Sleep is essential for good health but many people struggle to sleep well or don’t prioritise it. Modern day lifestyle and the stress and disruptions it provides have massively effected the amount and quality of sleep we get. It is estimated that on average adults sleep more than 90 minutes less a night than we used to.
Humans are the only species on the planet that will deprive themselves of sleep for no legitimate gain. Let’s face it, most people have stayed out later than planned or watched just one more episode on Netflix or as students studied into the early hours for an exam or assignment which had been left to the last minute. But it isn’t choosing to miss sleep that is the only problem, for many insomnia or poor quality sleep can cause problems.
Why is sleep important?
Sleep restores immune function, repairs, cleans out and resets the brain whilst clearing out amyloid plaques which are linked to Alzheimer’s disease. It helps regulate blood sugar, has a positive effect on heart health, decreases the risk of mental health problems, helps maintain and restore gut health and is one of, if not the most important thing to reset the health of the body and brain.
By increasing the quality and quantity of sleep it reduces the risk of multiple diseases including Alzheimer disease, psychiatric disorders, type 2 diabetes and it works to boost the immune system. For those who struggle with their weight, sleep deprivation has been shown to increase the risk of obesity.
Lack of sleep can cause our hunger hormone to increase and our fullness hormone to decrease, resulting in eating more. Sleep deprivation also makes us more liable to reach for the foods which spike our blood sugar levels like biscuits, cakes, crisps, and chocolate. It decreases the body’s ability to burn fat and encourages the body to store fat. To top it off, if weight is lost and we are sleep deprived, up to 70% of the weight lost will be from muscle and not fat. I think they are more than enough reasons to prioritise good quality sleep!
How much should we sleep?
It is recommended an adult gets 7-9 hours of sleep, with the sweet spot being 8 hours for most. Some people may need more but 7 hours is considered the minimum amount for optimal benefits. Children need more sleep and the amount depends on how old they are.
What happens when I sleep?
Sleep follows a pattern of sleep cycles, one full cycle will include non REM (Rapid Eye Movement) and REM sleep. Non REM sleep is split into 4 stages. Phase 1 and 2 are lighter sleep and stages 3 and 4 are our deep sleep cycles which are very important as they are more restorative, recharging the immune system, repairing the cardiovascular system and consolidating memories. REM sleep is where dreams are experienced and is also restorative, restoring emotional health and creating solutions to problems we may have experienced in the day. During an 8 hour sleep window, there will generally be 5 cycles of sleep (which include all types of sleep). The first half of the cycles are mostly in deep non REM sleep and the second half is more REM sleep and lighter non REM sleep. So trying to get that full 7-9 hours without interruptions will optimise sleep benefits.
A note to all parents with children and teenagers who are studying (I have and 18 and 19 year old who are both studying and they are probably sick of me going on about sleep!), or you may be an adult learner. Research shows that depriving oneself of sleep not only reduces academic attainment as we need sleep to consolidate learning, but it also reduces the ability of the brain to learn new things. So pulling the famous all-nighter used by many a student, simply doesn’t work! This short YouTube video and this longer TED talk give more information.
Another interesting fact about teenagers is that their circadian clocks (the internal body clock), changes at around the age of 16. This means wanting to go to bed late and getting up late is a perfectly normal part of their development but thankfully their circadian clocks will come back into balance within a few years, this is generally later for boys though. However, with early school starts, this can make getting the 8-9 hours sleep 10-18 year olds require difficult. This short YouTube video talks about this.
Ageing and sleep
From the age of 40 sleep cycles begin to change, with there generally being fewer hours of deep sleep present. Sleep can become more fragmented, often because of needing to go to the toilet in the night. In addition, as we age our internal (circadian) clock changes, which usually means getting tired earlier and this is where dozing off in the evening becomes quite common, which can be disruptive to sleep.
In women during the peri menopause the frequency of hot flushes and night sweats are factors which can be very disruptive to sleep (if you haven’t read it feel free to read my blog on hot flushes which has some helpful tips). Also falling oestrogen has an effect on the body’s internal clock and this can affect the quality of a woman’s sleep.
Top tips for better sleep
But it isn’t all doom and gloom! Whatever age you are there are lots of things you can do to optimise your sleep. Good sleep hygiene can be beneficial in regulating sleep patterns and optimising the quality of sleep. Giving yourself a 7-9 hour sleep window is the first and most important step but trying these tips should also help you improve the quality of your sleep.
• Try to expose yourself to natural daylight first thing every morning, as close to waking as you can. Getting at least 20 minutes is optimal but some exposure is better than none, so if you only have a few minutes, that is just fine. Try to get as much natural sunlight in the day as you can (maybe try to take a little walk outside on your lunch break). Exposing yourself to natural light in the morning helps set the body’s natural internal clock.
• Increase magnesium rich foods in your diet, such as green leafy vegetables, butternut squash, tofu, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, spinach, broccoli, salmon, avocado, banana beans and pulses. Magnesium is a very calming nutrient and can be very beneficial for sleep.
• Eat a nutrient rich diet. Try to eat a rainbow of colours and a diverse range of plant foods to make sure you are getting all your nutrients and fibre which are great for our beneficial gut bacteria. Increasing prebiotic foods such as beans, lentils, onions, garlic, leeks, Jerusalem artichokes, oats and flaxseeds and probiotic rich fermented foods such as water or milk kefir (I make my own water kefir which is so easy), biolive yoghurt, kimchi, tempeh or sauerkraut can be a wonderful way of increasing the diversity of beneficial gut bacteria, but if you don’t eat a lot of these foods introduce them gradually to guard against wind and bloating. A 2019 study concluded that a more diverse gut microbiome promoted healthier sleep.
• Try to reduce your intake of sugar and refined carbohydrates, especially in the evenings, as they can cause a dysregulation of blood sugar levels and may interrupt your sleep.
• Avoid drinking too many fluids 1-2 hours before bed, as this could increase the number of times you wake in the night to go to the bathroom, but make sure you drink regularly during the day so you aren’t dehydrated.
• Try not to eat 3 hours before bed and avoid high fat meals as they can cause digestive discomfort, especially heartburn.
• Try to avoid alcohol in the evening (sorry!) as it is disruptive to sleep. Although many people think alcohol makes them sleep better, it actually acts as a sedative which means you may get off to sleep quicker but it is very disruptive to the sleep patterns the body needs. Alcohol also activates the fight or flight part of the nervous system, which causes fragmentation of sleep meaning you are more likely to wake up frequently. On top of that, alcohol can block the restorative Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep which was discussed earlier in the blog. So although alcohol is thought as sleep inducing it is actually sedation inducing, which is not sleep at all!
• Try to avoid caffeine after lunch. Caffeine has a half life of 5-6 hours which means that if you have a caffeinated drink after dinner at 6.00 p.m. you potentially will still have half the dose of caffeine at midnight! Caffeine can block a chemical in the brain called adenosine which is important for making you feel sleepy before bed. It can also reduce the amount of restorative deep sleep, which means you may wake up not feeling refreshed and restored even if you have had a full 8 hours uninterrupted sleep. Remember caffeine is found in tea, coffee, energy drinks and dark chocolate.
• Turn off all screens at least 60 minutes before bed to stop them interfering with the sleep hormone melatonin. If you really have to look at a screen in this time use a blue light blocking app like f.lux, night time mode or wear blue light blocking glasses.
• Dim the lights in the evening to allow the production of the hormone melatonin which plays a key role in our sleep-wake cycle.
• Whilst exercise can improve the quality of sleep, avoid exercising too close to your bedtime, although gentle yoga, Tai Chi or Pilates should be fine. Intensive exercise can raise the stress hormone cortisol, which has a detrimental effect on sleep.
• Take a warm bath about 60-90 minutes before bed, to reduce the core temperature which aids sleep. Use a generous amount of Epsom Salts which is rich in magnesium and can help support sleep. Or I have found some lovely natural baths salts and bath bombs from a local small business Eco Bonobo, so you could give those a try.
• Keep your bedroom cool. Aim for around 20C or 68F to optimise sleep. Keep your bedroom clear of clutter and turn it into a sleep sanctuary. Make it a place you want to go to, to feel relaxed and ready for sleep. You can also use blackout blinds to keep your bedroom as dark as possible.
• Try relaxation exercises before bed. This could be meditation, mindfulness, breathing exercises, sleep yoga or simply reading a book.
• Try to be in bed by 11.00pm at the latest. If you are a night owl then no later than 12.00 but do make sure you allow time to get the optimal 7-9 hours of sleep.
• Try to go to bed around the same time each night and wake up at the same time. Try to do this every day, as weekend lay ins can be disruptive to sleep (sorry again!). Consistent sleep patterns are one of the most beneficial things you can do for sleep and help maintain our circadian rhythm .
If sleep is still a problem……
Look into Cognitive Behaviour Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I) which is available both privately and on the NHS.
If you can’t sleep, after 20 minutes or so, get up and do something relaxing like meditation or reading a book (but make sure the book isn’t too stimulating!), read until you are tired and then go back to bed. Keep the lights low and don’t use any screens or eBooks.
One of the things I often recommend is White Chestnut Bach Flower remedy. This is a flower essence which can be wonderful for calming the mind. Take 2 drops on your tongue or in water before bed and take if you wake up in the night. This can be purchased from the Natural Dispensary.
Tart cherry juice (such as Cherry Active) has some research to support it may aid sleep. Try having a hot drink of this an hour before bed. Just add a 30 ml serving to hot water. Or if you are fasting or follow time restricted eating it comes in capsule form as well.
Keep a sleep diary. This link will take you to a downloadable sleep diary, which may help you make links to things you are doing which may be affecting your sleep. This is also good to take to a health professional if you need to see one.
If you make gasping, snorting or choking noises while you sleep, wake up a lot, are a loud snorer and/or your breathing stops temporarily in your sleep, you should make an appointment to see your GP to be investigated for sleep apnoea.
Sleep is something I try to optimise with most of my clients. I look at how changing or adding certain foods can help, often work to balance blood sugar, sometimes recommend supplements and also focus on lifestyle and stress. As most of my nutrition clients are in the peri menopause, we also work together to optimise hormone function, as the change in hormones can effect sleep quality. So please do get in touch if you would like to book a discovery call to talk about working together or feel free to sign up to my mailing list to receive tips on balancing your hormones, a link to my monthly blog and information on upcoming events.