We know sleep is important and yet it’s so easy to shrug off and neglect. Perhaps because sleeping is seemingly a passive experience? Much like we close the laptop for the evening, see the light go out and know that no activity is taking place, we assume the same is happening when we fall asleep. However, on occasion, our computers will request to update overnight. During this time they will install new versions of their software, improve memory and streamline their operating system. When you open your laptop in the morning you may not notice much that’s different, just an annoying notification or two regarding the updates. In truth though, this is more reflective of what our bodies do whilst we sleep at night. Sleep is, in fact, far from passive. Just because we’re not conscious of it doesn’t mean our bodies aren’t busy. Rather, our bodies take advantage of us being asleep, and thus not interrupting them with food, exercise or too much thinking, to do all manner of things.
What your body does whilst you sleep:
- Processes new information gathered during the day: Your brain has a highly sophisticated content management system and it gets a nightly sort out. Whilst you rest you are storing memories and processing information you have received each day - much like a system update.
- Relaxes our nervous system: If it feels as if your fight or flight response is on high alert all day, that’s because it probably is. The modern world has collided with our basic human instincts in such a way that our nerves are programmed to respond in much the same way to an unwelcome work email, as to when we might have come into contact with life-threatening danger in our hunter-gather existence. When we rest overnight our sympathetic nervous system gets a rest too. If it doesn’t get the opportunity this can result in feeling emotionally fragile during the day.
- Immune system boost: When we’re unwell we sleep more. Not only because our bodies are tired but also because sleep helps us to recover. However, it doesn’t only do this when we’re ill. On regular nights our bodies release cytokines, which are proteins that help our bodies fight infection and inflammation. So sleeping isn’t only an opportunity for recovery but also one for prevention.
- Growth hormones: Whilst we sleep our bodies release many hormones but one, in particular, is the growth hormone, explaining why children require more sleep than adults. Growth hormones released by the pituitary gland help us to produce new cells, speeding up muscle tissue repair and preventing premature ageing in the skin.
- Your gut gets a break: Sleep gives our bodies a rest from eating and drinking. This is important for the gut as it gets to slow down digestion and put energy into repair. Being the highly intelligent and sensitive organs that they are, lack of sleep can negatively affect our gut. However, this can also work in reverse with digestive problems having a real impact on the quality of our sleep.
These are just a few of the reasons why it is important to improve your sleep. Throughout our lives, it seems there is always a reason to go without enough sleep. When we’re in our late teens and early 20s there’s simply too much fun to be had, especially in the evenings. Some of us go through an intense working
period too where we are so busy scrambling up that career ladder that we refer to sleep as ‘crashing’, literally collapsing into bed for a short time before getting up early to wear ourselves out all over again, usually before we’ve had a chance to recover. For those of us who have children, it’s safe to say that sleep is not the same for a few years and if there’s anything that emphasises how much we need sleep, it’s the effect that sleep deprivation can have on new parents. Then, just as we’re getting a bit of time back, sleep can become more of a struggle as we age, particularly during perimenopause.
Sleep is as important to our holistic health as diet and exercise and, though some may need more of it than others, our quality of sleep is something we should all be taking care of. Here are a few basic ways to improve your sleep:
Eat Earlier To Improve Your Sleep
Since your gut needs to slow down during the night, try not to eat too late in the evening. Having smaller meals in the evening and eating a few hours before we go to bed allows our gut to join us in having a bit of a rest. As we age, sleep becomes more challenging and our gut working into the night can not only affect the quality of our rest but start to prevent us from sleeping.
A varied, high-fibre, nutrient-rich diet is best for a sleek digestive system and you may consider eating a larger lunch and smaller dinner to balance your gut’s workload.
A Space For Sleeping
Our minds make life easier for us by grouping and creating association pathways, in order to make the world a simpler place to process. This has both
benefits and downsides. Whilst it can challenge or potentially limit creative thinking, we can also trick our mind into switching from work to social to rest mode, by responding to our environment.
Our bedroom should be a sacred space. The place where we get ourselves dressed and ready for the day and the place we return to rest at the end of it. With the rise in home-working, it may be tempting for some to work from their bedrooms, but the problem is that our brains associate activities with locations and once this programming is set in motion it’s difficult to reverse.
It is for these reasons that the best time to quit smoking is said to be after a home move. It's also why sleep experts recommend you leave the bedroom if suffering from insomnia because it's vital that your bed, and by extension your bedroom, does not become a place you associate with not sleeping.
As far as possible, make your bedroom a sanctuary. Don’t bring the laundry in there to sort, discourage the children from playing in there and avoid working from your bedroom. Your bedroom should be your place to relax so keep as many daily stresses away from there as possible. Perhaps, not only stress though. If you have a television in your room it may be time to reconsider. Whilst this is a relaxing activity, it does not encourage sleep - not quality sleep anyway.
Try to make your bedroom decor minimal so it’s easy to keep tidy, but invest in good bedding and soft furnishings such as cushions and throws that stir up feelings of comfort. Again, due to our internal pre-modern life programming, it is not natural for us to sleep when there is light. So, blackout curtains to block out streetlight is also advised to improve your sleep.
Set Realistic Goals For The Day
How we spend our days affects the way we sleep at night. Whilst it’s not possible to avoid stress and anxiety all of the time, being kinder to ourselves may make it easier to give our bodies and minds the rest they need. If you have tossed and turned at night, going through the next day’s to-do list and flooding yourself with worry about anything you have failed to achieve that day, then
you’re not alone. It’s a vicious cycle that the more we need to rest, the harder it often is to let ourselves. Shutting down our busy minds can feel like chasing ducks around a garden, attempting to shoo them into their roosting house for the night. Our thoughts keep flapping and our response signals and still on high alert. We desperately need sleep to destress but it’s our stress levels keeping us up. In all likeliness, you’re taking on too much during the day.
Adults need 6-9 hours of sleep every night and if you’re struggling to get everything done in the daytime, no doubt this is encroaching on your sleep time. Whilst cutting back on sleep can be useful in the short-term, such as night’s of exam cramming and getting all those last minute jobs done the evening before a holiday, reducing your sleep time regularly can have a detrimental effect on your health. This includes both your mental and physical health. Lack of sleep can even speed up the ageing process and increase the risk of life-threatening illnesses.
Each day, make a list of what you need to do, then cross a third of it out. Now you might have a list of tasks you actually have time to do. It may take some getting used to and initially you may well expect the world to fall apart around you but we promise it won't. In fact, after a couple of weeks, when you find yourself sleeping better, you're likely to find yourself feeling more in control than before.
No Phones Before Bedtime
Getting to sleep is a science and the blue light emitted from your phone screen throws off that chemical balance. Melatonin is a hormone responsible for controlling your sleep-wake cycle and too much screen time before bed dampens the production and release of Melatonin which is why it is so easy to keep late-night scrolling and, even when you stop, it can then be difficult to drift off to sleep.
I cannot stress enough how important it is to come off your phone (and tablet) an hour before bed, at least. Not only does the blue light emitted trick our mind into staying awake, but our phones can be a source of anxiety. Yes, they entertain us, aid communication and sometimes allow us to work on the go. Additionally though, they send us a regular series of notifications which can put our nervous response system on high alert. Whether it's good or bad news bleeping into our phones and consciousness, the chemical response is the same. A state of being that is not conducive to sleep.
Relaxing Rituals - Herbal Tea, Skincare, Meditation and Reading
Pamper yourself to sleep: A huge helping of self-care before bedtime can do wonders for transitioning you into a state of deep relaxation, ideal for slipping into sleep. Try to come upstairs half an hour before you plan to turn the light off and use this time to ready yourself for sleep. Turn off main lights and opt for a soft side lamp, take your time getting ready for bed, brushing your hair and moisturising. Just before bed is a great time to give your feet some TLC - you don't have to be a reflexologist to cultivate some calm by massaging some cream or oil into your tired tootsies.
Meditation for sleep: If stress has been high then meditation may be an effective way to spend some time soothing the mind before sleep. Popular apps
Herbal tea and a good book: Escape from the stresses of the day with a good book. It doesn’t have to be a positive book particularly, just so long as you’re focused on the character’s challenges and not yours. Sit yourself up in bed for 20 minutes with all technology put away, sip on a herbal tea (try one of these infusions to aid sleep) and disappear into someone else’s story. Reading fuels our imagination and is an almost mindful experience because it's near impossible to multitask when reading. You cannot be focused on tomorrow’s list-making or your many responsibilities when you’re reading. This makes it an ideal bridge from your day into sleep.
Sleep is the foundation of a healthy lifestyle. Without it, all else functions on a half-full tank. Our digestion doesn't work so well, we reach for sugary snacks to give us quick hits of energy and our willpower is reduced because we're not allowing ourselves the rest we need to process each day's events, emotions and memories. If you're seeking a healthy lifestyle, then don't devalue sleep. Make it the soil from which all else is nurtured and enabled to flourish.