There has been much in the news recently about the importance of sleep and how little sleep many of us get – we often think that it is ‘free’ time and something that can be compromised. Research, however, is increasingly alerting us to the danger of this approach – both in terms of short-term cognitive performance, but also the impact that a lack of sleep has on our long-term health. Sleep is as vital for health, performance, and well being as diet and exercise.
During sleep the body replenishes its energy storages, regenerates tissues, produces proteins and consolidates memory. We know that staying up late releases cortisol, which is known to increase the production of cell-signaling molecules like cytokines, which are a sign of inflammation. Sleep deprivation causes unhealthy changes in the immune system of the body, including white blood cells, which has significant detrimental implications for long-term health.
Sleep deprivation has been shown to raise systolic blood pressure and increase the consumption of fat-heavy and sugar-heavy foods. Chronic sleep deprivation leads to insulin resistance. Lack of sleep has been shown to be a predictor of weight gain, and increases the risk of traffic accidents, the diagnosis of type 2 diabetes, mental illnesses such as depression, seasonal flu and cardiovascular diseases. Shift workers are especially vulnerable to the effects of sleep deprivation, but the rest of us have more of a choice.
The better the sleep quality, the greater its benefits. That is why proper sleep hygiene practices (i.e., that promote optimal sleep duration and quality) are important for everyone.
Consider Not Compromising Your Sleep and Try These Sleep Hygiene Tips
- Maintain a consistent, regular routine that starts with a fixed wake-up time. Start by setting a fixed time to wake up, get out of bed, and get exposure to light each day. Pick a time that you can maintain during the week AND on weekends. Adjust bedtime so that you target 7-8 hours of sleep.
- Establish a pre-sleep routine that starts earlier in the day by reducing/ceasing stimulants including caffeine (that promotes wakefulness and disrupts sleep) at least 6 hours before bedtime. Start your bedtime routine around 9pm by reducing brain stimulation, reducing light and quieting your mind (use a relaxation technique).
- Nap wisely but sparingly. Napping can be a good way to make up for poor/reduced nighttime sleep, but naps can cause problems falling asleep or staying asleep at night if those naps are longer than 30 minutes, or if they are taken after 3pm.
- Get your exercise in by early evening. Exercising is great for generating endorphins but intensive exercise raises your body temperature that is not conducive to sleep.
- Don’t drink alcohol before bed. Alcohol initially makes you feel sleepy, but disrupts and lightens your sleep several hours later. In short, alcohol reduces the recuperative value of sleep. Nicotine – and withdrawal from nicotine in the middle of the night – also disrupts sleep. If you need help quitting drinking or using nicotine products, see your GP.
- Don’t go to bed hungry. A light bedtime carbohydrate snack (e.g., milk and rice cakes) can be helpful, but do not eat a large meal close to bedtime.
- Create a quiet, dark, comfortable sleeping environment. Cover windows with darkening curtains or wear a sleep mask to block light. Minimize disturbance from environmental noises with earplugs or use a room fan to muffle noise. Adjust the room temperature to 18 – 22 C.
- Associate your bedroom only with sleep and sex. Only go to bed when tired. Remove all IT/TVs from your bedroom. Don’t eat or drink in bed. Keep discussions/arguments out of the bedroom.
- Consider implementing a relaxation routine by evoking the relaxation response that combines abdominal breathing with progressive muscle relaxation.
- Get out of bed if you can’t sleep. Only go to bed (and stay in bed) when you feel sleepy. Do not try to force yourself to fall asleep – it will tend to make you more awake, making the problem worse. If you wake up in the middle of the night, give yourself about 20 minutes to return to sleep. If you do not return to sleep within 20 minutes, get out of bed and do something relaxing. Do not return to bed until you feel sleepy.
- For more advice try www.sleepio.com where you can find expert who can help you tackle sleep problems by addressing negative thoughts about sleep, examining your lifestyle, your night time schedule and your bedroom.