Sleeping like a baby. Wouldn’t we all like that? Sleep is definitely a part of a healthy lifestyle and the recent BBC documentary on sleep got me interested in this. Did you watch it? “The Truth about… Sleep”. It’s still on BBC iplayer and definitely worth a watch. But if you don’t have time to watch it for an hour, then just read my blog!
So I’ve looked into why we need sleep and how we can improve it. Drawing on that very interesting BBC documentary as well as various science websites.
Why do we need to sleep?
Sleep is not an optional extra in life; it is a fundamental requirement. In fact, you could survive for three times as long without food as you could without sleep. We tend to think of sleep as a time when the mind and body shut down. But this is not the case; sleep is an active period in which a lot of important processing, restoration, and strengthening occurs. One of the vital roles of sleep is to help us solidify and consolidate memories. Researchers have also shown that after people sleep, they tend to retain information and perform better on memory tasks. Our bodies all require long periods of sleep in order to restore and rejuvenate, to grow muscle, repair tissue, and synthesize hormones.
Not getting enough sleep doesn’t just make you grumpy and unproductive. It has been linked with Type 2 diabetes and obesity. So definitely something not to take lightly.
How much do we need?
It is recommended that we get 7 to 8 hours sleep a night, teenagers need 9 and older people round 6 hours. But most of us don’t get enough. The documentary shows a simple way to test if you suffer from sleep deprivation. Go to bed half way through the afternoon, hold a spoon in your hand over the edge of the bed and place a metal tray under it. Check the time then shut your eyes. When you fall asleep you’ll drop the spoon and the clattering on the metal tray will wake you up. If it’s taken you 15min or more to fall asleep you are fine. 10min and you are sleep deprived. Anything less than 10min you are severely sleep deprived. I haven’t tested this myself yet (a bit tricky to find the time without a child wandering into the room and shouting WAKE UP!). But will definitely give it a go!
A sleep diary can also be helpful to understand how your habits affect your rest, track your sleep every day for at least 2 weeks. Write down not only what’s obviously sleep related—what time you go to bed, how long it takes you to fall asleep, how many times you wake up during the night, how you feel in the morning—but also factors like what you ate close to bedtime and what exercise you got. Comparing your daily activities with your nightly sleep patterns can show you where you need to make changes.
It’s clearly important that we do sleep. But insomnia, partying, shift work and our modern life style can mess with our sleep. So what can you do if you struggle with sleep? You can go to your GP and get sleeping pills. But they are only a short term solution. They are addictive and you’ll build up a threshold so you’ll end up needing more and more. So if that isn’t going to work long term, how about some natural remedies? If you suffer from Insomnia, you might have tried most of these already but some might be new to you. So hopefully everyone can find something that works for them!
For many people sleeplessness is down to their body clock out of sync. Your eyes don’t just see things for you, they also send signals to your brain that adjusts your internal body clock. Blue lights from computers and screens in general like the TV or mobiles disturb your body clock. To reset it you need loads of early morning sun light. They are running a study on this in Denmark and it is showing encouraging results.
Screen time is a real big issue for most of us. I am definitely guilty of checking my phone, Facebook and emails before bed – while in bed. But that’s one of the worst things to do for sleep. The blue light disrupts your sleep. So it is recommended that you ban all electronics from the bedroom and don’t use your phone or any other screens an hour before bed. I did wonder what you are meant to do in that hour, but found a helpful breakdown that looks totally doable. In the first 20 minutes: Prep for tomorrow (pack your bag, set out your clothes), next 20: Take care of personal hygiene (brush your teeth, moisturize your face), and in the last 20: Relax in bed, reading with a small, low-wattage book light or practicing deep breathing.
Certain smells, such as lavender, chamomile, and ylang-ylang, activate the alpha wave activity in the back of your brain, which leads to relaxation and helps you sleep more soundly. Mix a few drops of essential oil and water in a spray bottle and give your pillowcase a spritz. You can also put a few drops of an essential oil like lavender into some freshly boiled water in a bowl by the bed. I have customers for whom this works really well.
Get a sleep routine. It might seem tempting, but sleeping until noon on Saturday will only disrupt your biological clock and cause more sleep problems. Going to bed at the same time every night even on weekends, holidays, and other days off helps to establish your internal sleep/wake clock and reduces the amount of tossing and turning required to fall asleep. The iphone has a useful sleep function which I’ve been using to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day.
Don’t have kids or pets in your bed. Easier said than done I know! But I also know that they do disrupt my sleep!
The BBC documentary actually tested four natural ways. A pre-biotic, mindfulness, having 2 kiwis an hour before bed and having a hot bath or shower and hour before bed. All of them worked to a certain extend with the pre-biotic showing the best results. The pre-biotic was a fibre supplement taken in powder form, but you can find it in lentils and chickpeas for example. But taken as a supplement you get a higher dose than you could eat in those foods. Interestingly Aloe Vera is also a pre-biotic and people have reported that they sleep better since taking it. So give one of my aloe vera drinking gels a try! (Last week I did a blog about gut health and looked at pre-biotics. So have a read).
I’d encourage you to try all of the remedies to find one that works for you (not all at the time I would suggest though)! There are some good habits you can start though that will help with sleeping better. It’s called sleep hygiene and worth implementing in addition to trying one of those remedies:
- No caffeine before bed. What time you need to stop with caffeine you will need to gage. I know I can’t have any after 3pm. I’ve found websites that suggest no caffeine after 2pm.
- No alcohol 2 hours before bed (while you might think it helps you fall asleep, your sleep is not as efficient and you might snore as it relaxes your throat muscles).
- No screens or electronics an hour before bed and no phones or TVs in the bedroom.
- Go for an early morning walk every day to get loads of early morning sunlight.
- Ensure your bedroom is nice and cool – around 17 degrees Celsius.
- Have an evening meal high in fibres like lentils.
- Exercise 4 hours before bedtime. 30 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise keeps your body temperature elevated for about 4 hours, inhibiting sleep. When your body begins to cool down, however, it signals your brain to release sleep-inducing melatonin, so then you’ll get drowsy.
I really don’t have any trouble sleeping – simply because I am shattered by the end of the day. But Paul struggles to go to sleep, so we shall be testing these out. And I am sure I can improve my sleep quality too. I’d be really interested to hear how you get on!