Why we sleep.....and how to get better at it!
If you haven’t already read Matthew Walkers recent book ‘Why We Sleep’ I would urge you to do so. It was one of my final reads of last year, but it was likely to be one of the most influential and significant. Interestingly there were some nights that it had the perverse effect of keeping me awake rather than lulling me to sleep, a behaviour that I am starting to recognise as being more important than I gave it credit for. 'Why We Sleep' is a complex but significant book that examines the sleep deprivation epidemic that we currently find ourselves negotiating, arguing a causal link between sleep deprivation and Alzheimers, cancer, diabetes (the list goes on and on….!) In fact the more I learnt about sleep the more I began to wonder whether it could potentially be the foundation on to which all other stabilising heath factors, such as nutrition and movement, are built.
But why are we so sleep deprived? There are a few factors to consider here. Firstly, as Walker explains, we have electrified the night. Lights, screens and technology have become a huge part of our evenings and we know that light is a degrader of sleep. Secondly, we are working more, commuting further and the borders of work and home are becoming increasingly blurred. Nobody wants to compromise on loosing time from either work or family, therefore it is sleep that gets cut. Add to this the ready availability of caffeine and alcohol and we might be beginning to understand why we are a nation that is struggling to embrace sleep.
So what are things that we can all do tonight, and in the future, to start improving our sleep? Beyond carving out a non-negotiable eight-hour sleep opportunity, which actually means going to bed eight and a half hours before we set the alarm as it takes most of us fifteen to twenty minutes to actually fall asleep, there are at least five behaviours that we can engage in to improve our sleep.
1. Keep it regular. Try and maintain regularity, not just on weekdays but on weekends too. And I don’t just mean wake up….I mean get up! This will help to regulate your body clock, helping you to fall
asleep more quickly as well as stay asleep.
2. Switch off the lights. A key factor in how our sleep is regulated is exposure to light. We need darkness in the evenings to allow the release of a hormone called melatonin. Melatonin is a natural hormone
that our body releases in relation to light. It signals to us when it is time to sleep, regulating the bodies internal clock. It is not just natural sunlight that effects the production of melatonin, artificial light has the same effect. In fact blue light
emitted from our devices, such as phones and iPads, has been shown to impact melatonin production more than any other wavelength of light. Two hours before bed time turn down the lights in the areas of the house that you are using, switch off your devices
and allow your body to start producing the melatonin that you need in order to fall asleep quickly.
3. Keep it cool. Many of us actually have a bedroom that's too warm in terms of temperature. The optimal temperature is between 18-19 degrees celsius. The reason being that your brain and your body need
to drop their core temperature in order to initiate sleep.
4. Avoid alcohol and caffeine. Whilst this is likely to make me deeply unpopular, when it comes to sleep alcohol is perhaps the most greatly misunderstood drug. Alcohol is a sedative. Whilst sedatives
are involved in knocking out your cortex, they do not actually help you “sleep”. So contrary to popular belief alcohol not only disrupts our sleep, leading us to wake up more frequently in the night, but it changes our sleep, blocking our REM sleep (dream sleep) which is often considered the most restorative type of sleep, meaning that you are more likely to wake up feeling groggy rather than refreshed in the morning.
Caffeine can also pose a problem. Caffeine is a legal and popular stimulant that blocks the sleep inducing chemicals and increases adrenaline production. Many of us use caffeine to fuel our days, to wake ourselves up in the morning and get us through until the evening. Few of us know however that a cup of coffee at lunch time will still be in your system at midnight. In fact a quarter of the caffeine from that cup of coffee will still be working on your brain 12 hours after consumption. Incredibly caffeine takes around 36 hours to leave your system entirely.
5. Do not stay in bed awake. If you haven't fallen asleep within 20 minute, or you have woken up and are finding it difficult to get back asleep again, don't stay in bed lying awake. The reason being is that the brain is a very powerful machine that likes to make patterns and associations. If we lie awake in bed it quickly begins to make the link between being in bed and being awake. Instead try getting up and moving to another room and read a book (remember not to light the room too brightly!) No devices and no food. When you begin to notice yourself getting sleepy again return to your bed at that point and try to sleep. This way your brain begins to relearn that your bedroom is for sleeping in.
These may be five of the most helpful and easiest implemented tips that I took from the book but honestly what I truly learnt was the something fundamental needs to change in our attitude towards sleep. No aspect of our physical and mental wellbeing are left untouched by a lack of sleep. Conversely there does not appear to be one major organ within the body, or process within the brain, that isn’t optimally enhanced by sleep. Things have to change at home, at work, in our societies and cultures. Sleep needs to be prioritized and possibly even incentivized.
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