohol may help you get off to sleep but it reduces the quality of sleep, often causing interruptions and reducing the amount of regenerative REM sleep.
- Avoid caffeine after mid-day - similar to alcohol, caffeine sticks around in your system for many hours and can severely impact your ability to get off to sleep and to maintain sleep. I’d suggest avoid caffeine after breakfast if possible.
- Exercise for at least 20 minutes every day - evidence has shown that doing around 20 minutes of exercise on a daily basis can substantially improve sleep quality - the timing of this depends on your own body - some people will benefit from exercise close to bed-time, but for others this may negatively impact your ability to get off to sleep.
- Avoid foods containing high levels of protein or fat before sleep - foods containing high levels of protein and fats have been shown to impact sleep quality. Carbohydrates tend to encourage sleep so eating foods containing higher levels of complex carbohydrates (not sugars) are can help improve your ability to fall asleep.
- Sleep supplements - although melatonin is not available over the counter in the UK, bitter cherries (or a small glass of bitter cherry juice) is an excellent source of natural melatonin (the hormone that your body produces to make you sleepy). Magnesium is also great to take before sleeping (my Sweet Dreams supplement contains an optimised dose of this) - it helps reduce stress and encourage good sleep patterns.
- Meditation and mantras - there is significant evidence that meditation (in the form of guided mindful meditations or mantras) can help relax your mind and encourage sleep. There are several apps, including headspace and calm that have some excellent guided meditations.
- Being in a dark room - brightly lit rooms have been shown to impact negatively on sleep, possibly due to increased levels of blue light wavelengths - so I always recommend being in a dark room wherever possible when you plan to sleep. Blackout blinds can be excellent.
- Consider using a white noise machine - white noise has been shown to increase ability to fall asleep and also sustain good sleep patterns. Machines that produce white noise are widely available and I swear by mine - even if I wake up during the night, a few minutes of white noise are often enough to get me back to sleep.