12 Tips to Help You Sleep Better & Why it is so Important for Your Health
What makes sleep so important that I wanted to write a blog on it? Well only a few years ago doctors and scientists struggled to answer this question as sleep held onto its secrets but recently search has accelerated and sleep has begun to be understood in much more depth. This research has changed the face of what we know about how important it is for human health.
"how long you sleep may affect how long you live"
We all need sleep and those of us who struggle with sleep tend to have more health problems and poor sleep or sleep deprivation is associated with a wide range of diseases including heart disease, Type 2 Diabetes, dementia and Alzheimer’s as well as affecting how long we live.1 Yes you read that right, how long you sleep for may affect how long you live. How long you live and how well you perform whether you are an athlete or a business leader, a doctor or an entrepreneur, if you don't get enough sleep you won't be doing your job as well as you could and you are more likely to make mistakes.
Having been a senior HR manager in a previous career before retraining in nutrition and lifestyle medicine I can tell you that if I was leading your HR department or advising you on the best tips to ensure your staff stay healthy and perform to the top of their ability I would say to start with sleep. If you don't get enough sleep and focus purely on nutrition and exercise you can end up on a path leading illness and decreased productivity.
It also true that sleep medications are one of the most widely prescribed drugs and sleep deprivation has been implicated in industrial, car and workplace accidents.2 In fact if we are sleep deprived experiments show that our response speeds are up to 50% slower.3
So what is it about sleep that is so important for our health? Sleep is known to help control our metabolism and regulate our weight, help store our memories and promote positive mood and good mental health, it helps our body repair damage and it supports our immune system. All these things are crucial for us to remain fit and healthy and when we do not get enough sleep many of these processes start to break down.
"sleep is critical for daytime cognition, the ability to think clearly, to be vigilant, alert and sustain attention"
People have come to value time so much that sleep is often regarded as an annoying interference, a wasteful state when you do not have enough will power to work harder and longer. But sleep is critical for daytime cognition, the ability to think clearly, to be vigilant, alert and sustain attention. We also know that memories are consolidated during sleep, and that sleep serves a key role in our ability to control our emotions.4 So not only is sleep important for our health but when we are deprived of it the effects are similar to alcohol consumption, resulting in more driving and work related accidents.3
So What Benefits Does Sleep Provide Us With?
· People who sleep well tend to eat less as their hormones are better regulated.
· Sleep improves our concentration and productivity.
· Good sleep can improve your athletic performance.
· Great sleep improves your mental health and cognition.
· Sleep supports the optimal functioning of your immune system.
· Sleep reduces inflammation and the risks of inflammatory conditions and diseases.
· Good sleep enhances your emotional health and social interactions.
"the amount of sleep is important but so is the quality or our sleep"
It is interesting that most of us do not get enough sleep because our work and lifestyle choices do not allow for it and our current culture with popular sayings like 'I'll sleep when I'm dead' not helping us give it the priority it deserves. Population level studies suggest that we need at least 7 hours sleep.12 However, the science suggests it is not as straight forward as this pointing to 7 hours perhaps being ideal for academic achievement but more like 9 hours needed for optimal athletic performance. To find our optimal sleep duration and pattern we need to take account of our individual body chemistry and biology. The amount of sleep is important but so is the quality of our sleep, as excessive sleep may indicate low quality sleep and studies suggest that sleep which is either too short or too long can have a negative health impact. However, the evidence for long sleep being problematic is less clear as it is often associated with health problems such as depression and chronic pain. Taking a nap is increasingly seen as supportive of health in reducing accidents as well as heart attacks and improving work performance.6
"self-reported sleep .... overestimates actual sleep"
It is interesting that in studies self-reported sleep duration overestimates actual sleep duration meaning that we probably all think we get more sleep than we do. Second generation wearable devices with multi biosensors can that track sleep, such as FitBits, Apple Watch, Garmin Watches and the Oura Ring, and provide you with a better idea of your sleep patterns and can link to other health information giving you the potential to include sleep as a way of monitoring your health.6
How is our Sleep Regulated?
Before I delve into the detail of some of these key areas let me try to explain for you how our sleep is regulated. To do this we need to start in the brain with a tiny bit called the Suprachiasmatic Nucleus (SCN) which sits in the hypothalamus just above where the optic nerves come into the brain from the eyes. Despite being tiny the SCN plays a huge role in our lives as it is the pacemaker for our circadian rhythm and conveys to every cells in our body an internal representation of solar time enabling us to control our biological clocks so that we cope with living in a 24-hour world.7
"melatonin tells our body when it should be sleeping"
Light is the primary regulator of this process which signals to our body to release melatonin, our sleepiness hormone. Melatonin tells our body when it should be sleeping and so regulates the timing of our sleepiness. Once we are sleeping melatonin slowly increases during the night and as dawn arrives the light signals the shutdown of the melatonin signal telling us that it is time to wake. Melatonin also helps regulate our body temperature which peaks in the evening and is lowest in the early morning.8
In addition to Melatonin the level of a brain neurotransmitter called adenosine increases over the period when we are awake and gradually as it increases towards evening begins to limit the brains activity. So sleep onset is triggered by both a build-up of adenosine and the onset of Melatonin as well as a damping down of brain activity in a complex orchestration by the body that repeats every 24 hours.2
From my perspective as a Nutritional Therapist, working in the field of complementary health and functional medicine, these are my best tips for helping you sleep well. Let me talk you through these solutions, which are all evidence based, to help you decide on the best course of action you can take to help you sleep better. You can check out my list of resources at the bottom of the blog to help you to act now.
1. Create a bed-time routine
2. Adapt your work and exercise schedule
3. Have a warm bath
4. Do a relaxing evening activity
5. Use black out curtains or a sleep mask
6. Invest in a morning dawn simulator light
7. Try aromatherapy
8. Keep cool at night
9. Drink herbal tea
10. Opt for blue light blockers & red night lights
11. East sleep inducing foods
12. Get some exercise
1. Create a Bed-Time Routine
There are plenty of studies that suggest that a regular routine helps people sleep well and people with irregular routines are more at risk of insomnia.9 This is also true of irregular bed-times which increase the likelihood of poor sleep quality.10 So trying to make sure you have a regular bed time and wake time, making sure you get sufficient sleep in these hours would seem like a sensible start.
2. Adapt your Work & Exercise Schedule
Some people are natural Owls (prefer going to bed late) or Larks (prefer going to bed early) and working out which type you are can help you schedule your daily activities to fit around your best sleep patterns. If you are an Owl and have flexibility you may want to sleep later in the morning, start work later and try to fit your exercise in later in the day.
3. Have a Warm Bath
Having a warm bath before bed, even for as little as 10 minutes can help improve your sleep. The reason it works is because the heat causes the blood vessels in your hands and feet to dilate which helps to decrease your core body temperature helping you sleep better.11
4. Do a Relaxing Evening Activity
Research suggests that participating in activities that help you relax may help you sleep well. Try to include some mindfulness, yoga, reading, praying, listening to music or have a relaxing conversation before bed.12, 13, 14
5. Use Black Out Curtains or a Sleep Mask
Making use of black out curtains or blinds or wearing a sleep mask may prove another useful tip to help you fall asleep and stay asleep. Blue light exposure in the evening and even at low levels during the night disrupts your natural circadian rhythm and melatonin levels. You can try simple solutions such as a sleep mask or black out blinds and curtains. If you are travelling or on holiday take a stick on black out blind with you.
6. Invest in a Morning Dawn Simulator Light
In nature you would be prompted to rise by both your internal signalling from your circadian rhythm as well as light falling on photoreceptors in your eyes transferring messages via your optic nerve. Interestingly as we age our photoreceptors filter out more of the blue light which impacts on our circadian rhythm, sleep and mood.15 Limited evidence suggests that light exposure using a dawn simulator light during the last 30 minutes of sleep can increase alertness and improve cognitive and physical performance after waking.15 You can purchase a dawn simulation lamp which that can be set to turn on 20 to 30 minutes before your alarm and gradually increase light brightness to help you wake naturally.
7. Try Aromatherapy
Inhalation of essential oils can be beneficial to help with sleep disturbances.16 The most widely used herbs are lavender and bergamot but lavender, cypress and chamomile were found to be most effective. Inhalation is more effective than massage and you can buy aromatherapy roller balls to dab on your wrists at night and take a few deep breaths of as you tuck yourself into bed.17 Another option would be to try using an aromatherapy diffuser or a pillow spray.
8. Keep Cool At Night
The recommendations you might have heard about keeping your window open at night are really all about keeping your bedroom cool. Evidence suggests that a cool room temperature is associated with better sleep and less wakefulness. The recommendation is to open your window and adjust your bedding to stay warm but not too hot, keeping cool air circulating around your face.18
9. Drink Herbal Tea
There is some evidence to suggest that having a drink of herbal tea prior to bed (make sure you drink it early enough to avoid needing o use the bathroom in the night) can help you sleep better. Herbal teas that work well include Passion Flower, Valerian, Lemon Balm, Chamomile, Holy Basil (also known as Tusli Leaf) and Lavender.19, 20, 21, 22 I have to say my personal favourite is the Pukka Night Time Tea which includes Chamomile, Lavender, Tulsi Leaf and Valerian root.
10. Opt for Blue Blockers & Red Night Lights
We know that exposure to light in the evening from LED lighting in rooms, on computer screens, tablets, e-books and televisions can suppress melatonin and decrease sleepiness and delay you getting to sleep. Our eyes photoreceptors are most susceptible to the blue wavelength of light and blocking this out by using amber glasses in the two hours prior to bed can help.23 You can also download software to help filter the light from computer screen at night which limits the blue light to some extent and you can opt to use night settings on your mobile phone. Red light has shown to have no effect on melatonin suppression making it great to use as a night light if you wake and need to use the bathroom or attend to a child.24
11. Eat Sleep Inducing Foods
Some components of food may help us get to sleep and stay asleep and these include tryptophan, GABA, calcium, potassium and melatonin. Animals foods that are highest in melatonin include fish and eggs and with plant foods it is nuts and seeds. Many foods have research to show that they may help promote sleep, including barley grass powder, whole grains, maca, panax, lingzhi, asparagus powder, lettuce, cherry, kiwifruits, walnut and milk. Barley grass powder with higher levels of GABA and calcium, potassium and B vitamins is one of the best foods. Tart cherries and walnuts have been shown to increase melatonin levels and kiwi fruit is rich in serotonin (an end product of tryptophan production) and folate.25, 26, 27 Although there are many options for supplements it is always best to try a food first approach and I recommend a pre-bed smoothie (at least 1 to 2 hours prior to bed) using cherry active, nuts, almond milk and oats.
12. Get Some Exercise
Exercise has been found to improve sleep quality and duration regardless of what type or intensity, especially for people with any kind of chronic disease. Contrary to popular belief evening exercise does not adversely affect sleep except potentially for vigorous exercise ending less than an hour before bed-time and even this seems to depend on the individual and how they respond to it.28, 29
‘taking small steps … can have a life changing effect’
Sleep is such an important aspect of health and longevity that taking small steps to improve it can have a life changing effect. I personally find that layering up your sleep strategy is the best way forward and I use several of the tips above including blue blocker glasses, red night light, and evening walk, a cool bedroom and aromatherapy. My treat on a Friday night is a warm bath with aromatherapy oils and a candle followed by a Pukka Night Time Tea. I recommend you add in one change at a time building up to three of four over a few weeks, making sure they fit your lifestyle and you can keep them going in the long run. With the possibility from wearable technology, including the Apple Watch, Fitbit wrist band and Oura Ring, you can look at your own sleep data to see what effect the changes have had as well as checking on how you feel and how you are performing.
"sleep will not only make you a healthier person but you will perform better"
One hour more sleep will not only make you a healthier person but you will perform better, be more productive and be a more efficient athlete or business executive. Next time you feel like you are struggling to stay awake, take a nap, go to bed early, prioritise your health and see how much better you may feel!
If you want help to start make changes in your life to improve your energy, performance, health and vitality, including optimizing your sleep, please use the contact form at the bottom of my home page to arrange a FREE call with me so that you can share your health concerns and current situation with me so that we can work out what support would be best for you.
List of Resources
Black out Blinds
Dawn Simulator Lights
Aromatherapy & Herbal Tea
Blue Blocker Glasses
Blue Screen Filters
Flux for Laptop/PCs
Red Night Lights
Sleep Inducing Foods
Please note that as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.
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19. Chang, S. and Chen, C. (2016) ‘ Effects of an intervention with drinking chamomile tea on sleep quality and depression in sleep disturbed postnatal women: a randomized controlled trial’, Journal of Advanced Nursing, doi:10.1111/jan.12836.
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