• 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.

That's all fine, but how do you go about getting the quality sleep you need?

First things first, you must get to bed early enough to really benefit from the best quality sleep. You’ve heard the saying “an hour before midnight is worth two hours after”, well there really is some truth in that. In the early part of the night (i.e. 10pm – 2am), 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. It's also a good idea to get to bed at roughly the same time each night.

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 – remove sunglasses to let light into your face; take your lunch break outside rather than at your desk; open all blinds and curtains to let the light into your house; and invest in a light-box to use during the darker winter months.

Thirdly, you want to make sure your evening routine is sleep inducing. Most of us now know 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 also want to try to avoid going to bed too hungry or full – blood sugar drops can wake you up in the early hours, and a full and busy digestive system can disrupt sleep too.

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, 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.