If you’ve just started reading this but it’s actually way past your bedtime, please put it down and get some shut eye. Sleep is one of the most over-looked and under-valued fundamentals of healthy living but it is an absolutely crucial component of both good mental and physical health.
To help clear up any confusion and really convince you of the wonderful powers of catching ZZZZs, let’s take a deeper look at the basics of sleep and what you can do to help guarantee a better night.
What is Circadian Rhythm?
AKA your internal body clock. It comes from the Latin for around ‘circa’ and day ‘diem’ and plays a vital role in regulating bodily functions including hormone production and cell regeneration. Our Circadian Rhythm is determined by light and dark over a 24-hour period and we’re actually programmed to have two natural sleep cycles a day; between 12am - 7am and 1pm - 4 pm. Realistically, our sleep patterns are often influenced by other factors including medication, stress and depression, shift work, pregnancy or changing time zones.
And Rapid Eye Movement Sleep?
Often abbreviated to REM sleep, this is the stage of sleep where we usually experience our most vivid dreams and our eyes flicker randomly whilst we sleep. We actually cycle between non-REM and REM sleep all night and in total spend approximately only 20% of our time in REM sleep. Nightmares tend to occur in the last third of sleep and are most commonly caused by stress and anxiety. Although we still don't know all that much about sleep and why we need it, we do know it is vital to not only our health but also our survival.
So how much sleep do I really need?
Most of us will know someone who seems (or claims) to be able to function as normal on just a few hours of sleep a night. There is actually recent research suggesting there may be a gene responsible for this.
But how much sleep we need doesn’t just vary from person to person, it also depends on our age. New-born babies often need up to 18 hours of sleep a day, whereas pre-schoolers need around 11-13 hours, school children 10-11 hours and teenagers 9 hours. Most adults need between 7-9 hours a night.
As we age, getting a good night’s sleep can prove more and more of a challenge. And although poor sleep is not a natural part of growing older, we do become lighter and more fragile sleepers. This may be further compounded by medical conditions or medication.
What happens if I don’t get enough sleep?
Have you ever heard of ‘sleep debt’? This is what you accumulate when you don’t get enough sleep and it can help explain why you might need to sleep in on the weekend. Being ‘in debt’ by a few hours is relatively easy to fix over the course of the coming week and you can pay that off gradually. But as sleep deprivation causes everything from blurred vision to reduced concentration, continuing to deny yourself the rest you need can seriously impair your cognitive function and put you at risk of accidents.
There is also evidence supporting the link between sleep and metabolic conditions like diabetes. This is because little sleep can reduce insulin sensitivity which causes Type 2 Diabetes. Sleep deprivation is also linked to overeating and weight gain but most people don’t ever consider this when trying to shed the pounds.
The power of sleep doesn’t stop at diabetes. Research has also demonstrated a link between sleep deprivation and heart disease, high blood pressure and stroke as it promotes oxidative stress and inflammation.
What are the most common sleep disorders?
There are two types of insomnia, acute and chronic. Acute insomnia, although a nuisance is usually quite short lived. But if you have trouble sleeping or staying asleep for at least three nights a week and it has persisted for at least a month, then you may have chronic insomnia. Insomnia can be really debilitating and it can be a real challenge to break that cycle.
Obstructive sleep apnea
Sleep apnea on the other hand often goes unnoticed although increased tiredness during the day, trouble concentrating and headaches can be indications. Heavy snoring is another sign often noted by an exasperated partner. Obstructive sleep apnea is usually caused by obstruction or collapse of the airway during sleep and causes pauses in breathing lasting anything from seconds to minutes.
If you are concerned about your sleep, particularly if you think you may have chronic insomnia or obstructive sleep apnea, it’s important to see your doctor because if left untreated they can pose serious risks to you and those around you. They may even make it unsafe for you to drive or operate heavy machinery and may require medical interventions.
What can I do to help myself?
If you’d like to make some simple changes to try and improve your sleep, here are a few top tips to help you start sleeping better:
- Lighten up on evening meals: Try and have your biggest meal at lunch, even if this means being more organized and taking a packed lunch with you to work.
- Don’t be a night time clock watcher – if after 15 minutes of lying in bed you still can’t sleep, get up, sit somewhere quietly for a few moments then try again.
- Establish a soothing pre-sleep routine – this will not only help you relax but encourage your body to associate that pattern with bed time.
- Turn your bedroom into a sleep-inducing environment – This means a tidy, cool room, no TV, black out curtains and a comfy bed and pillow.
- Exercise earlier in the day – Exercise promotes good sleep but it’s generally advised to avoid vigorous exercise for at least a couple of hours before bed.
- And of course, avoid caffeine, alcohol and nicotine before bed and watch your fluid intake.