Sleep. It’s a curious thing when you think about it and it remains a mystery to this day why we are programmed to sleep for such long periods. We humans effectively have to shut down for one third of the day in order to maintain our physical and mental health and when we get just the right amount of it, it can make us feel wonderful. When it remains elusive on a regular basis (as it does for one third of the population and rising according to the latest surveys) it can make us feel absolutely lousy and can seriously undermine our health. No matter how clean the sheets, how soft the duvet or how indulgent the pillow, if you can’t sleep, your bed can feel like the most uncomfortable place to be.
Sleep plays such a vital role in our lives. Firstly, it’s restorative. And I don’t just mean it recharges our batteries either. So much more is going on when sleep occurs. In fact, it’s an active process rather than passive. It actually helps to regenerate our cell function, grow muscle, repair tissues and regulate hormones. It also allows us to process memories so they become ‘consolidated’ and we can perform more effectively. And it plays a vital role in boosting and maintaining our immune system. It’s no surprise then, that lack of sleep is increasingly being cited by scientists and medical professionals as one of the big health issues facing society today.
And if you’re one of the growing numbers of people who suffer from disturbed sleep, whether that be struggling to drop off or waking in the wee small hours, you’ll be only too familiar with the nervous feeling you get when it comes around to bedtime. You know that little niggling worry in the back of your mind that makes you start to panic a little about whether or not you’ll get a full night’s sleep. The irony being; the more you worry about it, the less likely you are to be able to do it.
Insomnia is not defined by the number of hours of sleep you get each night, because of course we’re all different and some people need more than the average six to seven hours and some people need less. In fact, even just one hour less than you need can compromise your cognitive abilities the following day and you’ll probably find you process things a lot more slowly.
Chronic sleep problems, however, can have far reaching implications for your long-term health. For starters, it can affect your mood, leaving you feeling irritable and prone to emotional swings. It can exacerbate feelings of anxiety and contribute and cause you to develop persistent low mood.
Tired of the weight?
Weight issues are often linked to poor sleep too. When your sleep bank is overdrawn, you are more likely to crave food that’s high is sugar and fat, not only because you’re craving a shot of energy, but also because sleep deprivation tends to blunt your ability to make good food choices. We’ve all experienced that gnawing hunger pang that you get when you’ve been awake since three in the morning. That’s actually down to the fact your body has released more of a hormone called grehlin, which supercharges your appetite and less of a hormone called leptin, which is actually an appetite suppressant. When the body is out of sleep sync it messes with many of those natural functions that we can’t see, but which are busily working away to keep us ticking over. As a result, you end up reaching for the doughnuts, partly to satisfy that grehlin gremlin and partly because you feel you deserve a treat after such a poor night’s sleep!
So, if you regularly find yourself lying awake staring into the darkness, making you feel so tired the next day that you could fall asleep standing up, it’s vital that you get to the bottom of what’s causing it and try to get back on track. What’s going on in your daily life usually holds the key to unlocking why your nights are such a major problem. It might be that you suffer from a medical condition that either causes insomnia itself or causes you debilitating physical symptoms that lead to sleep disturbance. If you can rule this out, then it’s far more likely that stress or lifestyle are to blame.
Is stress at the heart of it?
Stress is one of the main reasons people give for not being able to sleep. Just when you want your brain to be able to switch off and give you a few hours of peace, it does the exact opposite. You lie there with your mind racing, unable to fall asleep or you wake up in the middle of the night and those stressful thoughts flood your mind, circling around and around until the alarm goes off. Once this sleep pattern sets in, it can even make bedtime feel intensely stressful. There are a number of ways to reset this and it’s all about tackling the cause rather than the symptom. First, identify the source of the stress and look at where you can make changes. Sometimes we are very accepting of stressful situations – we even become habituated to them, thinking we are powerless to do anything, but often there are changes that can be made to make life easier and you should explore them. Then, if you still find yourself lying awake, I like to recommend a technique that can help you manage that stress more effectively. It involves getting up, sitting down in a calm place, without distractions, getting an old-fashioned paper and pen and writing down everything that’s on your mind.
The environment we sleep in is also crucial. Sleep is such an important part of our life, yet we often give scant consideration to where we choose to lay our heads. One of the first things to consider is your bedroom. If it’s messy or crammed full of stuff that shouldn’t really be in there, the chaos can be disturbing in itself, so a good tidy and sort can create a more serene space conducive to calm and rest.
Make sure you have as little light coming into the room as possible too. Too much light can disturb our circadian rhythm (the body’s own natural clock) so banish those flimsy curtains and opt for blackouts. Blue light given off by the many devices we all have in our lives can also significantly undermine our ability to sleep. They may be important during the day, but scrolling through social media or answering emails just before bedtime will stimulate your brain rather than allowing it to wind down, which means it’s wise move to leave the phones and tablets at the bedroom door.
As big a bed as you can afford is also a wise investment. When you consider we are meant to spend one third of our life in bed, it should be as comfortable and supportive a place to be as possible. This theory also extends to the bed-linen. There’s nothing nicer than getting into freshly laundered sheets and it can certainly have a positive impact on your sleep, so making sure you change it regularly is a must.
Russell's rest routine
Establishing a healthy sleep routine can also make a huge difference and it’s very easy to put into action. Firstly, try to make sure your bedroom is a calm place of sanctuary and is only used for sleeping. Don’t be tempted to go to bed early and in the hour before bed avoid caffeine, alcohol and carb heavy foods. Switch off your screens, listen to some soothing music, lower the lighting and let your mind drift. Have a warm bath if this helps and then get into bed. If you don’t fall asleep within twenty minutes, don’t lie there getting stressed as this causes the brain to make associations between bed and wakefulness. Instead get up, move out of your bedroom and repeat the relaxation process again. Make sure you set your alarm for the same time each day as this helps to reset your body clock into a normal pattern.
Good sleep and good health go hand in hand, so don’t battle on a bedtime. Dealing with the underlying causes and creating effective night-time routines will mean you’ll be able to come by those sweet dreams far more easily.