A good night’s sleep is as important to health as eating the right things and exercise. Your physical and emotional wellbeing depend on getting enough. Yet, we are living in sleep-deprived times. Some people are even competitive about how little sleep they’re getting, like dragging yourself through the day with only a few hours of rest is a badge of honour. Scientists estimate that we’re getting an hour or two less sleep each night than we were 60 years ago. And the effect on our bodies is not good.
Sleep is your body’s first line of defense against infectious disease. During sleep, your body produces proteins called cytokines that fight inflammation and infection. When you are exposed to infectious pathogens, have chronic inflammation, or experience chronic stress, your body increases production of these cytokines to offset illness. Sleep deprivation hinders the immune response and impacts your body’s ability to naturally fight off infections.
The amount of sleep that each person needs varies. Waking up feeling refreshed in the morning is a good indicator of adequate sleep and so is being able to wake without an alarm. If you need an alarm to wake up, you are likely not getting enough. If you don’t get enough sleep, you may find it difficult to concentrate, and you may become become irritable or easily agitated. You may also experience blurred vision, become disorientated or slow to respond, and have decreased motivation. And, on top of that, if you’re tired and cranky, you are significantly less likely to make the best food choices.
The purpose of sleep is to rest and recover – and to allow the body to repair itself. These maintenance and repair processes take approximately 7 to 9 hours. Adults need between 7 and 9 hours per night – regardless of what you think you have trained yourself to get by with.
But just how do you get a good night’s sleep?
The most common cause of insomnia is a change in your daily routine. For example, travelling, a change in work hours, disruption of other behaviours (eating, exercise, leisure, etc.), and relationship conflicts can all cause sleep problems. Establishing good sleep hygiene is the most important thing you can do to maintain good sleep. It might also be helpful to keep a sleep diary to help pinpoint any particular problems.
Try to go to bed at the same time every day. Your body thrives on routine.
Keep the temperature in your bedroom comfortable; not too hot, nor too cold.
Use your bed only for sleep and sex. This may help you completely switch off.
Keep the bedroom completely dark, so you’re not disturbed by light, which your brain detects even when your eyes are closed. Eye masks can be useful.
Spend time outdoors to soak up the sun.
Make time for exercise every day. There is evidence that regular exercise improves restful sleep. This includes stretching and aerobic exercise. A brisk walk ticks both boxes.
Make an effort to relax for at least 20 minutes before going to bed - a warm bath, deep breathing, prayer or meditation can all help to relax the body and mind.
Consider getting a traditional alarm clock so your smartphone can stay out of the bedroom. Better still, work out how much sleep you need by going to bed 15 minutes earlier until you find that you wake up naturally before your alarm. That’s your personal sleep requirement.
Engage in stimulating activities – like playing a competitive game, watching an edge-of-the seat film, or having an important conversation with a loved one. Even using smartphones and tablets can interfere with sleep, because they emit the same kind of light as the morning sun.
Eat a heavy meal within four hours of going to bed.
Drink caffeine after lunch – like coffee, green tea, and colas.
Use alcohol to help you sleep. Alcohol can make sleep more disturbed.
Go to bed too hungry. Have a snack before bed – a glass of milk or banana are ideal.
Try to avoid daytime naps.
Try not to get frustrated if you can’t sleep. Go to bed in a positive mood – “I will sleep tonight”.