Sleep plays a vital role in your physical and emotional health. It is just as important as exercise and eating well. It gives your body time to rest and recover from the day’s activities so that you are ready to seize the next day. Fast paced, western lifestyles are, however, impeding on this and whilst we are all striving for optimal health, we are overlooking one of its key components.
We also live in a society that thinks there is a quick fix for everything, including sleep. Too many of us are therefore reaching for medication to ‘help’ us without realising that they can have adverse effects and do not always lead to ‘quality’ sleep; they can actually lead to nightmares and depression.
The truth is that you don’t need to take such dramatic measures to improve your sleep hygiene; it all comes down to small, consistent changes. Just as with any good diet or exercise programme, you in fact need to establish some healthy habits that will get your sleep and your happiness back on track.
Why is sleep so important?
According to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, lack of sleep is a health epidemic. But why? Well sleep deprivation can have severe negative effects on both our physical and mental health. It can also have a huge impact on your nutrition which can increase your risk of obesity and even diabetes.
How does it stop me losing weight
As little as 2 days of restricted sleep can have a significant impact on your hunger hormones. This will leave you feeling hungrier, as your body strives to replenish energy levels, and more likely to crave sugary, highly refined and therefor calorific foods.
You will also find yourself much less active when tired because you instinctively want to reserve energy which means you burn less calories and therefore reduce your energy deficit.
All of these factors combined can negate any attempts you make at trying to lose weight.
So what can you do?
Getting enough sleep can have positive, life changing effects. Some of the proven benefits include:
1. improved memory function
2. improved capacity to learn and problem solve
3. ability to adhere to a diet
4. better functioning immune system
5. enhanced moods
6. greater chances of a longer life
7. improved sports performance
In short, sleep hygiene can dramatically enhance your life in almost every aspect.
How much should we be getting?
Despite the overwhelmingly positive benefits, why are so many people still struggling to get enough shut eye? Well the first thing you need to ask is do you know how much you should be getting? The National Sleep Foundation suggests that most people need between 7 – 9 hours (more if you are an athlete). Many people believe that they need less but in fact only 1% of the population can adequately function on any less than this. The fact is that people get into a habit of sleeping less and their body adapts but research has shown that those who have learnt to adapt have decreased cognitive levels. Whilst you may be functioning, it won’t be at a level that you are capable of.
Age, diet, genetics and activity levels all play a part in determining how much sleep you need so it is worth experimenting a little to find what your body requires. A key indicator that you aren’t getting enough is if you need copious amounts of coffee each day! So start tracking your sleep. Don’t do this using a Fitbit, Garmin or the likes as they can be very inaccurate. Keep a paper log and then note what your mood is like in conjunction.
Another thing you could do is spend a couple of weeks without setting an alarm to see what pattern your body naturally falls in to. You will need a few days to see a pattern emerge as initially you will probably be oversleeping to make up for any previous ‘loss’ of sleep but if you go to bed at the same time each night, you will begin to wake at a time that your body needs. You may want to do this when you are on holiday to prevent being late for work initially!
What is quality sleep?
The last point I want to clarify before going on to some invaluable tips is what constitutes valuable sleep? A study has revealed that a good night’s sleep consists of actually sleeping for 85% of the time you are in bed and not recalling waking more than once. If you do recall waking, then this should be for a period of 20 minutes or less. Can you say that you are getting quality sleep every night?
So what practical things can you do to improve your chances of consistently getting good sleep?
Throughout the day our melatonin rises to prepare us for sleep. Melatonin is the hormone that regulates sleep; bright light can suppress this hormone thus making it harder for us to unwind. Our mobile phones and electronic devices can be a significant factor in this as they let off a ‘blue’ light
which is a very powerful sleep suppressant.
There are a few things you can do to mitigate this. Firstly, try dimming lights and switching all devices off at least an hour before bed. If you can’t manage this then try installing f.lux, a programme that gradually reddens the blue light from your screen therefore making it less harsh. Studies have also shown that more light exposure during the day can help to reduce the effects of this blue light so try getting out as much as possible during the day. In fact a 20 minute walk before midday has been shown to improve sleep quality.
Have a regular bedtime
Our bodies like and respond to routine so have a regular bedtime! Not only will it make it easier and quicker to fall asleep, it should also improve your sleep quality. This is especially important for people who travel a lot so sleep away from home.
If you didn’t already know it, caffeine is a powerful stimulant that can make it difficult for you to fall asleep. Even if you are a regular drinker and can fall asleep after coffee, it will more than likely lead to unsettled sleep as it blocks adenosine receptors. So, aim to have your last cup at least 4 hours before tucking in.
Yep you can’t escape it; is there anything exercise can’t help improve?!! Studies have shown that it can in fact improve sleep quality and quantity for everyone, not just those who suffer poor sleep hygiene.
Contrary to popular belief it doesn’t matter when you do it either. Studies have shown that whether you do it first thing, midday or in the evening, it can have a positive impact on your sleep. One thing to bear in mind though is that it can take time to kick in; some people reap the sleep benefits immediately whereas it can take some months for others to notice a difference. Either way though, be consistent and it will pay off!
Maintain a Healthy Weight
At the other end of the spectrum is obesity; being overweight can play a key part in reducing sleep hygiene not to mention all the other health implications.Furthermore, lack of sleep affects the regulation of our hunger hormones which can lead to more snacking. This, if we are not mindful, can lead to over-eating and so our weight becomes difficult to manage.
Try to avoid this vicious cycle by maintaining a healthy body weight through a balanced nutrition programme (feel free to contact me for more information or advice).
Life is a race and a constant balancing act! No wonder we often go to bed with our minds swimming with thoughts and plans of how we will tackle the next day.
This is why a relaxing routine 30 minutes or so before bed is key. This is something I have personally worked hard to be consistent with. I like to have a hot (decaffeinated) drink and read a few pages of a book before bed. I always make sure my phone is in flight mode and have a soft lamp. But you could try having a bath, listening to some calming music, download a meditation app…choose an approach that suits you but be consistent! Make it a habit over time.
Yes, you can actually bank sleep if necessary. Instead of making yourself anxious because you have had a bad night’s sleep or two, try and look at it over a period of a week. If you need 7 hours of sleep a night but are only managing 6 on a few days, can you aim for 8-9 over the weekend? Or try fitting in a nap; short naps can greatly improve your energy levels and cognitive function. Just try and make sure it all adds up at the end of the week; this is where a log can prove very useful.
Bear in mind, however, that whilst this can be a useful strategy, banking sleep will not fully compensate for poor sleep at night.
Evidence based supplements
Supplements should not be your first port of call; if you want a better sleep relationship then you should look at making small lifestyle changes that will add up over time.
However, if you have tried all of these and are implementing them regularly but still feel that you would benefit from better sleep then there are some evidence based supplements you could try. But make sure you choose wisely.
Magnesium and Vitamin D can be useful for some and should be your first port of call.
There has also been some evidence to suggest that L-Tryptophan can help healthy people to fall asleep quicker and improve mood. L-Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that helps your body make proteins and is found in protein foods. Your body changes L-Tryptophan in to serotonin which is why it can help you drift off. You can take it in the form of 5 HTP.
Whilst I have offered some guidance, if you are considering taking supplements to improve sleep then please consult your GP first.
Sleep should be approached in the same way as a good nutrition or exercise programme; consistent small changes over time lead to impressive results! Get it right and you will be more productive, experience better moods, make better food choices and be more physically active. Sleep, diet, exercise all go hand in hand; crack the consistency and you will be a much happier you!
This was brought to you by Rebecca Flannery, Evidence Based Nutritionist at Transformational Nutrition.