Hands up if you’re getting a solid eight hours sleep a night?
No? I didn’t think so. And you’re not alone. So many of my clients come to me because they’re fed up of feeling tired all the time. They’re waking up in the night and struggling to get back to sleep and that has a knock on effect during the day.
A good night’s sleep is as important to health as eating well and exercising. Your physical and emotional wellbeing depend on getting enough sleep. Yet our normally busy lifestyles mean that we’re living in sleep-deprived times. We spend hours each day in front of one screen or another and we rely on caffeine to keep as alert. We can even get competitive about how little sleep we ‘need’ – as if dragging ourselves through the day on five hours’ rest is something to be proud of (that was me back in my old corporate life!). According to scientists we’re now getting an hour or two less sleep each night than we were 60 years ago. And the effect on our bodies is not good.
Why is sleep so important?
The purpose of sleep is to rest and recover – and to allow the body to repair itself. Many biological processes are carried out while we sleep and for adults this takes between 7 and 9 hours per night – regardless of what you think you have trained yourself to get by with.
During this time the body is carrying out muscle repair, building protein, and producing and releasing hormones. The brain is clearing out waste and reorganising its neurons, vital for learning, memory, problem solving, decision-making, creativity and concentration.
Sleep affects how well our immune system functions, our heart health, our ability to lose weight as well as our emotional wellbeing and resilience. And a consistent lack of sleep is linked to an increased risk of cancer, diabetes, metabolic syndrome and heart disease.
So in short, sleep matters – big time!
What happens when you don’t get enough?
Scientists now know that, if you are consistently surviving on too little sleep (that’s less than 7.5 hours of quality sleep a night), you’re not going to be functioning at your best, focusing properly or thinking creatively. And to make matters worse, you’ll also be sabotaging any attempts to take control of healthy eating and your weight.
You’ve probably already experienced days when you haven’t slept well – you can’t concentrate properly and you become irritable or agitated. You may also have blurred vision, be clumsy, become disorientated or slow to respond, and have decreased motivation.
In a computer simulated driving test, those who had just a few hours sleep were more dangerous on the (virtual) road than the people who had a few drinks! In fact, the majority of road accidents are caused by tiredness.
Weight management and sleep
Sleep and weight are intimately related. If you are not getting enough sleep on a regular basis, you are setting yourself up to be hungrier, eat more, weigh more, and have a harder time losing weight. And then if you’re tired and cranky, you are far less likely to make the best food choices.
Sleep deprivation causes a whole host of hormone imbalances. Ghrelin (the hormone that makes you feel hungry) is increased and leptin (the hormone that tells you when you’ve had enough) is suppressed. So now you feel tired and hungry and you’ll probably reach for the cake or biscuits to boost your energy levels.
Lack of sleep also messes with your levels of stress hormones and your body’s sensitivity to insulin, both of which contribute to weight gain.
Stress management and sleep
Cortisol is the body’s primary stress hormone, released by the adrenal glands. It is involved in the ‘fight or flight’ response but it also plays a role in controlling blood sugar levels, regulating metabolism, reducing inflammation, controlling blood pressure and regulating the sleep/wake cycle. Cortisol levels should be high in the morning and should gradually decline throughout the day. If they stay high during the evening you can end up feeling ‘tired but wired’ – exhausted but unable to fall asleep, or waking during the night.
The amygdala is the part of the brain that perceives fear, and signals to the hypothalamus to activate this ‘fight or flight’ response and trigger the release of cortisol and other stress hormones. When you are sleep deprived the amygdala is more likely to overreact and this can lead to an excess of these hormones. So now we have a vicious cycle of tiredness causing excess stress, and excess stress causing poor sleep.
Technology and sleep
For many people their evening routine includes settling down to a film on the TV, or scrolling through social media on their phone. Some even take their phones or tablets to bed with them. The blue light from smartphones, tablets and TVs, as well as bright electric lights trick your body into thinking it’s still daytime. This delays the release of the sleep hormone melatonin and this in turn delays sleep onset.
And even once you’ve fallen asleep, studies have shown that this blue light affects sleep quality, and the effects linger for several days.
Caffeine, alcohol and sleep
So many people struggle to start their day without a cup of coffee, or they'll have one to give them an energy boost during the day. The caffeine acts as a stimulant and triggers the release of cortisol, which in turn releases sugar into the blood to give you that boost. But a sharp increase in your blood sugar levels is inevitably followed by a sharp dip and you’re soon feeling tired again - time for another cup.
Caffeine also acts by blocking the adenosine receptors in the body. Adenosine is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that builds up gradually during the day to promote sleep and suppress arousal. So by grabbing a cup of coffee you are artificially blocking the sleepiness signal - but the adenosine is still building up. Once the caffeine wears off the feeling of sleepiness returns even more forcefully. And the problem is that caffeine has a half-life of 6 hours. So if you have a cup of coffee at 3pm to manage that afternoon slump, you will still have 50% of the caffeine in your system at 9pm. And that can have a big impact on your sleep.
Another common mistake is thinking that alcohol or having a nightcap will help you sleep. Alcohol is a sedative and sedation is not the same as sleep. It may cause you to feel sluggish and drowsy, but your sleep will be disturbed and you’ll wake up several times in the night. You may not actually remember that in the morning – but you’ll probably feel groggy and exhausted. Alcohol also suppresses REM sleep (dream sleep), which is an important part of learning and memory.
How much sleep is enough?
So your body actually needs 7-9 hours of sleep but the actual amount will vary from person to person. Waking up feeling refreshed in the morning is a good indicator that you’re getting enough, and so is being able to wake without an alarm. If you need an alarm to wake up, or you hit the snooze button several times, you are not getting enough sleep.
And unfortunately if you’re chronically sleep deprived it’s not as simple as having a lie in at the weekends to make up for it. It takes your body four days to fully recover from one hour of lost sleep.
So how do you get a good night’s sleep?
The most common cause of insomnia is a change in your daily routine. For example, travelling, a change in work hours, disruption of other behaviours (eating, exercise, leisure, etc.), and relationship conflicts can all cause sleep problems. Establishing good sleep hygiene is the most important thing you can do to maintain good sleep. It might also be helpful to keep a sleep diary to help pinpoint any particular problems.
- Aim to go to bed at the same time every day. Your body thrives on routine.
- Keep the temperature in your bedroom comfortable; not too hot, nor too cold.
- Use your bed only for sleep and sex. This may help you completely switch off.
- Keep the bedroom completely dark, so you’re not disturbed by light, which your brain detects even when your eyes are closed. Cover up digital displays or wear an eye mask or…
- Consider getting a traditional alarm clock and keep your smartphone out of the bedroom.
- Turn off all screens (phones, laptop, TV) and dim the lights at least an hour before bed (ideally 2 hours) to let your body wind down naturally and allow melatonin levels to rise.
- Spend time outdoors to soak up the sun – especially in the morning.
- Get some gentle exercise every day. There is evidence that regular exercise improves restful sleep. This includes stretching and aerobic exercise. A brisk walk ticks both boxes.
- Make an effort to relax for at least 5 minutes before going to bed - a warm bath, massage, calming music, meditation.
- Use a lavender pillow spray to help you relax.
- Keep your feet and hands warm. Wear warm socks and/or gloves to bed.
- Engage in stimulating activities – like playing a competitive game, watching an action, thriller or horror movie.
- Use smartphones, tablets and laptops for at least an hour before bed.
- Eat a heavy meal within 3 hours of going to bed.
- Drink caffeine after lunch – that includes coffee, ‘regular’ and green tea, colas and energy drinks.
- Use alcohol to help you sleep.
- Go to bed hungry. Ideally eat an adequate dinner but if you are hungry have a small snack or a glass of warm almond milk.
- Nap during the day, if you can avoid it.
- Let yourself get more and more stressed if you can’t sleep. Go to bed in a positive mood – ‘I will sleep tonight’
It takes time to create healthy habits and adapt to a new routine. You may not see the benefits overnight – but choosing one or two of these tips is a great place to start and persevere.