Sleep – The best, but often ignored, medicine
You may be familiar with the adage that “sleep is the best medicine”: there’s a great deal of truth to this – sleep is the best, if not the only, remedy to a whole host of potential health issues, from maintaining a healthy weight to reducing your levels of stress and depression.
It’s not without good reason that there’s a day dedicated to the importance of sleep – experts estimate that we humans spend one third of our lives doing it. It is an essential aspect of our lives, yet one which we take for granted or neglect all too often.
Why do we sleep?
There’s still no certainty regarding why we sleep, and scientists remain divided over several theories. Some assert that sleep evolved as a way for early humans to conserve energy in between periods of high activity; others, that it is a distinct period where the brain reshapes itself in response to the experiences of the day before.
However, there is consensus that sleep is essential for brain development and contributes to a better memory and ability to learn. There’s also a common understanding that sleep provides the body with time to recharge, is essential to for strong cognitive abilities, and contributes to a strong immune system.
How does sleep work?
The physiology behind sleep is more complicated than it seems: it involves several shifts in brain activity across multiple stages. These stages are split between two sections: Non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM), which makes up 75-80% of each sleep session, and Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep.
The sleep cycle consists of several rounds of progression through the three stages of NREM sleep and then into REM sleep (where we dream), before repeating. These cycles usually last between 90 and 110 minutes, with the average adult experiencing 4-5 of these cycles every night.
When and how long we sleep for is governed by two internal mechanisms – the sleep homeostat and the circadian rhythm. The sleep homeostat measures our need to sleep and triggers the various processes to bring us to such a state; the circadian rhythm (CR) is essentially the internal setting that determines what time we fall asleep and what time we wake up at.
The CR is controlled by the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SNC), a group of cells in the brain that regulate the generation of melatonin, the chemical which makes us sleepy. Our levels of melatonin rise when there is less light, hence why we sleep at night and why we often get tired earlier during winter.
Sleep matters more than you may think
Most of us will know the discomfort and misery that comes the day after a night of poor sleep. The negative effects are immediately apparent in how tired, low, and irritable we feel, but sleep deprivation can come with more serious consequences: it disrupts the natural processes of the body, including those controlling our metabolism, appetite, and ability to process glucose, which can lead to obesity and Type 2 diabetes.
Being unable to sleep also causes a rise in our levels of cortisol, the “stress chemical” which raises our blood pressure; over time, this can lead to hypertension and even cardiovascular disease.
Sleeping is also important for our mental and emotional wellbeing: insufficient sleep over a long period of time can lead to permanent low mood and depression, both from constant feelings of exhaustion and from the disruption these low moods can cause to our lives, preventing us from achieving good grades at school or performing well at work.
The low mood and irritability caused by tiredness can also put a strain on our relationships, distancing us from those we love.
Sleep is also integral to the safety and wellbeing of those around us: without enough sleep, we’re more likely to make mistakes or cause accidents. Whilst the most common kind is road accidents, lack of sleep has been a contributing factor in some of history’s greatest tragedies, including the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl and the crash of the Challenger space shuttle.
Lack of sleep has also been shown to take a toll on the economy, with a CDC study finding that the UK loses 1.86% of its GDP to the issue.
How to improve how you sleep
With so much depending on sleep, it’s important that we get good quality rest. Here are some tips on how to improve how you sleep!
- Cut down on caffeine
Caffeine stimulates our central nervous system to produce more adrenaline, repressing our levels of the sleep chemical melatonin and keeping us awake for longer. It takes our bodies a long time to break down caffeine, so it’s best to keep it for the morning and drink non-caffeinated drinks during the afternoon.
- Exercise regularly
Regular exercise can relieve anxiety and depression, two of the most common conditions associated with troubled sleeping. However, it’s important not to do any rigorous exercise before going to bed, as this stimulates the body, making it more difficult to go to sleep. If you want a quick work out before bed, then Tai Chi, Yoga, and other calming exercises would be best.
- Make your bed your happy place
Having a positive perception of your bed is integral to sleeping well: you should, therefore, reserve your bed for sleep and relaxation, and not use it as a work or study space, as doing so will create associations of activity and stress.
For those of us who struggle to sleep, spending hours tossing and turning under our duvets causes us to develop negative, stress-inducing associations with our beds, making falling asleep even tougher. In such instances, ditch your duvet and go to another room to do something relaxing but not overly stimulating, such as reading or listening to soft music. Once you feel tired, go back to your bed. By doing this, you should be able to separate your feelings of stress from your bed, making it feel more inviting and improving your chances of falling asleep.
- Banish screens from your bedroom
Taking a phone, tablet, or laptop to bed, or even having a TV in your bedroom, can keep you awake for longer. Interacting with our tech, even if we are passively watching a video or TV show, stimulates our brains, which makes us stay awake. Furthermore, we humans are diurnal creatures, meaning that we are active during the day, when our world is filled with natural light. Light is integral to our CR: once our eyes detect a lack of light, our optic nerves send a signal to our SNC to produce more melatonin, making us ready to sleep. With their unnatural light, screens trick our brains into thinking it is still daytime, postponing sleep and disrupting our CR. Make your bed a screen-free zone to give yourself a better night’s rest.
If these things don’t work…
For some of us, our struggle to sleep will be more difficult to treat. If you find yourself consistently unable to sleep, then you should see your GP. You may be recommended a type of sedative, such as benzodiazepine; however, studies have shown that cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a more effective way of tackling insomnia.
You can find many CBT resources online, but always make sure to speak to a health professional to see if this would be the best treatment for you.