How much sleep do you get each night? Do you sacrifice an hour because you struggle to tear yourself away from an exciting Netflix boxset or another chapter of your page-turning book? Are you still tossing and turning at 3am and awake before sunrise?
Your body does a lot of important work whilst you’re sleeping. Which is why the NHS recommends that an adult should get 7-9 hours each night.
Understanding why you need to sleep and thinking about ways that you can improve certain habits can therefore go a long way to boosting both your physical and mental health…
What happens when you sleep?
Even though the body is at rest, your brain is still highly active when sleeping. Indeed one of the important roles of sleep is to help you process, solidify and consolidate information and experiences to your long-term memory. Sleep deprivation, on the other hand, can leave your brain exhausted, meaning that concentrating on daily tasks can become a challenge. We can all recount a time when our brain struggled to function properly after a sleepless night!
Sleep plays a key role in other areas of your emotional health too. How you react to stress depends largely on how well you have slept. It can help to regulate your emotions, allowing your brain to adapt and respond to situations in a more helpful way.
Your body also requires sleep in order to repair and regrow cells, conserve and restore energy and release hormones so that you can function properly. For example, two hormones related to hunger – ghrelin and leptin – are affected by sleep. Ghrelin stimulates hunger, while leptin reduces it. If your body lacks sleep, ghrelin levels increase, while leptin levels fall, increasing your appetite – and the risk of eating more calories.
How can you improve the quality of your sleep?
If you have a serious issue with sleep deprivation, it is crucial that you consult your doctor. Have a look at the NHS website for details about Sleepstation, an NHS approved service that helps people with insomnia.
However, if you’re just looking for a few ways to generally improve the quality of your sleep, then changing a few unhealthy daytime habits and lifestyle choices may be all you need. Here are a few of my favourite tips:
Try to keep to a regular sleep-wake schedule. By going to bed and getting up at the same time every day (yes, even on weekends!), it will help set your body’s internal clock. If you’re getting enough sleep, then you’ll naturally wake up without an alarm.
Avoid napping in the evening before bed. Sleeping before your bedtime might interfere with your natural sleep pattern and leave you awake in the middle of the night. No matter how tempting that nap in front of the sofa is, it’s not worth it!
Make your room as dark as possible. Investing in a sleep mask or blackout curtains can make a genuine difference. When it’s dark, your brain secretes melatonin, a hormone that makes you sleepy. Light causes the production of melatonin to stop. Less melatonin, less chance of dozing off.
Avoid bright screens before bed. The blue light emitted by your phone, tablet, computer, or TV can interfere with the production of the melatonin mentioned above, making it difficult to fall asleep. In the lead up to bedtime (1-2 hours before you plan to sleep) try reading a book or listening to music instead.
Limit caffeine intake before bed. Drinking or eating foods which contain caffeine can have an adverse effect on your sleep, as it takes hours for the effects of caffeine to wear off. Try decaffeinated drinks (remember that a lot more drinks than just coffee contain caffeine!) instead.
Limit alcohol intake before bed. Although you may not wish to hear it, alcohol can contribute to a poor quality of sleep because it can block REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, which is a vital restorative part of sleep. You may find you wake up feeling groggy (and not just from the hangover).
Regulate your temperature. Your thermostat can affect your sleep. It’s suggested that a cool room is the best way to settle you into a sleep – indeed it’s recommended that the bedroom temperature should be between 15-19 degrees celsius. Why? Because your body temperature automatically drops during sleep, so if your room is too hot or cold to begin with, it can lead to a disrupted night.
Exercise and sleep
I regularly hear from my group exercise participants and personal training clients that the quality of their sleep is much improved after a class or session. And it’s true that exercise can be hugely beneficial to providing a better night’s sleep.
People who exercise regularly tend to feel more refreshed in the morning because they spend more time in the restorative stages of sleep. That goes for any sort of exercise, no matter the intensity. Feel free to contact me if you are interested in trying a class or a 1-1 personal training session.
So whilst you focus on improving your health, remember that sleep is just as important for you as good nutrition and exercise. I hope you can begin to enjoy better sleep at night so that you feel the positive effects on your mental and physical health!