How to Sleep Well
‘A well-spent day brings happy sleep.’ - Leonardo da Vinci
Without enough sleep, humans spend their days walking around in a foggy haze, unable to function at an optimum level and frequently resorting to caffeine or sugar in an effort to waken the mind. But there’s only so long you can live this way before the body begins to fight back, delivering serious health consequences that affect your entire body.
Chronic insomnia is typically experienced by 10-15% of adults, while snoring is reported to affect almost half of all adults.
Being sleep deprived doesn’t just affect your own life though. It’s reported that falling asleep while driving contributes to thousands of fatalities every year, while tens of thousands of medical errors and hospital deaths are significantly affected by sleep deprivation. Pretty scary stuff!
If you, or someone in your family, has a sleep problem, read on for ways to improve sleep quality alongside the scientific facts behind sleep and insomnia.
For those who don’t have time to read the whole article, just take away this simple solution to get you started: Take regular exercise, eat a healthy diet, create a consistent pattern in your bed time and waking time and begin a relaxing bedtime routine…
So, why is sleep so important?
Sleep is important for cognition, immunity, healing and mood. It aids the restoration of body tissues and the growth process. Sleep deprivation is a faster killer than starvation so it’s important to address sleep problems sooner rather than later. The long term effects of sleep deprivation will drain your mental abilities, leaving your brain and body exhausted and putting you at risk of serious physical health problems including obesity, diabetes, inflammation and heart disease.
While the physical consequences of poor sleep are very real, it’s important to remember that sleep deprivation has a massive impact on quality of life, and with that, the quality of relationships and work-life balance.
What’s the difference between insomnia and sleep deprivation?
Chronic insomnia covers a wide range of conditions and includes episodes of disrupted sleep for at least three nights per week for at least three months as well as the difficulty of falling asleep, staying asleep or waking too early in the morning. Acute insomnia is less dangerous and occurs when we’re stressed or excited before a big event (like exams) or upset after bad news. It can also occur due to a late cup of coffee or drinking alcohol late into the evening. Every case is different so if you’re concerned that your sleep patterns have been disrupted for some time and are having a negative effect on your health or personal life, please see a GP as soon as possible.
Chronic sleep deprivation is defined as a consistent lack of sleep (or reduced quality of sleep) for less than seven hours on a regular basis. Sometimes this can be acute (i.e. for a short period only) - most commonly seen in students or entrepreneurs who stay up late to get work or study done. And of course new parents will understand the effects of sleep deprivation and interrupted nights.
What are the symptoms of chronic sleep deprivation?
Chronic sleep deprivation interferes with the body’s internal systems and causes more than the common signs such as excessive sleepiness, irritability, yawning, daytime fatigue and a constant craving for caffeine to stay awake. Lack of sleep will affect your central nervous system and affect the pathways through which your body sends internal signals. During healthy sleep, your brain will create new pathways between neurons that help you remember new information. Without healthy sleep your brain simply can’t perform at its optimum level. This leads to poor concentration, decreased coordination and increased risk of accidents or injury. Along with impaired cognitive function comes a negatively affected emotional state leading you to feel more impatient, prone to mood swings, reduced creativity and compromised decision-making.
Severe chronic sleep deprivation can lead to hallucinations and may trigger mania, suicidal thoughts, depression, anxiety and paranoia in those with mental health issues.
How does poor sleep affect the immune system?
While we sleep, the immune system produces infection-fighting substances called cytokines that protect us against bacteria and viruses. These cytokines also help us sleep which further enhances the protective effect of the immune system.
How does sleep deprivation link to an increased risk of heart disease?
Sleep plays a vital role in your body’s natural ability to heal and repair the heart and blood vessels. It also affects your blood pressure, blood sugar levels and inflammation. Those who suffer with poor sleep habits or illness are more likely to get cardiovascular disease, including an increased risk of heart attack and stroke.
What about hormones, weight and obesity?
Your hormone production is entirely dependent on your sleep and waking up frequently could easily affect levels of testosterone and growth hormone - both essential for the repair of cells and tissues and the building of muscle mass. A good level of muscle mass will ensure a higher metabolic rate, meaning you’ll burn more calories at rest (or during sleep) which helps maintain a healthy weight.
Lack of sleep can also contribute to obesity and excess weight due to its effects on the hormones leptin and gremlin which control feelings of hunger and satiety. Plus, a lack of sleep on a regular basis can lead to a reduced desire to exercise which may contribute to weight gain over time. When you’re deprived of sleep, your body releases higher levels of insulin post-meal which will encourage fat storage and increase your risk of type 2 diabetes.
‘Sleep is the golden chain that binds health and our bodies together.’ - Thomas Dekker
Now we’ve covered some of the science behind sleep deprivation and insomnia, let’s look at how best to get your sleeping back on track…
The human body has something called ‘circadian rhythms’ which regulate sleep patterns, with a little help from a gland called the hypothalamus. This is the reason why you tend to wake early on a Saturday morning, even without your usual weekday alarm. They also tend to align with sunrise and sunset, which is why your sleep pattern may vary slightly throughout the year. Circadian rhythms are also intricately connected to your melatonin levels which signal your brain to sleep.
Sleep cycles happen in 90 minute cycles with a combination of light sleep, deep, restorative sleep and REM sleep (where dreams occur).
It’s worth keeping these points in mind and learning to find out what works best for you, rather than trying to stick to specific timings or patterns that may not be suited to your body or your environment.
At this time of day try to avoid watching upsetting news stories, taking part in any activities that promote anxiety or having heated discussions with loved ones. It’s always best to resolve any arguments before trying to sleep. Meditation and visualisation techniques are perfect for those who frequently reinforce their poor sleep habits by telling everyone (and themselves) that they’re a ‘poor sleeper’, or ‘I can never get to sleep’, or ‘I always wake up in the night and can’t get back to sleep’. If you suffer with disturbing or stressful thoughts, schedule time during the day to deal with these issues or consider writing a journal in the early evening to release the tension. Mindful breathing techniques are also exceptionally helpful and completely free! There are apps available for smartphones as well as online videos on channels such as YouTube.
Creating smart sleep habits a.k.a. how to sleep well
Plan 7.5 - 9 hours of sleep. Schedule sleep in the same way you would an important meeting, dentist appointment or date night.
Aim to go to sleep and wake at the same times each day.
Avoid going to sleep after 11pm as earlier sleep is more beneficial to health.
If you’re having trouble sleeping, avoid naps in the daytime (except if you’re going through a period of illness, treatment or are a new parent).
Avoid very large or spicy meals in the evening and finish all meals 3 hours before bed.
Start prepping for bed 30 minutes before bedtime.
Ensure your bedroom is the ideal temperature - not too hot nor too cold.
Avoid sleeping near electro-magnetic fields - so ideally computers, devices, mobile phones and clock radios should all be outside the bedroom or at least on the opposite side of the room.
If your bedroom is too bright and wakes you during the night or early hours, consider investing in black out blinds or lined curtains.
If your bedroom is too noisy, consider ear plugs, close the windows while you sleep or use a white noise generator.
Ensure you have a good quality mattress that is best suited to your personal needs. Memory foam mattresses are very comfortable but some people find them too warm.
Use high quality, beautiful bed linen that you love (the best you can afford - always wait for the annual sales!) - if you’re looking forward to slipping between the sheets, chances are sleep will happen far more easily.
Try a body pillow between your knees that helps to align back, hips and shoulders - a great choice if muscular or joint pain is preventing you from falling asleep.
Use a memory foam ‘side sleeper’ pillow to support your neck and reduce daytime headaches, fatigue and brain fog.
If allergies are an issue, ensure pillows and quilts are made from hypoallergenic materials.
And now for the nutrition element…
Of course, I couldn’t create a whole article about sleep without mentioning diet and lifestyle factors!
My nutrition clients come to me for all sorts of reasons but one common thread that links many of their outcomes is improved sleep. It’s simple really… when you eat healthy food that supports your body’s systems and nourishes your cells, you’re giving your body the best possible chance to sleep well, repair and regenerate.
Good sleep is crucial for optimum health and also very important for weight loss, which is why as a nutritionist and Functional Medicine practitioner, I aim to find the root cause of the problem. With this information in hand, I can create a diet specific to every individual. Additional tests such as the Dutch Complete Hormone test can explore imbalances in cortisol and melatonin as well as sex hormones that may relate to sleep issues around menopause.
‘I am feeling great and getting a good night’s sleep which I hadn’t done for 2 years prior to Pippa’s three month Metabolic Balance programme. It has completely changed my life and losing 10 kilos in 4 months was a bonus!’ - Belinda Martin, Jersey.
Top nutrition tips to improve sleep:
Avoid alcohol within 3 hours of bedtime. Alcohol increases the symptoms of sleep apnea, snoring and disrupted sleep patterns and alters melatonin production which plays a key role in Circadian rhythms. Alcohol also decreases the natural nighttime elevation of Human Growth Hormone (HGH).
Avoid caffeine in the afternoon and evening (some particularly sensitive people will need to avoid caffeine after 12pm). While caffeine has been shown to have performance benefits in some people and can enhance focus and energy, consuming too much or too late in the day stimulates your nervous system and may prevent your body from completely relaxing at night.
Eat a healthy whole-food diet rich in fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains, beans and lentils, nuts and seeds, and high quality meat, fish or vegetarian/vegan protein alternatives.
Drink plenty of water every day and avoid sugar-rich drinks such as concentrated fruit juice and fizzy drinks.
Get regular exercise, fresh air and activity every day. If you’re stressed, suffering from fatigue or going through a period of illness, avoid intense exercise and replace with more gentle activities such as yoga, Pilates, stretching or simply go for a stroll in the countryside or by the beach.
Can supplements help?
Many supplements are available to help with sleep issues and insomnia including melatonin, gingko biloba, glycine, valerian root, magnesium and L-theanine. However, it’s always best to seek medical or professional nutritional advice first before attempting to self-medicate.
If you’d like to book a nutrition consultation with me to uncover the root of your sleep problems or other health issues, click here for full details.