Sleep - why it matters and how to get it
Updated: Apr 26, 2020
While it’s tempting to sleep and, in doing so, escape from what’s going on in the world right now, it’s vital that we maintain a balanced and healthy relationship with sleep.
Sleep as a scientific topic is widely talked about, thoroughly researched, vital to our understanding of the human body and brain, and yet, it remains somewhat of an enigma. For every book available on sleep and its impact, there’s an alternative argument, a challenging essay and a cross interview from an opposing expert. From this, it’s hard to give an overview of why we sleep, the full list of benefits, the health implications of not having enough, and the dangers of having too much.
We’re here to break it down for you and give you the basics; all the information that we think is relevant to you during the pandemic (and beyond it) that the scientists all agree on. (Side note. Isn’t it great that in an era where a plethora of information is at our fingertips and scientific and technological development is the brightest and most advanced in history; there is an essential state that all humans regularly partake in that we simply do not fully understand? It’s nice to know that we don’t yet know everything, and it certainly keeps the scientific community busy!)
Let’s keep it simple and start with the facts that everyone has agreed upon: Sleep is good for the body.
When you are asleep; your body repairs muscle tissue using small proteins called cytokines. These fight inflammation, infection and trauma which is why it is good to rest and sleep if you’re ill.
Hormones such as growth hormones are released (essential for growth and development, including muscle development)
Sleep helps balance and regulate levels of ghrelin and leptin which play a role in whether we feel full or hungry (Have you ever noticed you eat more if you’re sleep deprived?)
Sleeping helps maintain a robust immune system
Your brain files information into short and long-term memories. This also includes muscle memory and logging movements that you’ve performed throughout the day.
There’s generally an agreed upon set of cycles that you go through in 1 night of sleep and you can read more about those here: https://www.sleep.org/articles/what-happens-during-sleep/
The most important part of the sleep cycle is REM sleep. REM stands for Rapid Eye Movement and is the part of the sleep cycle in which you dream. REM Sleep is also when your brain is processing the day’s information and filing it away to create structured, organised memories.
How to get to sleep
In the current crisis that we’re experiencing, it can be a difficult time to get to sleep. Anxiety is prevalent among many at the moment and it’s hard to switch off from the worries that surround us. Here are some easy tips to help you drift off:
Ensure you have a cosy, safe space to lay your head. Your bedroom and your bed should be comfortable, calming and inviting.
Some of us like sleeping in a cooler environment while others like it warmer. Experiment and see what makes you feel sleepier. Our body temperature dips during the night so don’t start off too cool as you’ll likely wake up in the night a bit too chilly!
Again, some like complete silence to sleep, while some prefer ambient noise occurring around them. If you prefer it quieter, turn off any appliances, close windows and even wear ear buds (if it’s safe to do so) so you can find your quiet happiness. If on the other hand you find complete silence too suffocating, there are several apps that allow you to choose ambient sounds to drift off to. Tip: if using an ambient sound app, ensure you set the timer for it to switch off when you’re fast asleep as this will ensure it doesn’t disturb you later in the night.
Light is a controversial topic in the sleep expert department (believe it or not!). One thing that is mostly agreed upon now is that blue light from mobiles, TVs and laptops, is not very conducive to a good night’s sleep. Try using the hour before you plan to go to bed as a device-free hour and have no screens in the bedroom (Yes, that does mean not binge-watching The Tiger King on the TV in your bedroom if you want a good night’s sleep!).
Every once in awhile, we’ll all experience a struggle getting to sleep. If there is something on your mind that keeps you awake at night, you should try speaking to a friend, family member or counsellor to alleviate the problem.
Food and Drink
Sleep teas can be very good for helping calm the body before bed, often including ingredients like chamomile, lavender and valerian root. Ensure you purchase these from a reputable retailer and do not overindulge.
Avoid caffeine later than midday (although the effect of caffeine varies from person to person) and avoid alcohol which prevents REM Sleep (yes, some people fall asleep quicker after a ‘night cap’ or 7, but it has a detrimental impact on the quality of sleep).
Foods that contain large amounts of preservatives and additives aren’t conducive to a clean night’s sleep, having a similar effect to sugar before bed.
We can’t comment on whether you should eat cheese before bed – that’s still up for debate!
Eating too close to bedtime can give you indigestion; give your body a chance to digest your dinner before you go to bed.
Routine and Structure
Routine is possibly the best solution to getting a good night’s sleep in the current climate. Human beings are creatures of habit and our brains are easily tricked into patterns (both positive and negative ones!) simply through repetition. While the world feels very uncertain and extraordinary at the moment, it’s important your days and nights maintain an element of routine to keep your body in good condition and your brain healthy.
If you have problems sleeping, seek help from a medical specialist as soon as possible; while it may seem like our bodies are resting when we sleep, they are actually carrying out vital tasks so it’s important you get a good night’s sleep every night.
How many hours?
8 hours has been the suggested time for sleeping adults for decades, however, research now suggests that due to the way the sleep cycles are timed, sleep works best in 3, 6 or 9-hour intervals. Teenagers need the most sleep as their bodies and brains are developing all the time. Our advice is to trust your body; some people need more and others slightly less. Avoid alarm clocks or use app-alarms that wake when they hear you moving around (this is likely to be you waking up naturally) and thus you won’t feel groggy like you would if you’re woken up mid REM Sleep cycle. Snoozing your alarm is frowned upon in the scientific community – studies show that you fall back into a deep sleep very quickly and then you’ll be groggy when five minutes later you’re rudely awoken again.
Our top tips for sleeping well are just that, a selection of information and ideas. Experiment and find what works for you, we are all different with only one continued similarity; we all sleep.
As mentioned, there are lots of scientists out there doing research on why we sleep, what happens when we sleep and what happens when we don’t sleep. We’ve put together a list of further reading for you but please note that we can’t ensure there won’t be some contradictory advice circulating!
Why We Sleep – Matthew Walker
The Promise of Sleep – William C. Dement
The Sleep Solution – W. Chris Winter
The Sleep Book – Dr Guy Meadows