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Why is sleep important?

23rd June 2016 | Written by Louise Blanchfield

We all know that we need it and we all get differing amounts of it but do we really realise just how important that it actually is? And do we know how best to ensure we get enough? This article tells us the why and the how so keep reading to get the lowdown on sleep.

For years professionals have recommended 8 hours of sleep a night but except for the obvious reasons why is this? The more commonly understood reasons to get a good night’s sleep include:

  • To improve concentration – if you sleep well it’s pretty easy to see why you would be able to concentrate better. The more sleep we have, the more energy we have and the more refreshed we feel so concentration levels are better. However, did you also know that concentration improves because sleep helps the brain to function better. It improves decision making, problem solving, reaction times and helps you to be more creative. In fact, according to one study driving on little sleep can be as dangerous as driving when drunk. If you sleep 6-7 hours regularly and not 8 then you are twice as likely to have an accident! So, overall, sleep is an all-round brain pleaser.
  • To improve mood – we have all had days where we are in a bad mood because we didn’t get enough sleep, so this is an obvious one. Lack of sleep leaves us more irritable, anxious, more prone to stress and generally more likely to be unreasonable due to lack of energy and lack of clear thought.
  • To aid energy levels – quite simply if we sleep longer we feel more rested and energy levels improve.
  • For children – to help growth and development. There’s a reason why teenagers and babies in particular sleep so much, that’s because at times when the body has extreme growth we need a lot of energy to do it and the only way we get this is through proper diet and a good night’s sleep.

So, they are the more obvious reasons, what about the less obvious? Did you know that sleep:

  • Helps healing – your body heals and repairs itself overnight as sleep stimulates tissue regeneration so less sleep means less repair and slower healing times.
  • Prevents weight gain – there are two reasons why sleep helps with your weight. One is that during sleep we convert fat to muscle thus breaking down fat stores. The second reason is that lack of sleep leads to decreased production of the hormone leptin which signals fullness, so less sleep signals less full and you eat more! And this doesn’t even take into account that with less sleep you have less energy so are likely to be less active. All round, lack of sleep is not good for maintaining your weight.
  • Helps your memory – research has shown that our brains process memories whilst we sleep so the more sleep we get the better our memories are.
  • Boosts your immunity – our immune system like any other system regenerates overnight. The more sleep we have the stronger we are to fight off infection and decrease the likelihood of catching a cold.
  • Aids heart health and prevents diabetes – many studies have shown a link between lack of sleep and increased risk of heart problems and diabetes. One reason for increased diabetes is that sleep normalises your blood sugar regulation and converts fat to muscle. Without regular good sleep studies have shown a rise in blood sugar levels. For heart disease, lack of sleep is linked to increased release of the stress hormone cortisol. This results in increased heart rate and increased blood pressure so not only does your heart have to work harder but it also doesn’t rest as much as it needs.
  • Improves your pain threshold – many studies have shown a link between less sleep and a lower pain threshold although the mechanism by which this happens is not fully understood. It could, perhaps, be linked to the release of the stress hormone cortisol as lack of sleep raises it’s levels and creates a heightened state of awareness and anxiety which can both affect our perception of pain.
  • Boosts liver function – quite simply the liver regenerates and carries out many of its daily functions whilst we sleep, so more sleep helps the liver.
  • Improves your sex life – studies have shown that a lack of sleep lowers testosterone levels, so not only will menfolk be too tired for sex (apparently this can happen!) but they may also have problems performing.

And if all that wasn’t reason enough to go to bed earlier tonight sleep deprivation has also been linked to increased occurrence of depression, suicide and generally taking risks.

So, how can we improve our sleep?

Well, the most obvious way is simply to go to bed earlier so that you get your 8 hours! But we can also help get better quality sleep when we do go, this can be helped by…

Maintain a comfortable bedroom temperature – both too hot or too cold can prevent sleep or cause us to wake in the night

Have a dark room – even a small light in the room can effect your ability to sleep. When it’s dark your body releases melatonin, a hormone that has a sedative effect. If it is light less melatonin is released.

No electronics – that includes mobiles, tablets, computers…get them out of the room so there are no possible disturbances. Even a small beep receiving a text can alter the depth of our sleep.

Maintain the same bedtime – our bodies get into a rhythm, they get used to a regular time to go to sleep and a regular time to wake up. If you go past this time your body gets out of sync and finds it harder to go to sleep.

Avoid stimulants an hour before bed – so no coffee or alcohol as they keep you awake.

Don’t eat before bed – if your body is busy digesting food it can have problems going to sleep so don’t eat within an hour of bed.

Balance blood sugar – make sure you eat protein (meat, eggs, fish, lentils, quinoa) with your dinner to balance out your blood sugar. Going to be bed hungry can hinder sleep.

No noise – again obvious but any loud ticking clock or other noise can affect the depth of your sleep and hence affect the quality.

Avoid drink an hour before bed – some people like a warm drink before they go to bed, however, if you are someone with a weak bladder that drink will make you wake to go to the loo in the night, don’t do it!

Comfortable mattress – don’t forget you need to feel supported in bed, maintain a good lying posture so that you don’t strain your neck. Have a look at your pillows and what position they put your neck in, try and have neutral position (as it is when you are standing) to avoid any prolonged neck strain.

Switch off your computer an hour before bed and get some relax time before you head to the bedroom – this allows your brain to switch off, an active mind will prevent sleep. If you have a problem with this see the remedy below.

Have an Epsom salt bath – the salts contain magnesium which is a very calming mineral for both the mind and body so works well to calm both. Have them 2-3 times a week or on nights you think your mind is very active. You can take magnesium as a supplement but this needs to be checked by a trained individual as it can interact with other medication so please seek advice.

If you do have problems the old remedy of warm milk can help (as long as it won’t wake you needing the toilet). Milk contains tryptophan which is a precursor to one of your sleepy hormones so a mug before bed can be of benefit.

Another calming drink includes chamomile tea or those containing hops or valerian.

So, tonight, go to bed early, make sure it’s dark and have a great night’s sleep. Sweet dreams!

 

If you have any prolonged sleep problems, either difficulty getting too sleep or waking regularly in the night, a full nutritional therapy session with one of our therapists can really make a difference. For more information, please don’t hesitate to call us on 0800 024 8460 or book your session now.

 

References

The Clinicians Handbook of Natural Medicine. 2008 Pizzorno and Murray.

Digestive Wellness. 2012 Lipski

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