As a society we are sleeping less. According to the World Health Organisation, two thirds of adults in the developed world are not getting enough quality sleep. This is not good news as sleep plays an incredibly important role in your health. In fact, it is just as important as healthy eating and exercise.
By Sorcha Molloy, Glenville Nutrition Clinic Galway
Regular good quality sleep that lasts between seven and nine hours is beneficial because it allows your body time to recharge its batteries and repair cells and tissue. It is important for brain functioning, emotional wellbeing, physical health, daytime performance and personal safety. Ongoing sleep deficiency is linked to an increased risk of heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke and depression. Unfortunately, the Western environment is interfering with natural sleep patterns. People are now sleeping less than they did in the past, and sleep quality has decreased as well.
Unfortunately, stress and lack of sleep can become a vicious cycle because the less sleep you have, the less able you are to cope physically and emotionally with the demand of everyday life. Sleep deprivation is physically stressful for the body and can also reduce your tolerance to psychological stressors, exacerbating how stressed you feel (tired but wired). This makes it harder to switch off and get a good night’s sleep and you can feel trapped in this never-ending cycle of fatigue and overwhelm.
The benefits of good sleeping habits are more than just old wives’ tales – they’re well documented. Good quality sleep has been proven to provide countless benefits to daily life – including a strengthened immune system, increased memory, a trimmer waistline and improved reaction time.
Good sleep helps you look and feel better. People who have less than five hours sleep undergo changes in metabolism similar to those occurring with normal ageing. Little wonder many of us look worse for wear after a poor night’s sleep! You can spend a fortune on anti-ageing skin creams but you need to sleep well to have healthy and glowing skin. When you’re fast asleep, the body goes into repair mode and regenerates skin, blood and brain cells, as well as muscles.
Good sleep also helps prevent type 2 diabetes. There is a clear connection between good sleep and disease. For example, when deep sleep is interrupted it affects the body’s metabolism and reduces its ability to convert sugar into energy, heightening the risk of type 2 diabetes. One study found that just three nights of disrupted sleep can have the same effect on the body’s ability to control blood sugar levels as putting on more than two stone in weight.
Good sleep helps you live longer. Other research shows that those who sleep five hours or less a night are twice as likely to suffer from hypertension (high blood pressure) and heart disease as those who sleep for seven hours or more.
Good sleep helps your immune system. Research has shown that missing even a few hours a night on a regular basis can decrease the number of ‘natural killer cells’, which are responsible for fighting off invaders such as bacteria and viruses. This will come as no surprise to those of us who succumb to colds and other illnesses when we are run down – normally after periods of inadequate sleep.
Good sleep helps you lose weight. People who are sleep deprived have an increased appetite. Inadequate sleep lowers levels of leptin, a hormone that suppresses appetite, and increases ghrelin, a hormone that increases food intake and is thought to play a role in long-term regulation of body weight. All this suggests that sleep deprivation can make weight loss extremely difficult because it causes your body to work against you.
Good sleep makes you smarter. Lack of sleep can have effects similar to those brought on by too much alcohol. Those with sleep deprivation suffer from reduced concentration, memory loss and are more likely to make mistakes and have a slower reaction time. The performance of someone who has been awake for 17 hours straight is about the same as if she had a blood alcohol level of 50mg/100ml of blood (two drinks in an hour).
SOUND SLEEP TIPS
AVOID ALL STIMULANTS IN THE EVENING
Chocolate and caffeinated drinks (tea, coffee and soda) will rev you up when you want your body to calm down ready to switch off for the night. On average, caffeine has a half life of six hours, meaning that if you have a cup of coffee at 4pm, half of that caffeine is still in your bloodstream at 10pm.
EAT TRYPTOPHAN CONTAINING FOODS
Your body needs this amino acid to make serotonin, the relaxing and calming brain neurotransmitter. Many antidepressants, like Prozac, are called Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRI) and they work by helping to keep serotonin levels high in the brain. You can use your evening meal to help you sleep as tryptophan occurs naturally in certain foods such as fish, whole grains, chickpeas, almonds, peanuts, eggs, bananas, dates and organic dairy – but add in moderation because of the saturated fat content.
EAT LITTLE AND OFTEN
Your pattern of eating during the day is important to keep your blood sugar steady. This prevents the release of adrenaline which in turn makes sure that the hormone cortisol, also a stress hormone, starts to wind down when you go to bed, as it is supposed to do.
Poor ‘sleep hygiene’ is the most common cause of insomnia and disturbed sleep. Your busy, active brain needs to be treated like a dimmer switch and allowed to wind down slowly. Ideally, you should allow about 40 minutes to switch off with whatever relaxing routine you find most helpful – for example, having a bath, reading, or listening to an audio book. Most importantly, you need to switch off your television, phone and tablet – at least an hour before you intend to go to bed. This is not just about bombarding your brain with information just before you try to sleep, there are also physical factors at work. Backlit screens, such as those of a tablet or smartphone, emit blue light that interferes with your body’s production of melatonin – the hormone that regulates your body’s circadian rhythm, the 24-hour rhythm of day and night. Studies show that sitting in bright light compared to a dim light delays melatonin onset and shortens melatonin exposure by up to 90 minutes – that is, it takes a full hour and a half for the effects of bright-light exposure to wear off and melatonin to kick in and make you feel sleepy. If the room light is left on during sleep, melatonin secretion is suppressed by greater than 50 per cent.
SNACK BEFORE SLEEP
If you regularly wake in the middle of the night, especially if it’s suddenly and your head is racing, have a small snack of complex carbohydrates, such as an oatcake or small slice of rye bread, about an hour before bed. This will prevent your blood sugar levels from dropping during the night. Enjoy it with a cup of chamomile tea before bed to encourage relaxation.