Quality sleep could well be the most important aspect of our health, often overlooked and neglected in a modern society where we feel the need to utilise every hour of the day...and night.
Have you ever wondered whether the bright, fluorescent lights in our homes, or the blue, flickering lights of our screens, impact our ability to get the 'shut-eye' our ancestors got used to when sleeping under the stars? Well they do BIG time. Along with a whole host of other modern habits.
But when you know better, you do better. So let's start with why you would want to sleep better.
Why is sleep important?
Prioritising quality sleep is key to your body’s ability to repair and restore. Sleeping is not simply the opposite of waking, but should be referred to as an essential experience.
The Sleep Diplomat, Professor Matt Walker says we need between 7-9 hours of quality sleep per night, and if you want to figure out how much sleep you actually need, you should spend about a week letting yourself fall asleep when you are tired and then waking up naturally, without an alarm. Western science finds that growth hormone is secreted from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m., making this the ideal sleep period. Growth hormone secreted in deep dreamless sleep is said to help repair the body and is particularly important for children who are doing a lot of growing.
Sleep is also showing significance in studies on Alzheimer's, the risk for which may increase with sleep deprivation because this prevents the clearing of the problematic 'amyloid plaque'.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine there is a circadian clock that links times of the day to different organs and the important roles they play (see image). If you're not in bed asleep by the time the liver is said to be doing it's important filtering and clearing work, then you will not wake up refreshed. Similarly if you eat a large meal just before going to bed, your organs will be diverted away from their important functions to digest and you will not wake up refreshed. In fact, how many of us truly wake up refreshed?
If you want to know what waking should feel like, watch (and listen to) a toddler in the morning. They usually have a good stretch with lots of accompanying noises, not moans and groans, more animalistic awakening sounds! Then they jump out of their bed...and straight onto yours with lots of energy. This is how we should feel, ready to take on the new day.
There are many factors influencing our sleep, but here are some you should consider:
5 Top Tips to Enhance Your Sleep
- If you are a parent or have witnessed bedtime with young children, you'll know that one of the most important factors for a settled baby is...ROUTINE. Young humans are pretty primitive (and useless!) creatures and so they crave routine and familiarity. Plus the brain likes routine too as it knows what to expect and can work more efficiently this way. The same goes for what you do in your bedroom - keep it simple, sleeping, reading and sex. Anything else and you're confusing it!
- Get some natural light on your face first thing in the morning. Easier in summer, but even a cloudy day has more useful components than an electric indoor light. This is one of the key switches for your circadian rhythm and will impact your ability to fall asleep at night through the hormone messaging system.
- Turn off electronics and screens at least 90 minutes before bed, and ideally sit in a dimly lit room to allow your eyes to transmit the message to your brain that it's nearing bedtime. The unnatural blue light from lightbulbs, screens and monitors is significantly disruptive for your brain and is sending the wrong messages, the same goes for getting up for the loo in the night, try not to turn the lights on!
Don't believe me? Try the 90 minute rule for just one week and see if you notice a difference!
- The body should be calm and cool when it heads to bed, so a hot shower or bath just before getting in is not ideal, make it cooler or allow yourself time to cool down. Your bedroom should be dark, cool (around 18-19 degrees C) and well ventilated. Using lavender oil in your bath, a diffuser or dabbing a touch under your nose can help relax you, as can some focused breathing.
One of the best techniques for relaxation is Nadi Shodhana, alternate nostril breathing for 5 minutes. Hold one nostril closed with your thumb and switch to your forefinger for the alternate breath. Make sure your exhale count is longer than your inhale, in order to soothe nerves and help your body to calm down easily.
- Don't eat food less than 2-3 hours before bed, but if you find yourself often waking up in the early hours you might want to try eating a teaspoon of (Manuka) honey or 2 dates before bed. When your liver starts to do its important work it uses a lot of energy (which can be why you are overheating) and if it runs out of the energy supply the body starts to produce cortisol to spike your blood sugar again, which can wake you up. Boosting the glucose supply (sensibly) just before bed can help avoid this energy depletion.
I'm a fan of understanding the quality of sleep and so I track my REM and deep sleep periods using an Oura ring (which I can keep in flight mode whilst it collects data). This also allows me to play around with different techniques and understand the impact of those on my sleep. For example I know that yoga promotes a deeper, more restorative sleep for me, and alcohol definitely does not!
If you want to know more about how to improve your sleep, I have lots of other 'hacks' including blue-light blocking glasses, breathing, positioning and supplements, so contact me and we can work together.