We’ve talked about food, daily activity, structured exercise and water. But what other things are important in looking after your health and well-being?
A huge one for me is SLEEP!
Humans are the only species that will actively fight the desire to sleep. We stay up to binge watch TV series, waste hours on social media, and stay out later than we should even when we know we need the sleep. Personally, I think it’s all to do with FOMO (fear of missing out), God forbid someone should have a conversation in the office tomorrow about a TV show that you were just too tired to stay up for….
Anyway, whatever the purpose for staying up, burning the candle at both ends etc there are some real detrimental effects on the human body from a lack of shut eye – here are a few:
Impaired cognition – I’m pretty sure when you’ve been short of sleep this is one of the most obvious effects; your memory is shot to sh*t. Your ability to retain information is less than great, shall we say, and your concentration is poor.
Disruption of our natural time clock (circadian rhythm) – disruption to this can lead to poor white blood cell health meaning weakened response to physical stress.
Higher levels of anxiety – with decreased sleep comes an increase in the brain’s anticipatory reactions, hello increased overall anxiety levels.
Higher levels of depression – a decrease in sleep causes a decrease in neurotransmitters; these neurotransmitters regulate mood.
Increased risk of injury – alongside the poor memory and cognitive function, an increased risk of injury can occur from disrupted concentration.
As far as very physical detrimental effects go, lack of sleep can lead to a higher risk of hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, and breast cancer.
Not getting enough hours of shut eye can also lead you to unhealthy cravings. Lack of sleep causes ghrelin (the hormones that make you feel hungry) levels to increase and leptin (the hormones that make you feel full) to decrease. When we’re tired we tend to go for the quick hunger or sugar fix to make us feel better and a bit more “alive”.
What can we do to help get the sleep that we so desperately need?
Getting more sleep takes practice – it might sound stupid but we have to train ourselves to sleep soundly and sleep hygiene habits are paramount to this:
- Make a regular, relaxing bedtime routine – take a warm bath, read a book, light stretches; whatever works for you, having a regular night time routine helps the body recognise that it’s time for sleep.
- Avoid screen time for around 2 hours before bed – the unnatural blue light emitted by screens can disrupt the natural production of sleep-inducing melatonin.
- Make sure your bedroom is a pleasant sleep environment – a comfortable mattress and pillows, possibly having blackout blinds or curtains, ear plugs or white noise, and a comfortable temperature all help promote quality sleep.
- Limit day time naps – naps don’t make up for inadequate nighttime sleep but a short 20-30 minute nap can improve mood, alertness and performance.
- Avoid stimulants such as caffeine and nicotine close to bedtime. A limit on alcohol is a good idea too as too much too close to bed time, though can help you get off to sleep, tend to disrupt sleep in the second half of the night as the body begins to process the alcohol.
- Exercise – it helps promote good quality sleep. Even just 10 minutes in the day can improve the quality of your nighttime sleep. Generally speaking, it’s best not to do any strenuous exercise close to bed time.
- Steer clear of heavy, rich or fatty foods, spicy dishes, citrus fruits, and carbonated drinks right before bed. These things can trigger indigestion for some people and can lead to painful heartburn, disrupting sleep.
- Get out into the natural light – exposure to sunlight during the day, as well as darkness at night, helps to maintain a healthy sleep-wake cycle.
Personally, I find sleep meditation apps and audio helpful to get off to sleep and often use a YouTube guide to play in the background when I first get into bed. These are also very helpful if you wake in the night and find that your mind goes into over-drive. Just make sure that you turn off auto-play if you plan on doing this!
It will take time to establish good quality sleep but as with everything else, if you put the effort in you will reap the rewards.
Slow and steady wins the race!