For the second part of the Physical element of The Wheel Of Wellness I will today be looking at the importance of quality sleep to maintain good physical and mental health. I’ve previously published a couple of blog posts on the topic of sleep namely 5 ways to get better sleep tonight and 5 things to do in the evening to ensure a restful night’s sleep and a productive next day which you may like to have a read of as well. Many people have issues with their sleep for one reason or another and if you’re one of them, you might want to prioritise this area of the wellness wheel and spend some time learning about the effect that sleep (or lack of) affects your body and your life and pick up some tips on how to manage this aspect of your physical health.
Why is sleep so important?
Sleep has a huge impact on our health and wellbeing throughout our lives. Anyone who has ever had difficulty sleeping will know that the quality and quantity of our slumber dramatically affects our mind, body, general quality of life and our safety. While you are sleeping, your body is actively working and preparing you for the next day.
The following is a list of the basic functions of sleep which illustrate the importance of a good night’s kip:
- physical restoration
- mood regulation
- cleaning the brain of toxins
- information processing and memorization (committing things to memory for later recall, the storing of visual, auditory or tactical information)
- strengthening the immune system
In children and teens, sleep also supports growth and development.
In addition, further benefits of quality sleep include:
- better heart health
- stress reduction
- generally makes you feel more alert throughout the day
- can help you lose weight (you’re less likely to crave high sugar or junk foods)
- reduced risk of anxiety and depression
- improved appearance – healthy, glowing skin (versus dark circles under eyes, dehydrated complexion, breakouts and redness from lack of sleep, plus comments from friends and family along the lines of “you look like ****)
- better concentration (hopefully leading to improved productivity)
- better decision making
- stronger immune system (so less likely to get ill / feel run down etc)
- boosted creativity (better ideas and use of imagination)
- better motoric response (including quicker reactions)
- enhanced sporting performance
- reduced risk of high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, stroke and obesity
- better emotional regulation (meaning amongst other things that you’re more likely to get along with others and less likely to become overwhelmed by your feelings)
Sleep and wakefulness is controlled by two biological processes: Sleep Homeostasis, commonly known as ‘sleep pressure’ and The Circadian rhythm, otherwise known as ‘the body clock’.
What is sleep pressure?
Sleep pressure is basically, the brain’s desire and need for sleep. The more time you’ve been awake for, the greater the sleep pressure. When you wake up in the morning, you should have very little need for sleep (if you’ve had a good night) so sleep pressure is very low. As we get on with our day, the sleep pressure begins to grow so that by evening time sleep pressure is much higher, making us feel sleeping and in need of our beds! By morning, following a good night’s sleep, our sleep pressure will have reset and be back to little or no desire for further sleep.
In order to make sure that we have the right amount of sleep pressure present by bed time, we should really make sure that we get up and go to bed at the same time each day. However, I know that a lot of people will have a lie in on a weekend, which tends to make it difficult to switch off and sleep on a Sunday night (especially if Sunday night dread is at play). Taking naps should also be avoided as this can reduce sleep pressure too. If you absolutely must have a nap, tried to take it before 3pm and make sure it lasts for less than one hour.
What is meant by the term Circadian rhythm AKA our ‘body clock’?
Like all living things, humans have a circadian rhythm which is the brain’s way of aligning the body with the environment. Our sleep/wake cycle follows this 24 hour rhythm. During the day, exposure to light helps us to feel alert, awake and active. As night/darkness falls our internal body clock starts to produce melatonin, a hormone which promotes sleep.
You can help promote a healthy circadian rhythm by seeking natural light (sunshine) during the day, getting some daily exercise, avoiding caffeinated drinks after mid-day, limiting light before bed and having a set bed time / wake up routine which prepares the body for sleep at night and encourages wakefulness first thing in the morning. I’ll discuss some of these in more detail later.
Creating the right bedroom environment
It’s really important to create a comfortable and relaxing environment in your bedroom to help you fall asleep quickly and easily. We invested in a ‘posturepedic’ mattress which is pocket sprung with a latex top. We’ve had it for years and it’s still completely supportive and so comfortable. Every time we go on holiday, we always look forward to being back in our own bed! The best sheets and pillowcases we’ve found for softness and durability are bamboo ones. An added bonus for us is that they’re breathable and hypoallergenic too.
Your bedroom should also be nice and dark as the absence of light sends a signal to your body that it’s time to get some rest. A nice thick pair of curtains or light blocking blinds are essential for this (we have blinds and lined curtains which allow just enough morning light to help us wake up). Some people also like to wear a sleep mask to block out light and these are also good for shift workers who are in bed during the day.
Other essentials for a calm and relaxing space include as little clutter as possible and a quiet environment to minimise distractions. Just the right room temperature – not too hot and not too cold is also helpful for inducing sleep (experts recommend around 18.3 degrees Celsius / 65 degrees Fahrenheit is ideal). Some people also swear by lavender as a soothing and sedating scent but I find it sets my allergies off which is certainly not sleep inducing!
Sleep experts also suggest that your bedroom should be strictly for two purposes only – sleeping and sexual activity. This means it should not be used for:
- eating, drinking or smoking
- dealing with bills, reading letters or any form of paperwork
- using technology or looking at screens e.g. TV, mobile phone, laptop, tablet etc.
I also like to read fiction books on my Kindle Paperwhite in bed but I do find that as long as the screen is pretty dim, I become really sleepy after a couple of chapters. If you feel that reading certain books stimulate your brain too much, bedtime reading may be best avoided.
Diet and sleep
Most people know that caffeine isn’t good for sleep due to the stimulants it contains so if you have trouble sleeping, it’s best not to drink coffee or other caffeinated drinks such as cola, sports and energy drinks for at least 4 hours before bed. Having a large meal before bed is also likely to keep you awake as your body will still be digesting the food. Also, you may find yourself suffering from indigestion or acid reflux if you eat or drink too late. If you do find yourself craving a late evening snack a small amount of nuts, a banana or a small bowl of oatmeal with berries should be safe to eat.
Alcohol is well known to cause a slowing of brain activity and make you feel relaxed and sleepy but beware that the consumption of alcoholic beverages, especially in excess has been shown to cause poor quality sleep and shorter duration so you may find yourself waking up repeatedly in the night or not feeling very refreshed in the morning. Night-time drinking may also result in acid reflux too!
A good daily routine to help you sleep
Throughout the day, it’s important to get as much natural light as you can. This could include working next to a window, taking regular outdoor breaks during the day e.g. sitting in the garden with your morning cuppa and having an al fresco lunch. Obviously this is more difficult during the Winter months but even short walks outside, maybe with a nice, hot drink can make all the difference.
Exercise (or being active) including aerobic workouts, resistance training and yoga during the day can also help with sleep. Just make sure you don’t do anything which elevates your pulse rate for at least 3 hours before bed.
In the evening time, it’s a good idea to do relaxing activities which can calm the body and the mind. This could include listening to some soothing music, reading a book, doing some meditation, writing in your journal to help put the day to rest (see my 5 ways to get better sleep tonight for an explanation of how), enjoy a warm bath or hot shower.
If you regularly struggle to sleep, something you should definitely try is avoiding using electronic devices for at least an hour before bed. This is helpful for two reasons – one, a lot of online content can be mentally or emotionally stimulating (including emails) and two, the light that these devices emit can affect your body clock by increasing alertness and delaying the release of melatonin. If you must use your phone, at least set the blue light filter or night time mode to come on after around 7pm.
What if I find myself wide awake in bed?
After approximately 20 minutes of lying awake (estimate this, do not use your clock), you should get up out of bed and leave the bedroom. Either do something boring or something really relaxing (not something stimulating (no looking at your phone!) until you start to feel tired, and then go back to bed. If you’re not asleep after another estimated 20 minutes, get up again and repeat the process. If this happens regularly, spend some time during the day assessing what you think might be causing the problem and try making some changes to your routine.
A word about sleep disorders
There are a number of sleep disorders which can seriously affect the quality of your sleep. Some of the common ones are:
- Sleep walking / talking
- Nightmares / night terrors
- Sleep apnoea (obstructed airway)
- Sleep paralysis (a temporary inability to move that occurs right after falling asleep or waking up)
- Hypnogogia / Hypnopompia (hallucinations occurring as you wake up or fall asleep)
If you suspect that you may be struggling with any of the above, it’s really important to speak to your GP who can offer medical advice or make a referral to a sleep specialist.
If you are struggling with your sleep right now you have my completely sympathy as I’ve had real issues with insomnia in the past. However, it’s usually quite easy to identify the contributing factors which are preventing a good night’s sleep. Finding solutions to the problems is a little more difficult but I hope this blog post has given you some ideas. Remember that quality sleep is vital to your wellbeing and it’s worth investing time and energy into this aspect of your physical health.