• Emma Rushe

How to sleep better

For many people, resting means watching TV, browsing the internet or engaging with some kind of electronic device that is anything but restful for the brain and the body.

Sleep is fundamentally important when it comes to health. In fact, sleep is so important to our overall health that total sleep deprivation has been proven to be fatal: lab rats denied the chance to rest die within two to three weeks.

You can eat a perfect diet, exercise every day and take all the right supplements, but if you’re not sleeping well, you really won’t be able to realise the improvements to your health that you are looking to achieve.

Thanks to research studies and advances in knowledge, experts are telling us that sleep is absolutely essential for basic maintenance and repair of the neurological, endocrine, immune, musculoskeletal and digestive systems. Inadequate rest impairs our ability to think, to handle stress, to maintain a healthy immune system and to moderate our emotions. It’s associated with heart disease, hypertension, weight gain, diabetes and a wide range of psychiatric disorders including depression and anxiety.

One association that may surprise some people, is the strong link between sleep quality and weight. Recent studies have shown that even one night of poor sleep can result in dramatic changes in appetite and food intake. Others have shown that restricting sleep to 5 hours a night for just one week impairs carbohydrate tolerance and insulin sensitivity. Researchers now believe that sleep deprivation is the single biggest predictor of weight problems and obesity in children – which has become an alarming problem.

Exactly how lack of sleep affects our ability to lose weight is connected to our hormones, namely ghrelin and leptin. Ghrelin is the hormone that tells us when to eat and leptin is the hormone that tells us to stop eating. Research has shown that when we are sleep-deprived, we produce more ghrelin and less leptin, which means we will feel the urge to eat more often without enough of the hormone that tells us we’re full and should stop eating. It’s easy to see how this leads to an increase in appetite, overeating and weight gain.

So how do you go about getting the quality sleep you need?

First things first, we are all completely individual and you may need to experiment with a few strategies to find what works for you. It may take a combination of factors to get it right, and don't give up too soon - allow time for your body to re-balance and adjust to any changes you're making.

The first thing to consider is the time you're going to bed. Listen to your body, watch for the signals and see if you can detect patterns of pushing through tiredness to stay up later than your body really wants you to. Try and get to bed at roughly the same time every night too - your body loves routine and predictability when it comes to sleep and wake cycles. It's also worth knowing that the best quality, most restful sleep happens in the earlier part of the night (i.e. 10pm – 2am), when the majority of your sleep cycles are composed of deep non-REM sleep (stages
 3 and 4) during which our bodies regenerate, repair tissue and engage in other restorative processes. In the second half of the night (i.e. 2am – 7am)
 this balance changes, and we dream more and our sleep becomes progressively lighter towards morning.

Secondly, what you do in the day really counts. You want to expose yourself to enough daylight to keep your circadian rhythm happy and balanced, so get outside for a walk early in the day if possible and remove sunglasses to let light into your face. Take your lunch break outside rather than at your desk, and open all blinds and curtains to let the light into your house. You can also consider investing in a light-box to use during the darker winter months.

Thirdly, you want to make sure your evening routine is sleep inducing. Avoid vigorous exercise in the evening and instead choose some quiet, relaxing activities like reading, meditation, gentle stretching or yoga, chatting with a friend, or a warm bath with some relaxing essential oils. If you're watching TV, avoid fast action, violent or scary content that elicits a stress response. In fact, avoiding screens altogether for at least an hour before bed is a great strategy. Most of us know by now that the blue light emitted by screens tricks our brain into thinking it's daytime, thereby changing our hormonal secretions and reducing melatonin (the sleep hormone) production. This is not good news when it comes to your ability to get to sleep, and stay asleep. You want to reduce your exposure to artificial light for at least an hour before you go to bed - this includes the TV, laptop or computer, tablet, mobile phone and backlit e-readers. You can also invest in some amber coloured glasses to wear during the evening, to prevent artificial light impacting on hormone levels.

Fourthly, think about what you're eating and drinking during the day, and especially the evening. Cutting back on sugary and refined foods that encourage blood sugar levels to fluctuate, and ensuring an adequate intake of protein, fibre and nutrient-rich vegetables, can reduce the risk of restless sleep and waking in the early hours. You may find that eating a little earlier or lighter in the evening may help, as a full and busy digestive system can disrupt sleep too. While many feel that alcohol helps them crash out in the evenings, it actually tends to affect your ability to stay asleep and get enough of the quality, deep sleep you need to be healthy. Caffeine is well known for disrupting sleep, especially when consumed in the afternoon and evening. Try reducing your total intake of caffeine, and avoid it completely after mid afternoon or even earlier if necessary.

And finally, think about your bedroom. Is it too warm, too noisy? Both of these factors can interfere with restful sleep. Light from clocks or windows can interfere with sleep too, because our brains can detect external light even with our eyes closed! So cover your digital alarm clock or other light-emitting device, use blackout blinds or curtain liners to block out streetlights. And make sure your bed is comfortable - think about how long you've had your mattress and pillows for, maybe it's time to invest in new ones if you're finding it hard to get comfy.

There's one big factor I haven't mentioned here, because it's such an important health consideration in its own right - stress! Of course, stress can play havoc with sleep in so many ways - read all about the best ways to manage stress here.