Sleep and why it’s so important

Do you get enough sleep? Do you wake up refreshed, ready to face the day?

Surveys reveal the average person in the UK sleeps for just over six hours per night. With experts recommending between seven and nine hours sleep, many of us are missing out.

Although sleep is often seen as a luxury, lack of sleep has profound effects on our health.

In this article we’ll have a look at why good quality sleep is important and provide some strategies designed to improve your sleep.

What Happens When We Sleep?

When we sleep, our bodies repair and reboot.

Sleep deprivation is linked to many chronic health problems including low mood, concentration difficulties, poor immunity, hormone imbalance, weight gain and metabolic diseases such as cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes.

If you’ve ever had a few nights’ broken sleep, you’re probably familiar with some of these symptoms.

When we sleep, we form pathways between our brain cells which help us retain learned information.

Sufficient sleep supports immune function and helps us fight infection.

Disturbed sleep can alter our appetite hormones, as well as those which help us use sugar. Too little sleep means were more likely to store sugar as fat, and we’ll eat more.

Sleep Hormones

Our sleep/wake cycle, or circadian rhythm, is regulated by light and dark. As evening wears on, we release a hormone called melatonin which tells us it’s time to sleep.

Our stress hormone cortisol should be highest in the morning, to give us energy, and decline gradually through the day. Between 10pm and 11pm cortisol should be low, while melatonin rises. This means it’s an ideal time to turn in. However, at least a fifth of us here in the UK don’t go to bed until after midnight.

If we’re stressed, our cortisol will be higher during the evening, making us groggy in the morning and full of energy late in the day, interfering with sleep.

The Sleep Cycle

We sleep in cycles of around 90 minutes in length. These cycles consist of non-REM sleep, which is made up of three stages of progressively deeper sleep, followed by REM sleep, when we dream. Ideally we need all four stages of sleep and should complete five or six cycles during the night. The longer we spend in bed, the more sleep cycles we can complete.

Early in the night, the cycles consist mostly of deep non-REM sleep, later in the night changing to increased REM sleep. The deep sleep is especially important because it’s when our tissues repair. This is why sleep earlier in the night is more restorative.

Quantity of Sleep vs Quality

Good quality sleep means falling asleep within a half hour or less of going to bed, sleeping through the night with no more than one wakening and falling asleep again within 20 minutes.

Poor quality sleep leaves you tossing and turning, waking throughout the night and early morning. You’re missing out on deep sleep, so it’s associated with poor functioning regardless of how many hours you spend in bed.

Tips to Improve Restful Sleep

  • Aim for a constant bedtime if possible earlier rather than later. This will help regulate your sleep/wake cycle.
  • Make sure your bedroom is cool. Between 16 and 18 degrees is thought to be ideal.
  • If your bedroom is noisy, wear ear plugs.
  • Your bedroom should be as dark as possible. It’s hard to escape artificial light even light emitted from digital alarm clocks can reduce our secretion of melatonin.
  • The blue light emitted by screens is especially disruptive to melatonin production. Avoid using screens for a couple of hours before bed and ban TVs from the bedroom.
  • Exercise daily for at least 30 minutes, but not within three hours of bedtime. Natural sunlight, ideally before 12 noon, also benefits your circadian rhythm.
  • Yoga, meditation and breathing exercises help you unwind before bed. A bath with Epsom salts can naturally relax muscles. Add lavender essential oil to your bath or sprinkle it on your pillow.
  • Avoid caffeine after midday. It takes around six hours to excrete just half of the caffeine you drink.
  • Avoid alcohol, especially within three hours of bedtime. It may help you nod off, but results in lighter and less restorative sleep.

Functional Medicine and Sleep

Functional medicine is concerned with the causes of poor health, so recognises quality sleep as crucial for a well-functioning body. Your practitioner will investigate the reasons for poor sleep and provide you with strategies to improve quality sleep. Functional testing can examine your hormone levels and any nutritional deficiencies which may be contributing to sleep problems. Lifestyle and dietary modifications along with personal support can help you along the road to better sleep.