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  • Susannah Money-Schenk

Sleep - Why it is so important and how to get better at it!

'I had four hours of sleep last night!'

'I'll sleep when I'm dead'

'I don't need sleep'

I hear these phrases a lot. I myself have used them almost as a badge of honour, bragging about how little sleep I've had and am functioning on. It, however, should not be a badge of honour. There is nothing cool about not sleeping well or having too little sleep.

In my last year of uni I suffered with insomnia. It was terrible. I'd be awake until 5am, stressing about my alarm going off, stressing about not sleeping, about how I would feel the next day. This stress just led me to become even more wide awake until I would drop off literally minutes before my alarm would go off for me to get up to go to clinic. I managed to function to a point but I certainly wasn't on my game! I was prescribed Zopiclone by one doctor which did help to a point - but then a much more sensible doctor refused to repeat the prescription saying I was too young and needed to find an alternative way to cure my insomnia. I still have two of those tablets to this day - they are now over 10 years old and unlikely to actually do anything but there is comfort in them sitting in the drawer. I eventually found a coping mechanism which was to write everything down I had to do the next day literally minute by minute:

  1. 6.00am: get up

  2. 6.01 am: Clean teeth

  3. 6.05 am: Shower.......

You get the idea! This worked for me as it was clear my insomnia was caused by a seriously chaotic whirring brain in the build up to my final exams.

But what other ways are there to help us sleep? Why do so many of us struggle to sleep? Why IS sleep so important?

Let's start with the latter.

Why is sleep so important?

The effects of poor quality sleep are quite alarming! It affects every system in our body:

  • Immune system

  • Mental health

  • Musculo-skeletal system

  • Endocrine (hormonal) system

  • Body fat percentage - obesity

  • BMI

  • Cardiovascular System - heart disease

For example: Lowered sleep for a week will predispose young healthy individuals to a pre-diabetic state due to its effects on insulin and the role cortisol has to play on regulating blood sugar levels.

Living in fight-or-flight mode all day diverts the blood away from the pre-frontal cortex of the brain. This is what we use for memory recall, and it also affects our mood and mental health. (Photo Credit - homevitality)

Already we are getting the picture that poor quality sleep can have detrimental effects but what does good quality sleep help with?

When your body gets enough good quality sleep the following occurs:

  • Your memory improves

  • You learn better

  • You can stick to routine and diets better

  • Your workouts are more efficient

  • Your mood is more likely to be positive

  • You have lower levels of systemic inflammation - so possibly less pain

  • Your immune system functions better

  • You're likely to live longer

Why do so many of us struggle to sleep?

In general the main reason we struggle to sleep is due to our lifestyle. Now there is the obvious which is working shifts, almost like changing time zones every few days and having to constantly fight our natural circadian rhythm which is guided by daylight. I will delve into this in the future but for now lets look at the 9-5ers amongst us who actually get the chance to sleep at night.

Our general lifestyle currently leads us to being over-stimulated at night. We are far too connected nowadays and have access to far too much technology. Whether it's watching TV until late or constantly checking FaceBook, our

bodies are constantly being adrenalised until our head hits the pillow. Our stress hormones (cortisol and adrenaline) are meant to be depleting at night but instead they stay at a high, leading to low grade inflammation throughout your body. This can also happen due to exercise. A lot of us choose to workout in the evening which can lead to boosting chemicals which will hamper sleep.

We often start the day with a bang as our alarms go off, we race to shower, grab some toast and walk out the door to our stressful jobs before returning home at the end of the day, training and sitting in front of the TV or our phones for a few more hours of cortisol-raising, adrenaline-provoking, blue-light riddled stimulation! NOT. IDEAL.

So what can we do to help us sleep better?

Now you could go down the melatonin route. Melatonin is the hormone that regulates sleep. It effectively manages our circadian rhythms which is stimulated by the coming and going of the sun. This change in light effects our pituitary gland which release a whole bunch of chemicals which stimulate the release of melatonin. You can even buy it in shops - but quite frankly there is no pill that can substitute natural, biological sleep - trust me, I know! So instead of ordering a bunch of synthetic melatonin onlne why not take the time to sort out your sleep hygiene and boost your natural source instead??

To avoid the negative effects of sleep deprivation, adults need approximately 7-9 hours of sleep a night (according to the National Sleep Foundation). Mike Matthews from Legion Athletics suggests establishing how much your individual body needs over a two-week stint. Go to bed every night at the same time without setting an alarm and see what time you wake up. The chances are that if you are in a sleep deprived state that you will sleep longer the first few days but it should even out over the fortnight and give you a rough idea. The perfect time to do this is over a holiday period - but given the current climate of COVID-19 now may be a really good time to start this too.

So having established how much sleep your body needs, or sticking to the guidelines of 7-9 hours, how do we improve both the quantity AND, very importantly, the quality of our sleep?

  • Avoid stimulating chemicals before bed - so no caffeine or nicotine at least 4-6 hours before bed time. Sugar too close to bed time can also keep us awake as our blood sugars spike and can lead to us waking at 1 or 2 in the morning because our blood sugar levels are all over the place. Try to eat early or to keep your evening meal small - your body doesn't need to be doing a load of processing when it's meant to be calming down.

  • Turn off the electronics - this means the TV, your phone, laptop etc. The bright light given off by these instruments surpasses melatonin production - remember him? The hormone that sends you to sleep? No melatonin, no zzzzzzz.....! Not only are you less likely to get to sleep but you are also less likely to have high quality sleep as it also messes with your REM sleep. So down tools at least an hour before bed.

  • Create a chilled evening environment. Once the sun starts to go down, dim your lighting. Use lamps in the evening instead of bright overhead lights. If it's summer with the long days, draw the curtains. Start to create a darker atmosphere to avoid bright light stimulus.

  • Remove all work items from the bedroom where you can - this includes computers, laptops, work books, any electrical glow at all. This will not only help ensure the room is as dark as possible but will also create an environment that geared up for sleeping.

  • Keep your bedroom nice and cool - at night our body temperature drops which boosts all the good chemicals that allow us to sleep properly. Room temperature should be no more than 21c.

  • Take regular exercise (just preferably not just before bed!). This may take trial and error. Try exercising at different times of the day and keep a sleep journal to establish the best time for you to train for your sleep hygiene to be optimum.

  • Maintain a healthy body composition - in other words try not to get overweight. This is a bit of a vicious cycle as sleep helps to control our hunger hormones (see my instragram page for a further post on this) and we can end up in a tailspin of being overweight which leads to lack of sleep, leading to increased appetite...which in turn leads to over eating and gaining weight - remember this next time you haven't slept well and go to the fridge.

  • Create a relaxing pre-sleep routine - if you are following my 30 Day Challenge this is your next habit. I advise that at 9pm (or an hour before your own bedtime) you turn off the electronics and start to wind down. Dim the lights, have a bath, read a book, listen to calming music even do some passive stretches or breathing exercises.

The aim is to join the 10pm club! Lights out at 10pm, no if's or but's. The minute I finish editing this blog I will be doing just that! Or if its not quite 10, I will be reading my book in bed until 9.59!

Sleep well everyone



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