Counting sheep. Shut-eye. Hitting the hay. Forty winks. Getting your head down. Catching some Z’s…
Sleep. There’s plenty of ways to say it – but how can we be sure we’re getting enough of it?
According to a 2021 survey conducted by Formulate Health, around 36% of UK adults struggle to get to sleep on a weekly basis. When examining the results further, it becomes evident that women have more trouble falling asleep than men and people aged 45-54 struggle the most when it comes to nodding off. Interestingly, 55% of young people (age 18-24) said they found it difficult to get to sleep at least once a month.
But why does this matter, and is getting a good night’s rest really that important?
The short answer is yes. That’s because sleep plays a huge part in maintaining healthy brain function, which in turn supports our physical and mental wellbeing. To understand this better, and in honour of World Sleep Day 2022 taking place this month, let’s take a look at what happens to our bodies when we drift off…
There’s a reason the Dalai Lama described sleep as ‘the best meditation.’ During sleep, your brain begins to process everything that happened during your day and files it away in the relevant ‘brain boxes.’ This helps boost creative thinking, problem solving and memory recollection during your waking hours.
The brain also works as an emotional regulator as you sleep. It does this by activating the regions of the brain responsible for managing stress and emotions so that you’re better equipped to handle them once you wake up. Without adequate sleep, these emotions are not properly ‘organised’, and are therefore harder to process.
The Immune System
Immune system regulators are at their highest while we’re snoozing. This enables the body to fight inflammation, infection and trauma and allows the immune system to function at its best.
We’ve all heard that a glass of milk a day can help us grow big and strong, but did you know that sleep also plays a big part in supporting our strength? This is due to the release of human growth hormone, which rebuilds tissue damage and promotes stronger muscles while we’re sleeping.
The Endocrine System
The Endocrine System is a network of glands that are responsible for hormone production. During sleep, Melatonin is released by the pineal gland to help control your sleep patterns, while the pituitary gland releases growth hormone to help your body to grow and repair itself.
Cortisol, often called the stress hormone, peaks soon after you wake up to make you feel refreshed and ready to break your fast.
So now we know a little more about what happens when we enter the land of nod, let’s look at how much sleep we need to let our bodies work their nocturnal magic!
Sleep – How Much is Enough?
The amount of sleep our bodies require changes as we get older. While infants and toddlers need between 11-14 hours, school children require around 8-12 hours and adults are advised to get between 7-9 hours each night.
Now that we’ve identified how much sleep we should be getting, let’s examine what happens when our Z-count is falling short. Some of the health implications of lack of sleep include:
- Reduced alertness
- Excessive tiredness during the day
- Impaired memory and cognitive function
- Impacted quality of life
- Greater risk of road or workplace accidents
When lack of sleep becomes chronic, it can also lead to more serious health problems such as:
- High blood pressure
- Increased risk of heart attack, heart failure or stroke
- Greater risk of developing diabetes and obesity
- Immunity impairment
Tips to Improve Your Sleep
Keep regular sleeping hours – The first step to achieving better sleep is to make sure you’re getting up and going to bed at the same time every night. This helps to programme your body’s internal clock and establish a routine that your physiology remembers!
Relax before bed – Believe it or not, getting a good night’s sleep doesn’t start with getting in to bed. In fact, you should treat the time before bed as an opportunity to wind down and prepare for slumber. You can do this by:
- Enjoying a nice warm bath with your favourite essential oils
- Listening to a guided meditation or relaxing music
- Reading a book
- Carrying out relaxation exercises, such as yoga, mindfulness and breath work
- Journaling your thoughts, worries and tasks for the next day
Sleep-ify your space – When it comes to getting a super night’s sleep, creating a relaxing environment is essential. Start by switching off your TV, smartphone and other electronics and make sure your bedroom is dark, quiet and tidy. Ideally, the temperature of your room should be between 18 and 24°C.
Get moving – Regular exercise not only improves the symptoms of insomnia and sleep apnea, but also increases the amount of time you spend in the deep, restorative stages of sleep. Even a gentle 10-minute walk a day can have a positive impact on your sleep quality. However, because exercise elevates your body temperature and stimulates hormone production, it’s best not to work out right before bed.
Form healthy eating habits – Eating a diet rich in vegetables, fruits and healthy fats may help you to fall asleep faster and stay asleep for longer. Sugary snacks and refined carbohydrates can trigger wakefulness, and should therefore be avoided too close to bedtime.
Limit caffeine, alcohol and nicotine consumption – Stimulants such as caffeine, alcohol and nicotine can disrupt your sleep cycle and may even worsen the symptoms of sleep apnea. It’s best to avoid these substances for at least 3 hours before hitting the hay.
If your employer offers Vivup’s Employee Assistance Programme, there are lots of useful resources and an online workbook to download on Sleep Problems. Plus, you can also access a 24-hour telephone helpline for responsive, confidential and totally independent advice should you or a colleague need mental health support.