Sleep is a vital indicator of overall health and well-being. The fact that we spend up to 1/3 of our lives asleep highlights the importance of sleep for our survival. Yet, this major foundation of health and life expectancy is frequently overlooked. Many view sleep as a luxury and think that the benefits from getting less sleep outweigh the costs.
However, long term sleep deprivation can have a marked negative impact on our physical, mental and emotional health. Numerous research studies have shown the detrimental effects of sleep deficiency on energy levels and vitality as well as brain function, learning skills and memory (lack of sleep over time can lead to an irreversible loss of brain cells). On top of that, when we are in a state of sleep debt we tend to overeat, make poor food choices and inevitably gain weight. Overall, there is a well-recognized link between sleep loss and increased risk for the development of chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, most adults need around 7 to 9 hours of sleep to function properly. Even though it may be difficult to break long-term insomnia patterns it is worth trying some of the following recommendations that may help you get the sleep you need.
Step 1 - Establish a bedtime routine
Go to bed at the same time and get up at the same time at least 4-5 days per week to help regulate your body’s clock. Associate your bed with sleep – avoid working in bed or watching TV which can stimulate your brain making it hard to relax.
Step 2 - Improve your sleep environment
Make your bedroom a haven to sleep. Remove desks, computers and other work items if possible and ensure you have a good pillow and bed mattress that gives proper support to your body and that your duvet is the right one for the time of the year. Try sleeping in complete darkness and minimize noise - consider using blackout curtains, eye shades, ear plugs and "white noise" devices.
Step 3 - Get adequate natural daytime light
Ensure adequate exposure to natural light during the day, as it helps maintain a healthy sleep-wake cycle. Maintaining a natural rhythm of exposure to daylight, and darkness at night is an essential for sleeping well. Use full spectrum lights in the home and work area during the day and avoid bright light in the evening.
Step 4 - Exercise during the day
Physical activity can promote continuous sleep and it is recommended to exercise for at least half an hour each day. But choose to have more vigorous exercise in the morning as later in the evening can have the opposite effect. A mild form of exercise, like yoga stretches, is suitable before bed to help relax the muscles and prepare the body for sleep.
Step 5 - Avoid electronic devices before bed
Switch off all electronic devices at least one hour before bed (TV, computer, phone, tablet) to reduce ‘blue light’ exposure that conveys the message to our brains that it is still daytime. When ‘blue light’ is entering the eye, it reduces the secretion of melatonin and as a consequence disrupts natural circadian rhythm making it difficult to sleep. If you really have to use an electronic device at night, consider wearing amber glasses that help to filter the blue light from the screens. (Note that digital alarm clocks with blue light displays can also be a problem).
Step 6 - Introduce relaxation before bedtime
Establish a regular bedtime ritual that will help you wind down. Your body needs time to shift into sleep mode, so spend the last hour before bed doing a calming activity such as reading or meditation. Put your work away and give your mind a chance to unwind so you can go to sleep feeling calm. For the same reasons avoid watching TV or getting involved in important conversations that can be too stimulating to the brain.
Step 7 - Stick to a healthy nutrition
Eating a balanced diet will not only help you stay healthy but it will help you improve your sleep. Include foods high in tryptophan such as nuts, seeds, tofu, cheese, red meat, chicken, fish, oats, legumes and eggs that are needed for serotonin production. Serotonin is thought to induce good sleep. Foods high in magnesium such as wholegrains, nuts, seeds and beans, may also assist in sleep problems associated with anxiety. Avoid eating large or spicy meals before bedtime as they can cause discomfort from indigestion which in turn can make it hard to sleep. Also avoid stimulants such as caffeine and alcohol too close to bedtime. Consumption of coffee, tea, energy drinks and chocolate can undermine a good night’s sleep if they are consumed after 2pm. As for alcohol consumption, even though it may help you fall asleep, it disrupts sleep in the second half as the body begins to metabolize the alcohol, causing arousal and reducing quality of sleep.
Step 8 - Use herbal remedies as a sleep aid
There are many wonderful herbs to support deep, restful sleep. Valerian and chamomile are the most widely used herbs to address sleep problems. There is plenty of scientific evidence to support the use of valerian in the treatment of insomnia, as it improves sleep quality without impairing daytime concentration or performance. A number of other herbs including passion flower, hops, lemon balm, lime blossom and California poppy can help improve sleep patterns. Old traditional tricks such as a “sleep/dream pillow” (made by stuffing a small pouch with dried lavender, hops, roses or chamomile and placing it inside your pillowcase) can also be part of your armour against insomnia.
Finally, it may sound obvious but identifying the true causes of insomnia remains the single most important way of dealing with the problem. Whether it is pain, illness, stress or other issues that disturb your sleep, it is essential to become aware of them. Keep a ‘sleep diary’ to help you spot patterns and behaviours that negatively affect your sleep and start making changes one at a time.
Remember… Sleep is not an option. It is as vitally important as food for our survival. So make sleep a priority and you won’t regret it. I promise.
“Information offered on this website is for educational purposes only and neither intend to diagnose or treat medical conditions. “